I keep seeing articles asking “where did the polls go wrong?” Once again, I feel like the pundits are living in a different world.
Like everyone, I watched the polls obsessively throughout this campaign. They showed a surprisingly tight race that consistently defied pundits’ predictions. And that’s what we got.
In the primary, polls showed Trump with a clear and consistent lead. Pundits said it couldn’t last. The polls were right.
As we moved to the general, pundits said Trump would fail to expand his base. But the polls showed what looked an awful lot like a typical D vs. R race, albeit with some weird volatility. We saw the usual convention bounces, the usual dips and swings in response to scandals and news cycles. Pundits said to ignore all that; Trump was too reliant on his base.
Going into the first debate, we saw Trump pulling even with Clinton, even nosing ahead. By this point, it was clear that all the talk about his 30% base and her indomitable coalition had been proven wrong. But the pundits said that Clinton’s debate performances proved there was nothing to worry about.
Finally, on the eve of the election, polls showed a nail-bitingly close race, with the effects of Trump’s harassment scandal totally wiped out and Clinton ahead by a narrow and slimming margin. By this point, everyone I know was seriously alarmed. But pundits said not to worry; Clinton was all but a shoe-in.
It’s not the polls that were wrong. The polls showed mainstream Republicans rallying to Trump–and they did. The polls showed that Clinton had failed to excite much enthusiasm–and she didn’t. The polls showed a race tightening in the final hours–which it did. The final result was roughly compatible with stated margins of error and recent trends.
Now the pundits are telling us they couldn’t possibly have seen this coming; it was the polling math that betrayed them. But the polls weren’t the problem. The poll-readers were.
The polls also showed something else. They showed that Trump took a big hit in popularity when he had the spotlight, but when he held back and focused on his ground game, his numbers recovered. A lot of voters were genuinely put off by Trump’s behavior, but ultimately felt other issues were more important. This will be something to remember going forward.