Monday, August 24, 2020

2016 Polls Were So Wrong 2020 Polls Can’t Be Trusted and Must Be Ignored

Actually, polling data provides valuable insight into the feelings, attitudes, and leanings of voters. Too often, however, political candidates, pundits and strategists ignore the “devil in the details” in cross tab polling data and go their own way, then blame the polls when things go wrong.

The common meme in 2020 is that polling can’t be trusted because 2016 polls were so wrong. Corollaries to that meme are that polls were wrong in 2016 and are wrong in 2020 because Trump people lie to pollsters about supporting Trump, and Trump voters simply won’t talk to pollsters. But these oft-repeated arguments ignore the fact that the national and state polls in 2018 accurately reflected the building blue wave for Democrats winning control of the House. Further, 2016 polls missed Hillary Clinton’s national popular-vote margin by only about one percentage point.

Clinton’s national popular-vote edge was 2.1 percentage points (equal to about 2.9 million votes) and Hillary won the national popular ballot contest by 2.86 million votes. There couldn’t have been too many Trump voters who lied or wouldn’t respond to pollsters in 2016 for them to be that close.

In 2016, 45 states and the District of Columbia exactly followed polling in those states. Florida and North Carolina were considered toss-ups, along with Maine's and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional Districts. The top line polling numbers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where Clinton lost by 77K votes, showed Clinton ahead in each, because pollsters did not properly weight the sample of voters without a college degree when calculating their top line “horse race” numbers. Trump's advantage in those key battleground states wasn't noticed by mainstream media pundits who only look at those top line numbers until late in the race, if at all. (Polling companies now correctly weight the sample of voters without a college degree when calculating the top line “who is winning” headline numbers.)

Even so, the cross tab detail data reported by pollsters for WI, MI, and PA in 2016 clearly showed Clinton was badly under water with suburban voters. Another flashing warning sign for Clinton in the cross tab details was turnout enthusiasm among traditional Democratic voters in those states, notably African American voters, was historically weak. Clinton’s loss in those states directly correlates with the notable decline in black voter turnout in 2016.

Democratic Party leaders and union leaders in MI, PA, and WI saw first hand Clinton’s problem with suburban and black voters and from August through Election Day strongly warned Clinton’s campaign team that Clinton was at risk of losing those states. 

Unfortunately, Clinton’s campaign strategists, ignoring weak suburban voter support and black voter turnout warnings from polling cross tab data - and from Democratic leaders on the ground in those three states - decided to bypass GOTV campaign spending in those three key states during the last 12 weeks of the campaign.

Clinton’s campaign instead committed $237 million in “Oh What A Terrible Man - Trump” TV advertising in several red states, like Arizona - where she was clearly behind in the polls - in an unwise attempt to swing moderate Republican voters away from Trump. Clinton’s campaign strategists thought Trump was such a terrible candidate that negative campaign ad spending against Trump in those those red states would swing the electoral college votes of those states to her win column.

In the end, she didn’t swing many of those “moderate” red state Republican voters and she did not swing any of those electoral college votes, and she lost the electoral college votes in her “blue firewall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin for good measure.
If Clinton’s campaign team - and the political pundits and reporters - had not ignored what the polling cross tab data was telling them about voters in WI, MI, and PA, and instead acted on it to run a targeted GOTV campaign in those states, we would be talking today about President Clinton’s re-election campaign.

My concern for 2020 is I see Biden and Democrats playing out the same “Oh What A Terrible Man - Trump” game plan to attract Republican voters that failed for Clinton in 2016. Maybe the strategy will work in 2020, since all but the hardest of hardcore right-wing Trump supporters have observed for themselves over the past four years that, indeed, Trump is not just a terrible man, but a terrible president as well.

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