On election night, we watched the polls with a healthy dose of skepticism. They aren't always precise. But they usually point us in the right direction. This time, they were so far off the mark that pundits, citizens, pollsters, and newscasters are scratching their collective heads and wondering what the hell happened.
All the polls predicted Hilary Clinton for the win, with a comfortable three or four percent lead. So, when it became increasingly clear as election night wore on that Donald Trump was likely to be our next president, newscasters choked and puzzled. Newsweek recalled its (already printed) "Madame President" edition. And everyone shook an angry fist at pollsters.
Meanwhile, some less-publicized methods of predicting elections got it right - months ago.
One of these - political models - doesn't ask voters questions at all. It asks researchers to evaluate the political and economic landscape, parties, charisma and fame of the candidates, and other general questions and run a mathematical model to predict the outcome.
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Allan J. Lichtman, a historian at American University in Washington, predicted a Trump win months ago. He also called the 2008 election in 2006 and the 2012 election in 2010. "Polls are not predictors," explained Lichtman, via email. "They are snapshots that simulate an election. They are abused and misused as predictors. The most egregious errors occurred this year but the polls did not accurately forecast election results in 1980 or 2012."
Lichtman's system uses historical data and math developed to predict earthquakes. It is based on 13 "Keys" that measure the political climate, economy, and party rather than policy, rhetoric, voter preference, or candidate scandals. They are true or false statements like, "The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president" or "The economy is not in recession during the campaign." When five or fewer of these statements are false, the incumbent party wins. If six or more are false, the challenging party wins.
It's simple, relative to polling. And the predictions come much earlier. "My final prediction came relatively late in this most confounding election year," says Lichtmen. "But I issued it in late September, prior to the sex tape, the accusations of sexual harassment, the Comey letter, the Comey retraction, or any other late-breaking campaign events."
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Other mathematical models were close to the mark, too. The Fair Model, developed by Ray Fair, an economics professor at Yale, crunches political and economic factors. "My main aim is to estimate how the economy affects (causes) voting behavior (which it does)," says Fair. "Prediction is an afterthought." But his model called the Democrats' chances "quite poor" well in advance of election night.
A newer, promising, way of predicting voter leanings, comes from observing what people share and post in Facebook and other social channels. Firms, such as Socialbakers, that track social media saw this coming. "Socialbakers analysts saw the outcome of this election coming months ago," the firm said in a statement. "We kept talking about the massive, silent voter base that was forming around the Republican nominee. Socialbakers continually sounded the alarm that the polls were not reflecting the actual situation on the ground."
Are Polls Dead?
Polls aren't likely to disappear. They take the pulse of the political landscape, and help voters engage with the election. "Polling can support the democratic process and offers a public opportunity to showcase the benefits, and weaknesses, of survey research," says the American Association for Public Opinion Research in a press release.
But maybe it would do democracy good if the media embraced other methods of evaluating the race as well. "Polls facilitate lazy horserace journalism," says Lichtman. "This kills thinking about the deeper forces that drive elections and the impact of election results on the future of the nation."
Models analyze what's going on to cause voter choice and so, by their nature, lead us to ask deeper political questions. Polls only measure which way voters have decided to vote. Even when they do it accurately, polls do not invite voters, pundits or political leaders to understand why they feel the way they do. "The Keys bring together politics and governance in a way that the polls cannot," says Lichtman. Given all the head scratching, bewilderment, and shock this election caused, analyzing the deeper forces that drive elections seems like an excellent idea.
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