My credentials: I have a decade of marketing research under my belt and currently work as a data analyst for a huge non-profit that you have all heard of and have an opinion about. During my time in MR, I worked with major MNCs for products that were in everyone’s home. Be it pasta, TVs, mobile phones, women’s health products, or alcohol to name a few. I will try to tie all of these paths together as I attempt to deconstruct what occurred last night. I don’t know it all, or even a lot, but I can read numbers.
1. Why were the polls wrong? Or were they?
There is a very strange dynamic to the candidates this year. On one hand you had a well-known, divisive candidate who has been in the public eye for 30+ years. Her name has been mentioned in every presidential race since her husband left office as a potential candidate and even while in office, her political ambitions were well-known. There is no one in America who does not have a formed opinion of Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, you had a cult of personality, wrapped in some of the most despicable and tumultuous primaries and social misbehavior imaginable for a front-runner. It was a perfect storm, but for what?
There is a well-known issue in opinion and behavior research that shows a bias towards social compliance and social norms. When someone knows their answer is not in line or compliant with expectations, they diminish. When they think it will make them more accepted to the audience, they inflate. Nowhere is this observed more clearly than in surveys about sexual behavior or alcohol/drugs/cigarette consumption. When I worked for five years tracking the performance of a sexual aid, we used to laugh at the responses to “Number of times per month” that couples were having sex. Straight, married males were having twice as much sex with their partners as straight, married females claimed. That doesn’t add up as it takes two to tango. Was it a case of “misremembering” or is it an issue of demure responses versus puffery? Then there was alcohol, a category I worked in for 7 years. It’s hard to believe this, but people over the age of 30 (historically) under-report the number of drinks they consume in a week. We received volume reports (by the ounce) for SKU sales in the US; it was consistently 20% higher than what self-reported consumption would have you believe. We found that when asked “On average how many alcoholic drinks do you consume in a week?” and faced with a scale of 0-14+, moving every respondent who did not say 0, up 1 notch, the responses were closer to actual market volumes. So what? What does this have to do with Trump?
Trump had a wicked stigma attached to him and the majority of reputable polls are conducted over the phone, person to person. When faced with choosing a candidate to a person you have never met, there are many who will say, “I don’t know” rather than admit they want to vote for a candidate that has social baggage. His numbers were underreported, not by polls but by respondents. The clue should have been in an undecided vote that carried as much as 10% with two weeks to play (all while the margin of error on the polls was 2-5% depending on methodology.) There is very little possibility that people were undecided on HRC, they knew who she was, they knew she was going to run, they knew what she stood for. They knew whether they could vote for her. The undecided vote was a collective of voters who were still unsure if they could pinch their nose and pull the lever for Trump or simply people unwilling to identify themselves as likely Trump voters. Everyone, including my friends working in Public Affairs research missed this. How?
5-10% undecided is not a large proportion heading into a presidential election. In fact versus 2008, it’s practically tiny. What was missed is that the numbers in 2008 and many previous campaigns without incumbents were among two candidates that had yet to hold major offices. This round missed the galvanizing component of 30 years of mud-slinging and vitriol attached to HRC (both for and against.)
It is therefore my opinion that the polls were inaccurate due to an unaccounted social behavior that rarely rears its head in candidate races. Social norm adjustment is common in polls of referenda that may include things like gambling, or other poorly perceived social issues. The candidates produced from a primary are rarely seen as socially unacceptable, but still electable. This was a perfect storm.
2. What did the media miss? How was this a surprise?
It’s rare that a coronation seems so assured only to see it be torn asunder by reality. In the information age, that simply shouldn’t happen. We have data, we have Nate Silver, and we have a 24 hour news cycle that rants ad nauseum to anyone who will tune in about expectations and swing states or worse, full blown predictions. What did they all miss?
There is a head-in-the-sand quotient to this all. The undercurrent of disrespect and the incredibly deep distaste for HRC in many suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas is not well understood by urbanites. I remember as a child in Michigan seeing bumper stickers in the mid-90s that read “Impeach Clinton and her husband too.” That underbelly was never addressed, or even given a hat tip during this campaign. As the DNC did everything in their power to amass a fractured movement behind a candidate, they forgot how divisive HRC was to Main St America. The love she saw in urban areas, and among young women clouded the picture of a truly divided populace, angry at what they saw was a system with Super Delegates cramming a bitter pill down their throat. They missed the Trump Democrats.
Trump Democrats seem almost impossible to anyone who saw the mandate that elected Obama. The wave of progressivism that ushered him into the White House twice was certainly strong enough to stand behind the first female major party candidate after it elected the first black president. The populace was woke, it was active and the progressive movement was strong. And yet, there were holes. True progressives wanted a true progressive, something we saw disappear when the wave of support behind Bernie was curtailed. There was a severe disenfranchisement that occurred when conspiracy theories gained traction, encouraged by more Podesta emails, that showed the unfair process that stiffed Bernie and produced Hillary. These were people not looking to stand behind Hillary, instead they were looking to alternatives, or worse yet looking to not vote at all. Meanwhile in the other camp, Trump was sweeping up the forgotten voters, the ones who felt their values were ignored for 8 years after being catered to under Bush. They felt disrespected, used, and worse than that, they were seeing things they cherished being diminished, teased or labeled as obtuse. When HRC called them deplorables, it galvanized them further to show her what they thought. And they did.
3. What does this meaning going forward? Are there lessons to be learned?
I believe there is always a lesson. Even when data is flat, there is something to be reasoned from it. Sometimes that reasoning is, “You haven’t done enough to produce actionable results.” Well the ‘good news’ in this is there is movement, there is a conclusion and there are action items that stem from this. Much like the campaigns built by Karl Rove we see a kicked hornet’s nest of previously disenfranchised voters, only instead of Evangelicals (who still played a part, but not nearly to the same levels as with Bush) being the impetus for a Trump victory, this time we saw it on illegal immigration. The media still does not want to separate illegal and legal immigration, for whatever reason, but clarity around this item would have shown that those “undecided” voters were seeing it as the top issue. Added to this is the inability for a candidate tied to a globalist economic agenda (as proven with the shock in the financial markets today) to connect with the activists that brought in the TEA party, and 99% movements. Put simply, a divisive, well-known candidate was unable to secure what she needed to triumph over her own reputation.
The only action item from all of this is that the primaries are simply the most important time to effect change and should not be taken lightly. This story plays out much like the narrative where a sports team needs to close a series out when they have a chance rather than let a pesky opponent stick around into a Game 7 when anything can happen. The best chance any of the US had at defeating Trump was in the RNC and DNC primary. That did not happen.
And for all of the talk that will happen today about a tight race and an active 3rd party and the electoral college, the best way to limit the influence of a third party is to provide a strong, electable candidate and the electoral college exists in the same way Congress exists, or even the way parliament exists in selecting a Prime Minister, its very nature is to reduce the influence of population skews that would have their own favor in mind over the favor of a sizeable other group. The House and Senate were composed of 2 officials, or a number of officials based on population so that states like Virginia and Connecticut could have fair voices in this union. There is a check and balance to the power of NYC, LA and Chicago that is provided with the Electoral College while still respecting the federated states that make up our nation.