Dewey defeats Truman 2.0, and why so many pollsters were blindsided by Trump

Harry Truman

Anyone who’s been caught in the rain on a day that was promised to be nothing but sunshine is familiar with the feeling: Can’t these people get anything right?

And yet, most days, the meteorologists who predict the weather come pretty close. Forecasters of both weather and voting behavior have a set of sophisticated tools they bring to their jobs, which generally work, except when they don’t.

This year, in predicting the presidential election, they didn’t work. What polls consistently suggested would be a victory for Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – both nationally, and in Michigan – turned into a humiliating upset, and a victory by Republican billionaire Donald Trump. As a stunned nation confronted the results, many asked why they’d been led so astray by poll after poll.

Why? Because voters are people, and people are like storm clouds and cold fronts; they generally move in predictable ways, but not always.

Also, because the better the polling, the more expensive it is, and the traditional clients for political polling include news organizations, the budgets for which have been decimated in recent years.

Today’s client commissioning a poll is likely to have a whole different set of objectives than just figuring out who is going to win an election. They may want the results quickly, and as in many efforts, the less time spent on task, the less likely it is to be done well.

These are among the explanations offered by Michael Traugott, professor specializing in political studies at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. There are other reasons – including an increasing number of voters who no longer have land lines and are reluctant to answer their cell phones when unfamiliar numbers call.

Once the sample of voter sentiment is obtained, “a lot of the modeling pollsters do is based on what happened last time,” by which he means in the most recent previous election. But, as pollsters across America discovered the hard way this week, “every race is different,” Traugott said, adding that there is some art associated with its analysis. This includes the fact there’s no standard “likely voter” model, so commercial pollsters create their own, and consider them proprietary, making them difficult for others to analyze.

Polling, in other words, is “constrained applied science,” Traugott said, and the constraints are always changing.

Tim Kiska is among those who got it wrong.

He does not attempt to deflect blame or responsibility, and admits that a model he has relied on for accurate results since 1974 simply failed him in 2016. His client, the Detroit Free Press, received national attention Tuesday evening for its early call that Clinton would carry Michigan. She didn’t, and Kiska and the paper were left struggling to explain the error on Wednesday.

In the wreckage of this embarrassment, Kiska told Bridge that his miscalculation stemmed from jumping the gun based on returns from about three-quarters of the 80 precincts that Kiska, a former journalist and a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, typically examines across the state.

He explained his method: He has reporters fan out around the state, north to south, and has them call in results as soon as polls close. Those numbers are plugged into a spreadsheet, which compares them with results from previous elections. Kiska does other analytics, and makes his call based on what he sees.

At 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, he said, he had 60-65 precincts reporting, indicating Clinton was up 3-5 percent. That figure, Kiska said, was critical.

“It’s not that I was under any pressure to call it early,” he said. “But it was consistent as the returns came in.” And, he added, it was the figure that advance polling had her winning by.

“Was I sucked in by that groupthink?” he said. “I think maybe so.”

If he had it to do over again, Kiska said, he’d have waited another hour before making the call, because the later-arriving data showed a startling surge for Trump in the state’s rural counties, the equivalent of a fast-moving storm front that appears out of nowhere. Suddenly, that confident early prediction was in peril.

At the same time, the state’s largest, traditionally Democratic urban areas were still reporting. Although Kiska said he grew nervous about his early call, he thought Genesee, Wayne and Washtenaw counties would still carry the state for Clinton.

Aaron Kall, director of the U-M debate program and dean of students, agreed with Kiska’s battlefield assessment.

"The major error of the Free Press calling the state for Clinton was kind of consistent with those polls that were released a few days before the election that had Clinton favored by as much as 5 points," Kall told "The major take here is a lot of people doing projections were making those projections based off of 2012 and 2008 election data. The thing that Trump did was get increased support in rural areas of Michigan."

Kiska stressed that pollsters who want to keep working generally don’t try to skew results to please clients.

“People really want to get it right,” he said. “It’s not like I’ve got my thumb on the scale.”

But sometimes crazy years happen. And this, Kiska said, was “worse than ‘Dewey Defeats Truman,’” the infamously inaccurate Chicago newspaper headline a triumphant Harry Truman held up on election night in 1948.

“In the end, it was me and my data,” Kiska said. “It is what it is.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 11/10/2016 - 10:02am
Duh, if people would not even tell their family how they were going to vote as evidenced by the hate anger, and animosity of this election that reduced public discourse to a screaming match. What makes anyone think they would tell a pollster
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 10:19am
EXACTLY! That is just what I was going to say! I never put any faith in polls because I know that other people like me don't respond to poll calls. For one thing, responding to a poll often just brings on more calls.
John Mills
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 10:42am
Thank you for the story on the Free Press' monumental screw-up. This destroyed their credibility as a news organization. Just destroyed it. This will come up for years to come - anytime someone wants to make the case that the Free Press skews the facts to fit its narrative. The Free Press desperately wanted Clinton to win, and knew that calling Michigan early for her would let people out West know to keep voting, because she was still in this thing. Maybe that happened and maybe it didn't, but there's certainly evidence now to support that contention. I also urge you to look at the Twitter feed from Freep people on election night, particularly Nancy Kaffer. She was pooh-poohing anyone who dared to question why the Free Press was calling it so early, basically telling them how stupid they were. The Free Press publisher apologized. Nancy Kaffer needs to apologize, too.
Nancy Derringer
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 11:42am
That's pretty harsh, John. Having worked in newsrooms for most of my career, I often think that more readers should ask their local editors to sit in on news meetings, editorial-board meetings, etc. (I'm sure they'd say yes.) I think you'd be surprised by how mundane the decision-making process is, how this Machiavellian scenario you imagine, where the Freep brain trust actually believes it can influence voters (within the hour!) in California, simply...doesn't happen. As for individual staffers' behavior, I'll leave that up to them.
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 5:21pm
Ms. Derringer, Are you telling us that there was no bias in the news articles for the past 18 months, that there was no bias in the editorial offices, that the newsrooms weren't showing a bias toward personality reporting over issues reporting? Have you ever consider that the mundane you talk about is true because the overwhelming number sitting in on those meeting/decisions are so similar in mindset that they failed to notice that they are overlooking something? I learned this risk earning in my career when my employer tried to understand why the public/news media had such a bad public perception of us. The first things my employer did was acknowledge what the media/public was saying and began to investigate if it were true, why they felt that way, and then change how we interacted [in today's term became transparent] with the public. My employer told the employees that we had to change and we had be a good neighbor and be open with the people in the communities we were part of. In the small plant in the little town where I worked we asked and listened to employees, we asked and listened to people in and around where we were, we asked and listen to the government people we relied on for service, and we invited them into see how we worked, what we had in their community and asked for their questions and comments. We change from a company that was less than appreciated to one that was respect and turned to both locally, nationally, and globally. That change happened be perception is reality to the person who has it. If the news media is perceived as bias, then what you are doing is feeding that reality. If you want to change that perception you need to ask why and listen to what those who believe it say. A simple data point on Bridge, as I recall last election and even the one before that when the Koch brothers were contributing to political campaigns Bridge feature strong editorials about controlling campaign spending and yet this year when Ms. Clinton was outspending Trump and the Koch brothers weren't spending at all Bridge went silent on that issue. I don't doubt that this issue never arose in Bridge meetings, but can you see how it would feed a perception of bias? What I learned from my employer so many years ago, that you miss what you aren't looking for. In our case my employer established advisory panels internationally, nationally, and locally that include people from the communities, people [not friendly to us] that were outspoken on relevant issues, and included them on actions, projects, on issues asking them to ask their questions, challenge us on what we were proposing, and to offer their ideas on how to address their concerns. I wonder how many readers Bridge includes in the meetings you are so sure are mundane. I found back then that what I had become accustomed to was something other had no clue about and found extremely interesting and important. This was a challenging change, but it proved to be valuable for all concerned. A simple self test, when was the last time Bridge invited a group of readers to talk about what and how Bridge is doing, and what Bridge could do to be even better? 3-6 mos., a year, 2 years, 4 years, never? give yourself an A if it is the first two, a B for the third, a D for fourth, and an F for never.
Kevin Grand
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 2:47pm
The Freep had credibility??? Sorry, but I have to respectfully disagree with you Ms. Derringer. The Freep has become a caricature of a newspaper. Much like what Mr. Power has accurately described earlier as “politicotainers”, more and more people are becoming aware of this blurring of the lines. You have their Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson who can chalk up all of societal ills to racism. His work is about as predictable as that guy on "Ancient Aliens" who consistently proclaims: "It MUST be aliens!" Freep columnist Brian Dickerson whose analogies in his work sometimes being hard to discern. The latest piece making some kind of weird comparison between voters and dogs. What's next? Advocating swatting voters on the nose with a rolled up newspaper because they didn't come out in sufficient numbers for Clinton? And then you have Freep columnist Nancy Kaffer. Tweets aside, she has really gone off of the reservation lately. Especially where she recently compared a statue in Royal Oak commemorating the end of WWII to sexual assault (even though no one is 100% certain whom the people in the photo the statue is based upon really are). If you'd like, I have several more examples and can continue. But it should be readily apparent readership in that paper hasn't exactly been going up lately. When you insult the intelligence of what readership is remaining with their pieces on Trump's presidency and the RTA vote, people are bound to take notice of a certain bias, which doesn't exactly help bolster their credibility as an objective publication.
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 2:02pm
Polls will always have a margin of error. How much will depend on the sampling size among other factors. This race was so close that most if not all polls were within the margin of error. If you really insist on a zero margin of error, then you will just have to wait until all the votes are counted. The polls do not decide anything, nor should they change anyone's mind as to how they will vote. It is very gratifying though to see that the MSM was all wrong. So, so glad to finally get our country back.
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 2:19pm
Polls are built on assumed turn-out rates for various groups, the devil is in the assumptions. Another question given this, why waste our time on these polls in the first place ? Or is it that without polls to talk about, they couldn't come up with anything else to write about?
Kevin Grand
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 3:03pm
I would love to read about why it took so long to count the ballots in Wayne County Tuesday Night. Literally every county in Michigan had their totals in hours earlier.
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 10:20am
Of course. Old habits die hard.
Sat, 11/12/2016 - 12:46pm
The key was expected turnout !! For months the major media outlets were saying Hillary had it made, double digits ahead, 7 points ahead insurmountable lead etc. So the folks that were so so supporters of Hillary didn't show up thinking she had it in the bag. A very wrong assumption to say the least
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 4:43pm
'Waterboy' got it right. Duh! Trump supporters in large numbers told pollsters they were undecided and not leaning either way. All analysts noted a very big increase in the undecided group, Only the LA TIMES poll must have probed the undeciders, and was the ONLY poll to predict the Trump victory. All of the others missed what should have been obvious - the large undecided group was really heavily and secretly for Trump. If that seemed probable to me it might have - should have - occurred to the pollster industry. A virtually fatal overlook for polling science and business as it has been practiced up to now.
Fri, 11/11/2016 - 7:03am
The GOP Michigan Chair, Ronna Romney McDaniel, said on WJR radio that the RNC's internal private polling and software analysis was showing a Trump win in Michigan by 8000 votes just days before the election and that is why Trump was sent to Michigan in the final day and as his final national campaign stop. The RNC Polling and Software Model NAILED it....Trump won Michigan by 13,000 votes.
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 5:41am
The bias that exists in the media has become so skewed that it can no longer be trusted to predict any event with a modicum of accuracy. Trump's victory is a slap in the face that has been long been coming. And the demonstrations are indicative of the enability of the liberal/progressive electorate to accept the results different from the urban-minority-left sentiment.
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 9:39am
Agree Nick..there is a thumb on the scales . News media lost objectivity long ago..along with pollsters.
Mon, 11/14/2016 - 8:48pm
Why is it so important that the polls be right? Polls just encourage politicians to pander. I'd rather these people tell us what they think than what they think a carefully sliced and diced portion of the public wants to hear. To this end, I've been advocating for years that it's our civic duty to lie to pollsters. As to the election results, the main thing I'm thankful for is that the news media lost. It was a great relief that Ms Clinton lost, too. Maybe my 20-year-old prediction that my days will end in one of her internment camps will not come true, after all. But I don't think any less of the news media because their predictions were wrong. I do care a lot that their reporting is wrong.
Steve Begnoche
Tue, 11/15/2016 - 10:39am
Too much reporting emphasis is placed on polls and horse race coverage. More effort should be spent on covering plans, proposals and goals of candidates. The Freep wrongly calling Michigan for Trump is the least of the problem. They simply jumped the gun. Embarrassing? Yes. Pre-election coverage is where too many fall short.