In my last piece I explained why Clinton would likely win. In this piece I explore why Trump may be doing better than we think.
November 3, 1948 was an all-time kind of bad day for the Chicago Daily Tribune. That is the day they printed the totally false, hugely lettered, front page headline made so famous in our history classes. DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN!
History is pretty tough on that headline. To be fair to the Tribune, the polling all pointed to exactly the outcome they printed. The problem for the Tribune is that if you print the news before it happens you could be wrong, and they were wrong. Truman enjoyed the error at their expense, the country moved on and Thomas Dewey became a footnote in American history. So, how the heck did it happen?
A BRIEF HISTORY.
American politics is as old as the country itself. Polling is not.
Life was rapidly changing in post World War II America. It's hard to find a more accurate time in history to apply the phrase: "To the victor go the spoils." America entered the war late, fought hard, and ultimately came out on the victorious side. The costs during the war were huge for all involved, but Americans had one very important advantage on the back end, because we didn't have to fight in our own country. Japan, Europe, huge areas in Russia, Great Britain, all were heavily decimated by the war. America had the attack on Pearl Harbor, but otherwise our major cities remained totally untouched. We had infrastructure, materials, and people. Plus, we had factories ready to be converted from full time arms manufacturing. It was like moving into a fully-furnished apartment and then telling everyone that has to move all their furniture that you're faster at moving then they are. It's true, but it's also because of an inherent advantage. America had that advantage and to our credit did a fantastic job utilizing it for its full potential.
The post war boom had as much to do with the economic positioning of the world at that time as it did with the American spirit of hard industrial work. With this came the middle class boom. It also created a new crop of college educated young men (and women, but still mostly men) thanks to GI bills. GDP was up, incomes were up, education levels were up.
This all happens along side the proliferation of in-home technology. Phones. Radios. Eventually televisions. Electrically powered washing machines, fridges, freezers, on and on and on it goes. Everything was the best thing since sliced bread. (Ironically, I find myself really enjoying freshly baked loafs so much more than sliced bread. Cutting bread, it turns out, is not that hard.) It was a revolutionary time. Sure, by today's standards almost EVERY single new electronic marvel of that time is outdated (and a fire hazard) but at the time the idea of putting your clothes into a machine and coming back to them being completely clean, then putting them into ANOTHER machine and coming back to them being completely dry was f^&$ing amazing.
Along with all these new inventions came the advent of modern political polling. Social scientists began asking people for their opinion on things to shape the message and make predictions. The 1948 Presidential election was the first real test of polling. It's also worth noting this was the first time in 16 years polling would have even been useful. FDR won, and then won, and then won, and then won again. 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, all went to FDR and none were terribly close.
When Truman ran for a “second term” he was really running for the first time as far as his exposure to the American people. Dewey had been there before, running and losing to FDR in 1944. Both had name recognition, and in the early days Truman, an “accidental” President, wasn't polling well. In fact, Dewey held a significant lead in the polls right up to the election, which (in part) prompted the false headline. Dewey did not defeat Truman, but the polls showed that not only would Dewey win, he was supposed to win by a fairly wide margin.
Just like you probably don't want to use a toaster from 1948 you also don't want to use polling methodology from 1948. The new versions are way better, and both do a much better job at creating an even outcome. Seriously, modern toasters rule.
The Dewey polling debacle is the result of an imperfect science. Polling was still new, and methodologies were relatively untested. Today we hear the phrase “random sample” in polling and advertising. There's a reason for that. In 1948 the samples were, well... not as random. Sample sizes were small and homogeneous. It's not hard to imagine that if you hand picked a group of people to answer your questions you will likely have bias in your process, even if it is unconscious bias. It's human nature and it's why random sampling is so important.
The very subject of the 1948 polling errors spawned volumes of research and writing. Ask any political science undergrad about their Research Methods class, I still remember mine. It's a big part of curriculum now for social scientists.
What's important is this: Polling, for the most part, was fixed after this and has been very good at predicting the Presidential elections since then.
MODERN TIMES, MODERN PROBLEMS.
I think the sampling issues of 1948 may be back, but with a modern twist. I'm basing this on what we saw in 2012. For months in 2012 every media outlet was running with polling numbers showing Obama and Romney in a very tight race. There was talk of a tie along side talk of either being able to win, and that was the joint narrative right up until the results came out. As it turned out, Obama won handily, not a landslide per se, but by much more than the polls had predicted.
One possible error is the inability of polling to properly sample the modern American voter. Polling is often tied to land-lines. That's a problem. As an example I have a very “traditional” type of life. Middle class family, home, etc. Yet, our home has NEVER had a landline. In fact, the only real landline I've ever had is at my parents home growing up and now at my office. That's it. I've had the same cell phone number for 12 years, but never have I plugged into a jack for anything but internet service and I've long since ditched the DSL for Cable any way.
I am not odd for never having a landline. In fact, more and more I'm meeting people over 50 who are cutting the cord on their own landlines and going totally wireless. If we know anything about technology is that's when those over 50 begin using something as normal, it's officially here to stay.
Cell phone polling is increasing, but it's still not regular. Plus, when your cell phone rings and you see an unknown number from another area code, how likely are you to pick it up and answer? That leads to both an oversampling and an under-sampling. Those with landlines, and who are home to answer them, are the more likely people to be polled. Those without... not so much. Just like in 1948 we wind up with a skewed group of people providing the answers to the polling question: Hillary or Trump?
So, there is a real chance that the polls, which show Hillary holding an absolutely dominating lead as I explored in my last piece, could actually be wrong.
What I'm saying is: Never say “never” when it comes to the election outcomes. Trump could win. In fact, Trump could actually be winning right now.
That's right. The polling could be totally and completely...
Ok. I give up. I can't do it. There is just no way. I've been thinking about this for weeks because my goal, always, is that I want to examine both sides. It's just that, in this case, that is becoming increasingly harder to do in a meaningful way.
Seriously. Clinton is up by 11 points in Virginia, a state Obama won by 4 in 2012. Even if you take away a 5 point polling error Clinton would still be up on Trump by 6 in Virginia. In Trump's own style “That's Yuge, believe me.” She's up by 10 points in Colorado, 9 in New Hampshire, 9 in Pennsylvania, 7 in Michigan, 9 in Wisconsin and just about 5 in Ohio. If we assume the polling is just totally whacked and subtract 6 points from each of those states from Clinton and give 100% of that difference to Trump, CLINTON WOULD STILL WIN ALL BUT OHIO!!!!
If you've read my other recent pieces you know that those are all pretty important states for Trump to get to 270 electoral votes. In fact, as of today Clinton is leading by a percentage greater than the margin of error in enough states to give her more than 270 electoral votes. That means that if the election was held today and the polls were accurate, Clinton wins. On top of that, her lead has been getting bigger each week since the end of the Democratic convention. Now, Trump's campaign is doing so poorly that even Missouri, once a true bell weather state, then a virtual lock for the Republicans in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012, is a genuine battleground state.
MATH (USUALLY) DOESN'T LIE.
One thing we know from polling is that the vast majority of Americans think Trump and Clinton both lie and that neither are trustworthy. Turns out, two negatives do still make a positive, at least in the polling numbers. Clinton's lead makes it so that Trump would have to nearly morph into another human being to have a chance. The current numbers are the result of almost 450 days of Trump's campaign. As of writing this there are fewer than 80 days remaining until the election. Do we really think that Trump can change 450 days worth of perception in what amounts to about 75 days of “post pivot” Trump?
Add to that the clear fact that Trump and his every changing carrousel of advisors don't seem to understand what a Pivot really is. Pivoting means keeping one foot firm while moving the other around to find a slightly new position without leaving the main spot. It's a circular motion that, if continued, brings you all the way around to the beginning. Trump has pivoted like 28 times already, and this last one doesn't appear much different from those before. Trump can keep pivoting all he likes, but eventually it will become clear that what he's really doing is spinning in a circle.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE DEBATES!
Can Trump beat Clinton in the debates? Maybe. With some help from Libertarian and Green party candidates... still, maybe. One on one? No way. His base, the “alt-Conservatives” as they have been dubbed, will think Trump wins no matter what he does. That isn't the same as convincing enough voters in Pennsylvania to swing a 9 point loss into even just a .01 point win.
Pennsylvania really is “The Keystone State” to this election. It, along with Ohio, signal the likely outcome of this race. Right now both are squarely in Clinton's camp, and Ohio matters less and less with Clinton's sizable lead in the other bigger states like Virginia. If Trump has another gear, he has to find it right now. If not, it's time to start talking about the Senate and the House of Representatives because those races are now in play in a serious way, at least in 2016.
- Adam Sommer