Perspectives

Polls and pundits missed signs pointing to a Trump win

November 14, 2016

On Nov. 10, a strange site was seen on television screens across the United States.  President-elect Donald Trump was visiting the White House, and was welcomed by current President Barack Obama.  Just three days earlier, President Obama had been on the campaign trail, telling audiences that Donald Trump was not qualified to be president of the United States.  Instead, he argued that Hillary Clinton was the only logical choice for president.

For the second time in four of the most recent presidential elections, the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college vote in spectacular fashion, defying polls and pundits alike.  Just a day before the election, pundits and polls were showing that Clinton would soundly defeat Trump, the only question being by how many electoral college votes.  Instead, as the returns began to come in on Tuesday, Trump won those states that he was expected to win, while all of the battleground states were much too close to call.  The fact that none of the battleground states were trending democrat began setting off warning bells that this election was not going to go as easily for Clinton as the pundits had predicted.  Indeed, the probability very quickly changed from being strongly in favor of Clinton being elected to strongly favoring Trump within the first few hours of counting the votes.  However, it was not until around 2:30 AM Central time that the election was called for Donald Trump, with the traditional democratic states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania having been won by Trump.

The day following the election, supporters of Trump and haters of Clinton were elated, while those who supported Clinton walked around in disbelief.  Ultimately, many of Clinton’s supporters felt distraught that they believed the pundits and the polls and felt betrayed by the fact that they were wrong.  I have to admit, that I too was wrong.  I had gone on TrojanVision and stated that I predicted Hillary Clinton would be our next president.  I believed the polls, just like many other people that day.  However, I now chide myself for doing so, and turn to political science to explain why I should have been more doubtful of the results.

American political scientists have long studied elections in the United States, and studies have consistently found that Americans do not like for one party to have control of the Executive Branch of government for extremely long periods of time.  Prior to President Reagan, many of our presidents had served only one term.  Reagan served two terms, and then George H.W. Bush succeeded him and served one term.  Thus, the Republican party had control over the Executive Branch for 12 years.  After that, the most that any party held the presidency was for 8 years with Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama each serving two terms.  It did not really matter who the candidate was, it was incredibly difficult to be elected president following a two-term president from the same party.

Second, political scientists have long noted that voters tend to sanction the party in power if the economy is not strong.  Ronald Reagan famously stated that voters should ask themselves if they are better off financially now than they were four years ago.  If the answer is yes, then people should vote for the party in power.  If not, then they should vote for the opposing party.  In this election, the economy had improved over Barack Obama’s terms, but there was relatively small economic growth.  Thus, Hillary Clinton did not benefit from a booming economy.

Finally, political scientists have found that if the current president is extremely popular, that the candidate from the same party has a greater chance of getting elected.  Obama is popular (especially compared to both Trump and Clinton), yet his popularity is still not extremely high.  In short, political science should have shown us that this election would be extremely close.  Far closer than most people predicted the day before the election.  Yet hindsight is always 20/20.  I, like many others, discounted what I knew and instead believed the polling showing that Clinton would win in a landslide.

Now the country must heal.  Citizens must come together. For those who are disappointed in the results, take the time to mourn.  For those who are excited by the results, take the time to celebrate.  Come January, Donald Trump will be president of this fractured country.  He will be the leader of all Americans.