Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Another polling fail

We have had a few polling fails recently in the Anglo-sphere. Two United Kingdom examples quickly come to mind: the General Election in 2015, where the polls predicted a hung parliament, and Brexit in 2016, in which remaining in the EU was the predicted winner. Closer to home we had the Queensland state election in 2015, in which the polls foreshadowed a narrow Liberal National Party win.

Today's election of Donald Trump in the United States will be added to the list of historic polling fails.

  • The New York Times had the average of the polls with Clinton on 45.9 per cent to Trump's 42.8 per cent (+3.1 percentage points).  The NYT gave Clinton an 84 per cent chance of winning the Electoral College vote.
  • had the average of the polls with Clinton on 48.5 to Trump's 44.9 per cent (+3.6). FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton a 71.4 per cent chance of winning the Electoral College vote.
  • The Princeton Election Consortium had Clinton ahead of Trump with +4.0 ± 0.6 percentage points. PEC gave Clinton a 93 per cent chance of winning the Electoral College vote.

While the count is not over, the current tally has Clinton ahead in the national popular vote by +1.1 percentage points, but losing the Electoral College vote. The most likely Electoral College tally looks like Trump with 305 Electoral College votes to Clinton's 233.

So today's big question: Why such a massive polling fail?

It will take some time to answer this question with certainty. However, I have a couple of guesses.

My first guess would be the social desirability bias. This is sometimes referred to as the "shy voter problem" or the Bradley effect. At the core of this polling problem, some voters will not admit their actual polling preference to the pollster because they fear the pollster will negatively judge that preference. It is not surprising that such a controversial figure as Donald Trump would prompt issues of social desirability in polling. Elite opinion was against Trump. Clinton labeled Trump supporters as "deplorable". No-one wants to be in that basket. Pollsters might also look at Latino voters in Florida that appear to have voted for Trump in larger numbers than expected.

The second area where I suspect pollsters will look is their voter turn-out models. Who actually voted compared with who said they would vote to pollsters. This was a very different election to the previous two Presidential elections. Turnout-out models based on previous elections may have misdirected the polling results (particularly on the basis of race and particularly in the industrial mid-west).

A final thing that might be worth looking at is herding. The final polls were close, perhaps remarkably close. This may have been natural, or it may have resulted from pollsters modulating their final outputs to be similar with each other.


  1. How about a fourth possibility, the feedback effect of the published polls themselves (i.e., people believe Clinton will win and thus feel 'freed up' to vote for Trump, particularly when they are predisposed to dislike her to begin with)? See this piece in Vanity Fair,

  2. A variant of the feedback effect is the voter who slightly prefers Clinton to Trump but doesn't like either, and on concluding from analysis that the election is a foregone conclusion, stays home. I think this might have been quite common.

    I wonder also whether a small degree of underdog effect has crept in in recent elections specifically because of the anti-elite anti-expert mood that is out there at the moment.