What the U.S. pollsters missed

What the U.S. pollsters missed

By Shachi Kurl, Executive Director

November 9, 2016 – As the saying goes, “demography is destiny.” Last night, destiny was a win for Donald Trump. There will be a lot of time to reflect on what this means for Canada and the world – but it was indeed demography that delivered victory for one of the least-liked, least-trusted candidates that political watchers have seen in a long time.

For many, it is improbable that the top of the Republican ticket would have prevailed. What made the difference? And why did so few – including pollsters and political experts – seem to see it coming?

Indeed, our own recent polling concluded nearly half of Americans, regardless of whether they supported her, thought Hillary Clinton’s victory was a foregone conclusion. Further, political scientists cited the changing demographic face of the United States as one of the reasons the Democratic path to victory had more routes.

Individual polls showed narrow but notable leads for Ms. Clinton on popular vote heading into election day. Throughout the campaign, support for Mr. Trump seemed poised to overtake his opponent, drawing within reach, slipping away then bouncing back. Heading into Tuesday, the majority of pollsters were measuring voter sentiment that appeared to indicate a victory for the Democrats, but not by much.

Still, polling – regardless of methodology – showed itself to be susceptible to some key blind spots, chiefly among rural voters. Early analysis suggests this election didn’t turn on so-called “shy” Trump voters who failed to identify themselves because of social desirability issues, but on rural voters whose opinions and voting intent simply may have been under-canvassed, or not canvassed at all.

Turnout – the mechanics of who showed up to voting stations and who didn’t – was also a major factor. From the start, Ms. Clinton has struggled with white voters, who in an Angus Reid Institute poll last Friday gave Mr. Trump a 15-point lead. This ultimately spelled disaster for Ms. Clinton, despite changing demographic shifts that have seen the percentage of the white U.S. electorate shrink substantially over the past three decades.

It was assumed that as white voters wane in population – and therefore influence – the emerging clout of Hispanic communities would guarantee victory for Ms. Clinton, especially as Mr. Trump stoked the fires of immigration by attacking Mexicans as he announced his candidacy. Far from planting the seeds of his loss, it turns out he was speaking to a significant segment of Americans who wanted a harder line on illegal immigration – and acted on it at the ballot booth.

Mr. Trump also showed, contrary to the view of many, that it is possible to win the election without making inroads into minority communities. The last Republican to win a presidential election was George W. Bush in 2004, with 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote. By 2012, the GOP share of this growing community’s support had shrunk by about one-third. Mr. Trump sent these voters away in droves to Ms. Clinton. But along the way, he picked up non-college-educated white voters in the rust belt – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan – where deep lingering unhappiness about free trade found a sympathetic ally in an anti-trade Mr. Trump.

By contrast, assumptions about minority community mobilizations for Ms. Clinton now appear overblown. In the lead-up to election day, polling showed those who trace their roots to Latin America were backing Ms. Clinton fully two-to-one over Mr. Trump. Among African-American voters the ratio was more like nine-to-one. Ultimately, these huge margins of support did not translate into the votes needed to win.

What did make the difference was a segment of the electorate that found a confidence and voice in a candidate that spoke not just to their feeling that they were on the outside economically, but also on key social values issues: immigration, race and diversity, religion, and LGBTQ rights among others.

So what does all this portend for demography and politics in the future? Going back to its 2012 postmortem, the Republican Party was told it needed to do more to win minority supporters. Mr. Trump disproved this theory in this election cycle. Democrats relied heavily on Mr. Trump’s campaign antics to create gender and race gaps that would propel Ms. Clinton to victory. These didn’t materialize.

It would be folly to blindly assume any one population will vote consistently as a monolith forever. To put it mildly, this was a unique election. The GOP shouldn’t take this as a blanket endorsement of its candidate or a predictor of future loyalty among white voters, many of whom turned out for Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in previous elections.

Image credit – BBC

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