US election: how did the polls get it so wrong?

Mark Balnaves @CatchNews | First published: 9 November 2016, 19:25 IST
US election: how did the polls get it so wrong?
AFP Photo/ Rhona Wise

Well, folks, this should be the end of industrial political polling as we know it.

Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump began his tilt at the presidency as an outlier, and even as recently as voting day was characterised by many pollsters as the likely loser.

Now he is the US president elect, an outcome that most mainstream observers regard as an astonishing upset. Comparisons with the Brexit surprise abound.

The result underscores how badly modern polls serve us. Polling is an enormous, lucrative and influential industry - Australia has lost sitting prime ministers over poll results. But the US election outcome shows how unreliable polls can be at predicting our political futures.

Humble pie

Many pollsters are now eating humble pie.

Sam Wang, the widely-lauded pollster behind the Princeton Election Consortium website, was only recently so confident of a Clinton win that he tweeted:

As the votes for Trump rolled in, Wang wrote that he's getting ready for "bug-cookery", saying that "the polls were off, massively".

In the late hours of voting day in the US, Wang wrote:

The entire polling industry - public, campaign-associated, aggregators - ended up with data that missed tonight's results by a very large margin. There is now the question of understanding how a mature industry could have gone so wrong. And of course, most of all, there is the shock of a likely Trump presidency. I apologize that I underestimated the possibility of such an event.

Nate Silver, who uses statistical analysis to crunch poll data on the website FiveThirtyEight and famously called the outcome of the 2012 election correctly, was less confident than Wang of a Clinton presidency. But FiveThirtyEight did tip Clinton as the likely winner: