By Carlo Stokx
Never in Dutch Parliamentary history have the General Elections in the Netherlands drawn as much international attention as the one that took place last week.
by Kathy Frankovic, former director of surveys at CBS News and a member of ESOMAR’s Professional Standards Committee
Election polling is the most visible part of market, opinion and social research. It carries the heavy burden for getting things right, but its previous successes have also brought high and perhaps unearned expectations for its accuracy. This year, and the U.S. presidential election in particular, provides a good example of what happens when people forget the limitations of polls, that sampling and non-response may matter, and that ascribing too much precision to polling estimates in times of change can make pundits and journalists look as silly as the pollsters they berate.
We’ve all seen the discussion about what happened in the U.S. last week: was there a “late surge,” were people misrepresenting their vote intention (the “shy Tories/Trump voters”), could pollsters have missed some important groups, did everyone put too much confidence in poll results? We have also seen claims for “new” methods to replace polling – single-bullet solutions for a problem that may or may not exist.
The precision people wanted to see in polls this year made polling aggregators and pundits far more sure of what would happen than may have been realistic. Polls do not have absolute accuracy, and even the best pundits can mis-read them. This year Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight.com), lionized after previous elections for his accuracy creating algorithms using polls to produce probabilities of the outcome, gave Democrat Hillary Clinton a nearly 70% probability of winning (to his credit, that 70% probability had dropped in the last week from a higher likelihood, but it was still a clear prediction). Other aggregators (like pollster.com) put the odds of a Clinton victory even higher, above 98%.
To be clear: nearly all final U.S. 2016 pre-election polls showed a small national lead for Clinton. And she carried the national popular vote by about two percentage points over Republican nominee Donald Trump (now with a counted two million vote lead in the national vote totals). But the national vote count (and national polls) say little about what happens in individual states, and that’s what matters. Had Clinton won the necessary Electoral College votes, we would have been having a very different discussion about polling today than we are, asking how pollsters could have done better, rather than calling the pre-election poll results a “massive, historical, epic disaster.” While there are methodological issues with the 2016 election polls, the industry should not be “reeling.”
That over-reliance on numbers made this year’s post-election commentary even more apocalyptic than necessary, as seen in the already-noted descriptions of a “reeling” profession and a “massive, historical and epic disaster.” And that’s not true. See Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, another poll aggregator, and The New York Times’ Nate Cohn on this. Even Nate Silver has called the situation a “failure of conventional wisdom more than a failure of polling.”
The individual final pre-election polls ranged from a Clinton lead of six points to a 3-point margin for Republican victor Donald Trump. Pre-election comparisons are complicated because some polls included third party candidates (Gary Johnson for the Libertarians and Jill Stein for the Green Party) and others did not. When included, third parties received 5 to 9% combined (and have received about 5% of the actual vote). But the pre-election polls did not consistently include them. The polls also varied in estimating undecided voters. That percentage was as low as 1% and as high as 9%, depending on the polls.
The Clinton national vote win mattered little, as Trump carried Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (noting that state level polling varying widely in quality and the accuracy gap was particularly noticeable for Wisconsin). Those three states have a total of 46 electoral votes, and put Trump over the top in the electoral vote count. Just over 100,000 votes made the difference. [By contrast, Clinton leads in California with more than 3,000,000 votes: an excess of votes cast in the wrong place.]
This structural peculiarity of the American political system is not especially popular. In 2013, the Gallup Poll and others found six in ten Americans, Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, supporting the abolition of the Electoral College and instead choosing Presidents by the national popular vote. [Of course, after this election, Republicans are likely to change their minds and think the Electoral College is quite a good thing, just as they did in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the Presidency to George W. Bush.]
In an election this close, there are lots of explanations. Some have nothing to do with polls. Campaigns make decisions affecting small groups of voters who are hard to track in polls. Television advertising can matter (the Trump campaign poured money into Wisconsin, while the Clinton campaign took the state for granted and the candidate herself never visited). The Trump campaign also admitted it wanted to suppress turnout of key Clinton groups (college-educated women, blacks, young liberals) by reminding them of Bill Clinton’s past womanizing and earlier Hillary Clinton statements she later disavowed. Votes cast by young voters and black voters did decline this year, and overall Clinton received far fewer votes than Barack Obama in 2012.
But pre-election polls aren’t off the hook. National polls overestimated Clinton’s popular vote by about the same amount that they underestimated Barack Obama’s margin in 2012. Many state polls in critical states, especially in the Midwest, were off by more, and had Clinton clearly ahead in states that Trump carried.
An American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) panel, formed before the election, will review the election polls. Like the British Polling Council panel following the 2015 general election in the UK, its results won’t be available for several months, but serious post-election investigations (beginning with the 1948 report that followed the election that gave us “Dewey Defeats Truman”) nearly always suggest worthwhile improvements in methodology, which many pollsters adopt. Those suggestions are often adopted. Pollsters themselves will be conducting internal reviews, to see if they can match the results even more closely. Any systematic error will be known and – as happens all the time – learned from.
WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW
But we know some things now.
There was a late surge. This year, the exit polls show movement towards Trump nationally and in critical states in the final days before the election (CNN provides an excellent set of tabulations). Across the country, Clinton led by two points among those who made up their minds before the last week of the campaign, and lost to Trump by five among the 13% who made up their minds in the last week. And more than 10% of those who decided in the last week didn’t choose either Trump or Clinton. Similarly, about 10% of voters in the three important Rust Belt states decided in the final days, and Trump decisively led with them: by 11 points in Michigan, 16 points in Pennsylvania, and 27 points in Wisconsin.
11 days before the election, FBI Director James Comey told Congress he was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s private email server. One week later, he said that there was nothing new, putting that issue which had long bedeviled Clinton back before the public, after it may have receded from most voters’ minds. The shift was missed by the polls. Many state polls were completed days before the election, before the full impact of these events could be measured.
There may have been shy Trump voters: Many polls saw little or no change in the last week, though the ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll showed movement first towards and then away from Trump. Its final poll matched the polling average. Could that final movement of voters in the last week to Trump, as indicated in the exit polls, be an indication that some voters felt uncomfortable announcing a vote for Trump earlier? So far there is no direct evidence for it, and there are few differences between telephone and online polls in general ion Trump support.
Did pollsters interview good samples?: Trump suppression efforts, noted earlier, may have turned some “likely voters” into no-shows. Other voters may not have been in the polls at all. This year, there was not just a gender gap, but also a race gap, a marriage gap, an age gap, a religious gap, a rural-urban gap, and an education gap, particularly amongst white voters. Those less educated white voters overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, and if they were missing from the polls, it was Trump voters who were missing.
Exit polls have a known education and age response bias (perhaps not a surprise when those polls require respondents to fill out paper questionnaires), and it is easy to speculate that at least some less-educated voters could have been absent in pre-election polls of all types.
Years ago, we learned that young people, minorities and urban residents (in other words, people who move frequently) were most likely to have only mobile phones, not landlines. Polls with samples of mobile phone numbers were better at gauging support for Barack Obama. Mobile phones are a routine part of telephone polling,
Single-digit response rates for telephone surveys means more weighting and modeling, and that increases the possibility of error. Online polls have coverage issues, lack the scientific justification of probability sampling, and require significant modeling, but this year they performed as well, or even better, than phone polls. (This is quite different from recent British examples – the 2015 election and the referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom should exit the European Union)
The “Gold Standard” — probability telephone surveys — might be better called the “Silver Standard” as we have seen it can be tarnished and needs to be frequently reviewed and polished. Achieving that “gold standard” requires significant time and energy to reach potential respondents, but the days and weeks that can take limits the news value of polls, and would cost much more than news organizations today are willing – and able – to spend.
There probably is no replacement for the survey questionnaire, no silver bullet. Big data helps target groups, but as dependent on data collection as it is, even it may not be able to measure the exact size of each.
The problem was Interpretation: This year’s real problem was the interpretation problem, an error committed by both pollsters and pundits, both before and after the election. Maybe it’s more accurate to call it the over-interpretation problem.
Pollsters overpromise. They cite data that shows how accurate they were in the past when it may very well have been only that they were lucky. They don’t manage expectations, and violate the truth of what they know – that polling (and all survey research) is subject to error. They give into the temptation to report a 2-point, 3-point, or 4-point margin as a clear lead (and I am not blameless here).
And then reporters believe them – or decide on their own to think polls are super-predictors. But a national poll says little about what will happen in Wisconsin. The election horserace is news, and that is not going to change. But reporting could be a lot better, and poll results expressed with less certainty. . [There may have been some improvement over the years. In 1948, Life Magazine described Thomas Dewey as the “next president” in its pre-election issue. But Newsweek’s pre-printed, pre-distributed and then-recalled commemorative issue featuring “Madam President” is now on sale on EBay.]
We have to do a better job in talking about polls and training journalists. Just this year ESOMAR joined with AAPOR and WAPOR (the World Association for Public Opinion Research) and worked with the Poynter Institute to produce an internationally-focused online course for journalists and will promote the course in France, the Netherlands and Germany especially taking into account upcoming elections.
Much about this election can be explained, but pollsters still have a lot to answer for. So do the rest of us, who forgot polls are only estimates and can be wrong. We must make sure that conductors, exponents and commentators of this most public face of research provide realistic estimates, and do not expect to provide a Rolls Royce for the price of a Ford.
ONLINE COURSE FOR JOURNALISTS: UNDERSTANDING AND INTERPRETING OPINION POLLS
AAPOR, ESOMAR and WAPOR have launched the first-ever international online course to help journalists improve media reporting about polls and survey results.
Aimed at journalists, media students, bloggers, voters and anyone who wants to know how and why polls are conducted, the course is hosted by Poynter, an online training source for journalists.
This course will help journalists understand and interpret opinion polls. It will enable them to assess poll quality and explain why polls covering the same election can produce different results and why the outcome of an election might deviate from the result ‘predicted’ by the polls.
Developed by an international expert team, and funded by ESOMAR, WAPOR and AAPOR the course is free of charge. Go to:
For more information contact:
Professional.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Kathy Frankovic is a polling consultant and former director of surveys at CBS News and a member of ESOMAR’s Professional Standards Committee
ESOMAR is delighted to announce the results of the election for the 2017/2018 ESOMAR Council term. Nominations were invited for the two-year term from January 2017 to December 2018, with ten Council vacancies to be filled: President, Vice President and 8 Council Members.
By Finn Raben, David Smith and Ijaz Gilani
Political opinion polling has recently come in for some very heavy criticism, in different countries around the world; and yet this criticism continues to often be one-dimensional, and based on over-inflated expectations, without any appreciation of the myriad complexities that make up the influencers on people’s opinions and attitudes in this modern era of communication.
Indeed, this debate has been held on many an occasion in the past, and yet – perhaps as a result of the increased opinion and commentary “noise” referred to later in this piece, the key points that have been – and continue to be – actively debated, are often ignored or forgotten, as the latest inquisition gathers momentum. Let us therefore, just remind ourselves of some of the complexities:
“Political opinion” – by its very definition – is a changeable thing, and is dependent on the political body expressing it, the reason for expressing it, and of course the potential (political) benefit that will accrue from its expression!
No longer are such expressions of opinion limited to one news broadcast, or indeed two print publications per day….quite the contrary. There are now a plethora of communication vehicles, social media and other publications that can carry an opinion – and indeed, anyone’s opinion – at any time of day.
This ‘opinion culture’ , coupled with broadcasters‘ need to constantly report “new news”, can often lead to the dissemination of uncorroborated or in the worst case, misinformed opinion, all of which can impact on the public, and the electorate’s perception of events.
A case in point could be the recent tragic events in Paris; within a couple of hours, most of the 24 hour news channels were reporting that the French borders were closed; in fact, all ports of entry remained open throughout the events of the weekend.
In the knowledge therefore, that the information environment is not always fully transparent, let us then try to place the demand of political opinion polling in context: despite the vastly increased “noise” of commentary, the myriad sources of “opinion”, often unfiltered (and uncorroborated!), there remains a consistent demand that any one poll, at any one point in time, should be absolutely accurate with regard to the final outcome of the election….. Really?
Had we polled the French public on that tragic weekend with regard to their perceptions of the status of their national borders, would the result have been “accurate” ?
One of the frustrations for market researchers about the high expectations everyone has of point in time polling is that it clouds the perceptions of how market researchers work on more straightforward commercial studies. Researchers usually draw on a very wide range of commentaries and data points in order to build up a more ‘contextualised’ picture of what is happening.
Thus, with the recent British elections, if seen as a brand assessment exercise, researchers would have assembled all the evidence we have about the main protagonists and work out who were likely to be the winners and losers. Working in this more holistic and eclectic way, there is a strong argument to suggest that the overall result of the British election would have been more clearly predicted.
In this environment, the gap between expectations and outcomes may generally be found to have been caused in one of three main groups: Pollsters; Media Pundits and Politicians.
Firstly, pollsters need to deal with:
- the date of polling, for each survey conducted…..to understand the potential impact from other media “noise”, and to place whatever events were topical, in context. After all, a pre-election poll is not a “forecast” until after the election!
- the size and structure of sample……each of these can have a bearing on the results, and in any publication of findings, a clear understanding of these nuances is critical to understanding the results
- the handling of special issues pertinent to pre-election polls such as:
- Intention to vote, (by Region, compared with actual turnout;
- Uncertain voters who claimed they had not made up their mind;
- Voters who had switched voting loyalties.
An additional point – which although not espoused in developed electoral environments, does still appear to have some traction in less developed systems – is that of voters being constrained by ‘social pressure’ to reveal their preference, or to even fully articulate it until the actual moment of voting.
All of these elements can have an impact upon public perception and conscience, thus influencing any one person’s response. As the recently published update of the ESOMAR/WAPOR Guideline on Opinion Polls and Published Surveys stresses, full methodological disclosure is more and more important because as opinion polls have grown in number, complexity and variety, decision-makers, journalists and the public need to be able to differentiate between professional and unprofessional polls, and to know when to use them as appropriate information when evaluating public attitudes.
The British Election study – conducted in the wake of the criticism surrounding the poll results of the 2015 General Election – is one of the more definitive reference points on polling performance, and essentially concludes that in-home sample is better than online sample, and that too little money is spent on polling to ensure consistent and accurate results.
(The British Election results may be found here: http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-resources/why-the-polls-got-it-wrong-and-the-british-election-study-face-to-face-survey-got-it-almost-right/#.VmBEsKSIQiR)
Then, Media Pundits need to do some deeper soul searching about developing some consistent ‘rules’ on how to write about measures of popular mood(s). The excessive blending of their personal views (desirability) on good government, with their analysis of (inadequately described) electoral behavior, can often lead to misinterpretation, and indeed, propaganda. A further layer of complication is then added, when we consider that there is a rising social gap between many pundits and a proportion of the electorate, reinforced by the ‘ghettoising’ effect of social media, now that so many social media channels are also available.
Lastly, the “gap” that can be found in Political interpretation is probably one of the most interesting…The complicated relationship between ‘votes’ and ‘seats’ has always represented a challenge in terms of predictability. The complication lies primarily in the interest of creating a balance between ‘the need to seek consensus’ and the need to enforce a ‘majoritarian decision’. Herein lies the fine act of achieving democratic pluralism. Democracy is, on the whole, a beautiful act of achieving balances, and although very hard to predict, the wisdom of the (electorate) crowd would appear (in most cases) to respect that.
However, this is not always the case, and it is on those occasions when crowd wisdom runs counter to expectations, that we should NOT rush to ‘shoot the messenger’, but rather, we should take a moment to recognize the many influences of…the exponentially increasing “volume” of media commentary; the exponentially increasing complexity of the environment in which we conduct polls, and the often unreasonably high expectations we place on ‘point-in-time’ predictions.
Market Research plays an incredibly important (and proven!) role in society, and has contributed immeasurably in areas such as….
– determining views towards democracy and the rule of law, in combat zones;
– providing unique measures of the spread (or containment) of virulent diseases
– providing behavioural change measures to determine the effectiveness of programs to reduce drink-driving, to provide suicide counseling, and to prevent radicalization – all of which have benefited society.
2016 will undoubtedly see evidence from the UK that polls conducted with proper samples and in less of a rush to meet media deadlines, will give a more accurate measure of public opinion. We may also need to accept that deploying online samples (for cost reasons) to research topics for which this sampling approach is less suited, is not always “fit-for-purpose”. And lastly, when a poll is deemed to be “inaccurate”, then let us firstly examine the demands we made of the poll, before simply assuming that it was the poll that was wrong.
David Smith, ESOMAR Vice President & Founder, DVL Smith Ltd
Dr Ijaz Gilani, Chairman, Gilani Research Foundation and Vice President WIN-Gallup International
Finn Raben, ESOMAR Director General
Can we expect the US 2016 polls to be any good?
The American polling community is no stranger to controversy during hard-fought election campaigns, pollsters often have serious arguments about appropriate methods (such as whether random-digit dialing or using voter registration lists are better for primary elections, and what is the proper percentage of mobile phone numbers in a sample). Politicians certainly argue with pollsters when they are not happy with poll results, often citing the shopworn phrase “The only poll that counts is the one on election day.”
Republicans attacked published pre-election polls in 2012, when a number of Republican-leaning websites were devoted to “un-skewing” published poll results: they altered partisan composition in polls to increase the percentage of GOP (Grand Old Party meaning the Republican Party in the USA – ed) voters. (The pollsters for Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign did much the same thing) But their assumptions were wrong. The published polls performed well in 2012, so the notion of “un-skewing” polls, altering their partisan composition, has disappeared, at least for now.
But there are other, more serious criticisms, and debate even now about whether we should expect the 2016 polls to be any good. The challenges of polling have – in many people’s eyes – become far too difficult and polls are likely to be wrong: One former President of the American Association for public opinion research, Professor Cliff Zukin of Rutgers University, claimed in The New York Times [i]that public polling was in “near crisis.” Why? There are increased costs to polling, as more and more adults move to using only mobile phones, which, according to law, must be dialed by hand. Meanwhile, he writes, news organisations struggle with severely reduced budgets, impacting the number of polls they can conduct.
Second, response rates are extremely low. And since, only about half of American adults actually vote in presidential elections, the determination of likely voters in polls is extremely difficult. And finally, there are still questions in the US about the viability of polls conducted online, which could otherwise be a way of reducing costs and gathering good data. Even though the vast majority of American adults have internet access, the use of volunteer respondent panels still remains controversial. Zukin, who favors telephone polling, wrote: “Our old paradigm has broken down, and we haven’t figured out how to replace it. Political polling has gotten less accurate as a result, and it’s not going to be fixed in time for 2016.”
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