The Polls Were Wrong — But Revealing

Every forecasting site predicted Hillary Clinton would be President. Their error exposes the complacence of the Left

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Failure to communicate? Pollsters underestimated Donald Trump's support, while crediting Hillary with too much (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 4.0)

Among all the hip new election maps, up to date polling analysis and software, Votecastr, fresh out of shiny Silicon Valley, was its neon flagbearer. This hot little start-up proudly led the charge of algorithm-based big data companies seeking to transform a polling industry during the US election. I, alongside many others, found myself checking their homepage just before America went to the polls. Its business model promised to provide real-time projections as votes were collected, before any official tallies. The company partnered with Slate and Vice News to absorb data from dozens of polling locations and outfits throughout election day, before feeding it through their predictive software to generate “minute-by-minute projected outcomes”. While releasing vote estimates before poll closure is controversial, the value of such technology is obvious. Using a large variety of polling data (reportedly from Democrat and Republican party sources), Votecastr would overwhelm any biases or misinformation, leading to better predictions. Of course, as the company admitted on its homepage, predictions still depend on the veracity of input data, but this read like an afterthought amid technical jargon and promises of lifting the election curtain. For market speculators, real-time election projections offer a potential edge few can ignore.

The early predictions as votes came in suggested a Hillary landslide. After observing 20-50% of the votes in seven battleground states, Votecastr had the Democrats not only winning but dominating in all. And the markets may well have listened. By 11:45am Eastern Standard Time, well before official projections emerged, investors had seized on this, with stocks and the peso spiking. The shock the markets later suffered, futures tanking and the peso hitting a record low, mirror the reaction of the global consensus: shock, horror, and panic. The abject failure of Votecastr, as well as countless other predictive polling sites used by media outlets, reveals a deeper, societal disconnect. In the case of both Trump and Brexit, there seems to be a clear trend of silent support, camouflaged by the media. Clinton received support from 240 editorial boards to Trump’s 19, a number unprecedented in US election history. Whatever you think of Trump, how does a free and open press fail to reflect half the American electorate, and until now, not even realise they existed?

My answer is that our consumer society feeds off pop culture, celebrities, sensationalism, and trends. On my first day at school, I was castigated for not knowing about the rapper Eminem. I quickly learned who he was, didn’t listen to him, but had enough information to avoid awkward encounters. Did this happen with the polls? The unifying nature of popular culture has transformed a phenomenon which used to involve pop stars or fashion into a political one, and one dominated by the Left. Putting the example of silent support for Trump into this context, the explanation becomes clear. Yet what this doesn’t explain is his success. With media so firmly entrenched in one camp and many of Trump’s election promises objectively ridiculous, how did he win? The explanation is twofold.

First, an addiction to collectivist thinking on both sides of the spectrum has driven our society apart, both in Europe and America. With Corbyn’s Labour (the American Left will now follow their lead) and Trump’s Republicans, both sides have become polarised, legitimising their hatred of one another. Alternative media on the right facilitate a lack of critical thinking for conservatives in the same way mainstream media do for the Left. Trump’s support thrived despite his disadvantage. Second, with the Left so dominant in media and culture, its supporters have become both arrogant and complacent. Trump’s movement, against all the odds, became an underdog. Large numbers of first-time voters supported Trump, motivated by the idea they were fighting a system represented by television talking heads they despised. Essentially, leftist media hegemony has made the right into a counter-culture.

The failures of polling organisations were not technical, nor due to bias. The real failure was in society, where ordinary people, dismissed by an authoritarian Left, fled into the arms of a resurgent Right. Both sides are now circling, sabres drawn, neither wishing to give an inch, and I suspect this is only the beginning of our society’s radicalisation. While Votecastrwas widely scapegoated, almost every pollster got this one wrong. Yet the polls accurately captured America as a land divided, confused, angry, and scared.