The US Elections: Why the Pollsters Got it Wrong

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The US Elections: Why the Pollsters Got it Wrong

December 09 th.


This state of affairs raises a number of concerns regarding elections and polling. Do surveys really reflect the reality? What is the effect of such polls on voter behaviour? Do voters change their preferences at the last minute? Let me say pollsters largely reflect the reality. That is why the top contenders in the US election were so close to each other. On the second question; yes the voters have effects on voter behaviour. However the effect is varied from election to election. In 1948 the Washington Gall Up predicted that Dewey would defeat Truman by a significant margin, however, the reverse occurred. Similarly in 2012, the Gall Up poll showed President Barack Obama trailing Romney (his closest challenger), including a final survey that gave Romney a 1-point edge. The outcomes as we know them were the reverse.

I suggest the underdog effect is the phenomenon that might explain why the US elections went contrary to majority view. The effect of polls under this phenomenon is that voters perceive a particular candidate/party to be the likely winner. In response they tend to support the expected loser. The outcome is that the competitor “underdog “wins.  The next question is: was Donald Trump an underdog? On one hand, many have acclaimed the public experience yielded by Hillary against the business man cum TV star. She had also mentorship and direct support of former president (Bill Clinton) and the incumbent. On the other hand; Trump was a little known figure in the political circles who was abhorred even by his own party. The jury is out there now.

What lessons should we now draw when we are polling and making opinions? One; the underdog effect could affect voter behaviour to disadvantage a popular candidate. Second, voter messaging has an “impersonal influence” on the poll surveys themselves. The import of this is that being at a disadvantaged position especially in early polls can be a good weapon to reap from this effect. Word of caution though! Not every candidate or party can benefit from an underdog effect. You could run into trouble if voters perceive your disadvantaged position and disown you. Therefore, impressions based on attitudes, beliefs and personality have an anonymous collective effect on poll outcomes. 

To reiterate on the why we got it all wrong in the US. The usual answers: we never saw it coming; we had a different voter altogether. I day say; polls would need to allow for a margin of error. But they would hear of it as they need to have the scoop; or in other words; break the news. As the news sinks in; never underestimated the power of the underdog effect. Congratulations to the people of the US for mature democracy, to Hillary for accepting the results and president elect_Donald Trump.

Writer: Jacob Otachi


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