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Insights with Impact Blog
An Inside Straight
November 15, 2016
The national polls were right. On average, national polls found Hillary Clinton up by 3 points leading up to Election Day. She appears to have won the popular vote by about 1 point.
National polls have averaged a 2-point differential from the final result over the past 12 presidential races, so the 2016 polling was about as accurate as usual.
Based largely on eight national polls I conducted in partnership with Fox News over the fall, I thought Hillary Clinton would win the national vote by 2 to 4 points – enough that an Electoral College upset would have been out of reach.
But when I revisited our pre-election polling, the story of a potentially much closer race was right in front of me. Clinton’s support had been flat and her edge ranged from just 1 to 3 points, with the exception of right after the release of the Access Hollywood video when Trump’s support briefly slipped 4 points.
So why was there such widespread surprise at a Trump victory when Clinton’s edge in polling was within the margin of error all fall?
The main reason for the great surprise was that a lower probability outcome prevailed. Donald Trump drew the inside straight many said he would need in order to prevail. Before Trump’s election, 3 of 44 presidents lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College. The odds of drawing an inside straight are 4 in 47.
But what happened that led to this lower probability outcome?
Late deciding voters broke disproportionately for Trump.
Undecided voters and those supporting third-party candidates in our polling tended to view both Clinton and Trump unfavorably, while also thinking Clinton had the judgment and qualifications and Trump did not. I thought these voters were unlikely to break disproportionately for Trump at the end, but they did. According to exit polls, voters who were unfavorable toward both candidates voted for Trump by 20 points (49% to 29%).
Nationally, voters who decided in the final week broke for Trump, 47% to 42%. But the late break was even more decisive in Wisconsin (59% to 30%) and Pennsylvania (54% to 37%), where Trump achieved his biggest upsets. As it turned out, late-deciding voters were more interested in “draining the swamp” than in traditional qualities associated with competence.
There was a lower and harder ceiling on Clinton’s support than many thought.
Clinton never trailed in any of the eight polls we conducted over the fall, and I assumed this meant she had a higher ceiling of support than Trump. In hindsight, I should have questioned this assumption when Clinton’s support stayed stuck at 45% after the Access Hollywood video release. When voters didn’t move toward her after the release of a video that would have been fatal to any past candidate, why would they on Election Day?
There was no Rust Belt firewall.
Either there were some significant polling misses in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, or there was a huge late break for Trump. Either way, polling in these states contributed to a belief that Clinton had a Rust Belt firewall that would save her in the Electoral College, even if she lost the popular vote.
It is now clear that polling (both nationally and especially in the upper Midwest) was close enough that we should have spent more time exploring and articulating alternate outcomes rather than arguing for the data and logic that supported the higher probability outcome. But at the same time, we should recognize that when a lower probability outcome becomes the result, this isn’t necessarily a failure of polling or modeling. It might just be a lower probability outcome.
Inside straights happen, and Donald Trump just drew one.
- Specializes in consumer marketing research, brand and reputation management, and communications research for opinion influencers, executives, clinicians and consumers
- Designs and directs global qualitative and quantitative opinion research for corporations, non-profit organizations and trade associations
- Evaluates advertising, public relations and marketing campaigns with her clients and their agencies
- Began her career at Penn, Schoen & Berland (PS&B), pollsters for President Bill Clinton and Microsoft, among others
- Received a B.A. in Government from Colby College
- Active in the Boston business community, making new connections and mentoring young professionals
- Serves as the Vice Chair for the March of Dimes Board of Directors in Boston
- Volunteers time at her children’s schools with a favorite role as the “Mystery Reader”
- Challenges herself with distance running
- Loves to experience new places, cultures and cuisine, which includes at least one new travel adventure per year with friends or family
- Works on significant public policy issues across industries
- Incorporates quantitative and qualitative research elements for campaigns designed to resonate with clearly-defined audiences
- Held positions of increasing responsibility with Kiley and Company and Opinion Dynamics
- Earned a M.A in Statistical Analysis, Public Opinion and Political Science from Columbia University
- Received a B.A. in English from Colby College
- Serves as a member of the Fox News election night decision team
- Has an active membership in the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR)
- Serves as advocate and former Board Chair for Read to a Child: Boston
- Enjoys everything outdoors (skiing, running, fishing, hiking) with his family
- Appreciates time with a good fiction book or listening to live music
- Excels at the “nuts and bolts” of survey research, ensuring methodologies are designed realistically and executed properly
- Counts 5,000 research studies as the number managed to date, using telephone, Internet, postal mail, interviews, mall intercepts, focus groups, exit polls and door-to-door surveys
- Ensured research integrity and accuracy at Opinion Dynamics Corporation
- Began his career as the field director at Cambridge Reports, Inc.
- Earned a B.A. in Sociology, while studying Research Methods and Analysis at University of Massachusetts Amherst
- Volunteers at the Mary Ann Morse Nursing Home doing pet therapy for residents
- Helps transport rescue dogs regularly because he’s an avid dog lover
- Raised money for the Jimmy Fund for the past 20 years by participating in the Pan-Mass Challenge
- Appreciates time with his family, which also includes a dog, three cats and two horses
- Specializes in concept testing, message development, advertising evaluation, employee research, reputation management, communication research and multi-national studies
- Manages qualitative and quantitative research for healthcare, financial services, consumer and non-profit organizations
- Involved previously in global B2B, non-profit and international consumer research with KRC Research
- Gained experience earlier in her career working at Portland Research, honing her skills in methodology, philosophy and process
- Received a B.S. cum laude in Marketing from Bentley University
- Participates in activities for her children at the Waldorf School
- Enjoys traveling to beach destinations, cruising and exploring the Casco Bay Islands, particularly in the summer
- Loves spending time with her family, including three young, active children
- Creates and directs communications strategies for both traditional and social media
- Named a “Rising Star” by the Boston Business Journal in 2011 and nominated for an Emmy earlier in her career
- Held a variety of political and media relations positions with InkHouse, Solomon McCown & Co. and the State Treasurer of Massachusetts
- Began her career as a journalist at WBZ-TV (Boston), WNBC (New York) and NY1 News
- Earned a B.A./B.F.A. in Journalism and Film Studies from New York University
- Member of Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of TV and Radio Actors (SAG/AFTRA)
- Raises awareness and funds for March of Dimes through participation in the Falmouth Road Race
- Rode the Pan-Mass Challenge
- Enjoys hiking, biking and swimming with her three children and husband
A Nun’s Life Ministry
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts
Cambridge Health Alliance
Citizen’s Housing and Planning Association
Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
Death with Dignity
Dewey Square Group
DLA Piper LLP
Five Corner Strategies
Fox News Network LLC
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce
Mass Food Association
Massachusetts Association of Health Plans
Massachusetts Medical Society
Massachusetts Nurses Association
Maura Healey Campaign
Michigan Nurses Association
Ogilvy Public Relations
PJA Advertising & Marketing
Right to Repair Committee
Screening for Mental Health
Stand for Children