1. Opinion

Perspective: Trust the polls, not the pundits

Published Feb. 16, 2018

It's not easy being a pollster these days. When I started in 1984, two out of three people we reached on the then-universal landline said they were happy to take a poll. "Shh! Someone is calling me from New York and asking me important questions. I will be back at the dinner table in a minute."

Today, response rates can be in the single digits. And how can you annoy people with 40, 50, 60 questions on their cellphone? It's simple. You can't.

But we pollsters have found a way to steer our profession through changing times, and we are still pretty accurate. If you look at the much-maligned results of the 2016 presidential election, the polls were actually right on the mark. The average going into the final hours of the election actually showed Hillary Clinton leading nationwide by 2.4 percentage points. That was very close to the actual result.

Equally important, if we examine the results from key battleground states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina, the directional signals could not have been clearer. In each of those states, two Sundays before the election, Clinton was leading Donald Trump by 9 to 11 percentage points. Each day we saw movement in a downward spiral away from Clinton and toward Trump.

The final results (again in the average) — the day before the election — had the former secretary of state tied in New Hampshire with her challenger, only 3 points ahead in Pennsylvania, losing ground in Michigan and Wisconsin, and down by 3 in North Carolina.

Paraphrasing the Great One, Wayne Grezsky, it was pretty clear where the puck was heading. That is why a little before noon on Election Day, I wrote the following in Forbes:

Mr. Trump's path to victory remains narrow but he is a lot more competitive today than he was a little while ago. I do think a Trump victory would be an upset. If he loses Florida then his path to the White House is most difficult. But Mrs. Clinton as of 11 a.m. Election Day when I'm writing this is not a lock to be 45th president.

Be very careful of anyone who says he or she has it all figured out. After four decades of conducting and reading polls, I was not totally shocked at the result. Inside the Beltway and in Manhattan, the press pack who spent the entire time talking to each other, creating the "conventional wisdom," and in a war with the soon-to-be president-elect simply could not fathom a Trump victory.

Yes, it is much more difficult doing polls these days. But we are still doing them and performing very well. In an age of an oversupply of information and a decline of political party organizations, an increasing number of people are making up their minds whom to vote for on Election Day. As many as 14 percent tell us that is when they decide.

So, we need to divest ourselves of the notion that polls actually predict winners. Polls only take a snapshot of the moment, capture the trend line, suggest who may be ahead — but never predict. I have had many successes nailing election outcomes — but I have also had my clunkers.

Most professional polls are done reliably. And they tell us so much about the values of voters as a whole and among specific cohorts.

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They are especially vital overseas as a barometric reading where corruption is endemic. In Kenya last year, our Zogby Poll actually showed the challenger in Kenya leading against the incumbent. When the latter "won" on Election Day, a combination of polling data along with brutal violence against independent election officials and opposition party officials convinced the Supreme Court to declare the results null and void and call for a new election.

Polls tell us what we need to know — even if we don't want to hear it. We know about the base that supports Brexit in the United Kingdom, the supporters of comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy, the popularity of the extreme right in Austria and France. We also know of the rumblings in countries like Tunisia and Egypt that fueled the Arab Spring — as well as the grievances leading to increased demanding for reforms in Saudi Arabia.

We need to know how to better read the polls and draw the lessons from the rich data they provide. Yet beware of those with closed minds who are waging wars that can cloud the truth and steer us to see only what want to see. That is the real story of the 2016 election. In the words of comedian Larry David, the data is still "pretty, pretty good."

John Zogby, the founder of the Zogby Poll, is senior partner at John Zogby Strategies.


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