How did the elites get it so wrong?

A media bubble helped create a propensity to see only evidence that supports one’s belief. But the polls weren't actually that far off.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Guests react to election results during Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's election night rally in the Jacob Javits Center in New York Nov. 8, 2016. Clinton, who had been leading almost all polls ahead of election day, was upset by Republican Donald Trump.

How did (most of) the political and media establishment get Tuesday’s election so wrong?

Inside the Beltway, and in enclaves of “elite” thought around the country, there was a strong sense up until the returns began to come in that Democrat Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.

Even the Republican National Committee, which supported Donald Trump, thought Mrs. Clinton would win, as of late last week. The RNC’s assessment was based on “sophisticated predictive modeling,” shared with reporters privately last Friday.

And as late as 6:43 p.m. Tuesday evening, GOP consultant Frank Luntz tweeted this: “In case I wasn’t clear enough from my previous tweets: Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. #ElectionNight.”

Now, on the day after Mr. Trump’s stunning victory, the sober assessments of why most pundits got it wrong are rolling in.

“Well, what can we say – we blew it,” wrote the trio of political analysts at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

“We heard for months from many of you, saying that we were underestimating the size of a potential hidden Trump vote and his ability to win,” wrote Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley. “We didn’t believe it, and we were wrong. The Crystal Ball is shattered.”

Why polls zeroed in on Clinton victory

The question of how most analysts got it wrong will haunt the political industry for some time to come. The rise of cell-phone-only households and the growing reluctance of Americans to take part in voter surveys has made the work of pollsters increasingly difficult. Response rates have for years been in the single digits; getting an adequate sample is time-consuming and expensive.

Pollsters then guesstimate what turnout will look like, assessing key segments of the electorate and their propensity to vote. First-time voters and party-affiliated voters who vote for the “other party” can lead to a skewed poll.

And so, given Trump’s success in turning previous nonvoters into enthusiastic supporters – and winning over traditionally Democratic constituencies, such as working-class white men – Trump managed to sew together a coalition that won him key states in the Electoral College, even while losing the popular vote.

All along, analysts held open the possibility that Trump could in theory carve a path to victory by winning some major swing states and then busting through Clinton’s “blue wall.” Trump did that by winning Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina, then reliable Democratic states in the rust belt, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and maybe Michigan, where the vote is still too close to call.

In the last week of the campaign, when polling expert Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com gave Trump a 1-in-3 chance of winning the election, many pundits focused on the two-thirds chance of a Clinton victory. Other analysts who aggregate polls gave Clinton an even wider shot.

Then there were the mainstream media, with many outlets appearing to favor Clinton. (Early on, the Huffington Post labeled Trump a “racist” and “misogynist” in every article about him, a practice it is now ending.) That media bubble served both to antagonize and energize Trump supporters, and helped create something among journalists and pundits that social scientists call “confirmation bias” – the propensity to see only evidence that supports one’s belief.

Still, the reality is that the polls weren’t wildly off. The final average at RealClearPolitics.com for the national popular vote showed Clinton ahead by 3.2 percentage points. At time of writing, she led the popular vote by 0.2 percent.

By election eve, key Electoral College battleground states such as Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania had tightened into tossups. And remember, polls have a margin of error of somewhere around plus or minus 3 percentage points, which means a 2-point lead isn’t necessarily a lead at all.

'Government is not working for you'

So how did Trump pull it off?

“He was an imperfect candidate with a near-perfect message,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Everyone was focused on his flaws, and the words that came out of his mouth. But his message was powerful.”

His message was, essentially, “government is not working for you,” says Mr. O’Connell. “People want safety and security, both in defending the country and economically. He struck a responsive chord.”

The “hidden vote” that Trump tapped into included not just working-class white men but also married white women, O’Connell notes. Trump also scored well among college-educated white men.

In addition to Trump’s message, hard work was critical to his success, says Van Mobley, an economic historian at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisc., and a Trump supporter.

Still, even he was surprised by the outcome. “No one really expected the upper Midwest to break as hard for Trump as it did,” Mr. Mobley says. “But Trump campaigned extraordinarily hard, and had the right message to move voters.”

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