12 December 2018
Almost all major polls before election day had Hillary Clinton  ahead of Donald Trump by a wide margin. Photo: Reuters
Almost all major polls before election day had Hillary Clinton ahead of Donald Trump by a wide margin. Photo: Reuters

How the US election polls got it so wrong

Donald Trump’s stunning victory not only came as a bolt from out of the blue for Hillary Clinton but also for traditional pollsters and the mainstream media as well.

According to almost every major poll before election day, Clinton had been ahead of Trump by a significant margin.

In fact, the New York Times had predicted that Donald Trump only had a 10 percent chance of winning.

Most of the mainstream pollsters are yet to come round from that shock and reflect on what went wrong with their survey methods.

Perhaps there are several theories that might explain why they got it so wrong.

The first is the underestimation by mainstream polling organizations of the turnout in rural areas.

As in previous elections, major pollsters this time did not reach out to relatively less educated rural voters on a national scale.

In contrast, however, rural voters and farmers were among the major demographic groups that Trump’s campaign team had taken great pains to win over.

Also seriously underestimated was Trump’s popularity among relatively less educated urban whites.

The Telegraph has concluded that the higher proportion of less educated whites in a state often correlates with a more serious underestimation of its support for Trump.

In the meantime, many of these voters were often less forthcoming about who they would vote for, not least because of their distrust of the mainstream media and polling organizations, which they believe were controlled and manipulated by the political establishment behind Hillary Clinton.

The situation was compounded by the so-called “Bradley Effect”, which refers to the tendency of voters not to reveal to pollsters their true political views and preferences for candidates when they are going against the politically correct mainstream opinion for fear that they might be labelled as bigots or haters.

It is believed that many Trump supporters, often known as the “shy Trumpers”, may have been influenced by the “Bradley Effect” and were simply too afraid to speak their minds during live polls or telephone interviews.

As a result, their widespread support for Trump was not reflected in the mainstream polls.

Worse, many major pollsters have overestimated public support for the Democrats in the so-called “Great Lakes region”, which includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

These states used to be the traditional industrial heartland and Democratic strongholds but have declined significantly in recent decades as many of their manufacturing plants have moved overseas as a result of globalization.

Many former blue-collar workers in these states who lost their jobs were drawn to Trump’s protectionist and “America-first” rhetoric.

Their discontent with the Obama administration and dismay at Clinton’s integrity issue may also have undermined their eagerness to vote for the Democratic Party.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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