UI pollster: 'Once in a lifetime' upset
At 4:20 p.m. today, Sheldon Jacobson will join Scott Beatty on WDWS 1400-AM
Sheldon Jacobson’s phone pinged constantly Wednesday morning, with reporters and anxious voters all asking the same question:
How did the polls get it so wrong?
The University of Illinois computer science professor, who runs an Election Analytics website with his students, didn’t blame the state polling data that they use for their analysis, which gave Hillary Clinton a 99 percent chance of winning.
Rather, he said, it was a “once in a lifetime” upset that defied the odds, based on a near-total swing in undecided voters to Donald Trump. That scenario was one of 21 laid out on the website, and it gave Trump a 77 percent chance of winning. But most election analysts didn’t think it was likely.
“We’ve thought about this a lot, believe me,” said Jacobson, who planned to post a summary of the election results on his website Wednesday.
The website presented 21 possible scenarios, based on polling data and two major factors: whether the presidential campaign was a two-way, three-way or four-way race; and which way undecided voters would swing (from heavily Republican to heavily Democratic).
What’s reported up front is the neutral one — a four-way race with undecideds split equally between Clinton and Trump — but the site explores other scenarios by changing those factors. Twenty favored Clinton; only one, with undecideds swinging strongly GOP, gave Trump a more than 50 percent chance to win.
The neutral analysis gave Trump less than a 1 percent chance, he said.
But as the election progressed, support for third-party candidates waned and turned it into a two-person race, Jacobson said. And, in day-after hindsight, it’s clear that undecided voters went overwhelmingly for Trump.
“That’s the only strong chance he had of winning,” he said. “Is this a surprise? Yes. Is it a shock? Not really.”
Analytics sites like his report the neutral scenario because they don’t want to make judgments about what undecided voters might do. Polls don’t provide that data, he said.
“You have so many scenarios,” he said. “It turned out the most correct one was the most extreme one.
“We didn’t see it coming,” he said.
Should polls do more to tap into the leanings of undecided voters? Jacobson said that would be “going beyond their skill set.” Most polls sample 500 to 1,000 people and try to extrapolate that to a larger populace.
“People are going to rail on the pollsters. I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, or worse than in the past,” he said. “They’re always going to be a little off because it’s an inexact science.”
But you’d have to go back to Dewey vs. Truman in 1948 to find a comparable upset, he said. Polling was very different then, with only national voter surveys rather than state-by-state.
“This may be once in a lifetime,” he said.
Other websites, such as Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com, had many scenarios but favored Clinton’s chances, too.
“There were just a handful of people who thought Trump had a chance, but they were outliers,” he said. “It’s not that anyone is wrong. We all had scenarios. We just didn’t realize that the most extreme scenario was going to occur.
“All we’re trying to do is give people a picture of the race, and they can make assessments.”
Trump’s winning march through nearly all of the battleground states was like “flipping a coin 10 times in a row and you get 10 heads,” he said, noting the narrow margin of victory in Michigan (less than 20,000 votes) and other swing states.
“It’s rare, but it happens. Each state was a tossup and it all went into his favor,” he said.
Jacobson’s inbox and voicemail were full of messages from unhappy voters.
“I think people want an easy answer to a complex problem, and there isn’t an easy answer,” he said. “When you put yourself out there and you have to make an assessment about the future, you’re going to be wrong sometimes.”
He likened it to a stock index fund, which has ups and downs but over the long term does “pretty well.” One stock doesn’t reflect its overall performance, he said.
“Sometimes we’re going to be really good, and sometimes we’re not going to be so good. In this case most of us were pretty bad,” he said. “We used the best tools and the best information available to us. This was an extreme outcome.”