By: David Tuchman
“How were we so wrong?”
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s historic U.S election, pollsters and journalists alike have been forced to ask themselves that very hard question.
“It’s data like others,” said Paul Adams, an Associate Journalism Professor at Carleton University.
“But it needs to be evaluated carefully to its likelihood of being correct. They need an understanding of where its limitations are,” he said.
“If you look at the aggregates of national polls, Clinton was up 2-3 points but the problem that happened was journalists allowed the guidance of the polls to shape the story line without sufficient skepticism,” he said.
Pollster Lorne Bozinoff of Forum Research said he still believes polling is a reliable source.
“I disagree that the polls got either of these [data sets]wrong,” he said.
“A poll is just a snapshot [in time],” he continued.
One main criticism is that relying on public survey journalism is just lazy reporting and takes away from the work that reporters on the ground should be doing.
“I don’t think reporting polls is lazy in the sense of trying to get out of doing harder types of reporting,” said the Globe and Mail’s Adam Radwanski.
“Personally, as someone who does a lot of reported analysis, I often find the best and more useful polls are the ones that look at underlying opinions – about leaders, policies, etc.,” he said.
The goal is to understand “why people are supporting who they’re supporting” and sometimes even get a sense of how the popular vote might shift, he said.
Still, Radwanski does acknowledge that mistakes can be made when media look at polls.
“More than laziness, though, my concern is really irresponsibility,” he said.
“We sometimes take a false sense of comfort out of seeing elections as predictable, and if we pass that false comfort on to voters it can have really severe consequences,” he said.
Others question whether polls are necessary at all.
“We don’t need the polls. Polls promote the laziest kind of journalism,” Allan Lichtman, a professor at the University of Washington, D.C. and a pollster who has correctly predicted every presidential election since 1984, told the Huffington Post in an interview.
“So much of journalism is based on slavishly following the polls. ” Lichtman said.
“You don’t even have to get out of bed to follow the polls. It’s lazy,” he said.
But not every journalist is buying this theory.
“It’s not lazy, it’s one of the things journalists should use. You should also be on the ground as well. But being on the ground is not always possible,” Globe and Mail reporter John Ibbitson told Humber News on Thursday.
“It was clearly an epic fail,” Ibbitson said. “In the absence of polling data and analysis what would you use?”
“The industry itself needs to ask serious questions about its methodology,” Ibbitson continued.
While Clinton won the popular vote with 47.7 per cent, Trump got 47.5. Still, in winning the Electoral College, Trump walked away with a big win.
Heading into the election, Clinton was favoured by many to win, including Nate Silver’s 538 election forecast, which put ahead by three points.
“Tuesday’s miss was an important one because Clinton appeared to lead by a margin small enough that it might just have been polling error. That turned out to be mostly true — true enough for her to lose in the Electoral College, and for Democrats to fall far short of taking control of the Senate,” Silver wrote in his post election reflection.