October 26, 2016
The Problem of Political Opinion Polls
Opinion polls and the 2016 election
The 2016 US presidential election may be one of the most significant events impacting calculations of global political risk, and analysts are closely watching surveys of public opinion polls in order to predict the outcome of the election. Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton has consistently led her Republican rival, Donald Trump, in the opinion polls conducted since both were officially nominated. However, the margin between their numbers has unsurprisingly fluctuated.
At the same time, comparisons have been made between the unpredicted ascendency of Trump – a political outsider – and the United Kingdom’s surprising decision to terminate its membership in the European Union in the so-called “Brexit” referendum this July. Another surprise divergence occurred between the opinion polling leading up to the September vote on the Colombian government’s peace deal the FARC and the actual vote, in which the deal was rejected. But what do these surprises really mean for the US election?
There are two critical differences between the referenda in the UK and Colombia and the 2016 US presidential election:
- There are significantly more polls conducted, with much greater frequency, for the US presidential election than there were for either of the referenda. This makes the US polls more scientific in the aggregate. There are more than twenty independent polling organizations conducting surveys every few days or weeks on the 2016 election. By contrast, there were only ten pollsters conducting surveys in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, and only six pollsters conducting surveys in Colombia.
- The Electoral College system means that there is not a direct relationship between the aggregate of voters’ choices and the outcome of the election. Although the 538 electors pledge to base their votes for president on the majority popular vote in their district, they are not required to do so. And even though 99 percent of electors have voted with their constituencies, the very purpose of the Electoral College as a ‘failsafe’ against an uninformed public means that the possibility of a divergence by the electors always exists, however unlikely.
When using political opinion polls to prepare for the outcome of a vote, each situation must be carefully considered, bearing in mind two contextual guidelines: polling ecosystem (how many polls are conducted, how frequently, by how many organizations, and in what manner are the polls conducted?) and political considerations (what decision are the polls attempting to predict, and what is the actual path to that decision?).
In the context of something as consequential as the US presidential election, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of predictive tools is a critical hedge for political risk.
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