Did anyone get 2016 right? Well, looking at the pollsters used to compute the Real Clear Politics averages, in the latest polls heading into the election a single firm had the most accurate polls in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, and Georgia—the up-and-coming Trafalgar Group, headed by Robert Cahaly. Trafalgar was also perhaps the only pollster to correctly call Michigan and Pennsylvania for Trump.
Unfortunately, there was as much art as science in what they did. For starters they assumed Trump’s support was being undercounted. When Trafalgar was polling voters in the GOP primaries, they started seeing an interesting trend. Voters who responded to automatic polls, i.e., “robocalls,” consistently registered support for Trump 4.5 percent higher than when they were talking to a live pollster. This was not a statistical anomaly. “The more I checked, the more there was an undercurrent,” Cahaly tells The Weekly Standard.
Cahaly reasoned that since the media was demonizing and caricaturing Trump supporters, and Hillary Clinton was campaigning against them as a “basket of deplorables,” Trump supporters would be reluctant to admit their support to strangers. (The phenomenon of people not willing to report their support is well known in polling—when white voters don’t want to say they’re voting against a black candidate for fear of being judged, it’s called “the Bradley effect,” for L.A. mayor Tom Bradley, who lost California’s 1982 governor’s race despite consistently leading in the polls. A similar phenomenon in the U.K. is known as the “shy Tory” effect.)
To counter this perceived unwillingness to register support, Trafalgar started asking a new question. “When you ask them who their neighbor is voting for, they’re more comfortable,” he says. It appears to have worked pretty well this year.
Trafalgar’s clever approach notwithstanding, the reality is that pollsters face a great many challenges. Response rates to polls are now so low that it’s undermining the whole practice. Pew Research Center reports that the response rate to polls is now in single digits, compared to a 36 percent response rate in 1997. As a result of no one wanting to answer their calls, most pollsters can’t afford or don’t have the time to get sufficient sample sizes anymore, so they’re just reweighting the few responses they do get relative to their guess about what the demographic composition of voters in a given area or state will look like on Election Day. Many such surveys aren’t even technically polls—Silver calls them “polling-flavored statistical models.”