Hillary Clinton

Public Opinion Polls Stay Predictable in 2017 Election

Public opinion polling earned a black eye in the 2016 election cycle when most polls failed to predict a Donald Trump presidential victory. Few changes in polling techniques have been implemented in a handful of 2017 statewide elections and poll accuracy seems reconfirmed, at least for now. The X-factor of Trump wasn’t on the ballot.

Public opinion polling earned a black eye in the 2016 election cycle when most polls failed to predict a Donald Trump presidential victory. Few changes in polling techniques have been implemented in a handful of 2017 statewide elections and poll accuracy seems reconfirmed, at least for now. The X-factor of Trump wasn’t on the ballot.

Public opinion pollsters got a shiner in the 2016 election with off-base predictions about presidential and congressional elections. That may have signaled the need for major changes in technique, but that hasn’t happened, according to a story in The New York Times.

However, one unsuspecting change might right the ship. Pollsters are literally giving more weight in surveys to the level of education of respondents. Weighting respondents by education is far from easy. Candidates don’t perfectly align along educational attainment. In 2016, because of the profile of the presidential candidates, educational levels mattered. That may not be so in future elections.

For pollsters who think big methodological changes are unnecessary, Virginia may prove them right. Hillary Clinton polled five or six points ahead of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. She eventually carried Virginia by 5.3 percent. Polling in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election held on Tuesday showed Democrat Ralph Northam leading his GOP counterpart Ed Gillespie by as few as 3 percentage points.  With more than 80 percent of votes tallied, Northam posted nearly a 7 percent lead.

Political polling is not a perfected science. Conscientious pollsters continuously look for factors that can skew results, such as the sea-shift from landline phones to cell phones, and adjust to account for that shift. If you didn’t include cell phones in a sample, you would under-represent young voters and minorities and people who work more than one job.

Trump’s largely unexpected victory in 2016 confounded many pollsters and led to serious questioning of polling techniques. Did pollsters conduct late surveys to capture voters who decided at the last minute? How did pollsters compensate for respondents who intended to vote for Trump, but didn’t want to say so publicly? Did surveys fully take into account more remote areas, which went strongly in Trump’s direction? And how do you accurately predict turnout, not just overall, but by key constituencies that can determine whether one candidate wins or loses?

Challenges to getting accurate polling results may be intensifying as the electorate becomes more polarized, which is a hard factor to measure. While educational levels may be an obvious factor to include, figuring out how – and whether – it is a reliable indicator of voting behavior isn’t so obvious.

Politicians and news media put more stock in public opinion polling than voters. They are the ones that pay for it and, in varying degrees, expect polling results to reflect reality. Voters have no such expectations or fealty to polling results. If anything, polling results can incite small groups of voters to go to the polls or stay home, to vote one way or the other.

When all is said and done, polls don’t matter. Elections matter. Hillary Clinton led in the polls, but lost the election. Donald Trump sleeps in the White House. Clinton sleeps in hotels on her book tour explaining how she lost an election she thought she would win.

History may show 2016 is an aberration in polling perfection. Pre-election polls proved out in the gubernatorial elections today in New Jersey and Virginia. No curve balls, even though Gillespie in Virginia did his best to imitate the political bombast of Trump.

While the gubernatorial election outcome may give pause to Republicans standing for re-election in 2018, the predictability of public opinion polls in this cycle may reassure the buyers of political polling to keep investing.

Younger Voters Eclipsed Older Voters in 2016 Election

 The 2016 election marked a milepost as Millennials and Gen Xers cast more ballots than their older counterparts, which should signal new campaign and policy approaches to younger voters who are better educated, more secular and less reliable to cast ballots.

 The 2016 election marked a milepost as Millennials and Gen Xers cast more ballots than their older counterparts, which should signal new campaign and policy approaches to younger voters who are better educated, more secular and less reliable to cast ballots.

The 2016 general election will go down in history for a lot of things, including the first time Millennial and Gen X voters eclipsed older voters.

Based on an analysis of Census Bureau data conducted by Pew Research, 69.6 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 51 voted in the 2016 election. Baby Boomers and older generations cast 67.9 million ballots.

More young people become eligible to vote while older people die or emigrate. While the result isn’t surprising, it marks a milepost in US demography when younger, next-generation voters become a majority, which will influence how political campaigns are focused.

Conventional wisdom is that younger voters lean Democratic. Numbers bear that out, but also is a hint that a chunk of Millennials are more conservative than Gen X or Baby Boomers were at the same age. It also may be true, as evidenced by strong support among younger voters for the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, that younger Democrats are more liberal than their older counterparts.

NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben reports they may be even deeper polarization among Millennials than previous generations. If so, that could complicate any efforts to lower the volume on political discourse and exert more energy looking for common ground.

In addition to greater political polarization, Millennials overall have fewer religious ties and are better educated. They are less white and more Latino. There is also a question about their motivation to vote. Gen Xers and Millennials as age cohorts outgrew Boomers and older generations before 2016, but voter participation rates lagged behind. Pew found only half of Millennials voted in the 2016 election compared to two-thirds for older cohorts, which may have played a role in tipping the presidential election to Donald Trump.

What bears watching is how Millennials settle in as voters. Exit polls in the 2012 presidential election showed GOP challenger Mitt Romney beating President Obama by 2 percentage points among whites ages 18 to 29 with at least a four-year college degree. Four years later, Hillary Clinton beat Trump among college-educated white people by 15 percentage points. Trump scored well with young white voters who identified as evangelicals or lived in rural areas or states with large white majorities. Clinton’s large margin of votes from younger votes was canceled out when many Millennials lost interest after the presidential primaries or voted for third-party candidates.

Four Different Pollsters, Four Different Results

Political polling can vary widely based on factors such as who is interviewed and the weighting pollsters give to likely voters, white voters, Hispanic voters and black voters.

Political polling can vary widely based on factors such as who is interviewed and the weighting pollsters give to likely voters, white voters, Hispanic voters and black voters.

Wariness of presidential political polls is warranted. The New York Times conducted an experiment that involved four different pollsters evaluating the same data set, which produced four different results.

Hillary Clinton received 42 percent support in two of the four polls and 39 percent and 40 percent in the other two. Donald Trump topped out at 41 percent in one poll, 39 percent in another and 38 percent in the other two. The Times “benchmark” poll had it 41 percent for Clinton and 40 percent for Trump.

The experiment highlights how polling, even by credible pollsters, can vary widely within the acceptable norms of polling. Critical variables include a representative sample, sampling error and basic assumptions. The latter accounted for the variance in the Times experiment that centered on the same 867 poll responses.

The most significant variables in the pollster analysis of response data: predicting the percentage of white, Hispanic and black likely voters in the November 8 general election.

When white voters reached 70 percent and Hispanic voters fell to 13 percent, Trump came out ahead by a percentage point.

When white voters were estimated at 68 percent and Hispanic voters at 15 percent, Clinton prevailed by 3 percentage points.

These choices weren’t random. Different pollsters relied on different models or sources of data. For example, the pollster who predicted the biggest lead for Clinton used self-reported intentions for likely voters, traditional weighting and Census data. The pollster who gave the nod to Trump relied on voter history to determine likely voters, a weighting model and voter files.

Their varying decisions on these questions add up to big differences in the result,” according to Nate Cohn in The Upshot report on polling. “In general, the pollsters who used vote history in the likely voter model showed a better result for Mr. Trump.”

Laid bare, the experiment shows “there really is a lot of flexibility for pollsters to make choices that generate a fundamentally different result. You can see why we say it’s best to average polls and to stop fretting so much about single polls.”

Tom Eiland is a CFM partner and the leader of the firm’s research practice. His work merges online research with client communications and engagement efforts, and he has a wide range of clients in the education, health care and transportation sectors. You can reach Tom at tome@cfmpdx.com.

Lies, Damned Lies and Demographics

Demographics could be turned on their head in the 2016 presidential election by an unconventional candidate with unpredictable appeal in “flippable” states that could determine who wins in November.

Demographics could be turned on their head in the 2016 presidential election by an unconventional candidate with unpredictable appeal in “flippable” states that could determine who wins in November.

Demographics are just statistics with faces. But demographics are also statistics influenced by non-quantitative facts, such as political passion.

In presidential elections, demographics draw a lot of attention. This year is no exception, though some of the usual demographic lines have been scrambled, in large part because of the insurgent “outsider” campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Trump has attracted strong support from white men, including union workers in Rust Belt states, and evangelicals, despite a lack of credentials on dealing with social issues. Sanders’ “political revolution" appealed to many young voters, but it also revived the interest of older voters who had dropped off of the political map. Hillary Clinton, who has strong appeal for women voters, has managed to gather as strong or stronger support from African-Americans and Latinos than Barack Obama in 2008.

Despite high negative ratings and demographic predictions that Republican presidential prospects this year were circling the drain, Trump emerged from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week with a slight lead over Clinton.

According to fivethirtyeight.com, Republican presidential nominees do best among white voters without college degrees. But this demographic cohort is aging and declining by about 3 percent every four years. Meanwhile, whites with a college degree, who lean Republican but do cross over, are increasing by 1 or more percentage points every four years.

“In other words, Democrats’ coalition of non-white, young and well-educated voters continues to expand every election, while Republicans’ coalition of white, older and less-educated voters keeps shrinking,” said David Wasserman, writing for fivethirtyeight.com. "It’s no wonder Democrats have an emerging ‘stranglehold on the Electoral College’ because of favorable trends in states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia.”

However, that stranglehold seems a little limp in this election cycle. 

Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, says demographics don’t favor Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as strongly as some might imagine.

Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, says demographics don’t favor Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as strongly as some might imagine.

Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, says just a small percentage shift in voting could flip Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin to the GOP in 2016, providing enough electoral votes to capture the presidency.

Trump is stretching traditional demographic line by pushing his opposition to trade deals and a law and order agenda that hold appeal for disaffected voters in the Rust Belt and Middle America.

Of those states Silver identifies as “flippable," Sanders outpolled Clinton in Colorado, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Sanders and Clinton were virtually tied in Iowa and Sanders came close to winning Michigan, another Rust Belt state with a lot of blue-collar union voters. A contributing factor in Sanders’ success was his opposition to trade deals, which he said left many American workers in the lurch.

The Clinton campaign is working hard at the Democratic National Convention this week to woo Sanders’ supporters. But Silver says it may be a fool’s errand because many Sanders’ supporters are new or irregular voters who may not even vote in November. He also says some Sanders’ voters are politically independent and “ticket-splitters."

The upshot is Clinton may be forced to hustle to retain union voters from Trump and Sanders supporters from a third-party candidate like Jill Stein of the Green Party.

Another demographic down note for Clinton is that her commanding lead among Latino voters may be deceiving in terms of its impact on the Electoral College. Silver says Latino votes are concentrated in states such as California, New York and Texas that aren’t in play. That is changing as Latino populations increase across the nation, which have led some to suggest that predictably red states like Arizona could become purple. However, the change may not occur this year.

Some of Clinton’s strongest support in the primary came in Southern states where African-American votes dominated Democratic voting. Normally they wouldn’t turn Red states blue, but conservative voters upset with Trump could produce surprises in states such as North Carolina and George, where polls show Trump even with Clinton. Another election-day surprise could be Utah, dominated by Mormons who are offended by Trump’s politics. Clinton is holding her own there, too.

Metaphorically Speaking, Showing and Thinking

Metaphors, like this one about gay marriage, touch the familiar and trigger emotions that can persuade, explain or entertain. Some of the most powerful metaphors are visuals that elegantly make a point with few or no words.

Metaphors, like this one about gay marriage, touch the familiar and trigger emotions that can persuade, explain or entertain. Some of the most powerful metaphors are visuals that elegantly make a point with few or no words.

Getting noticed is getting harder. With a lot of money, you can pummel your audience with advertising, assuming they are still tuning in where the advertising is placed. Without a lot of money, the best course is to penetrate the brains of your intended audience wherever they are.

Metaphors are a proven path into people’s brains. By piggybacking onto something familiar and that you can sense, your message has a better chance to get noticed, triggering a memory and evoking an emotion. Neuroscientists have found that emotional responses are accompanied by physical reactions, which are key to actual decision-making.

Journalist and writer James Geary said in a TED Talk that “metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate, learn, discover and invent. Metaphor is a way of thought before it is a way with words.”

Linguist Adele Goldberg says a familiar line such as “that was a sweet comment" can activate human taste centers and the portion of the brain linked to fear or pleasure. The phrase touches emotions and memory. More importantly, it sticks because our subconsciousness tends to be literal.

Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick point out the value of “concrete” references to create mental “stickiness.” Something is concrete, according to the Heath brothers, when it can be “described or detected by human senses.” One example – a V-8 engine is a concrete reference contrasted to a high-performance engine, which is more abstract.

Metaphors add concrete to what you say. Instead of noting a box of movie popcorn contains 20 grams of fat, you could more persuasively say the box contains more fat than a bacon and eggs breakfast, Big Mac lunch and steak dinner combined. People know what fat is, but they can taste, see and smell bacon and eggs, a hamburger and a steak.

Writing for ragan.com, Nick Morgan said metaphors reach the senses with “sweet lines, loud opinions, beautiful phrases, soft poetry and smelly scenes.” Put another way, metaphors put abstract concepts into concrete – and more familiar and digestible – terms.

While we commonly think of metaphors as words, pictures and symbols are often more powerful metaphors. Icons are a great example. We see a light bulb icon and our minds associate it with a “bright idea” or “innovation.” Familiar shapes or visual devices serve as handy metaphors, such as faces of clocks, luggage tags and party invites. Their shape sends a message our minds receive.

Visual metaphors help propel the eye through visual explanations and infographics. Metaphors also can take the form of familiar formats like a flipchart or a website with easy-to-find navigation that enhance user experience and lessen frustration over finding what they want. Pattern recognition can be a key to people’s willingness to explore or engage.

And there is such a thing as an anti-metaphor, which psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Writers refer to it as a “man-bites-dog” statement that startles a listener. Geary’s example: “Some jobs are jails.” The juxtaposition isn’t familiar, but the imagery is concrete and the meaning is clear.

Metaphors can help you get noticed, make your point and earn valuable media coverage. Hillary Clinton showed how in her speech this week taking aim at Donald Trump’s business record. “He's written a lot of books about business,” she said. “They all seem to end at Chapter 11."

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Polling Misses Mark in Oregon Presidential Primary

A major public opinion poll conducted before the Oregon primary showed Hillary Clinton outpacing Bernie Sanders by double digits. Actual election results were almost the exact opposite.

A major public opinion poll conducted before the Oregon primary showed Hillary Clinton outpacing Bernie Sanders by double digits. Actual election results were almost the exact opposite.

A well publicized public opinion poll conducted between May 6 and 9 showed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton leading challenger Bernie Sanders in the Oregon primary by a 48 to 33 percent margin. Actual election results were almost the opposite, with Sanders carving out a double-digit victory.

How could a poll be so out of whack? One frequent reason is failure to account for voter turnout. However, the Clinton-Sanders poll took higher-than-average turnout into account, which showed Clinton’s lead narrowing to 45 to 38 percent. Still wrong, by a wide margin.

The same poll, which interviewed 901 likely Oregon voters, under-predicted Donald Trump’s vote count. He received 45 percent of the GOP presidential vote in the poll, but almost 65 percent of the actual vote. Another big miss.

Telephone surveys have become somewhat less reliable if they don’t include a percentage of cell phone users, which ensures that younger and minority voices are heard. While that sampling flaw might understate the vote in Portland or college towns like Eugene, it doesn’t explain Sanders’ strong showing in rural Wallowa and Lake counties or his dominance in all but one of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Candidates usually do better in states where they campaign in person. Sanders appeared in Oregon four times before the primary. Clinton made no appearances, but did send Bill Clinton to campaign. That’s a hard factor to capture in a public opinion poll, but it is a question worth asking to see if being here breaks someone’s vote one way or another. 

The Los Angeles Times carried a story over the weekend about the intense Democratic push in Oregon to register new voters as Democrats before the April 26 deadline. Many of the new voters were automatically registered as a result of Oregon’s Motor Voter law, but not affiliated with any political party. Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins reported a larger than normal registration switch, which favored Democrats. These factors would have been hard to track in a poll, but they may have been worth asking about to gauge the velocity of a late shift toward Sanders, who predicted he would win if the turnout was large. He obviously knew what he was talking about. 

Polling is a tough business, and it is getting tougher. Fewer people are willing to be interviewed by phone, which means pollsters need to make more calls to achieve a representative sample, which is more costly. Respondent reticence means polls have to take less time and include fewer questions, sometimes the questions that would be useful in improving confidence in poll findings.

While Sanders’ success in Oregon is not a huge surprise, it may be more telling than at first glance. His victory points out the foibles of one-off polls and the political benefits of an intensive ground game. 

More significantly, the results in Oregon show Sanders’ message packs some punch, and not just where you would expect.