Underestimating populism and Trump

Published November 11, 2020, 4:52 PM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo


Diwa C. Guinigundo

Donald Trump was at the receiving end of all kinds of insults and shaming available in the playbook, from his economic and trade policies to foreign policy, or the lack of it, to his handling of the pandemic crisis. Yet, not a few were surprised at his strong showing in last week’s US presidential election.

USA Today of November 6 observed that pollsters were wrong in predicting a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016 against Donald Trump. Clinton in the pre-election polls was winning by 3 points but Trump won because the pollsters underestimated his strong support in the Upper Midwest.

This weakness of the pollsters became apparent again in this contest between Trump and Joe Biden. In Wisconsin, pollsters’ forecast was Biden winning by 11 points only to be whittled down to between 6.5 points for RealClearPolitics and 8.5 points based on Five Thirty Eight in the actual initial counting.

News organizations have been cited to have projected that mail-in ballots were expected to enlarge Biden’s advantage to about 10 electoral votes. After almost all the votes have been counted, Biden’s lead was only a fraction of one percent.

Several discrepancies were also reported in the pollsters’ fearless forecasts. Trump’s lead before election was quoted at 1 point or less. Final tally showed him ahead by more than 8 points. Florida went for Trump against pollsters’ prediction of a Biden victory by around 1-2.5 points.

Uncertainty cannot be ruled out even in an electoral exercise in the biggest traditional bastion of democracy.

The way to address the reality of uncertainty is to do what Nate Silver, the online-poker-player-turned-baseball-statistics-maven-turned-political analyst did. In his New York Times column, he popularized the use of probability beyond giving a quantitative edge of one candidate against another.

In 2012, the National Review quoted him as giving Obama and Romney a 320-218 split of the Electoral College count. Beyond this number, Silver also assigned an 85 percent probability of an Obama win. As the election approached, the Obama lead slowly declined but the probability of his victory remained above 50 percent. He predicted an Obama upset against Romney and he was proven right and he got all the 50 states voting correctly.

In the 2016 contest between Clinton and Trump, while the pollsters were very wrong, the general expectation was correct in that more people would vote for Clinton. Indeed, Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral contest to Trump.

This great blunder of pollsters set off a study initiated by the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Instead of just doing a technical paper to understand the deviations from the actual outcome of the election, the paper also explored the possible reasons why the polls seemed to “systematically underestimate support for Donald Trump.”

It’s in the state polls that the pollsters were off, especially in the so-called swing states. The uncertainties were also worsened by the fact that people did not bother to answer their phones, some people were not exactly honest with their answers to the pollsters, and finally, electoral votes are difficult to be assigned based on voters’ enthusiasm as an indicator they would truly vote on election day. The 2016 outcome was not the first time a popular winner failed to land in the Oval Office.

On the issue of Trump underestimation, no evidence was found that “there’s a segment of the Trump support that did not participate in polls.” Neither was there an evidence found that Trump supporters were mainly in rural deep-red parts of the United States and underrepresented.

For Trump is sui generis.

He defied orthodox politics. He refused to pay the US’ dues to the United Nations and other international financial institutions. He broke global rules on trade and investments. And yes, he avoided wearing face masks while on presidential tours and meetings and press conferences. He breached practically all rules of the game.

Yet, based on last week’s polls, not a few Americans still preferred to back him up. Both sides saw an extraordinary turnout in the voting precincts.

In fact, a few days before last week’s exercise, Silver wrote with the headline “I’m here toremind you that Trump can still win.” Silver doubted Biden’s counterweight to Pennsylvania if it decided to go for Trump. Based on the latest count, Biden’s edge was razor thin at 0.7 percent.

What keeps the credibility of pollsters in the US is the probability they have learned in assigning to their forecasts of who would get to the magic 270 threshold first and consolidate it to victory.

Curiously, aside from the pollsters, the US media’s role was questioned in the public domain. As Inquirer reported two days ago, a journalist asked public opinion pollster John Zogby of Zogby Strategies “whether the American media, particularly those leaning toward Democrats, was ‘deceiving’ the public after reporting that Biden was expected to have an overwhelming victory over Trump.”

Zogby dodged the question and decided instead to say that the role of media should not be oppositional. He was right in saying that the media allowed themselves to play by Trump’s rules. He advised media to pass on the blame to the pollsters themselves!

In the US and outside the US, a lot of educated minds invariably thought it would really be an easy win for anybody who opposes Trump in the poll. If we equate Trump with populism, it may not be as enigmatic.

One of the lessons in the recent democratic exercise in the US is that as long as many believe they are outside the mainstream, the fruits of their labor do not appear to accrue to them, at least some substantial portion, that social media remain accessible to everyone and anyone, that truth can be concealed or manipulated, then support for some perceived populist champions can hold. Trump fought China and outsourcing to bring back jobs to the American people. Trump wanted to put up a wall between the US and Mexico to address the issue of illegal migration. One can presume these ideas must have appealed to many Americans of whatever country and racial origins but are just afraid to speak out.

After voting “for truth and decency,” Americans should now bring this electoral contest to a close. With the pandemic resurging, the hour’s imperative is to heal a fractured nation. Yes, as Rihanna would have suggested “We can only fix this world together; we can’t do it divided.”