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Power of polls: How the pollsters got the US election so wrong … again

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Donald Trump’s stunning 2016 victory was the presidential election result no one saw coming.

According to the national polls, Democratic leader Hillary Clinton should have had it in the bag.

But it was meant to be an aberration. An outlier. Until it happened again.

What was expected to be a landslide win for Joe Biden became a tight race against Mr Trump, with the official result likely not known for weeks.

So what were the big predictions, and how did we get here?

When evaluating likely election outcomes, it’s common practice for media coverage and academics to focus on public opinion polls.

By these evaluations, Mr Biden had a strong lead of seven to eight per cent nationally, when you aggregate across various polling companies.

Popular polling sites such as Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight have consistently shown stability in Mr Biden’s polling advantage in recent months. Before counting began, FiveThirtyEight predicted:

  • Mr Biden had an 89 per cent chance of beating Mr Trump
  • The Democrats had a three-in-four shot at taking back the Senate
  • The House will most likely remain under Democratic control.

That scenario hasn’t entirely played out.

Americans entering their ballots in New York City. Photo: AAP

Although the latest numbers are pointing to a Biden victory, Mr Biden and Mr Trump have been polling neck and neck and it certainly hasn’t been the landslide win that was expected.

And while the Democrats seem to have successfully kept control of the House, it appears Republicans will retain their majority in the Senate.

Predictions in key battleground states didn’t unfold as expected, either.

Mr Biden was set to win Florida with a 2.5 per cent polling average, according to the latest polling on November 2.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, Mr Trump won with 51.2 per cent of the vote, compared to Mr Biden’s 47.8.

Mr Biden was also expected to secure Wisconsin by 8.4 per cent.

But instead, the Democrat squeaked by in the fight for the crucial mid-Western state by a minuscule 0.64 per cent when ballots were finalised.

Pennsylvania is another key state that hasn’t favoured Biden as predicted.

On November 2, FiveThirtyEight estimated Mr Biden was ahead of Trump with a polling average of 4.7 per cent.

Mail-in votes are still being counted in Pennsylvania, but the state’s razor-thin margin means it could fall either way.

President Donald Trump has sought to invalidate mail-in voters. Photo: AAP

So what went wrong?

The polls can never capture the full picture.

Mr Trump claims pollsters underestimate his supporter base due to a “silent majority” of “shy Trump voters” who don’t openly admit they support him over fear of judgment.

And after his shock 2016 victory, some believe there could be an element of truth to that theory.

But Professor Wesley Widmaier, an American politics expert at the Australian National University, said the “the polls may be right and Biden may still lose”.

“At the national level, the polls for Hillary were right,” he said, adding it was true that Ms Clinton won the popular vote in 2016.

Hillary Clinton was projected to win the 2016 US Election according to the polls. Photo: Getty

The reason Mr Trump won, however, was because the grand total of his votes was spread more evenly across the country, earning him more votes in the electoral college.

“The electoral college is 50 different polls, and if you’re looking at the national poll, it’s 50 different elections in America,” Professor Widmaier said.

“The national poll can be right, but irrelevant to who wins.”

Professor Widmaier also warned against the danger of living in “echo chambers”, where we surround ourselves with friends and media that reflect our political views.

“We live in bubbles, and reporters live in bubbles,” he said.

“We need to check our biases and that’s hard to do.”

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