It’s time for some serious reflection in the campaign industry.
The political world was stunned Tuesday by the victory of Donald Trump, the first national candidate to run a successful campaign in the modern era without a robust traditional campaign structure.
Throughout much of the 2016 presidential race, Trump’s effort was run by a small, mostly inexperienced staff. The campaign didn’t come close to matching its Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in TV spending, and it budgeted more on red hats than it did on polling.
In the end, the candidate who was outspent wildly on the airways won. The candidate who was trailing in just about every national poll heading into Election Day won. The candidate who was fighting an uphill battle against a better organized and better staffed opponent won. The candidate with the weaker campaign (at least as political strategists and insiders define it) won. And that poses a serious problem for people who make their living running campaigns.
“This should prompt a reassessment all around. Certainly I'll be doing plenty of reassessing,” GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini tweeted Wednesday morning.
David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for Barack Obama’s winning presidential campaigns, said this on CNN shortly after Trump finished his victory speech: “There are a lot of people in my old business—making ads—who are going to go through a lot of soul searching.”
Some of the questions political consultants and pollsters will face in the coming months will challenge the very foundation of their industry. Where do survey researchers go from here? Does the better funded campaign that spends big dollars on TV advertising really have an edge? Are enormous investments in data and analytics anywhere near as meaningful as we’ve made them out to be? Do we overestimate the impact the ground game has in tight races?
The result also called into question the strategic decision making from the Clinton camp and more broadly exposed the limitations of modern campaign techniques to derail a polarizing, nationally well-known candidate. Still, the spotlight will be squarely on survey research in the near term, which faced increased scrutiny even before this miss.
“This is not good for the polling industry, that is for sure,” said Stefan Hankin, a Democratic pollster with Lincoln Park Strategies. It’s going to take time to chart a future course for the discipline, Hankin said early Wednesday.
“Everything is really out of whack,” said Hankin. “According to the exit polls we are looking at a 70-30 white-to-minority breakdown (two points lower on white voters than 2012). But Clinton did two points worse than Obama, which doesn’t point to a crazy different set of voters, but that might be what we are looking at.”
In the run up to Election Day, the Trump campaign stirred the pot with claims from its analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, that there was a secret Trump vote that polling wasn’t picking up.
“Comparing exits to ABC pre-election poll, sample % of non-college white men was right,” Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson tweeted after the results were in. “Their preference was off. Social desirability bias!”
Ahead of Election Day, there wasn’t a single poll showing Trump ahead in Michigan or Wisconsin. In the latter, the polling average turned out to be off by nearly eight percentage points; in Michigan it was close to five percentage points. And that’s just a start. Trump ran far stronger in Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and North Carolina than the final polling averages suggested he would.
“In terms of how the polls did tonight: well, the obvious answer is ‘terrible,’ but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that,” Nate Silver wrote on FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver pointed to Clinton’s relative strength in the popular vote, which meant national polls that had her ahead by an average of 3 to 4 points weren’t necessarily wildly off the mark. The problem highlighted by Silver: “pollsters are clearly having trouble capturing public opinion in the Midwest as voters there increasingly diverge from those on the coasts.”
One of the most ridiculed polls throughout the race, the USC/LA Times poll, turned out to be much closer to reality on Election Night than anyone in the industry gave it credit for. As the results began to take shape Tuesday night, the Times touted its final numbers claiming in a headline they saw what other polls missed, a “wave of Trump support.”
“Some of the worst failures of polling have come about because pollsters, whether deliberately or not, converged on a single view of an election, in what is often referred to as ‘herding,’" the LA Times wrote on its website. “With all the challenges polling faces, it’s important to test different methods and approaches to surveying public opinion. Some tests will work, others won’t, but the only way to know is to try.”
Mark Blumenthal, who heads polling for SurveyMonkey, tweeted early Wednesday morning that pollsters will “need time to sort through the details of what went awry with the numbers, the magnitude of the problem and its precise causes.”
As for campaign spending down the stretch, Trump poured money into late digital ads. His closing argument made in a two-minute online spot was crisp and effective.
That message resonated Tuesday as the results revealed the weaknesses in Clinton’s so-called Blue Wall, with Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania turning red — the former two Bernie Sanders won during the primary.
GOP media consultant Fred Davis refuted the suggestion that the 2016 results should be an indictment of campaign consultants and strategy.
“I think it is an indictment of the mainstream political press, of some polling techniques, and for sure an indictment of the establishment being unwilling to accept or even acknowledge the extreme anger of the people of America,” he said.
Now, Trump’s victory was aided by the RNC, which quickly moved to claim credit for it. “There are smiles all around Trump Tower tonight,” Sean Spicer, the RNC’s communications director, said early Tuesday night on ABC. “We’ve been talking about the data operation that the RNC put together, the ground game that we have.”
He pointed to the time and money invested by the RNC in both, which aided the candidacy of a brash, well-known, TV savvy New York businessman running in an outsider's year. “Those things combined," Spicer said.
Meanwhile, a consultant who worked on Trump's campaign said the RNC should be thanking its nominee for saving the GOP’s Senate majority.
“There is a credible case to be made that because of Donald Trump's amazing performance in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republicans have retained the Senate,” a GOP digital consultant who worked for both the Trump campaign and the RNC told C&E.
In the coming weeks, Clinton’s consultants will surely face a backlash for failing to defeat a flawed rival. Axelrod fell back on an old adage Wednesday morning, saying on CNN: “My operative phrase as a consultant was, ‘you’re never as smart as you look when you win and you’re never as dumb as you look when you lose.'”