By FRC's Joshua Arnold
I remember where I was on Election Night in 2016, watching the results come in from a grad school classroom with my (mostly liberal) fellow students. I was fully convinced Hillary Clinton was going to crush Donald Trump and become the 45th president of the United States.
But then: North Carolina went red. Florida went red. Ohio was a landslide for Trump. Pennsylvania and Michigan were too close to call. What was happening? As more polls closed, the results kept favoring Trump. Students began leaving in disgust. I went to bed early, not daring to hope. I awoke in an entirely different world: Donald Trump had convincingly swept the Electoral College, utterly stunning partisans and pollsters alike.
How did the polls miss President Trump's electoral landslide victory? Perhaps a better question, as the 2020 election approaches -- could it happen again?
Veteran pollster John McLaughlin (who has polled for both Donald Trump and Family Research Council) answered both questions last night in a radio interview on Washington Watch with Tony Perkins. The pollsters "had a bias four years ago," he said. The media showed Trump leading Clinton in only 13 out of 170 head-to-head matchups. October polls showed him trailing by double-digits. The New York Times gave him an 85 percent chance of losing.
According to McLaughlin, "Four years ago, they didn't think we could win, so they kind of ignored us. This time around, they're afraid we're going to win.... So the establishment media is rigging the polls basically." McLaughlin provided a list of poor practices that lead to bias in many polls:
- Counting Non-Voters. "A lot of the media polls will ask if you're likely to vote, and then they'll keep you in the poll if you tell them no," said McLaughlin. That "waters down" those who plan to vote for Donald Trump.
- Undercounting Republicans. McLaughlin took issue, for instance, with a recent Yahoo! News poll estimating 2020 voters would be 41 percent Democrat and 26 percent Republican. He pointed out that Republicans comprised 33 percent of voters in both 2016, and even in the 2018 "blue wave" midterm election. "Since the president gets over 90 percent of the Republican vote, every point you take the Republicans down, you're taking the president down a point."
- Surveying with Methods Known to Yield Biased Results. Media coverage of President Trump is about 90 percent negative, so people "are afraid in some cases to admit that they're voting for Trump," as Tony Perkins put it. This is called Social Desirability Bias, and it skewed polls in 2016. McLaughlin said pollsters can correct for this by using methods such as interactive voice response (IVR), but many mainstream media polls don't bother.
In addition to Yahoo! News, McLaughlin also critiqued polls by NBC, ABC, Quinnipiac, and USC.
Since the polls are designed to perpetuate the media's anti-Trump narrative, McLaughlin said citizens should "ignore them and go vote." In 2016, President Trump had "a decisive electoral win, but it was 46,000 votes in Pennsylvania, 22,000 votes in Wisconsin, and 10,000 votes in Michigan that made the difference," said McLaughlin. Instead of studying the polls, he said, "they should study the issues, pay attention to debates, know what their principles are, and look at the candidates."
After all, the president never believed the polls in 2016, said McLaughlin. He just kept "campaigning [in] five or six cities a day."
Four years ago, I mistakenly believed the polls. But Donald Trump's hard work paid off, and the biased polls had a black eye to show for it. Perhaps in November 2020 President Trump will beat the polls again.