Can the Polls Be Wrong? Hillary is up 8%, No; Trump is up 1%, What’s Going On? Why Are the Polls Varying So Much?

With a week to go in the race to the White House the polls seem to be bouncing all over the place. Nate Silver at the fivethirtyeight blog predicting a narrowing but substantial Hillary lead,  The RealClearPolitics blog predicts a closer race with 149 electoral votes up for grabs.

Pollsters haven’t been doing too well this year – pollsters predicted a “yes” vote in the Brixet vote, the no’s won, in the Columbia FARC plebiscite, once again, the pollster predict “yes, the vote came out “no.”

I owe the following discussion to Howard Wainer,  Distinguished Research Scientist, National Board of Medical Examiners:

Pollsters identify a pool, a subset that reflects the larger population to be polled. We used to call the subset a stratified, random sample, a microcosm of the total population to be polled. The issue is the nonresponse rate which is gigantic. In a world of cell phones, potential responders can easily choose whether or not to answer a call. The nonresponse rate erodes the accuracy of the poll.

A group of physicists at The City College have developed an alternative method of predicting elections using Twitter data.

[CCNY physicists} have developed analytic tools combining statistical physics of complex networks, percolation theory, natural language processing and machine learning classification to infer the opinion of Twitter users regarding the Presidential candidates this year.

“Forecasting opinion trends from real-time social media is the long-standing goal of modern-day big-data analytics,” said Makse, a Fellow of the American Physical Society. “Despite its importance, there has been no conclusive scientific evidence so far that social media activity can capture the opinion of the general population at large.”

However, by using a large-scale dataset of 73 million tweets collected from June 1 to September 1, 2016, Makse and his associates are able to investigate the temporal social networks formed by the interactions among Twitter users.

Read the article with links to the research here:

Pollsters are increasingly turning to what statisticians call covariates, Wainer writes,

 A more promising approach (using covariates but a different matching variable) uses Nielson ratings, which are not self-selected and are well documented to accurately depict viewing habits. And then tying viewing habits to voting choices in previous elections 2012, 2008, etc. After building the model from such data they use the current viewing habits to predict 2016. So the idea is that if the viewership is growing monstrous for Duck Dynasty, Hillary ought to watch out, whereas if there are big jumps for McNeil-Lehrer (or whatever it is called now) Trump should worry.

Wainer continues,

You get the idea — the point of polls is to use the outcome of polls to predict the outcome we care about. But if polls are unreliable we must find more reliable (but still efficacious) predictors. Perhaps tweets help, but there are other options. In the future, if people continue to not answer phones, these alternative approaches will become the norm.

Traditional polling is increasingly shaky, you glance at your phone, if you can’t identify the number you ignore it, if it is an 800 or an 888 number you ignore it. Pollsters are dependent on responses, who answers the phone?  Older voters with more time? Who doesn’t answer the phone? Have you programmed your phone to only accept specific numbers?  If non-responses are gigantic traditional telephone-based polling is both inaccurate, and, not the best way to predict outcomes.

Yes, Twitter or Nielson or Facebook may provide better ways of predicting outcomes.

Wainer concludes,

Although it is well known that being a statistician means never having to say you’re certain (nothing in life is ever better than 3 to 1), I feel safe in betting the farm on Hillary (regardless of the release of emails). And also a Democratic Senate.

8 responses to “Can the Polls Be Wrong? Hillary is up 8%, No; Trump is up 1%, What’s Going On? Why Are the Polls Varying So Much?

  1. I was going to vote for her, and now I’m not…This is a prevalent thought among voters who are not necessarily traditional democratic or traditionasl republican voters. This is more of a measuring cipher then anything else. Is our government for sale ? Are we going to continue down the path of socialism/nee communism? Would Trump nuke everyone? The Wall? ObamaCare? Common Core? Benghazi? The economy, Law and Order, Immigration, taxes. Boy there certainly is enough to go around. But here’s my thought. Given the age of both candidates, and their potential for death in office (which is clearly magnified with respect to Hillary), I am terrified at the aspect of waking up one morning to find Tom Kane is our President. I am not so terrified at the aspect of waking up to find Mike Pence in that position. With that said, I still don’t know who will get my gold,, and probably won’t know til I actually get my ballot.And I think that those concerns are shared by countless others. I see this election as a true nail biter for both parties candidates.


  2. There is a third way that offers a very reliable prediction of who will be the next president. Gamblers. Gamblers aren’t perfect because sometimes the long shot wins but they are right a lot more than they are wrong. reports, “Gambles Are Surprisingly Accurate at Picking the Next President”

    I’m starting to lose sleep over the possibility that we’ll wake up on November 9th with Trump as the next U.S. President.


  3. Jacqueline Foil (retired teacher and concerned citizen)

    I didn’t understand all that great info on polls. I am terrified of a Trump presidency. He has neither, the temperament, nor the ability to control his impulses, nor any political experience or —and the list gets too long of the ways he is not fit to lead. Even the way he goads his audiences into violent actions “lock her up”. I am in my 80’s and have never heard candidates talk about not honoring election results and calling the system “rigged”. Candidates always talked about why they were the best to lead and the other, not so, but they did not stoop to gutter language and deception. Please vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s the grown-up in the room.


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