Why Polls Still Give Trump a 20 Percent Chance

Hillary Clinton - PollsThe other day, I was reading something where Nate Silver wrote (roughly), “Clinton has ‘only’ an 80 percent chance of winning the presidency.” His point with the scare quotes was that 80 percent is huge. Still, most people find the idea that Donald Trump has a 20 percent chance of winning the presidency absurd. After all, if you look at the polls, Clinton is winning everywhere. And there are only 24 days until the election. Surely, Clinton has more like a 95 percent chance of winning. Right? Wrong.

There are two major reasons why Donald Trump will never manage to get down even to a 10 percent chance of winning. Let’s start with the more obvious one: the polls could be wrong.

Polling is a science. And the people who do it professionally are really good. If you want to know how many adults support Clinton vs Trump, they can tell with with a high degree of accuracy. But no one cares how many adults support Clinton. We care about how many registered voters will actually go to the polls and vote for her. And figuring that out is really hard. As Sasha Issenberg explained of one pollster regarding the 2008 election:

It turned out that something like 87% of people who said they were likely to vote ended up voting. 70% of those who said they [were] pretty likely voted. But 55% of people who said they were unlikely to vote, and got kicked off polls because of that, ended up voting.

How Much Are Polls Off?

Is it likely that the polls are off by that much? No. But with fundamental unknowns about who will actually vote, we have to say that Trump has some chance.

Donald Trump - PollsThe bigger reason that Trump will always have what seems like a bigger chance than seems reasonable is just that something might happen. The Trump campaign has pushed hard on Clinton’s recent illness. If she fainted on stage a week before the election, it could propel Trump into the presidency. Stranger things have happened.

Random Acts of Voting

Matt Yglesias wrote a very interesting article yesterday, This Is the Best Book to Help You Understand the Wild 2016 Campaign. The book in question is Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels. And what it shows is just how dependent voting patterns are to totally unrelated things.

An old example of this is how shark attacks affected the 1916 presidential election in a New Jersey coastal community. But a new example is how NFL games affect voting. So if the Pittsburgh Steelers win the Sunday before the election, it might give Clinton an extra percentage point of the vote in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, if they lose, it will likely help Trump.

And you know: that is crazy.

Things Are as Good as They Could Be

But that is the nature of elections. I believe in democracy, but only because I don’t know of any system that is even as good, much less better. What’s important to know is that we really don’t know what’s going to happen. And that is terrifying. Donald Trump even having a one percent chance of becoming president is terrifying.

What’s important to remember is that Hillary Clinton is doing as well in this election as could possibly be expected. She almost certainly will be our next president. But there are so many things that could happen that we just can’t say. I’ll be worrying until the votes are counted.

Odd Words: Bruit

BruitLots of interesting words on page 33 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. Today, we have a cool little verb: bruit.

Picking Bruit

I’ve taken a different approach today in picking a word. I found an example sentence first. This is often the most time consuming part of the whole exercise. For example, I really wanted to use the word “brulé” today. It means “a forest region destroyed by fire.” But there are so many people with that last name that finding the word in a sentence was difficult. Actually, “bruit” turned out to be too; but I found something that worked out well just as I was about to give up.

I thought it was interesting that “bulimia” was in the dictionary. This edition of the book was published in 1985. That’s just two years after Karen Carpenter died. But to stop thinking about that, you can listen to “Superstar” by The Carpenters. It’s not the best version. But it does have a naiveté that works for it and makes it special.

A word that brought back a lot of memories was “buccal,” which describes something related the cheek. One doesn’t normally need such a word, but in a dentist office, it is critically important.

But on to bruit:

Bruit  verb  \brüt\

1. to spread a rumor

Date: early 15th century (but as a noun).

Origin: late Middle English from Old French bruire meaning “to roar.”

Example: Sleazy headlines bruit about that Labine was slain in a gangster’s love nest. —Kenneth Tucker (Eliot Ness and the Untouchables: The Historical Reality and the Film and Television Depictions)