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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

14 thoughts on “Why Polls Still Give Trump a 20 Percent Chance

  1. A pleasant thing I heard on the radio. Early voting polls are good. Now pollsters are not allowed to ask “who did you vote for?” They are allowed to ask if voters requested an absentee ballot, and if they’re registered as Repubs or Dems. And early polling seems to show that the numbers of Repubs voting early have gone way down, while the number of Dems has gone way up.

    If these polls are accurate, they may not mean a lot. Maybe registered Dems are voting early for Trump. Maybe so many people are so sick of this ungodly mess that they’re getting their civic duty over with, which might be bad for turnout. I know I didn’t want to go to the polls and have to worry which of the nice people standing near me were going to fill in the Rapist Mussolini oval. (Well, I wouldn’t have to worry about all of them. Some wouldn’t be white.)

    But all-in-all, things are looking good. The Senate numbers on 538 are moving in a hopeful direction.

    • It certainly looks as though Clinton will win. But ultimately, most of the people who vote for Trump will do so because they are Republicans. So I don’t think the margins are going to stay as high as they are right now. But we’ll see.

  2. I like reading about the odd things that impact voting. Mainly because I think it is funny.

    As for early voting, I VOTED. Yay me!

  3. I don’t know how Trump wins without women and minorities and their support for him are at record lows. I also read Saturday that Trump is polling less with whites than Romney did – I bet that’s due to women as well as higher education.

    I wonder if the GOP’s voter suppression efforts will hurt Trump? It seems like an odd quirk to think that an increased turnout, an increase in first-time voters and folks who haven’t voted, would help a GOP candidate. But his whole m.o. is basically to turn out every angry white male he can find – how many of them are senior citizens and in places where there’s all sorts of anti-democratic shenanigans to limit access to registering? How many of the folks he’s courting will have trouble registering to vote?

    I always thought that with a rapidly aging demographic the GOP’s voter suppression efforts will end up hurting Republican candidates as well.

    • Steve, it is possible for older voters who moved recently. However, they don’t move as much as the younger and poor. Still, we need to make it easier for everyone to register.

      You’re absolutely right about Trump’s support among women. It’s way lower than Romney’s.

      • I found out today that I am not registered to vote. My absentee ballot didn’t come, so I checked. Luckily, there is time and I re-registered. But what’s up with that? I don’t even see the need for registration. We have the technology to do this without it. I think it all goes back to our founding and the fact that the founders weren’t that keen on democracy — at least not as we think of it today.

          • It’s close. Today’s rich would certainly ban low-income people from voting if they could. And in this election, I’m sure they wish minorities and women couldn’t vote! But I think the Founders were much more open-minded about intellectual and religious freedom than our modern elite.

          • To a large extent, I think it is situational. If your ideas are popular, you are in favor of democracy. The Republicans must have noticed long before Trump that most of their voters didn’t agree with them on their primary issues. So it isn’t surprising that more insightful conservatives would turn against democracy. Just the same, they aren’t calling for having only white male property owners as voters, so they probably are at least a little more in favor of democracy. ;-)

            • There have been some fringe calls for restricting the franchise to upper-income people; Romney’s “makers.” I think they’ll stick with lies about election fraud for the near future. It plays well. Even if a new SCOTUS shoots down voter-ID laws (by no means certain), they can consider every Democrat in office to be illegitimate.

              • They always do! The funny thing is that there is an internal contradiction. Republicans claim the Democrats can always get the unwashed masses to vote for them by promising them stuff. But then they claim that Democrats are rigging the vote. But if the masses want to vote for the Democrats, all the Democrats have to do is get them to the polls. And this is what we see. This is why the Democrats have better voter turnout operations. If anyone is organizing voter fraud, it should be the Republicans.

    • Interesting idea. I doubt it, but I’m sure there will be analyses so we will find out later.

      The Republicans have always understood that they would stop some of their own people from voting. But it’s just statistics: they hurt Democrats more than they hurt Republicans. But doing such things show the desperation of the party. The Republican elites now believe that they simply can’t win in a fair vote. I wonder what they’ll come up with next. Never underestimate them.

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