While most ‘experts’ were cleaning egg off their faces, John Zogbycemented his credibility as the real McCoy. He did not throw in the towel for Trump, recognizing that the race was much closer than conventional wisdom let on.
His biography at The Huffington Post describes him as the”former president and CEO of Zogby International, remains by all accounts the hottest pollster in the United States today.
“‘All hail Zogby, the maverick predictor who beat us all,’ proclaimed the Washington Post in November 1996 after Zogby alone called that presidential election with pinpoint accuracy. In the recent razor-thin 2000 elections, daily national tracking polls conducted by Zogby International in the last few weeks foretold a tightening of the race for president while nearly all other polling firms projected an easy victory for Gov. George W. Bush. Zogby International instead was the first to observe the gap closing significantly between Bush and Vice-President Al Gore in the waning hours of the election. In his post election 2000 review, the acclaimed Godfrey Sperling, columnist for the Christian Science Monitor called John Zogby ‘Champion Pollster.’
His biography also mentions that “(h)e has been praised as ‘the most accurate pollster’ (Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, USA Today), ‘respected’ and ‘pioneering’ (Albany Times Union), ‘the pace setter in the polling business’ (New York Post), and ‘the big winner in 1996’ (Campaigns and Elections, L. Brent Bozell, and the O’Leary/Kamber Report).”
Zogby recently spoke with me about the big issues which face electioneering in America. Some of our discussion is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: More than any other reason, why did polling not prove an effective guide to predicting an outcome for the 2016 presidential election, unlike in previous races?
John Zogby: Zogby
did not poll the horse race after two weeks before the election, though our last poll had Clinton leading by 2 points. With that said, I think it was more a combination of a misunderstanding of how to read polls and a media that really wanted Donald Trump to lose — so much that they screened out any other possibility.
As for the inability to read polls, I think our expectations are too high. Even a poll the day before the election cannot capture the last minute decision-makers, and there are many that do not make up their minds until the day of the election. Polls are samples and have a margin of error we cannot forget. But I correctly read the trend-lines. The race was clearly tightening over the last week, especially in the battleground states. Thus, in New Hampshire, HRC had a 10 point lead 10 days before the election and that evaporated down to a tie just before the election.
The same for North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. The trend lines suggested either a tightening race or Trump momentum. The media were stunned because they refused to.
Cotto: Crunching numbers, especially in our social media-driven, sound bite-prone age, is touted as the begin all, end all of event forecasting. In 2016, perhaps more attention was given to polls than in any previous election. Might the press have generated such a demand for polling data that quantity increased at the expense of quality?
Zogby: In the old days there were only a few polls. Even my national debut in 1996, I was one of only 7 national polls. There are so many media today that each one has its own poll. Some are clearly better (and worse) than others, but generally I think the record shows that most actually did a good job. Remember it is the trend line, not the “prediction to the tent of a percent.
Cotto: Historical data, analyzed and complied into two studies by SUNY Stonybrook’s Helmut Norpoth and American University’s Allan Lichtman, respectively, indicated that Donald Trump would win. Many, both in the media and otherwise, chose to ignore these academics even though they have solid track records. After 2016, some might say that history is a better election forecaster than opinion surveys. What is your perspective on this?
Zogby: The more the merrier. History can be confounded and polls can have a bad day. Only God knows who will win and she is not talking. But I do believe the polls did not do as badly as the media did.
Cotto: Many different polls agreed with each other on the presidential election’s anticipated outcome, yet were rendered false when all was said and done. Untold sums of money were spent on gaging public sentiment, and cutting-edge technology utilized, but this generally amounted to nothing. How could so many different scientific surveys have been wrong?
Zogby: My above answers, really. Most polls had HRC leading by zero to 4 points. She won by about 2 nationwide. And the states I mentioned were clearly directional. Remember, voters had to choose between two very dis-likable candidates so things were not so cut and dried as before.
Cotto: Considering what happened last year, is it likely that, during 2020, polls will find less credibility among the media and general public?
Zogby: I think polls will always be around and the media needs to fill news holes. Will some of the media not be around?
Cotto: While it is obviously too early to say precisely what will become of polling in 2020, no shortage of pundits and politicians have resumed fawning over new numbers. What should they take away from last year’s lesson in reliable election forecasting?
Zogby: They should continue to look at question wording, ordering of questions, the number Dems, Repubs and Indies in the sample.
Cotto: Experts generally agree that it is becoming harder to take an accurate opinion survey. Do you think that this increasing difficulty related to the performance of polls last year?
Zogby: It is increasingly difficult to conduct surveys. I like to innovate so we have to change methodology. With 94% of likely voters having Internet access at home we will continue to do Internet polling, even mobile to web. I still think the polls were better than the coverage.
Cotto: Perhaps the most-castigated of all polls from the 2016 election was the one USC Dornsife conducted for the LA Times. It turned out to be one of the only surveys which correctly forecast the race. How did this poll evade the failure of nearly all others?
Zogby: I liked that poll but it did not include new voters. The reality is that it had Trump leading the popular vote which he actually lost. But I have no problem with their work.
Cotto: Since it is growing more difficult to take scientific surveys, might the events of 2016 spell an eventual end for the polling industry?
Zogby: No, not at all. If we want polls to predict with pinpoint accuracy — especially in nail-biter and lead-changing elections — then the polls will always fail. We just need to read polls more maturely. We will always want to know where our views and choices fit it with the rest of the community.
Cotto: Beyond any other factor, what can pollsters improve on relative to their general failure last year?
Zogby: They need to be more flexible on their methodologies.