Why did the polls get it wrong again?

Why did the polls get it wrong again?

Emotional factors played a big part in the outcome of the US presidential election.

Why Did The Polls Get It Wrong Again?

The opinion polls were wrong again! Just like in 2015 with the UK General Election the US polls wrongly predicted the outcome.

Why are opinion polls wrong, wrong, wrong?

The most obvious reason is that we are emotionally volatile beings, with complex underlying psychological motivations that subconsciously drive our behaviour. We are not fully aware of why we might vote for Trump or Clinton. If you try to over-simplify human decision making you stand no chance of predicting it. Dale Carnegie summed this up very well over 60 years ago:

Dale Carnegie, How to win friends and influence people

“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion and prejudices motivated by pride and vanity”

Trump undoubtedly connected with many disillusioned voters at an emotional level. He engaged our fast, intuitive and impulsive System 1 brain by using highly emotive language in a simple but effective way. “Build a wall”, “deport illegal immigrants” and “lock her up” resonated with many white, working class voters at a deep emotional level.

Hilary Clinton was unable to do the same because she used more rational language which was aimed at System 2, our slow, logical brain. She was also strongly associated with the established political classes and Trump capitalised on this big time with attacks on the Washington elite. Ironically, Trump’s standing was probably helped by the lack of support and criticism he received from many established members of the Republican party.

People don’t tell the whole truth!

With so much negativity about the campaign should we be surprised that some people may have lied about their intentions? We are social creatures and like to feel we fit in with the groups and networks that we associate with. We dislike being an outsider and may feel uncomfortable admitting to ourselves, never mind other people that we are considering voting for someone with highly divisive policies. Get real – people will tell you what they think you want to hear rather than what might be their true intentions.

Stereo types and attitudes:

We also suffer from implicit bias which shape attitudes and stereotypes that influence our behaviour at a subconscious level. This means that we like or dislike certain kinds of people or cultures without being full aware of the reasons. However much we might try to ignore such feelings they are fully integrated into our decision making machinery and insidiously influence our behaviour.

Hilary Clinton is of course a women, ex-first lady, the 67th US Secretary of State and was strongly aligned to the first black president of the United States. Never mind her use of a private email server which opened up a whole can of worms for her during the campaign. Trump played on all these points during the campaign as he even called for Hillary to be jailed. He understood that people are not fully rational or isolated from one another.

What about the undecided voters?

Those people who had not made up their mind (or rather had it made up for them) are always a challenge for pollsters. The evidence suggests that these voters can be heavily influenced by what they think other people are going to do and opinion polls are part of this jigsaw. However, again some voters may just not want to admit how they plan to vote. Taking people literally when they give us an answer to a question is again just plain silly.


The investigation of the reasons behind the failure to predict the UK General Election in 2015 suggested that the pollsters did not allow enough time or energy to contact Conservative voters. The people they had most difficulty contacting were generally busier and more difficult to get hold of and were more likely to be Conservative voters. This partly comes down to money as taking the effort to knock on doors and actively select people using more scientific sampling methods is extremely time-consuming and expensive.


However, when it comes down to it the reliance on asking direct questions of people is still a fundamentally flawed way of predicting future behaviour. Like much of the traditional market research that is pumped out each day it is not worth the read. Instead we should be using more implicit and indirect questioning similar to that carried out by Jon Pulseton at Lightspeed Research or text analytics as conducted by Tom Anderson. These methods appear better at tapping into the emotional response that each candidate evokes.

Related Posts:

Polls and the UK 2015 election – Why did the opinion polls get it so wrong in 2015?

Influence of polls – Do opinion polls influence voters?

European Referendum – Why emotions won over logic?

Marketing lessons – 7 Marketing lessons from the Brexit campaigns.

Referendum – A device for dictators and demagogues?

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