How the Pollsters Failed

This year, everybody agrees on one thing: the pollsters blew it, big time.

We got bombarded with daily polls, followed by an onslaught of political analysts who dissected every tiny deviation in the results for clues to a possible winner, until it was hard not to avoid a serious migraine. But this year, there was a definite trend among a certain group of pollsters, who ended up failing in humiliating fashion. And that group, of course, is the pollsters who predicted a big victory for Donald Trump.

They’re not being mentioned much, not in the rush to condemn the pollsters who predicted that Joe Biden, now our president-elect, would become our president-elect. The criticism is a bit mystifying: we’re told that Trump performed better than expected on election day — which became irrelevant once the vote-by-mail ballots from heavily Democratic cities got added to the mix — and that the pollsters failed to capture the “shy Trump” voters, who apparently didn’t turn out in enough force to swing key states like Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania to Trump. And considering that Biden’s popular vote margin is now 5 million and counting, a case could be made that the shy Trump voters either stayed home — or don’t exist.

So what about those pollsters who insisted that Trump was clearly on track to win re-election by a big margin? How do their predictions measure up to that reality thing?

The Folly of the Trafalger Group

Robert Cahaly, chief pollster of The Trafalgar Group, spent a good part of this year pointing out that his firm accurately predicted Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, with an eager desire to get a pat on the back for that, and said he alone was standing up bravely to predict Trump would win again.

In an interview with Politico, Cahaly insisted that shy Trump voters who are afraid to tell pollsters they’re for the president (afraid of what? Being scolded by a pollster?) would deliver the president a major victory in the electoral college.

“There’s a lot of hidden Trump votes out there,” he says. “Will Biden win the popular vote? Probably. I’m not even debating that. But I think Trump is likely to have an Electoral College victory.”

For the record, the Trump campaign bragged that they would flip Minnesota this year — which gave Biden 53% of the vote — and also flip three other states that had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016: Nevada, New Mexico and New Hampshire. Biden won all three, and the president failed to carry a single state he had lost in 2016. Those are some pretty shy Trump voters.

“We live in a country where people will lie to their accountant, they’ll lie to their doctor, they’ll lie to their priest,” Cahaly told Politico. “And we’re supposed to believe they shed all of that when they get on the telephone with a stranger?” He’s right — it sure looks like a lot of the shy Trump voters lied to Cahaly’s pollsters.

He also said, “People are going to be shocked. A lot of people are going to vote this year who have been dormant or low-propensity voters. I think it’s going to be at an all-time high.” He’s right: Joe Biden won the highest vote totals in U.S. history. I wonder how shocked Cahaly is now.

The Folly of InsiderAdvantage

Then we have Matt Towery, chairman of InsiderAdvantage, who spent endless hours reminding everyone that he had predicted a national victory for Donald Trump in 2016, and — surprise, surprise! — was doing it again this year. Late in October he jumped on the bandwagon of those claiming Trump’s performance in the second presidential debate had been so impressive that it turned the election around. After publishing a poll showing Trump leading Biden in Pennsylvania by 2 points, he issued this zinger:

“These results indicate a stark shift in the contest. Our last survey of Pennsylvania showed Joe Biden leading Trump by three points. But that survey was before the last debate. Since the debate Trump has picked up support from younger voters, who based on our prior survey strongly oppose future lockdowns over Covid-19 spikes. Trump has also bolstered his lead among male voters by some 12 points.”

Biden carried Pennsylvania by 50,000 votes, a larger victory margin than Trump had when he carried the state in 2016. Maybe not as many Pennsylvania residents watched the final debate as Matt did.

Should We Be Scolding the Pollsters?

In the end, Biden was able to win by rebuilding the Democrats’ Midwestern Blue Wall, taking back Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, while also winning two longtime red states, Arizona and Georgia. I know of not a single conservative pollster who predicted this outcome.

Yes, conservatives can enjoy mocking the political commentators who believed Biden was heading for a sweeping national victory — although I don’t know of that many who did. Most of the respected pollsters and commentators — Nate Silver, Larry Sabato, Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg — predicted at best a very narrow Biden win, and they got it right.

It was the conservative pollsters, in retrospect, who seemed to have allowed their personal feelings to get in the way of their political judgment. So now I wonder: in 2024, will they brag about predicting Trump would do well on election day — at least until all those vote by mail ballots arrived to be counted?

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at

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