How USC got right what most others got wrong on election 2016 polling
Technology and a steady approach to polling questions positioned the 'Daybreak' poll for surprising success
Political pundits across the spectrum of broadcast networks were shocked with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, with a number of political polls receiving heavy criticism for being off-track with predictions for a Hillary Clinton election night celebration.
But one college-based political poll got it right; the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research partnered with the Los Angeles Times this year to produce the ‘Daybreak’ poll, which since July had Trump outpacing Clinton by margins as wide as 6%, from a respondent pool that included 3,200 prospective voters throughout the campaign season.
Skeptics who initially called the poll a biased view of the nation’s trending attitudes between the two candidates, are now asking "how did they do it?"
Five questions comprised the Internet-based survey, which USC researchers say inclines participants to be more forthright in their responses than polling conducted by telephone.
(1) You will vote in the presidential election?
(2) You will vote for Clinton, Trump, or someone else?
(3) Will Clinton, Trump or someone else will win?
Of the participating respondents, 450 were asked to log answers on a daily basis to encourage sample balance, an approach that limited human engagement but fostered media and observer response to assume a pro-Trump methodology which fostered dramatically different results from other polls nationwide.
“Over the phone, people are more likely to give socially desirable answer to someone they don’t know. And you have to make a guess as to what they think,” says Arie Kapteyn, director of the USC Dornsife Center. “It’s possible that Trump voters were a little less forthcoming, but over the Internet, this notion goes away and they felt less restraint.”
“What polls typically do they will somehow rate the answers of the various respondents. We actually give Internet to people who don’t have it, recruiting people from random sampling by providing tablets and providing broadband,” he said.
Participants were divided into 7 groups by days of the week, and were asked additional questions to help in weighting responses to be consistent with population data. Kapteyn says polling over the course of the campaign ran consistent with other results, but that the inexact science of polling itself would naturally lead to questions about the method, but not the ultimate outcomes.
“People thought that Brexit was never going to happen, but they voted to leave the European Union. What people tell you may just reflect the discussion of society, and most people would think that Hillary was going to win. Five-Thirty-Eight.com, the New York Times gave her a large margin of winning, but what people tell you they think will happen and what they do themselves are two different things.”
It’s just one of the many ways that college education became a major talking point within the election, as many pollsters and the campaigns themselves focused on campus communities to shore up votes from students and college graduates. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, college graduates overwhelmingly supported Clinton by a 52-43% margin, while Trump supporters were largely comprised of non-college graduates by similar proportions.
But among white voters, Trump secured the largest percentage of those without a college degree, and 4% more of those with degrees, a notion that USC Survey Director Jill Darling says became more apparent in the final days of the election season.
“Towards the end of the election season, we asked about their level of comfort in telling their choice to family and friends, and 75-79 percent range of comfort. But we also asked comfort level of disclosing to a poll, and these were much lower, more around in the 50 percent range. It’s not proof that people aren’t talking to pollsters, but there is a differential in comfort.
“I think there will be a further unraveling of this kind of polling, there will be more analysis about what we’ve done and what it means.”
Impact of college polling
USC is one of a handful of universities to have gained significant bumps in coverage because of the historic nature of the election season. Schools like Quinnipiac University, Hampton University, Marist College and Siena College all received widespread attention for data showing the ebbs and flows of the election cycle, but ultimately, for providing unique glimpses of American political values.
"Our admissions officers have told us every interaction they have with students in the region and the country, they immediately talk about polling," Monmouth University President Paul Brown said about his school’s poll in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Beyond public fascination with electoral cycles, colleges and universities benefit from the increased visibility and citations in print and broadcast media. A search of the Quinnipiac University poll between Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 yielded about 61,000 results, which not only positioned the school as a national resource for election coverage, but created opportunities for the school to have repetitive placement in the minds of parents, students, high school teachers in civics classes, and guidance counselors over the course of several months.
This kind of advertising, while not directly engaging with individuals, is a powerful tool that advertising executives say forms the principle behind cornering attention in a competitive marketplace.
"TV is the giant megaphone," said MarketShare Vice-President Isaac Weber said in a June 2015 interview with AdWeek. "When you want to get a message out, that's still really the most powerful means to do it. The way that people view and consume television has changed ... but I think the question is less about what has changed with television and more about what are some of the underlying issues with some of these other vehicles."
With Americans still recovering from election season advertising overload, schools are banking on the notion that exposure for sharing the nation's opinions on two controversial candidates will last beyond the fatigue. USC's unique approach to polling may have pushed its way to the top of the list of post-election college recognition, even by being the most accurate on an unpopular measurement of public opinion.