2016 was a bad year for pollsters. After failing to predict Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential victory, some were writing the industry’s obituary. But while pollsters were down, they were not out. And by 2017, they would swing to an impressive comeback.
The year started with a number of crucial European elections. In March, the Dutch had a closely watched face-off between incumbent conservative prime minister Mark Rutte and far-right leader Geert Wilders. The polls correctly tracked Wilders rise and eventual fall, in what analysts dubbed the “Trump effect.” His supporters were initially drawn to Trump’s far right message, and his success led to a spike in support for Wilders. But once Trump took office, and Dutch voters saw populism in action, Wilders’ support tanked.
The pollsters’ narrative won out on election day, with Rutte’s party securing the most seats in Dutch parliament. Rutte had christened the Dutch election as the “quarterfinals” of European politics, and dubbed the following elections in France and Germany as the “semifinals” and “finals.” Pollsters did pretty well in those matches too.
The most accurate polls of 2017 came from France during the first round of the presidential election, according to London-based research firm Kantar. There was just a 5% margin separating the fourth candidate from the first. Researchers note that French pollsters predicted the result with a 0.2% margin of error, describing it as the most accurate polling in French history. Centrist and newcomer Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen had come in first and second place during the first round of the presidential election. Macron would go on to beat Le Pen by a decisive margin in the second round.
Overall, the average margin of error for the 15 2017 elections studied was about 1.9%, below the historic norm of 2.5%, derived from 31,000 polls of 470 elections stretching back more than eight decades.
Kantar named the German polling industry as “the most consistent.” It was the fourth election in a row that the German pollsters forecasted the result with a margin of error of only 1.5%. The average absolute error for this year’s German election was 1.2%. Though chancellor Angela Merkel’s party won the most seats, she’s still struggling to form a government.
With crucial elections coming up in 2018 for the US (mid-term elections), Colombia (presidential), and Italy (general), the pressure isn’t easing up any time soon for pollsters.