2016 proved that history is better than polls at predicting winners of presidential elections

We didn’t see it coming.
We didn’t see it coming.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The media spends hundreds of millions of dollars every four years covering presidential elections as if they are horseraces, with candidates sprinting ahead or falling behind. But despite all the daily scorekeeping, the results of the 2016 US presidential election came as a shock to many.

The surprise with which we greeted the election of Donald Trump exposed the flaws in the way Americans engage with presidential races. If we want to understand how elections really work, we should forget the polls and the pundits. Ignore the day-to-day events of the campaign. The most important thing we can do is pay attention to history.

As 2016 showed, polls do not necessarily predict the outcomes of presidential elections—rendering horserace coverage not just meaningless, but deceptive. The truth is that no one understands the relationship between polls and subsequent elections. For one thing, the polls screen for so-called “likely voters,” even though no pollster knows who will actually vote or has accurately reported an early vote. The so-called margins of error reported with polls (e. g., plus or minus 3.5%) are misleading because they represent only sampling error: the error deriving from the failure to study the entire universe of voters. Such margins of error presume that the poll is otherwise 100% accurate, including in its screen for likely voters or its procedures for coping with non-responses. Actual error will always be larger than sampling error and may well be systematic rather than random.

Yet as polls have become ubiquitous, the media have tilted away from covering campaign speeches and events as newsworthy in their own right and toward reporting how the speeches and events played in the polls—or how the polls shaped the speeches and events in the first place. That’s because the media reaps huge revenues by covering each day as an exciting new twist in the seemingly dramatic story of the poll-driven horserace, however misguided such coverage may be.

In fact, when it comes to predicting election outcomes, it makes much more sense to focus on the big picture. In 1981, collaborating with the renowned mathematician Vladimir Keilis-Borok, I developed the Keys to the White House, a system for explaining and predicting presidential election results based on the study of American politics from 1860 to 1980. The Keys model demonstrates that presidential elections are primarily judgments on the performance of the party currently holding the White House, with speeches, ads, debates, campaign appearances and even tweets accounting for little or nothing in the final outcome.

The Keys to the White House consist of 13 true or false questions, where an answer of true favors the reelection of the party holding the White House. If six or more keys are false, the White House party is predicted to lose an upcoming election. The questions include such factors as the state of the economy, the results of the most recent midterm elections, and recent administrative successes or failures with foreign policy.

Since 1984, the Keys model has correctly forecast the outcomes of all subsequent US presidential elections, including in 2016. Using the model, I predicted a Trump victory in a Washington Post interview on September 23, 2016. I doubled down on that prediction in another interview on October 28, after the revelation of the Trump Access Hollywood tape and allegations of sexual assault, and before FBI director James Comey’s letter updating Congress about new Clinton email discoveries.

The vulnerabilities facing the incumbent Democrats in 2016 included, among others, losses in the midterm elections of 2014, a divisive primary battle, an open-seat election, and a lack of either major domestic policy accomplishments or a striking foreign policy success in Obama’s second term. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was a competent candidate, but not a once-in-a-generation charismatic candidate like Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan.

Given all of these factors, it was reasonable to expect that the incumbent party would lose the White House. In general, presidential elections are referendums on the reigning party. That means their final outcomes are unlikely to be swayed by day-to-day events—even dramatic ones.

All this suggests that both the media and politicians should rethink their strategies toward elections. Rather than focusing on polls and horserace coverage, the media should cover elections in terms of what they mean for governing. In this era of fake news they should be the gatekeepers of truth, mediating the clash between fact and fiction. Of course, all this flies in the face of the revenues that flow to the media from covering elections day-by-day with the drama of a sporting event.

An enhanced understanding of how election work would also suggest a new form of campaigning. If day to day events and speeches don’t really sway elections, candidates should always run as if they are going to win, articulating honestly and forthrightly the policies that they believe will best serve the nation. If elected, they would therefore be able to claim a substantive mandate for governing, which would in turn help the winning party secure the keys needed for victory in the next election—for example, securing major accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy.

As an illustration, Trump rightly released his list of potential Supreme Court nominees during his campaign. But candidates should do even more, disclosing the first five bills they intend to introduce in Congress, indicating their top priorities in foreign policy, and revealing who they might select for key cabinet and staff positions.

What no candidate should do is reprise the conventionally prescribed nostrums for winning elections—more staff, offices, and campaign appearances, or more negative ads and better targeting of swing voters. Such tactics are futile, because they do not influence the fundamental forces on which elections turn. In the final analysis, politicians should ignore the polls and focus on tying issues together into a unifying, forward-looking platform. They have nothing to lose—and everything to gain.