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Baruch event sheds light on what pollsters missed

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The event, which featured a panel of professional poll researchers, addressed political attitude formation prior to the election. Photo by Cameron Steck.

"Polls Apart—A Country Divided!” was hosted by the Baruch College Survey Research Unit and New York Association of Public Opinion Research on Tuesday, Nov. 15. The event sought to bring light to what the polls missed and to explain why Donald Trump’s win in the recent presidential race was so unexpected.

The event featured a panel of professional poll researchers, or pollsters, as well as NY1 political reporter Grace Rauh.

Rauh, who covered Trump throughout the race, opened the event and introduced the panelists at 7 p.m. The panel featured Glen Bolger, Nick Gourevitch, David Jones and Gary Langer, all pollsters, except for Jones, who is a political science professor at Baruch.

Langer, the former director of polling at ABC News, took the floor with an extensive PowerPoint presentation. He still acts as ABC News’ primary poll provider, but now through his company Langer Research Associates, which was founded in 2010. Langer began his PowerPoint by saying he wanted to address political attitude formation.

His idea was that people use their world views to influence their candidate choice without conducting enough research about the said candidate. They choose almost exclusively based on partisanship or devotion to their political party.

One of the major findings that Langer presented was that most of the people who voted were not pro-Trump—they were against Hillary Clinton. They identified more with the ideals of the Republican Party despite Trump being an unorthodox candidate.

Gourevitch was next on the podium. He opened with a quip about how he had the toughest job on the panel, since he was a democrat. He also stated that the reason he and Bolger did polls as opposed to Langer was to win campaigns, not just to collect data, so they had a more personal connection to the results.

Gourevitch, who is a partner and managing director at Global Strategy Group, worked closely with Priorities USA Action, a political action committee working with the Clinton campaign. At the panel, his focus of discussion was why the polls were so inaccurate. One of his ideas was that there was higher republican-supporter turnout at voting polls and less turnout from democratic voters. Another of his ideas was that many voters experienced shyness toward voting for Trump. These voters never admitted to polls who they were voting for but came out at the end to support the Republican Party.

Gourevitch’s final point was that the Clinton campaign saw a shift in attitude late in the electoral race. The people working for the campaign, including Gourevitch, took Trump’s pitfalls and negative media attention as a sign that they were better off at the time. Gourevitch and the Clinton campaign expected to hold the lead even after the last of the email scandal was revived, which unexpectedly was not the case.

The next to take the mic was Bolger, Gourevitch’s polar opposite. Bolger is one of the Republican Party’s leading political strategists and pollsters, as well as partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies—a firm whose clientele includes Fortune 500 companies. According to Bolger’s bio on the POS website, he was named pollster of the year in 2009 after his involvement in Bob McDonell’s come-from-behind gubernatorial win in Virginia.

Bolger’s focal point in his discussion was not the polls, like the previous two speakers, but the election itself. Bolger said that in the exit polls, four attributes were tested to see the motivation behind why people voted the way they did. Clinton won three of the four which were: “cares about me,” “has the right experience” and “good judgement.” The dimension Trump won, which brought him his win, was “can bring change.” This factor had high ratings in the past with each president-elect.

Jones was the last to the stand and he framed his comments around a question his students have been asking him throughout the week: “How could Trump possibly have won half the votes?” His provocative answer was that candidates in a campaign are increasingly irrelevant. This affirmed Langer’s idea that voting was exclusively based on partisanship, instead of on who was the better candidate.

Following the floor time of all four panelists, Rauh opened the floor to audience questions.

With such a great turnout from professional pollsters, the event helped add detail to why Trump’s win was so unexpected. One of the most repeated ideas was that voters seemed to ignore who was running and voted solely based on partisanship or dislike for the other candidate. 

“Campaigns, while we like to pretend that they are about persuading people to your point of view, they are not. Campaigns are about reinforcing preexisting predisposition, motivating your supporters to act on your behalf and demotivating the other candidates’ supporters from acting on his or her behalf,” said Langer.

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