US Election 2016: Why Polls Have Fluctuated so Wildly

The 2012 US election was a staid and placid affair. There were two very decent, un-exciting and sedate (some would even say boring) men at the top of the tickets. Both were well vetted candidates, both were devout family men with doting wives and had hardly any personal scandal to speak of. The election was primarily fought on the issue of the economy. There were nerdy discussions on whose plans would contribute how much to the deficit and how that would be financed. Both the campaigns deployed an array of experts to defend their respective plans with an avalanche of projections and numbers. It was a dream election for the wonks and the policy nerds.

In keeping with the overall tenor of the campaigns, the polls were also pretty stable. President Obama eked out a narrow but stable lead over Mitt Romney after the Democratic Party convention and maintained the same till the election night, although there were some temporary hiccups after his lackadaisical performance at the First Presidential Debate. He went on to win the election comfortably.

The 2016 election, on the other hand, has been quite a picture of contrast. The election is being fought between two candidates who are the dreams of the opposition research teams. In the course of this ugly, brutal campaign, America has been reminded again of the 90s’ era Clinton scandals and the new scandals that have been uncovered during her stint at the Foggy Bottoms. But that has been nothing compared to the avalanche of controversial statements that have emerged from the mouth of Donald Trump. With a parade of ugly, bigoted, xenophobic, racist and sexist slurs going around, this election season has been reduced to smear campaigns, political mudslinging and repulsive rhetoric. Any discussion related to policies has very much been conspicuous by its absence.

The polling in this election season has also been far more volatile. The polls have generally oscillated between giving a clear lead to Hillary Clinton and returning a virtual tie between the candidates. A comparison of how the Real Clear Politics average support of Clinton and Trump (in the solid blue and red lines respectively) moved in 2016 with those of Obama and Clinton (in the dotted blue and red lines) four years back has been shown in the following chart:



What has been the reason behind this large fluctuation in polls compared to the steady polls four years back?

Well, as mentioned above, the major differentiating factor between the elections of 2012 and 2016 has been the steady drip of salacious news that has emerged about the various scandals and controversial statements of the candidates. The relative interest being generated by the candidates in the news cycle can be gauged by the comparison of their Google Search Indices. The Google search index has been relatively dominated by Trump which points to his ability to hog headlines and drive news coverage, although Hillary Clinton has also been able to attract more search interest in between. The Google search interest for both the candidates in USA since the beginning of August is reflected in the following chart:


If we plot the difference in the Google Search index between Trump and Clinton against the margin by Clinton led Trump (with a lag of seven days) we obtain the following chart:


The chart shows a negative relationship between the search interest of the candidate and his or her standing in the polls i.e. when a candidate starts attracting more news, he or she also drops in the polls.

There are two major reasons behind the same:

  • The candidates have mainly attracted negative news coverage since the party conventions. Positive news cycles have been hard to come by and exceedingly rare.
  • The candidates are already extremely unpopular with the American electorate. As a result, the more they manage to stay out of the headlines, the more their opponent starts occupying mind space of the electorate, the more the negative image of the opponent is reinforced and the more they gain in polls.

These have been proven a number of times during this year’s election cycle. Immediately, after the Democratic Party convention, Trump entered into a completely gratuitous feud with Khizr Khan and his wife, the parents of a dead US soldier, who had delivered a speech critical of Trump at the Democratic National Convention. This resulted in depressed polling numbers for Trump throughout August. But as the news gradually faded from public memory, his numbers began to again improve. He was further aided by more news about the Clinton email scandal, Clinton’s comments that half of Trump’s supporters belong to a “basket of deplorable” and finally, news emerging that the Clinton campaign failed to disclose their candidate suffering from pneumonia. The poll numbers of Trump recovered throughout early and mid September and by the time of their first debate, Trump was virtually tied with Clinton in most polls. This is the point where Trump again started receiving negative coverage because of his poor performance at the debate, revelations that he had body-shamed a former Miss Universe who used to work for him and that he had failed to pay any taxes for a major part of the last two decades. Then, the Washington Post published tapes revealing him talking in ‘extremely lewd’ terms about women, which further reinforced the negative news cycle. Just when though it seemed like Clinton would win the election in a canter, came the news of FBI re-opening investigation into her emails and her numbers fell again.

Looking at this pattern, it is very much apparent that for the two candidates in this year’s election, the best strategy would have been to create as limited news as possible and instead, keep the spotlight squarely on the opponent. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when there are a number of media outlets competing with each other to publish any bit of sensational news they can lay their hands on. Trump, however, is an undisciplined candidate who finds it difficult to stay on message. This, along with his propensity to over-react to the slightest bit of provocation and not having a tightly-knit, well run campaign like Clinton, makes it more likely that he is the one making the news, rather than Hillary.

This movement in the polls also leads credence to the theory that this election could have been an extremely close one, only if Trump had run a better campaign. When the political conversation has not been hijacked by Trump, like in the last one week, he has tended to do better, to the point of breaking even with Clinton in various stages. But the moment the voters get reminded of the many failings of Trump, he starts receding in polls. The fact that Republican Senate candidates in competitive states are polling better than Trump is a further reminder of a winnable election for the GOP being sacrificed at the altar of Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut.

In fact, this strategy of Trump – to flood news coverage with one controversial comment after the other – served him well during the Republican primaries, allowing him to hog the headlines and deprive his rivals of media oxygen.

In a campaign that had around seventeen candidates, receiving disproportionate media coverage can be extremely helpful. Further, during the primaries, Trump was appealing to the  hard core Republican voters who were much more receptive to these comments deemed controversial by the mainstream media (like labelling Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murderers”, calling for a total ban on entry of Muslims into the country, etc.). But in a general election campaign where you have to fight off only one opponent, backed by a disciplined and well-oiled election apparatus, and where you are trying to appeal to the median, swing vote, this kind of “any publicity is good publicity” strategy is likely to fail. The last week shows that Trump has learnt this lesson well, but sadly for his campaign it may have come a little too late.

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