How Should Political Journalists Handicap Elections?

A lot of journalists got the 2016 presidential election outcome wrong. What should they have been looking at that they ignored? Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

We all understand Team Trump loves to trash mainstream media as a matter of general principle, and it’s certainly no surprise that the White House Chief Strategist, Stephen Bannon, is on that particular bandwagon as the former head honcho of a media outlet, Breitbart News, that built its brand doing just that.

But Bannon did blaze new trails by suggesting in an interview with the New York Times that getting the 2016 presidential outcome wrong should permanently disqualify media types from, well, pursuing their profession:

“The elite media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong,” Mr. Bannon said of the election, calling it “a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there.”

Obviously Bannon is using the many failed predictions of a Clinton presidential victory as just the biggest stick nearby with which to beat his long-time media enemies and rivals. But the persistent suggestions (mostly, but not entirely, from conservatives) that political journalism showed its cluelessness by failing to anticipate Trump’s win should make journalists spend some time in understanding where they went wrong.

As it happens, data journalist Nate Silver has been exploring this topic in some detail recently. He’s in a pretty good position to do so, in part because of the harsh criticism he received late in the campaign (some of it later retracted) for not writing off Trump entirely, and in part because he’s an expert on polls, the alleged inaccuracy of which were the most common excuse offered by journalists for overrating Clinton’s odds of victory.

Actually, as Silver has explained, the national polls — most of which predicted a narrow Clinton win in the popular vote, which is exactly what happened — were more accurate in 2016 than they were in 2012, when they underrated Barack Obama’s standing. Yes, state polls were off a bit more, but that’s often the case, and the bigger problem is that there wasn’t much high-quality polling in several of the states that gave Trump his upset.

So why were so many journalists so confident Clinton was going to win? Silver has examined a lot of factors, including a misunderstanding of the “fundamentals” as favoring Clinton, the overplaying of early voting numbers that seemed to give the Democrats a big battleground-state edge, and the underplaying of the possibility that an unusually high number of undecided voters might break toward Trump. I imagine before he is done Silver will address the deep-seated belief that Clinton’s campaign was a powerful turnout machine while Trump’s was incompetent.

But the question of what journalists got wrong leads inevitably to the question of what they — we — should have been doing. And Silver thinks a lot of journalists are getting that wrong, too:

One day after the election, for instance, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said that the biggest flaw in his paper’s 2016 coverage was in not having enough reporters “on the road, out in the country, talking to different kinds of people than the people” they usually talked to.

I’ve certainly heard that a lot. But it’s a bit of a shallow argument when you think it through.

[I]f the idea is that reporters should have spent more time talking to people in the field as opposed to looking at the polling, then I’m wary — and I don’t think it goes very far in explaining why reporters failed to foresee a Trump presidency. Partly this is because it can be easy to misread the vibrations on the ground, as the Times did in 2012 when it unironically cited “yard signs on the expansive lawns of homes in the well-heeled suburbs, and … the excited voices of Republican mothers” as reasons to think Mitt Romney would win Pennsylvania. But more importantly, polling and ground reporting ought to be compatible. Reporting can provide context and depth and nuance. … But polls are also a way of “talking to human beings,” only in a relatively unbiased fashion that potentially reaches a more representative sample of voters than a reporter probably could.

The reality is that no reporters go out there randomly “talking to human beings” with the goal of figuring out who’s going to win a close election. More often than not, they have a hypothesis about what’s happening and they find people who will challenge or (more likely) validate it. Perhaps the most celebrated “got it right” reporter of the 2016 elections, Salena Zito, didn’t just happen upon the non-college-educated white voters she so frequently interviewed about their affection for Donald Trump; she went looking for them. And if a relative handful of votes in a few states had gone the other way and Trump had lost, her reporting would have been no better or worse.

The trouble is a lot of journalists are reacting to 2016 by concluding they need less, not more information — fewer polls, reduced reliance on Big Data. Silver is arguing they often need more of all these things, but more than anything else, need to understand uncertainty. I’m probably as guilty as anybody in thinking Clinton was going to win, for many of the reasons Silver cites. But I never publicly called it a done deal or stopped paying attention to what I could discern, and I did twice write pieces explaining Trump’s path to victory. So sorry, Mr. Bannon, I’m not going to keep my mouth shut, if only because you and your colleagues on Team Trump were hardly conceived in the crucible of infallibility, and need to show some humility yourselves.

How Should Political Journalists Handicap Elections?