Exit polls from the 2016 presidential election showed Hillary Clinton winning four crucial swing states that, when the final vote tallies came in, were actually won by Donald Trump. The discrepancy between the exit poll results and the raw vote total count has led to suspicions that the election was “rigged” in favor of Trump.
Was it? And what do the exit polls actually tell us about who won the election?
Using exit poll totals compiled by election researcher Theodore de Macedo Soares, seen in the table below on this page as well as available at this link, compared to an ongoing tally of raw votes totals posted at this link by Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report, here is the discrepancy that has caused the suspicions of what Trump himself would call a “rigged election.”
Note that actual vote totals are compiled as of November 16.
FLORIDA — 29 Electoral Votes
(numbers equal percentage points)
Exit Polls: Clinton 47.7, Trump 46.4 — Clinton wins by 1.3
Actual: Clinton 47.8, Trump 49.0 — Trump wins by 1.2
Trump gain between exit polls and actual results: 2.5
NORTH CAROLINA — 15 Electoral Votes
Exit Polls: Clinton 48.6, Trump 46.5 — Clinton wins by 2.1
Actual: Clinton 46.1, Trump 49.9 — Trump wins by 3.8
Trump gain: 5.9
PENNSYLVANIA — 20 Electoral Votes
Exit Polls: Clinton 50.5, Trump 46.1 — Clinton wins by 4.4
Actual: Clinton 47.6, Trump 48.8 — Trump wins by 1.2
Trump gain: 5.6
WISCONSIN — 10 Electoral Votes
Exit Polls: Clinton 48.2, Trump 44.3 — Clinton wins by 3.9
Actual: Clinton 47.6, Trump 48.8 — Trump wins by 1.2
Trump gain: 5.1
The final Electoral College vote totals show Trump, including the four states listed above, earning 306 electoral votes. Clinton collected 232.
With 270 of the 538 available required to win the presidency, Clinton fell 38 electoral votes short of victory. If the exit polls had reflected actual results in any three out of the four swing states — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Clinton would be president-elect today.
Also, if exit polls had been correct in Florida and only one of the other three swing states, Clinton would have won the election.
Clinton, as of November 16 with reportedly several million votes nationwide yet to be counted, led the national popular vote by 0.9 percentage points, or approximately 1.6 million votes.
So what happened? Here are four possible explanations, some of them innocent — others, maybe not so much.
Exit Polls Don’t Fully Account for Early Voting
One firm, Edison Research, conducts exit polling for all major news outlets. Edison only recently started polling voters by phone prior to election day, to get statistics on early voting results. But the popularity of early and mail-in voting has exploded and Edison’s methods can’t keep up.
“The exit poll understands the huge role early voters will play — pollsters estimated to Pew that 35 to 40 percent of all voting will happen early this year — but it’s not clear that their polling can accurately capture who those people are,” explained Dara Lind of Vox.com in an article published last week. “It runs into the problems any phone poll has — namely, that it’s difficult to poll people who only have mobile phones. And because this year saw such a huge surge in early voting, it’s hard to use past years to predict how representative a sample is.”
The ‘Red Shift’ Phenomenon
Jonathan Simon, a researcher who has been studying exit poll data for 15 years and authored the book Code Red: Computerized Election Theft and the New American Century, says that his research has uncovered a pattern he has termed “red shift,” the tendency for exit polls to show lower results for “red,” or Republican, candidates compared to final vote totals.
“Election fraud has been occurring via the targeting and manipulation of computerized voting equipment across America,” Simon says in the publicity materials for his book.
But in an interview this week with the news site Raw Story, Simon was more restrained.
“We’re stuck at a place where I pivoted to is looking at the risk involved in having a computerized, privatized, unobservable vote counting system and just taking on faith that that system is not being manipulated when there is such a obvious vulnerability (on which the experts strongly agree) of the system to malfeasance and manipulation,” Simon told the site. “That is where I’ve tended to go, is to look at that risk rather than screaming fraud from the rooftops and claiming proof.”
Simon said that he’s reached the conclusion that due to the imprecise methodology of exit polls and the possibility of manipulation in computerized vote counts, neither system is trustworthy.
Investigative reporter Greg Palast alleges that voter suppression techniques employed by Republicans eliminated the votes of, potentially, millions of minority voters who would be expected to vote for the Democratic candidate.
“This country is violently divided. There simply aren’t enough white guys to elect Trump nor a Republican Senate,” Palast said in an interview TheLondonEconomic.com site. “The only way they could win was to eliminate the votes of non-white guys—and they did so by tossing black provisional ballots into the dumpster, new strict voter ID laws that saw students and low income voters turned away—the list goes on.”
Among the voter suppression methods identified by Palest, a multi-state system known as Crosscheck — supposedly designed to check for voters who have registered more than once, allegedly to prevent fraudulent multiple voting — may have wrongly invalidated thousands or even million of votes.
Exit Poll Data is Simply Not an Accurate Predictor of Vote Totals
Statisticians say that exit poll data, while well-intentioned, is inherently flawed as a way to predict final vote totals. Due to the need to compile nearly instantaneous results, exit pollsters rely on statistical models that may be outdated by the time an election rolls around.
“Edison developed its statistical models months before the vote, and long before there were any pre-election polls suggesting which candidate was likely to win a given race,” wrote Joshua Holand earlier this year in The Nation magazine. “Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that a corrupt wizard is sitting behind the curtains, making decisions about how to weight the data as the results come in order to cover up election theft. The reality is that Edison has a bunch of statistical models that have been sitting on a computer since last fall, and they plug information into them as it comes in.”
Statistician Nate Cohn of The New York Times Upshot has also warned of the unreliability of exit poll data.
“Exit polls are an exciting piece of Election Day information. They’re just not perfect. The problem with them is that most analysts and readers treat them as if they’re infallible,” Cohn wrote in 2014. “Once you realize that the exit polls aren’t perfect and start to ask yourself which results are actually right, it becomes clear that a lot of exit poll findings don’t quite work.”
While exit polling in other countries is often used as a method to check the accuracy of final totals and to detect fraud, those polls differ in significant respects from methods used in American election exit polls. For example, Holland explained, exit polls in other countries consist of only two questions in many cases, rather than the cumbersome list of 20 questions — or more — on U.S. exit polls.
The shorter polls lead to significantly higher rates of response, creating a larger sample size which gives a much better indicator of what the final result will be.
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