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Alumna Pollster revisits 2016 presidential election

Diane Feldman examines result and why polls got it wrong.

Pictured: Diane Feldman
Pictured: Diane Feldman Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

The 2016 presidential race was a “change election” in which voters in a divided country cast their ballots against the establishment, a prominent pollster and Harpur College alumna, told a University Forum audience on Nov. 30.

“The election was contentious, difficult, not pleasant to watch, extremely divided and the result was a surprise to virtually everybody,” said Diane Feldman, MA ‘77, PhD ‘79, president of The Feldman Group, a national strategic firm.

“The country is deeply divided and the election results show that,” she said. “This was not a ‘slam dunk’ for anyone. It was a strong Electoral College win for President-elect Donald Trump. It was a reasonably strong popular-vote win for Hillary Clinton. But the divisions by race, generation and gender are dramatic.”

Feldman provided an “Election Retrospective” to Forum members at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in downtown Binghamton. Feldman, whose organization conducts qualitative research; works with statistical modeling, internet surveys, ad testing; and employs clinical trials to guide campaigns in making research-based decisions, gave a 25-minute presentation on how the 2016 election transpired and why polls were inconsistent with the outcome.

The election marked the first time since 1984 that a Republican candidate won in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. For Feldman, Wisconsin represented the best example of voter change, as counties in the western and central parts of the state that supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012 backed Trump in November. Feldman pointed to manufacturing communities such as Eau Claire and Wausau that have been economically depressed for years.

“They voted for change in 2008,” she said. “They voted for change in 2012 and they voted for change in 2016. Who decided this election were people in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who are really frustrated.”

Other counties in northern Wisconsin produced larger victory margins for Trump than for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

“They saw Trump as the candidate of change,” Feldman said.

Wisconsin voters, meanwhile, never even saw Clinton. The former first lady and secretary of state was the first Democratic candidate not to campaign in Wisconsin since 1972.

“I do think it will be a while before any presidential campaign writes off a competitive state like what happened there,” Feldman said.

The seeds of change were planted in rust belt and Midwest states over the past eight years, Feldman said. The depth of how upset people are is hard to exaggerate she added.

“There is a sense that politics is not working and that neither the Democrats nor Republicans in Congress are doing a good job,” Feldman said.

Many people, though, do not blame President Obama for the economic hardships, Feldman said, pointing to his rising approval ratings during the election season.

“President Obama is interesting from a pollster’s perspective,” she said. “He has always been well-liked. Given the attitudes toward the two [presidential] candidates, I think he has benefitted from the comparison.”

The dissatisfaction with Clinton and Trump added to the volatility and uncertainty of the election, Feldman said. One in four voters said they did not like either candidate.

“That creates conflict about what they will do and leads to a lack of clarity,” Feldman said.

The lack of clarity was just one of the factors that led pollsters to misread the election. Pollsters also made the assumption that the 2016 electorate would look like 2012, she said.

“2016 was not like the 2012 turnout pattern,” she said. “Urban turnout was lower and rural turnout in places was a little higher. If you assumed the 2012 turnout pattern, you were wrong.”

Another incorrect assumption was that the partisanship of 2012 would hold in 2016. There is more voter fluctuation today, Feldman said, adding that there are questions about who is responding and not responding to polls, in an age of cell phones and caller ID.

“No one feels that it’s an honor to be polled anymore,” she said.

Pollsters were also affected by the “shy or conflicted” Trump voters, which Feldman called a “phenomenon” among older, white women. The Trafalgar Group, one of the few polling firms that made an accurate assessment of the election, asked about the “neighbor vote,” Feldman said.

“If you predict your neighbor is going to vote for Trump and you don’t know how you are going to vote, that is a suggestion or sign that maybe you will vote for Trump as well,” she said.

Many conflicted voters decided to vote for Trump right before Election Day. That was especially true in Wisconsin, a state that never had the Republican nominee leading in a poll throughout the election season.

“We should have been able to detect it,” Feldman said. “We failed to do so.”

Despite the mistakes, polling still has value in today’s political world, Feldman said.

“Polls tell candidates what voters are thinking and feeling,” she said. “If you are a United States senator, you don’t interact with people at random; you interact with elites. You don’t necessarily know what people are thinking and feeling. The second (use) is the construction of campaign strategy and advertising messages.”

Feldman said she does not see any indication of computer hacking or voter fraud during the election process.

“My view is: What happened here is what happened here,” she said. “Neither her popular-vote win nor his Electoral College win is anything more than people voting the way they did.”

Feldman did, however, warn audience members that the near future is unlikely to lead to productive, bipartisan politics.

“Those of you tired of political strife are not going to enjoy the next four years,” she said.

Last Updated: 8/30/16