The 2016 presidential election is over and in what was seen as a shocking upset, Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton to become the new president-elect of the United States. Why did Trump’s victory come as such a shock? Because the overwhelming majority of polls showed Clinton with a close but steady lead — resulting in a post-election barrage of media analysis about how the polls could get the election completely wrong.
But were the polls really wrong?
In fact, national head-to-head polling, the most popular type of poll and the kind most widely-consumed by the public as they tried to figure who was going to win the election, was more accurate than four years ago, when polling showed a victory for incumbent President Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
National head-to-head polling measures only which candidate would currently win the most votes, if the election were held when the poll is taken. While Trump won the presidency by winning enough individual states to collect 306 electoral votes — 36 more than required under the U.S. Constitution to win the presidential election, Clinton prevailed in the contest measured by polls, the popular vote.
As of Saturday night, November 12, Clinton led the popular vote total by 1.2 percentage points, according to tabulations compiled by the New York Times.
With possibly as many as 7 million ballots, including absentee and provisional ballots, yet to be counted Clinton’s lead in the raw vote tally is likely to grow. Cohn estimates that when all the votes are tabulated, Clinton will win the popular vote by 1.7 percentage points.
Of course, the problem for Clinton is that the bulk of those votes will come from California, a state she already won by almost 2.8 million votes and 28 percentage points. The only way Clinton could benefit from gaining additional votes would be if they come in states where she lost on election night, and result in her taking the lead in those states — a possibility that appears extraordinarily unlikely.
But the national polls do not concern themselves with state-by-state breakdowns, focusing only on the nationwide vote contest. And the results show that not only were the polls right, they came closer to the mark than they did four years ago.
According to the polling averages compiled by the political data site Real Clear Politics, the final polling results just before election day showed Clinton leading Trump by 3.2 percentage points.
That’s a miss of just two points compared to where she stood on November 12 — and 1.5 points compared to what the New York Times projects as her final popular vote margin.
By comparison, the final RCP polling average in 2012 showed Obama eking out a nail-biting 0.7 percentage point win over Romney. But that’s not what happened. When all the votes were counted, Obama won by a far more comfortable 3.9 points.
In other words, the polls were off in 2012 by 3.2 points — more than a full point less accurate than the 2016 presidential polls.
Polling averages were slightly different, according to the election projecting site FiveThirtyEight.com.
“Clinton was ahead by three to four percentage points in the final national polls. She already leads in the popular vote, and that lead will expand as mail ballots are counted from California and Washington, probably until she leads in the popular vote by 1 to 2 percentage points overall,” according to FiveThirtyEight.com Editor-in-Chief Nate Silver. “That will mean only about a 2-point miss for the national polls. They may easily wind up being more accurate than in 2012, when they missed by 2.7 percentage points.”
When all is said and done, and the final vote totals are known, Clinton is projected to finish with more votes than any presidential candidate in history, except one — Obama, whose totals in 2008 and 2012 remain the top two vote totals ever recorded.
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