• Views November 17, 2016

The 2016 Presidential Election took many of us – including media, the pundits, etc. – by surprise.

Some people have assigned blame on pollsters and different demographic groups, but before we point fingers, it’s important to take a closer look at what really happened on November 8, 2016.  

  • Some people voted for a candidate they truly believed in;
  • Many people held their nose and voted for candidates as the “lesser of two evils;”
  • Some people actually voted for the first time (or for the first time in a long time) despite being told that their vote may not matter;
  • People didn’t vote because they assumed the result would be in their favor;

The third bullet played a significant role in swaying the election in favor of the President-elect. In a pre-election conversation with colleagues, I shared my prediction about a hidden – or “ghost” – vote, where 5 million or so Trump supports were hidden and lying in wait. (We’ll see if that was close or not). 

Ghost voters made their grand entrance this year and impacted the election in a way that I’m sure they didn’t even think was possible. Numbers aside, what made those voters important during this election was that for the first time, many of them actually voted.

Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania went Republican for the first time since 1988. Virginia should not have been close (especially with Tim Kaine as the Democratic Party nominee for Vice President), but it went to the wire. This calls into question the theories that individual votes don’t matter in the face of a state’s voting history.

Polls were wrong because these “ghost” voters were not called; they were off the grid from rural counties not taken into consideration by this year’s pollsters. The focus was on higher population centers and previous/past election county voter turnout. 

Close to 25% of the vote in Michigan this year came from rural counties, up roughly 10%; there’s no way pollsters could have predicted this turnout. As a result, they neglected to interview or collect the correct amount of responses to factor into the election results. My guess is that this happened across the country to make up about 5 million votes.

Voting is a privilege that many of us take for granted because of the Electoral College map. This is definitely a lesson learned, and pollsters will be challenged to rethink the map in certain states to adjust for the next election.

The idea of “ghosts” isn’t unique to elections. It’s a real consideration that primary research practitioners need to plan for, setting out to understand what will drive these segments to take action, make a purchase, improve perceptions, etc. 

Strong primary research helps uncover what messages or language will be most influential, what creative or concepts move the needle, what insights or findings will lead to the next USA Today Snapshot, etc.