Re-vote: PR execs revisit their heavily pro-Hillary election predictions

PRWeek's informal survey of PR pros predicted unanimously that Hillary Clinton would win Tuesday's presidential election, but Donald Trump decisively won the race. We asked them--and others--what happened.

Kris Balderston, president of global public affairs and strategic engagement, FleishmanHillard
This was the biggest political shock in recent decades, and not many people saw it coming. While Hillary Clinton seems to have won the popular vote, it shows that in this time of massive global change, there is a huge disconnect between the political and media elites and the people affected by this transition.

Lee Carter, president, maslansky + partners
What went wrong with the polls? First, nothing really. Polls are blunt instruments with clear margins of error. When you see a four-point move that actually means eight points between the candidates. Second, polls don’t get at emotion. And this race was won on emotion. In fact, most races are made based on emotion. So, for everyone who bashes focus groups and online qualitative research, let’s be clear: they were much better gauges of the outcome than the traditional polling method. Third, these polls are all surveying likely voters. That means that they are all making predictions based on past behavior. In today’s fast-changing world, past behavior is less predictive of future behavior than ever. So traditional polls and models have less relevance. And finally, the "Bradley effect" was at play. Donald Trump consistently outperformed the polls by five to six points in the primaries. He did the same here. We live in a tribalized world. People only admit their true feelings to people who share those feelings. And providing a safe environment for sharing feelings is a huge problem for traditional pollsters.

What went wrong with the exit polls? A lot. Think about this. Exit polls are completed by 3 p.m. EST. So your sample is folks who can either vote before work or during working hours. Second, they are face to face (see above). Third, they are not in a safe environment. I think it would be way more predictive (and was in fact) if they used exit polls to quantify the characteristics they were looking for in a candidate (leadership) — or a policy priority (change and economy) — both of which came through loud and clear in the exit polls.

What did we miss? Not the popular vote. This was a trend we could see. Trump was within the margin of error. The polls were tightening until the day of the election. Hillary went from 263 predicted Electoral College votes to 203 in 10 days. The trends were clear. I expected Hillary to do better in the Electoral College because of her microtargeting and ground game, but at the end of the day this decision transcended operations. It was bought on emotion.

Bill Dalbec, deputy MD of APCO Insight, and a former Republican pollster
Everyone — including the polls — failed to gauge how deep the change sentiment is, not only throughout the United States but around the world. We saw it with Brexit, and we saw it last night. Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable sentiment is different from Donald Trump’s. While both are high, the polls clearly did not indicate how deep her unfavorability ran with the American electorate, and how it fed into a larger narrative of distrust and belief that this country is on the wrong track. It is important to recognize there is a difference between the national polls and how we conduct elections — the focus on national polls missed the movement in the states, even states that were polled heavily.

Peter Himler, founding principal, Flatiron Communications
I think the five items I listed in previous piece are quite applicable to your follow-up. So much for data-driven polling. (Who said FBI Director James Comey didn't have an impact?)

Aaron Kwittken, chairman and CEO, Kwittken
The pollsters got this wrong in part because I don’t think people respond truthfully, if at all anymore, to polls. I think Donald Trump won in large part as a referendum against the last eight years by Americans who are dissatisfied with the status quo and felt Hillary Clinton would just be more of the same. FBI Director James Comey’s antics in the final days leading up to the election probably did not help Hillary’s case, nor did the rise in premiums for Obamacare. At the end of the day, Trump connected to people in an authentic and meaningful manner and Hillary didn’t. She had words but no music to her prose. He had both, even if was hard to listen to for some. Ultimately, I think we all hope (and pray) that Trump can assume a mature mantle of leadership and pick a great team of experienced advisors to help unite us as a nation once in for all and really make us great again, but together.

David Landis, president, Landis Communications
Personally, I am in shock that America could elect a president — and a Congress — that so divides our great country. On the practical side, I believe the pollsters are not accurately reflecting the mood of the country. I believe this stems from their antiquated approach. The pollsters still don't understand technology and how to tap into those that don't have a land line. Plus I hold the media responsible for not embracing the watchdog role that allows citizens to make informed decisions. The media gave Donald Trump a free ride and he dominated the headlines: and Hillary Clinton was relegated to page 12. From "The Donald," we got sound bites which the media embraced — and people accepted without question. I am very worried for our nation: for its economy, for the Supreme Court, for women's and minority rights and for our position with the rest of the world. God help us.

Connie Partoyan, CEO of Direct Impact
Many people underestimated the pure frustration Americans have for the direction of the country. In addition, given how polarizing both candidates were, especially Donald Trump, I suspect there were a number of people who would not admit to a pollster they were supporting Trump.

Andrew Pray, founder, Praytell
I can't speak to polling, but I think PR pros like me dramatically underestimated the sentiment and urgency of a large, large bloc of people in the country, a group of you don't typically find in PR or digital corridors. It's a bubble that all too frequently blinds us, something that has never been clearer today.

Andrew Ricci, VP, Levick
In the traditional campaign playbook, two elements have been important to get victory: enthusiasm and organization. Enthusiasm gets voters on your side and organization gets them to the polls. I stated Monday that Clinton would win based on her campaign’s organization. The Trump campaign had no such organization, and it turns out that in this election, it didn’t matter.

Even though both candidates had an enthusiastic group of supporters, most of us didn’t truly understand that there is a real anger out there with many people who feel like they’ve been slighted and completely ignored by the system. Many of us underestimated this sense of anger because we characterized it as purely rooted in racism, sexism, and xenophobia, among other elements. That’s the form that many of us saw it taking and that’s the rhetoric that we saw Trump using to embody it. Polling failed to capture it at its most fundamental and essential level, the media covered the symptoms instead of the disease, and professionals failed to really understand it, but the Trump campaign sensed it and acted on it. That is why we got it wrong and Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States.

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