A Rough Night for Number Crunchers

“It was a rough night for number crunchers,” is how The New York Times put it, summing up the failure of most pollsters to predict the outcome of this year’s presidential race.

But is that really the story? To coin a phrase: the difference between a poll and the vote is turnout. Where these two diverged is where the election was decided – Trump voters turned out in surprising numbers; Clinton voters didn’t.

Pundits and pollsters were so focused on the horserace that they neglected to effectively factor in the context in which the race was played out.

The low turnout for this election is symptomatic of a greater problem of alienation and lack of engagement as Americans drop out of the political process and of joining groups generally.  For example, in 1996 49% of Americans had attended a public meeting on town or school affairs; by 2016 that number has dropped to 25%.

Other community membership groups have seen a similar drop off in participation, as has the willingness to participate in surveys.  That’s a profound change in society and one that has important implications for things like voter turnout, and who gets elected President.

So, if you look at the candidates as brands, you have to ask yourself what was missed? People were so focused on the brands that they missed fundamental changes in the marketplace. This reminds us of the importance of ongoing dialogue with consumers, looking at both macro and micro trends, and being able to connect insights across time.

Call it empathy, call it engagement but data is most useful when it’s paired with true industry knowledge to give marketers (or political advisors) the insight needed to generate the ideas that will bridge the gap between word and deed, intent and action.

An insight community is a perfect vehicle for this because it enables you to engage with deeply profiled consumers who you can track over time and observe real change in. And as you identify change you can engage in deep discussion directly with the people you know have altered their behavior and understand why.  That’s the benefit of insight communities.

You know who you’re talking to. You know why they’re talking back.  And you can understand what will motivate them to act. You can’t just rely on the last election cycle, or the last purchase, to tell you how a consumer will act the next time. You have to iterate. You have to understand what motivates someone to act now.

That’s the real lesson from this year’s presidential campaign. One-off conversations focused on a tactical issue can be misleading. What is needed is an ongoing discussion with people whose history you know. Only then can you make sure your brand – or candidate – won’t be in for a big surprise.

To learn more about the troubling issues surrounding current sample constructing practices, download our whitepaper –  Art or Science? The Perils and Possibilities of Survey Sampling in the Evolving Online World.

Download the Whitepaper

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