Who will win the 2016 presidential election? What is the appeal of Donald Trump? And how did Emerson College get so good at polling?
A panel of Emerson faculty and and alumni, moderated by Journalism Senior Leader-in-Residence and Emmy Award–winning broadcast journalist Carole Simpson, tried to make sense of the 2016 presidential election season on June 4, as part of the Alumni Weekend slate of events.
Panelists were Communication Studies Senior Scholar-in-Residence Spencer Kimball, director of Emerson’s Washington Program and advisor of the Emerson College Polling Society (ECPS); Iris Burnett ’68, a presidential campaign strategist, creator of the White House Women’s Office under the Clinton administration, and a lecturer at Emerson Los Angeles; Kat Grosso ’05, former communications director for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns and committees; Greg Payne, chair of the Department of Communication Studies and an expert in political communication; and Keri Thompson, a senior lecturer in the Communication Studies Department and a PhD candidate in rhetoric, speech, and political communication at the University of Texas at Austin.
Simpson asked each of the panelists to speak for two minutes about their take on this election.
“My analysis at this point is it’s really a toss-up election,” Kimball said. Republican turnout in primaries in swing states such as Ohio, Florida, and Michigan have been statistically significantly higher than Democratic turnout, so if Trump can swing those three states his way, the Electoral College is split, 269–269.
“What Trump sees as maybe his greatest strength is Independents are breaking for Trump in the [GOP] primaries, Independents are breaking for Bernie [Sanders] in Democratic primaries,” he said. But, “I still think it’s [Hillary Clinton’s] race to lose. She’s still in this contested primary.”
Grosso, who started out in the White House Correspondence Office under President George W. Bush and has spent her career working on behalf of the Republican Party, said the rise of Trump has been “really hard to watch.”
“For someone like me, who has kind of dedicated their entire career to the process, I’m finding it disheartening to see,” Grosso said.
Thompson, who is also a Sanders delegate, said she believes this election is about people feeling disconnected from that process more than any particular candidate or party.
“[T]his isn’t just about totally anti-Hillary or going completely against a party…it’s about people being so frustrated that, at this point, nobody feels they have a voice,” Thompson said. “They’re so frustrated with feeling like the system isn’t serving the people that it’s almost a protest vote. I actually do think Trump could win this election.”
Millennials, when told that what Sanders is promising is not feasible, will say, “It doesn’t matter; he has a vision,” Burnett said.
“If you want a campaign, and you want that Millennial vote, you can’t talk like an old person,” Burnett said, who added that it’s difficult for candidates to hear bad news because no one on their staff wants to be the one to break it to them.
Payne wondered if we’d see a kind of reverse “Bradley Effect” with Trump. In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who was black, had been ahead in the polls going into the California gubernatorial election but lost to his white Republican opponent. Political analysts theorized that some white voters told pollsters they supported Bradley to avoid looking racist but pulled the lever for the white candidate once they were alone in the voting booth.
“Many people say they would not vote for Trump; I’m wondering if we’ll have the same type of thing,” said Payne, author of Tom Bradley: The Impossible Dream.
Kimball talked about how the ECPS has been so successful this campaign season, more accurately predicting the Iowa caucuses and many primaries during the 2016 season, as well as the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election, than most professional pollsters.
“We have more time to study the races,” Kimball said. “This fall, I’m going to have 10 to 12 teams studying 10 to 12 states.”
Kimball also said Emerson uses automatic data collection, or robo-polls, to collect samples, which cost one-tenth of what it costs their competitors to do live polling.
“More people are willing to answer our surveys than they are willing to talk to a live human being,” he said.
Simpson, the panel’s moderator, asked how national polls can show Clinton either beating or losing to Trump by just a few points.
“Because a national poll is really just a waste of our time. There is no national election,” Kimball said. Voters elect delegates, not candidates, meaning the popular vote is not the deciding factor in any race. “Ask Al Gore how great it is to win a national election.”
Burnett and Payne capitalized on the opportunity to tout the ECPS and their vision for its future, which includes expanding into the new niche of issue polling, according to Payne.
“You’ve heard of Quinnipiac,” Burnett said, referring to the small Connecticut college that has made a national name for itself based on its polling. “Our polls are always more accurate.” Burnett said with more money, Emerson could market its results more widely and become synonymous with top-notch polling.
Simpson ended the symposium, which also included questions from the audience, by asking the panelists what’s going to happen on November 8:
Kimball: “It’s Hillary’s race to win. I certainly see pathways for Trump to make inroads. You’ll see a bounce for Hillary out of the convention…A lot happens in 90 days, [but] Hillary has been very strong in debates—she was so strong this year, she scared Biden out [of the race].”
Burnett: “I think she’s going to win. It’s going to be ugly before we get there.”
Grosso: “I’ve kind of been waiting for this implosion moment for Trump. He sort of has them, and then nothing happens…I think [the media] is almost letting him get this far so when we get to the General [Election], it’s game over [for him].”
Payne: “I do believe we’ll start to value critical thinking, be more deliberative. Hillary was giving her most effective speech…in South Dakota, and all of sudden, FOX went to something else. The public has to understand how important the media is in framing reality.”
Thompson: “I’m very concerned about Hillary’s ability to win the General Election. If you were to ask me to put money down in Vegas, I would put it on Trump to win.”