How Presidential Election Predictions Can Go Horribly Wrong

Political bettors may flock to Nate Silver’s site or see how Alan Lichtman’s 13 keys align during a presidential election. But no matter how you approach presidential election predictions, the process involves a year-and-a-half of tension that begins when early candidates announce their campaigns — and runs high through the primaries and general election.

But some of these predictions can go horribly wrong. The 2016 election was particularly shocking for many analysts. According to Pew Research, the biggest culprits behind the surprises were non-response bias and missing likely voters. Some people “systematically do not respond to surveys.” Additionally, the voters that “pollsters were expecting” weren’t the ones who delivered Trump the Midwest.  

(Also, the same article refuted the theory that enough people lied about their intent to vote for Trump to break the polls.)

But 2016 isn’t the only presidential election prediction to go wrong. An even bigger upset led to a premature newspaper headline and an iconic photo in US election history.  

Harry Truman 1948: One Of The Worst Presidential Election Predictions 

With an approval rating below 40%, Harry Truman didn’t look like he’d win reelection. The press forecasted his opponent, Tom Dewey, to win handily. After a cross-country campaign, Gallup still had Dewey up by two points. 

On November 2, 1948, Truman beat Dewey with 303 electoral college votes to Dewey’s 189. The popular vote wasn’t close either. Truman won 24.1 million votes, 2.1 million more than Dewey.

The Chicago Tribune had to retract its headline, “Dewey beats Truman,” after going to print before the results were fully tallied because of a printer’s strike. After he won, the press captured Truman holding the Chicago Tribune copy with its false headline in the now-famous photograph below. 

Truman displaying famously wrong presidential election prediction

Truman pulled off this massive upset by campaigning across the country. As History reminds us, his campaign targeted undecided voters by “portraying [Truman] as an outsider contending with a ‘do-nothing’ congress.” 

Sound familiar? It’s the same populist message that Donald Trump ran on during his 2016 campaign. 

Bracing For Surprises In Presidential Election Predictions 

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign convinced poor, white Americans that their country was leaving them behind and that a Trump presidency could return it to them. There was plenty of discontent for him to play on. As manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, blue-collar workers in former industrial centers in the United States have lost their jobs. But pensions—funds that continue to pay income to workers through retirement—have gone, too.

In January 2022, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of former GM workers who lost as much as 70% of their retirement funds to Delphi’s post-financial crisis restructuring. After 13 years, this group of retirees couldn’t restore pension plans that were lost to the financial crisis. Combined with the outsized role that the lottery of birth plays in economic mobility, hope among Americans pining for the American dream diminished.

This is the rage that President Trump tapped into to win former industrial powerhouses like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. He didn’t win them all in landslides. But he peeled enough voters away from the Democrats to carry those states. 

Avoiding Surprises During Election Season  

Bettors who are trying to predict the next presidential election should watch for candidates who play on difficult circumstances like these. Buzzwords like “post-industrialization” and “globalization” aren’t just buzzwords. Political bettors need to understand what these terms mean for different blocs of voters—especially voter blocs that are big enough to swing battleground states. 

This isn’t a foolproof betting system. But it can guard political bettors against the kinds of surprises voters had the misfortune of experiencing in 1948 and 2016.

Bettors with their eyes on the 2022 midterm elections should bear this lesson in mind before succumbing to the conventional wisdom that a red wave will wash over Congress. If it does, it will come from real campaigning on the ground and engaging with real voters. It won’t be because it became conventional wisdom before all the relevant primaries had ended.

About the Author

Chris Gerlacher

Chris Gerlacher

Christopher Gerlacher is a Lead Writer and contributor for Bonus. He is a versatile and experienced gambling writer with an impressive portfolio who has range from political and legislative pieces to sports and sports betting. He's a devout Broncos fan, for better or for worse, living in the foothills of Arvada, Colorado.
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