Ostrow: The polls and projections blew it bigly

“This is a surprise,” Chris Matthews told the MSNBC audience early in the evening. “You know, punditry only goes so far.” He spoke in measured tones, avoiding expressing shock in the midst of  a dismaying night.

Election Night 2016 will go down as the biggest failure of pundits and pollsters in the history of American political reporting. Nobody saw this coming.

The pollsters, odds-makers, network projection desks and county-by-county data miners all blew it big league. Or bigly.

This thing was supposed to be rigged. The other way.

Around the dial, analysts and correspondents maintained a level-headed cool, taking the long view, reporting on the process, crunching the numbers, leaving emotions aside. Even the Fox News crew was straightforward and restrained. O; only Rachel Maddow of MSNBC appeared heated.

The most personal, emotionally tinged assessment came not from a broadcaster but from a historian. “The last thing we needed as a polarized nation was a polarized election,” Doris Kearns Goodwin noted on MSNBC.

Perhaps the understatement of the day came from CNN’s John King as he poked at the magic wall: “We’re having a night where sometimes what we expected hasn’t happened.”

How unexpected was it? The last time the country got things so backward was 1948 when the headline on The Chicago Daily Tribune screamed “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

At this point, we don’t know what exactly turned the tide. Was it the uncounted hidden Donald Trump voters, those who declined to tell pollsters who they were really supporting? Did those hidden Trump voters include mobs of so-called “undecideds,” who insisted after countless debates that they had not yet picked a candidate?

Was it sexism? The lack of African-American turnout for Hillary Clinton? The “likability” problem?

Was it the desire for something new? A pushback against Obamacare? A rejection of Washington?

Was it rural white America wanting to take back the country — from an African-American president?

Or was it Brexit/USA?

Whatever the draw, the reality show star’s character apparently wasn’t a deterrent. NBC veteran Tom Brokaw noted Trump’s vulgarities and misogyny didn’t get in voters’ way.

TV analysts weighed a long list of possible causes for the stunning Trump tilt. Several suggested the national divide is less about political party and more about class and geography. The guessing and explaining is only just getting started.

As it unfolded on our screens, the improbable was suddenly a done deal. “This is a nuclear bomb of a political story,” The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson said on NBC.

“The irony of what we’re seeing unfold!” longtime CBS News hand Bob Schieffer said at 2 a.m. ET as the crushed Clinton crowd went home for the night.

Even before concession or acceptance speeches, before the final votes were counted, at least one leading member of the media had a sinking feeling of what might be next. Because Trump “blew all of our predictions out of the water,” “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd concluded, he is now going to act like he has a mandate. And the media will treat him as if he has a mandate. “He is going to be unshackled.”

Flickr photo by IoSonoUnaFotoCamera

Joanne Ostrow, the former longtime TV Critic for the Denver Post, is a recovering political junkie. Originally from Washington, D.C., she’s been immersed in media in Colorado since 1984. On Twitter @joanneostrow


  1. No mandate … but a pretty clear Democratic failure.

    2012 Democrat popular vote 65,915,795

    2016 Democrat popular vote 59,233,484

    Seems like the voter suppression by legislatures, court acquiescence, FBI insinuations, and Democratic triumphalism had an impact.

  2. Donald Trump has no mandate. A mandate can only be given by the people, and they did not give it, since the popular vote went to Hillary Clinton.

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