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Political Longshots That Caught America by Surprise

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Millions of Americans rely on polls and the media to gauge the direction of political elections. Politics are sometimes unpredictable though, and on occasion, election outcomes can defy conventional wisdom.

These surprises, known as political longshots, are scattered throughout American political history. As time winds down to the 59th U.S. presidential election in November, today’s visual article from PredictIt goes back in time to showcase moments when polls, media outlets, and the American public were left stunned.

The Truman Show

PredictIt

What Happened?

As elections approached in 1948, incumbent Harry Truman led a struggling Democratic party.
Not only had they lost control of both chambers of Congress two years prior, they also faced internal divide over Truman’s civil rights initiatives. To make matters worse, Truman’s approval rating in June 1948 sat at just 39%.

Pollsters and the media were unanimous in declaring Republican Thomas Dewey the next president, but this didn’t discourage Truman from running a tactical campaign which featured:

  1. Clear demographic focus: Truman campaigned heavily in rural communities where working-class citizens felt neglected.
  2. Populist messaging: Truman often attacked Republicans, pinning them with the blame for a range of issues.

Despite being overlooked by many, Truman went on to claim a decisive victory. This caused one of the most famous media blunders in U.S. history—with high confidence in the polls, editors at the Chicago Daily Tribune prematurely reported Dewey as the winner of the election.

We stopped polling a few weeks too soon. We had been lulled into thinking that nothing much changes in the last few weeks of the campaign.

—George Gallup Jr.

Pollsters took a hit to their credibility, but used the opportunity to refine their methods. They extended the deadlines of polls and, over time, began using a methodology known as random sampling. This replaced quota sampling, a methodology prone to bias because it questioned a predetermined number of people from certain ethnic and age groups.

Murkowski’s Comeback

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What Happened?

After losing the Republican primary to Joe Miller, incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski decided to run in 2010 as a write-in candidate. A somewhat unique aspect of American politics, a write-in candidate is one whose name does not appear on the ballot, and instead needs to be written in by the voter directly.

Miller, the Republican nominee, was supported by the Tea Party movement and former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. All momentum seemed to be in his favor, according to polls conducted roughly a month ahead of election day:

PollDate AdministeredJoe Miller (R)Lisa Murkowski (R)Scott McAdams (D)
Raasmussen ReportsSept. 19, 201042%27%25%
Moore ResearchSept. 23-27, 201043%18%28%
CNN, Time, Opinion ResearchSept. 24-28, 201038%36%22%

Source: Rasmussen Reports, Moore Research, CNN/Time/Opinion Research

Despite Miller’s lead in the polls, Murkowski’s write-in campaign was able to capitalize on the state’s significant number of independent voters. On election day, Murkowski collected 101,091 write-in votes—a comfortable margin above Miller’s 90,839 votes.

[I]n our state, we have got over 54 percent of the electorate that chooses not to align themselves with any party at all, not Republican, not Democratic, not green, not anything.

—Lisa Murkowski

Miller challenged 8,000 write-in votes on the basis of name misspellings, but his claims were rejected by the Alaska Superior Court—perfect spelling on write-in ballots is not required if the voter’s intent is clear.

The Trump Train

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What Happened?

Donald Trump’s 2016 victory will likely top the list as one of the most shocking political events of our time. As election day approached, many of America’s mainstream media outlets pointed to a decisive Clinton victory.

OutletClintonTrump
L.A. Times
by electoral count
352186
Fox News
by electoral count
274215
New York Times
by chance of winning
85%15%
CNN
by chance of winning
91%9%

Source: The Wrap, CNN

While Trump’s rhetoric was largely opposed in urban regions (which often lean Democrat), the media failed to recognize that his message was resonating in America’s industrial Midwest. One potential explanation for this is that the region’s manufacturing jobs had been drying up, causing workers to feel abandoned by the existing political establishment.

This led to a number of Democrat-controlled states flipping Republican, and was a critical force for propelling Trump to the White House.

PredictIt

In PredictIt’s market, Will Trump Win the 2016 Presidential Election, traders also underestimated Trump’s chances of winning. Throughout the entire campaign phase, Trump’s “yes” shares failed to break past the 50 cents marker.

Source: Predictit

Share prices climbed 64% after FBI Director James Comey released his letter regarding the Clinton email investigation, but these gains were erased in the days leading up to elections. It wasn’t until November 8th, election day, that the prediction market swung by an incredible 345% in favor of Trump.

The Rise of AOC

PredictIt

What Happened?

The biggest surprise from the 2018 midterm primaries was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) victory over incumbent Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. That’s because the two candidates were nearly complete opposites of one another:

MetricAlexandria Ocasio-CortezJoseph Crowley
Age2856
Past Political ExperienceOrganizer for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaignU.S. Representative from New York's 14th congressional district (1999-2019)
Fundraising$300,000$3,354,370

Source: abc news

AOC led a grassroots campaign appealing to the district’s ethnically diverse population, which many believed Crowley could not relate with. Her platform included:

PredictIt

Also lending to the surprise factor was AOC’s relatively sparse media coverage. Because her campaign was largely operated through social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, it flew under the radar of traditional political media coverage.

The traditional media pay attention to one metric—money—but there should be other considerations: number of volunteers, social-media engagement, small-dollar donations.

—Dave Weigel, Washington Post

AOC would go on to win New York’s 14th Congressional District in the 2018 midterm election, defeating Republican Anthony Pappas with 110,318 votes to 19,202, to become the youngest woman to ever serve in the U.S. Congress. More recently, she secured her re-election in the 2020 Democratic primaries. This time, however, it comes as less of a surprise.

What’s Next?

The very definition of a longshot means that they are difficult to quantify and predict.

However, one potential longshot in the making may be 21-time Grammy Award winner Kanye West, who announced his intention to run for president on July 4th. While he hasn’t taken any official steps towards running as an independent candidate, he has garnered the support of notable figures like Tesla CEO Elon Musk. West first declared his interest in the presidency during an acceptance speech at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards.

Looking further down the road, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has still not declared his running mate. Much is at stake for Democrats hoping to deny Trump a second term, and the VP nominee will likely play a significant role in how the party performs. Biden has a long list of candidates that, for the first time in history, predominantly features women of color.

Speculation is ramping up as the 2020 presidential elections approach. While it’s difficult to say when politics will surprise us again, more longshots are sure to be in store.

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Politics

Decoding U.S. Election Day in 9 Key Charts

Buckle up your seatbelts—we look at 9 key data-driven charts to get you prepped for this consequential day in U.S. election history.

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After a tumultuous election cycle, the time has come at last for Americans to cast their ballots.

Media coverage has reached a fever pitch, and keeping up with the news cycle can be daunting for anyone. To keep the voting public and interested onlookers informed, we’ve compiled nine key charts that can help in answering key questions that people will have today:

  • Who’ll win the U.S. presidential election?
  • How could swing states flip?
  • When will we know the election results?
  • What are the stakes?
  • What does the rest of the world think?

Let’s start with the biggest—and most challenging—of these topics first.

Who’ll Win the Election?

As the world learned in 2016, answering this question is not as simple as it looks—even when the poll results point to a clear victory.

Chart #1: Biden remains the odds-on favorite

In 2020’s race, the poll results are once again stacked against President Trump. Here’s a look at who’s ahead in aggregated national polls:

National U.S. election aggregated polls

Source: FiveThirtyEight

Although this election cycle has been a wild ride, that volatility isn’t necessarily reflected in the polls. Over the past three months, Joe Biden’s lead in the national polls has not dipped below three percentage points.

Chart #2: Viewing odds through a 2016 lens

That said, after the colossal miscalculation by the media and pollsters in 2016, many people are skeptical of the accuracy of polls. Luckily, there’s a way to look at predictions through a more skeptical lens. As this table from FiveThirtyEight demonstrates, even if the results are as wrong as in 2016, Joe Biden is still predicted to win.

Margin of error in polls 2016

Chart #3: Betting markets also agree

Prediction markets are another way to try to gauge how the election could turn out. Traders on PredictIt are also leaning towards a Biden win on election day. President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in early October served as a pivot point in that market.

Prediction markets for the U.S. election

Chart #4: The Sultans of Swing

There are a few swing states which will be hotly contested, with the candidates focusing their final days of campaigning on these.

Pennsylvania has received the most visits from both Trump and Biden since their last debate on October 22nd, with Trump visiting the state seven times and Biden stopping by four times.

Swing states summary

Swing states have had strong early voting turnouts. In fact, the number of early voters in many swing states is already set to surpass the total number of voters they saw in the 2016 election.

While Arizona and Georgia have voted red for the past five elections, early predictions point to these states possibly turning blue in 2020.

When Will We Know the Election Results?

While the result of the presidential election is typically known on the night of the election itself, this year could see delays due to the tight race and the amount of mail-in ballots.

No matter what, state election disputes need to be settled before December 8th, the “safe-harbor deadline”. After this date, states run the risk of having Congress refuse to accept their electoral votes, with Congress also resolving any left over disputes.

Each state’s electors then meet on December 14th in order to elect the president and vice-president. Depending on how that goes, this interactive election timeline by The Guardian looks at a few nightmare scenarios that the U.S. could get caught in.

Chart #5: Visualizing mail-in ballots so far

Mail-in ballots can slow down the election result due to late ballot deadlines and the pre-processing required for them to be counted. Expect to see a correlation between states with high mail-in ballot numbers and how long it takes them to call their result.

Ballot deadlines depend on the state, with some states accepting ballots up until November 23rd as long as they were postmarked by election day.

While some states can start pre-processing ballots before election day, others can’t start until election day itself. Some counties (including some in swing state Pennsylvania) won’t be starting mail-in ballot counting until November 4th due to limited resources.

Why Are the Stakes So High?

Voters from both parties are heavily invested in who wins this election—a trend that’s been on the rise for years, coinciding with increasing amounts of political polarization.

Chart #6: Voter apathy, no more

According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, 83% of voters say it “really matters” who becomes the next president. In 2000, only 50% felt so strongly about the outcome of the election.

Voter apathy

To be fair, this year is also unique given a global pandemic—and this has certainly weighed heavily on many voters, creating more urgency than normal.

In fact, according to a survey conducted by Gallup in April 2020, 45% of Americans think Coronavirus/disease is the most important issue the country is currently facing.

Chart #7: Voters See COVID as a Top Concern

Research has shown a correlation so far between COVID-related deaths and reduced support for the incumbent. According to this graph from the New York Times, Trump’s approval rating tends to be lower in counties with higher death rates.

U.S. voting COVID-19

Chart #8: The price of democracy

The exceptionally high stakes could be a reason why this election is expected to be the most expensive to date. Spending is projected to reach over $13 billion, almost double the amount spent in 2016.

U.S. election spending

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Chart #9: What the rest of the world thinks

Americans aren’t the only ones invested in the U.S. presidential election this year. The whole world is watching, and according to Ipsos, the majority is rooting for Biden.

How would the world vote?

But of course, the world doesn’t get to cast a vote today, making this final chart a moot point.

The real decision makers will be in the American electorate—and the forthcoming result will be on people’s minds for days, months, or maybe even years to come.

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Animated Map: U.S. Presidential Voting History by State (1976-2016)

With this map of U.S. presidential voting history by state, discover patterns that have emerged over the last eleven elections.

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U.S. Presidential Voting History by State

U.S. Presidential Voting History by State

As Americans go to cast their votes, considerable uncertainty remains about which candidate will be elected president. However, history can provide some clues as to how voters may act.

While some states have consistently seen Democrat or Republican victories, other “swing states” have flipped between the two parties depending on the year.

In this graphic, we use data from the MIT Election Data and Science Lab to show U.S. presidential voting history by state since 1976.

Each State’s Winning Party

To calculate the winning ratio, we divided the votes for the state’s winning party by the total number of state votes. Here’s another look at the same data, visualized in a different way.

U.S. Presidential Voting History by State

This graphic was inspired by this Reddit post.

As the voting history shows, some states—such as Alaska, Oklahoma, and Wyoming—have consistently supported the Republican Party. On the other hand, Hawaii, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia have been Democrat strongholds for many decades.

The District of Columbia (D.C.) is a federal district, and is not part of any U.S. State. Its population is urban and has a large percentage of Black and college-educated citizens, all of which are groups that tend to identify as Democrat.

Swing states typically see a close contest between Democrats and Republicans. For example, Florida’s average margin of victory for presidential candidates has been just 2.6% since 1996, by far the lowest of any state. It’s often seen as a key battleground, and for good reason: the candidate who wins Florida has won every election since 1964.

Memorable Election Years

Within U.S. Presidential voting history, some election results stand out more than others. In 1984, President Reagan was re-elected in a landslide victory, winning 49 out of 50 states. The remarkable win has been credited to the economic recovery during Reagan’s first term, Reagan’s charisma, and voters’ opposition to the Democrat’s planned tax increases.

In 1992, self-made Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran as a third-party candidate. He captured almost 19% of the popular vote, the highest percentage of any third-party presidential candidate in over 80 years. While he gained support from those looking for a change from traditional party politics, Bill Clinton ultimately went on to win the election.

Most recently, the 2016 election took many people by surprise. Despite having a strong lead in the polls, Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump. A total of 30 states saw Republican victories, eager for change after eight years of Democrat leadership.

A Look Ahead

Is it possible to predict the 2020 presidential election? As the last election showed, polls are not a perfect measure. They represent a snapshot in time, may overrepresent certain population groups, and measure voter attitudes rather than behaviors, among other factors.

While there’s no crystal ball, swing states may offer the most insight as to where things are heading. Here are nine states that have been identified as battlegrounds, and how they voted in the 2016 election.

 2016 Winning Ratio2016 Margin of Victory
Arizona48.7% Republican3.6%
Florida49.0% Republican1.2%
Georgia50.8% Republican5.2%
Iowa51.2% Republican9.4%
Michigan47.5% Republican0.2%
North Carolina49.8% Republican3.6%
Ohio51.7% Republican8.1%
Pennsylvania48.9% Republican0.7%
Wisconsin47.2% Republican0.7%

All saw Republican victories, but six out of nine states won by a margin of less than 5%. Trump and Biden’s success in these states may well determine the outcome of the 2020 election.

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