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
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:
- Clear demographic focus: Truman campaigned heavily in rural communities where working-class citizens felt neglected.
- 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.
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:
|Poll||Date Administered||Joe Miller (R)||Lisa Murkowski (R)||Scott McAdams (D)|
|Raasmussen Reports||Sept. 19, 2010||42%||27%||25%|
|Moore Research||Sept. 23-27, 2010||43%||18%||28%|
|CNN, Time, Opinion Research||Sept. 24-28, 2010||38%||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.
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
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.
by electoral count
by electoral count
|New York Times|
by chance of winning
by chance of winning
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.
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.
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
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:
|Metric||Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez||Joseph Crowley|
|Past Political Experience||Organizer for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign||U.S. Representative from New York's 14th congressional district (1999-2019)|
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:
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.
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.
How Much Do Americans Trust the Media?
Media trust among Americans has reached its lowest point since Trump won the 2016 presidential election.
How Much Do Americans Trust the Media?
Media trust among Americans has reached its lowest point in six years.
Gallup began its survey on media trust in 1972, repeating it in 1974 and 1976. After a long period, the public opinion firm restarted the polls in 1997 and has asked Americans about their confidence level in the mass media—newspapers, TV, and radio—almost every year since then.
The above graphic illustrates Gallup’s latest poll results, conducted in September 2023.
Americans’ Trust in Mass Media, 1972-2023
Americans’ confidence in the mass media has sharply declined over the last few decades.
|Trust in the mass media||% Great deal/Fair amount||% Not very much||% None at all|
In 2016, the number of respondents trusting media outlets fell below the tally of those who didn’t trust the media at all. This is the first time that has happened in the poll’s history.
That year was marked by sharp criticism of the media from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In 2017, the use of the term ‘fake news’ rose by 365% on social media, and the term was named the word of the year by dictionary publisher Collins.
The Lack of Faith in Institutions and Social Media
Although there’s no single reason to explain the decline of trust in the traditional media, some studies point to potential drivers.
According to Michael Schudson, a sociologist and historian of the news media and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, in the 1970s, faith in institutions like the White House or Congress began to decline, consequently impacting confidence in the media.
“That may have been a necessary corrective to a sense of complacency that had been creeping in—among the public and the news media—that allowed perhaps too much trust: we accepted President Eisenhower’s lies about the U-2 spy plane, President Kennedy’s lies about the ‘missile gap,’ President Johnson’s lies about the war in Vietnam, President Nixon’s lies about Watergate,”
Michael Schudson – Columbia Journalism School
More recently, the internet and social media have significantly changed how people consume media. The rise of platforms such as X/Twitter and Facebook have also disrupted the traditional media status quo.
Partisans’ Trust in Mass Media
Historically, Democrats have expressed more confidence in the media than Republicans.
Democrats’ trust, however, has fallen 12 points over the past year to 58%, compared with 11% among Republicans and 29% among independents.
According to Gallup, Republicans’ low confidence in the media has little room to worsen, but Democrat confidence could still deteriorate and bring the overall national reading down further.
The poll also shows that young Democrats have less confidence in the media than older Democrats, while Republicans are less varied in their views by age group.
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