Despite the polls, the outcome of this election was unpredictable even before Hillary Clinton’s recent health scare. It was only a month ago that The Washington Post predicted: “Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump in November. . . . Three months from now, with the 2016 presidential election in the rearview mirror, we will look back and agree that the presidential election was over on Aug. 9th.”
On Aug. 24, Slate declared, “There is no horse race: it’s Clinton by a mile, with Trump praying for black swans” — only to “predict” one week later “Trump-Clinton Probably Won’t be A Landslide.” A few days ago, in a desperate attempt to analyze the new polls showing Trump closing in on Clinton, Slate explained sheepishly, “Things realistically couldn’t have gotten much worse for Trump than they were a few weeks ago, and so it’s not a shock that they instead have gotten a little better of late.” Some current polls even show Trump with a slight lead.
The reality is that polling is incapable of accurately predicting the outcome of elections like this one, where so many voters are angry, resentful, emotional, negative, and frightened. In my new book, “Electile Dysfunction: A Guide for the Unaroused Voter,” I discuss in detail why so many voters now say they won’t vote at all or will vote for a third-party candidate. As The New York Times reported, “Only 9 percent of America chose Trump and Clinton as the Nominees.” Or, to put voters’ frustration with the candidates more starkly, “81 percent of Americans say they would feel afraid following the election of one of the two politicians.”
The bottom line is that in a bizarre election like this one — with so many variables and so much emotion — polls may well under- or over-predict votes for the two major candidates. Think about the vote on Brexit. Virtually all the polls — including exit polls that asked voters how they voted — got it wrong. The financial markets got it wrong. The bookies got it wrong. The 2016 presidential election is more like the Brexit vote in many ways than it is like prior presidential elections. Both Brexit and this presidential election involve raw emotion, populism, anger, nationalism, class division, and other factors that distort accuracy in polling. So those who think they know who will be the next president of the United States are deceiving themselves.
One reason for this unique unpredictability is the unique unpredictability of Donald Trump himself. No one really knows what he will say or do between now and the election. His position on important issues may change. Live televised debates will not allow him to rely on a teleprompter, as he largely did in his acceptance speech or in his speech during his visit to Mexico City. He may once again become a loose cannon. This may gain him votes, or it may lose him votes. Just remember: Few, if any, pundits accurately predicted how far Trump would get when he first entered the race. When it comes to Trump, the science of polling seems inadequate to the task.
Clinton’s political actions are more predictable, although her past actions may produce unpredictable results, as they did when FBI director James Comey characterized her conduct with regard to her e-mails as “extremely careless.” It is also possible that more damaging information about her private e-mail server or the Clinton Foundation may come from WikiLeaks or other such sources.
Another unpredictable factor that may have an impact on the election is the possibility of terrorist attacks in the lead-up to the voting. Islamist extremists would almost certainly like to see Trump beat Clinton, because they believe a Trump presidency would result in the kind of instability on which they thrive. If ISIS attacks American targets in October, that could turn some undecided voters in favor of the candidate who says he will do anything to stop terrorism.
A final reason why this election is so unpredictable is that the voter turnout is unpredictable. The “Bernie or bust” crowd is threatening to stay home or vote for the Green Party. Young voters may do here what they did in Great Britain: Many failed to vote in the Brexit referendum and then regretted their inaction when it became clear that if they had voted in the same proportion as older voters, Brexit would likely have been defeated. Some Clinton supporters worry that black voters who voted in large numbers for Barack Obama may cast fewer votes for Clinton in this election. Voters who usually vote Republican but can’t bring themselves to pull the lever for Trump may decide to stay home. The effect of low voter turnout is as unpredictable as turnout overall.
So for all these reasons and others, no one can tell how this election will ultimately unfold. It would be a real tragedy, and an insult to democracy, if the election were to be decided by those who fail to vote, rather than by those who come out to vote for or against one of the two major candidates.
Alan M. Dershowitz is professor emeritus of law at Harvard University. Parts of this column are adapted from “Electile Dysfunction: A Guide for Unaroused Voters.’’