WASHINGTON — What can Brexit tell us about how our own election is going?
Republican pollsters say not much: Unlike the Republican primaries, when Donald Trump led polls to disbelief from elites — not unlike elite reaction to Leave voters in the United Kingdom — Trump trails in general election polling currently.
The whole world has been in a state of shock since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union early Friday. Near the end of the EU referendum campaign in Great Britain, several polls showed that the Remain side was pulling ahead. But the result, of course, was a stunning victory for Leave, and indeed there had also been recent polling showing Leave ahead.
But the late Remain-favoring polls — plus the fact betting markets were anticipating a Remain win — made it so nearly everyone seemed taken by surprise. Already, stories are trickling out about “secret Leave voters” and people who voted Leave as a protest but never actually expected it to happen. But Republican polling experts contacted by BuzzFeed News said there’s little evidence of a shy-Trump-voter phenomenon here in the U.S.
“We should take the polls at face value, and assume there is an equal chance of them being wrong in either direction,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican digital strategist. “If the polls suggest Trump could win, then that means he can actually win. There is no magic elixir that will pull the electorate back to its historical norms if the polls show an electorate in revolt.”
This is a lesson that wasn’t learned until very late in the primary, when it had by then become clear that theories about Trump voters not actually turning out to vote despite saying they were supporting him were wrong.
“We certainly didn't see that in the primary (a shy Trump effect),” said Chris Wilson, who was Ted Cruz’s director of research, analytics and digital strategy. “It's plausible, but doubtful. It's far more likely the British polling was just wrong.”
“There are a lot of reasons British polls are wrong,” Wilson said. “The primary one is they don’t have accurate electoral statistics to stratify against like I would with our surveys.”
“The U.K. doesn't have the same level of voter data that we have in the U.S. to make sure polling samples are representative of the true electorate,” Ruffini agreed.
As Nate Cohn pointed out, only four of the last 11 Brexit polls showed Leave in the lead — enough to contribute to a sense of momentum for Remain. However, there had been enough evidence throughout the campaign that Leave stood a good chance, including previous polls that showed it ahead. The polling for Brexit seemed to favor Remain, but it wasn’t overall decisively wrong.
The problem with polls is that they can’t definitively predict unknowns — like if a person will truly show up to vote, people who might change their minds late in the game, and so on.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said that the Brexit vote could provide a lesson for those watching the polling here in the U.S.
“All the polls had Remain winning at the end,” Luntz said. “The problem is measuring turnout and late deciders. Polls still don't do that well. And yes, that does have an impact on the polling in America. The exits had a hard time measuring Trump's support. Often they overestimated it, but just as often they projected less than what he actually received.”
“Polling should be used to understand the vote, NOT predict it,” Luntz said.
Still, the general election does bring some uncertain variables, Republican pollster Glen Bolger said.
“I don’t think anyone can definitely say it’s a sure thing, but I would be hesitant to say that it is not possible,” Bolger said of the possibility of shy Trump voters in the general election. While Republican primary voters might not feel shy about admitting to a pollster that they support Trump, some independents in the general election could.
“In a general election, you might have independent voters who are a little more reluctant to come out of the Trump closet,” Bolger said with a touch of irony.
One of the issues with the way the Brexit polls were interpreted was an elite belief that a Leave win was out of the question, despite evidence to the contrary. This mirrors the way the conventional wisdom on Trump continued to discount the probability of his winning the nomination even after he had won several primaries and had been the frontrunner for months — simply put, political insiders out of touch with a resurgent populist mood in the country just didn’t consider it a real possibility.
“The markets discounting a Brexit were more about elite biases than what the data actually showed,” Ruffini said. “Likewise, in the Republican primary, there was a widespread expectation that voters would ‘come home’ to a normal candidate. But through the polls, voters were telling us where ‘home’ was for them. Elites chose to ignore it.”
“So many of these Trump voters had never actually voted in a Republican primary, making it difficult to project their behavior,” Luntz said.
But that was the primary. This is the general, and Trump has been consistently behind Clinton in head-to-head polling matchups. And now the polls aren’t measuring the Republican primary electorate, but the general election electorate, which includes large blocs of voters hostile to Trump, like college-educated women.
Trump is also now moving from the primary — dominated by white, older voters — to a much more diverse general electorate. And diversity can play a role in outcomes: Nonwhite voters in the U.K. voted Remain — but the U.K. is significantly less diverse than the United States.
And the U.S. presidential election is very different from a purely issue-based referendum.
“The forces that drove the Leave campaign are very similar to the forces that drove Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who worked on Marco Rubio’s campaign this cycle. “The difference is the Brexit did not have a candidate — it was simply a policy choice. And a huge part of a vote for president involves an evaluation of who has the leadership and character to lead the country and the free world, and that is a very, very large component of a presidential choice.”