At a time when opinion polls should be more sophisticated and accurate than ever, how come election results can’t be precisely predicted long before the first vote is cast? The answer given most often by pollsters is how people say they’ll vote and what they actually do on the day are two very different things.
This is one of the reasons why, when you look at the US Presidential election odds from Betfair, the clear lead that Joe Biden has over Donald Trump may be a little misleading. After all, a number have pundits have suggested that Trump’s own particular style and image mean that many voters will choose him on November 3rd but are reluctant to admit it to a pollster or other interviewer in advance.
That the unexpected can happen certainly proved to be the case in 2016 when Hilary Clinton was predicted to romp to victory. But the combination of a very effective Trump campaign, allied with the voting system that includes the United States Electoral College, scuppered her chances and surprised the world.
However, even here in the UK, we have had our own collection of surprise results including quite a number of elections since the Second World War that didn’t turn out quite as planned.
The first of these came right at the end of the six-year conflict. Having led the country through its “darkest hour” it might have been anticipated that Churchill’s position was secure for some time to come. But, to the astonishment of many – not least Churchill himself – Clement Attlee’s Labour Party won by a landslide. As a result, the shape of Britain was changed forever with the establishment of the welfare state as well as that administration’s greatest legacy of all, the National Health Service.
Moving on several decades to 1979, the way in which the Conservatives swept into power led by Margaret Thatcher was an equally astonishing result for the country. It was also one that was to see another 18 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule during which the country underwent changes in many different ways.
So when Tony Blair’s New Labour deposed the Tories in 1997 this was another astonishing result that was presented by the party who had suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in power as being a “new dawn”. Once again, it was one that the polls had failed to accurately predict and which involved many high-profile Conservative MPs losing what had once been considered to be safe seats.
But, fast-forward to 2019 and the boot was very firmly on the other foot. When Boris Johnson’s government secured a previously inconceivable 80 seat majority it once again confounded many predictions, not least because so many seemingly safe Labour seats had turned blue.
In this case, it was Brexit that was offered as an explanation and there’s every chance that a single issue like the economy or social order could swing the US Election in an equally unexpected direction. But at least we won’t have to wait long to find out.