Pollster: Don't blame us for 2016, data sites like FiveThirtyEight made people think Trump had no chance

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE surprised most political observers (and himself) by winning the 2016 presidential election, but since his victory the president and his supporters have been casting blame on the polling industry for allegedly making bad predictions.

But were pollsters actually mistaken in 2016? According to Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll and an assistant professor of political science at Marist College, pollsters didn't call the Trump-Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE contest incorrectly. It was political data analysis sites that got people thinking that Trump had no chance.

"That's wrong," Miringoff said in panel discussion featured on "What America's Thinking," Hill.TV's new show about public opinion, when asked about the common perception that pollsters messed up in 2016.

"I think there was a whole bunch of other stuff going on, but there were also these forecasters who really took hold. FiveThirtyEight, YouGov, HuffPost — they were the ones who were 'modeling' things. They were taking some polls, putting it in their special sauce," Miringoff told host Joe Concha in reference to several sites that featured probability analyses based upon aggregated polling data.

All of the major political data publications pegged Clinton's chances of victory at greater than 70 percent. FiveThirtyEight, which is now owned by ABC News, gave Trump the highest probability, 29 percent, a decision that some left-leaning political observers criticized.

"If you tell someone they've got a 71 percent chance of winning, people think that that's going to happen," Miringoff continued. "If you say it's going to be a 71 percent chance that it's going to rain, and you bring an umbrella and it doesn't rain, you don't care so much. But with the presidency of the United States, it makes a whole big difference."

Ultimately, Miringoff added, it was not polling operations that called the 2016 election incorrectly.

"The models got it wrong, the polls did not have a bad day."

The Marist Poll’s final survey estimated Clinton's margin of victory at 2 percent. The final RealClearPolitics average of national surveys before the election indicated the Democrat would win the popular vote by 3 percentage points. In the officially certified tally, Clinton received 2.1 percent more votes nationwide than Trump.

Later in his remarks, Miringoff urged political observers not to become fixated on a single way of thinking about an upcoming contest, particularly the upcoming congressional elections this year.

"We can't get stuck on a fixed narrative," the pollster said. "Hillary Clinton's going to win, Hillary Clinton's going to win, Hillary Clinton's going to win. Oh, she didn't win. Right now it's blue wave, blue wave, blue wave."

Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight's founder, has defended the practice of assigning percentages to candidates' chances. In a post-election column, he also defended pollsters.

"We strongly disagree with the idea that there was a massive polling error," he wrote. "Instead, there was a modest polling error, well in line with historical polling errors, but even a modest error was enough to provide for plenty of paths to victory for Trump. We think people should have been better prepared for it."

—Matthew Sheffield