Wayward Polls and Governors’ Races: Other Notes From a Tumultuous Election Night

November 09, 2016

Donald J. Trump, the Republican real-estate magnate and reality-TV star whose presidential campaign confounded political scientists, journalists, academics, and many others, was elected president of the United States in an outcome that became clear only on Wednesday morning.

What that means for the nation will be the focus of every news outlet; what it means for academe will be ours. In the meantime, it’s worth taking stock of other electoral developments that touched higher education. Here’s a look at a few of them.

A Polling Miss

It’s a question that will be asked over and over in the coming days, weeks, months: How could so many pollsters and analytics experts get the election so wrong?

Sam Wang, the Princeton University neuroscientist hailed by Wired this week as the “new king of the presidential-election data mountain,” has been using probabilistic analysis to forecast the elections since 2004. Four years ago he was one of a group of quants who, as The Chronicle’s Tom Bartlett put it, “won the election.” This year his Princeton Election Consortium had given Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, a 99-percent chance of winning in its final forecast, pegging her likely electoral votes at 323.

The point isn’t to pick on Mr. Wang. An overwhelming majority of data-crunchers missed Mr. Trump’s ascension — including, it seems, those conducting internal polls for the Democratic and Republican parties. And college polling institutes like the one at Monmouth University — which earned a coveted A-plus rating from the data-reporting site FiveThirtyEight — will certainly be conducting lengthy post-mortems.

One scholar did expect a Trump victory: Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, who, according to The Washington Post, has predicted three decades of presidential elections using a set of 13 true-or-false questions.

Does that mean that historical analysis outstrips quantitative work? Not necessarily. But this election campaign had already prompted political scientists and other scholars to rethink basic assumptions about political norms, strategies, and analytics. Now electoral forecasting will move to the top of that list, and scholars will have to play a major role in assessing the damage.

2 Controversial Governors

In 2015, Indiana’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, stoked campus outrage by signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a law that was viewed by many as discriminatory to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The following year North Carolina’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, did the same by signing House Bill 2, which barred people from using public restrooms that do not correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates.

Both governors seemed likely to face electoral repercussions for putting LGBT rights at the center of state politics. Facing a tight re-election campaign, Governor Pence dropped out of the race in July to become Mr. Trump’s vice-presidential candidate — a move depicted by many pundits as borne of desperation. Mr. McCrory, meanwhile, lagged behind his challenger, the Democrat Roy Cooper, in most October and November polls.

But Mr. Pence is now in line to be the next vice president. (Meanwhile, his Republican replacement in Indiana’s gubernatorial race, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, defeated his Democratic opponent, John Gregg.) Governor McCrory’s race, meanwhile, appeared to be headed for a recount as Mr. Cooper, the state’s attorney general, nursed a razor-thin lead.

Ballot Measures

Amid the shocking national results, a few states weighed in on ballot measures with a clear impact on academe.

Louisianans voted down a measure that would have allowed public colleges to set their own tuition and fees without legislative approval. The legislature will retain its ability to approve or reject tuition and fee increases.

In Alabama, voters approved a measure that would add two elected at-large board members to Auburn University’s Board of Trustees. The measure also would stagger the tenures of board members so that no more than three of their terms expire in any one calendar year.

The recreational use of marijuana, already legal in four states, was legalized in several more, including California, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Still, colleges must ban marijuana use on their campuses to remain eligible for federal funding.

Dan Bauman, Paul Basken, and Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz contributed to this report.

Brock Read is assistant managing editor for daily news at The Chronicle. He directs a team of editors and reporters who cover policy, research, labor, and academic trends, among other things. Follow him on Twitter @bhread, or drop him a line at