Polling is a funny business. This New Yorker article by Jill Lepore traces how the modern opinion poll began, how its purpose has morphed, why polls get it wrong, and how difficult it is to get people to talk to the pollsters in the digital age:
Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal has recalled how, in the nineteen-eighties, when the response rate at the firm where he was working had fallen to about sixty per cent, people in his office said, “What will happen when it’s only twenty? We won’t be able to be in business!” A typical response rate is now in the single digits.
Imperfections notwithstanding, in an election year everyone watches the polls. And the big news in the last couple of weeks is the surge by Democrat hopeful and proud socialist Bernie Sanders. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll, for example, has Hillary Clinton and Sanders deadlocked in Iowa and New Hampshire. A slew of similar poll results prompted the Clinton campaign to hit the phones and ask for cash, warning supporters the race is going to be much tighter than anticipated.
No doubt all of the respective campaign HQs are also checking that other, often more reliable, predictor of electoral outcomes, the betting odds.
This recent piece on the Betfair website suggests those who have put money on Clinton shouldn't be panicking. Yet.
While Hillary Clinton is regarded near-certain to be the Democratic Nominee at odds of 1.12, equating to an 89% chance, Bernie Sanders is odds-on favourite to win the New Hampshire Primary at 1.70 (59%).
This contrast can be explained by the fact Sanders represents neighbouring Vermont — a similarly disproportionately white state — and because he's throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at this race. Nevertheless, the momentum a win would bring could yet make the Democrat race more interesting and give odds-on money-buyers a scare.
And what of the betting on the Republican primary race? Here, as seemingly everywhere in this election cycle, Trump dominates. The Betfair odds have him at 2:1, or a 48% to win the nomination, though Ted Cruz is odds on to beat Trump in the Iowa caucuses.
So here is the burning question; could we possibly have a Sanders vs Trump race to the White House? It would be unwise to discount the possibility suggests this sobering read from Bloomberg's John Micklethwaite, who suggests 2016 could be the year for the '20%' politician.
Gamblers, who have been much better at predicting political results than pollsters, currently put the odds of the hard-to-pin-down-but-generally-right-wing billionaire reaching the White House at about 6-1, or 17 per cent. Interestingly, those are about the same odds as the ones offered on Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader of the Labour Party for a generation, becoming the next British prime minister. In France, gamblers put the likelihood of Marine Le Pen winning France's presidency in 2017 at almost 25 per cent.
Other once-unthinkable possibilities could rapidly become realities. The United States' version of Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, whom Trump recently described as a 'wacko', is currently trading at about 5 per cent, no worse than Jeb Bush. Plus, Sanders has assembled the sort of Corbynite coalition of students, pensioners and public-sector workers that tends to outperform in primaries. If Hillary Clinton stumbles into another scandal, the Democrats could yet find themselves with a socialist contending for the national ticket.