You won’t be surprised to learn that I see a lot of similarities between hurricane forecasting and election forecasting — and between the media’s coverage of Irma and its coverage of the 2016 campaign. In recent elections, the media has often overestimated the precision of polling, cherry-picked data and portrayed elections as sure things when that conclusion very much wasn’t supported by polls or other empirical evidence.
As I’ve documented throughout this series, polls and other data did not support the exceptionally high degree of confidence that news organizations such as The New York Times regularly expressed about Hillary Clinton’s chances. (We’ve been using the Times as our case study throughout this series, both because they’re such an important journalistic institution and because their 2016 coverage had so many problems.) On the contrary, the more carefully one looked at the polling, the more reason there was to think that Clinton might not close the deal. In contrast to President Obama, who overperformed in the Electoral College relative to the popular vote in 2012, Clinton’s coalition (which relied heavily on urban, college-educated voters) was poorly configured for the Electoral College. In contrast to 2012, when hardly any voters were undecided between Obama and Mitt Romney, about 14 percent of voters went into the final week of the 2016 campaign undecided about their vote or saying they planned to vote for a third-party candidate. And in contrast to 2012, when polls were exceptionally stable, they were fairly volatile in 2016, with several swings back and forth between Clinton and Trump — including the final major swing of the campaign (after former FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress), which favored Trump.