How did the Dutch pollsters get that election wrong?

John gave us an update on the Dutch elections after the polls closed last night and by this morning more solid figures had become available. Despite a groundswell of support over the winter and massive media attention internationally, Freedom Party (or “Party for Freedom”) candidate Geert Wilders came up short in his bid to unseat Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling party coalition. As recently as January some estimates were projecting that Wilders might carry as many as 26 or possibly even 30 seats in the lower house of Parliament. When the smoke cleared, the Freedom Party had made gains but still only wound up with 19. (New York Times)

The far-right politician Geert Wilders fell short of expectations in Dutch elections on Wednesday, gaining seats but failing to persuade a decisive portion of voters to back his extreme positions on barring Muslim immigrants and jettisoning the European Union, according to early results and exit polls.

The results were immediately cheered by pro-European politicians who hoped that they could help stall some of the momentum of the populist, anti-European Union and anti-Muslim forces Mr. Wilders has come to symbolize, and which have threatened to fracture the bloc.

Voters, who turned out in record numbers, nonetheless rewarded right and center-right parties that had co-opted parts of his hard-line message, including that of the incumbent prime minister, Mark Rutte. Some parties that challenged the establishment from the left made significant gains.

The headlines we’re seeing in more left-leaning outlets such as the New York Times article linked above are all crowing as if this were some sort of blanket rejection of Wilders and his policies. It was no doubt a disappointing finish for him, but that’s not at all an accurate description of what happened. In terms of a surprise when compared to the polls, the Dutch election was always going to be hard to pin down. There were no fewer than 28 parties in the scrum and more than a dozen wound up winning seats. Also, there were some late signs that the strong showing by the Freedom Party over the winter was beginning to lag as election day approached. Having led earlier, they had dropped back into second place by the beginning of March, though the race was still being described as neck and neck right up until this week. Momentum is always important in elections and it seemed to be shifting against the Freedom Party toward the end. A final factor in throwing off the poll numbers was the massive turnout. Roughly 80% of the eligible voters showed up to cast ballots, with many polling stations having to request additional ballots throughout the day. All of this made for a rather unpredictable mess.

It’s also worth noting that this was hardly some sort of “blowout victory” for the current Prime Minister and his party. They wound up losing seven seats even as Wilders gained four to reach a total of 19. Also, the so-called “right-wing” vote splintered a fair bit, with other parties espousing some (but not all) of the same positions as Wilders making significant gains. At the same time, the center-left Labour Party which is one of the biggest coalition allies with Rutte’s party took massive losses, dropping more than 20 seats.

A final point to consider is that during the final months of the race the current Prime Minister began adopting quite a bit of the right-wing rhetoric which Wilders employed throughout the campaign. Most observers saw this as a recognition on his part that popular sensibilities had been changing. That likely accounted for some of the recovery Rutte experienced in the polls during the final month of the campaign. Still, as Wilders himself pointed out after the polls closed, he’s not going anywhere and his platform will no doubt remain a significant part of the public conversation going forward.