Trump and Sanders leave pundits floundering

The unlikely lads: Trump and Sanders are preparing for the Iowa caucuses on Monday.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were written off by commentators. But as Americans prepare to choose their next president, both are threatening to spring shocks. Have the experts lost touch?

In an episode of The Simpsons in 2000, 10-year-old Bart had a vision of his sister, Lisa, becoming President of the United States.

As she took her seat in the Oval Office, she addressed her aides. ‘As you know, we’ve inherited quite the budget crunch from President Trump.’

Her words are beginning to look prophetic. On Monday, the people of Iowa will take part in the first contests of the 2016 US election. Among Republican Party voters, Donald Trump is scoring twice as highly as his nearest competitor in national polls. In one survey, published on Saturday, Trump’s lead was over 30%.

The Simpsons’ prediction contrasts with those made by political commentators. Last year, experts repeatedly suggested the controversial businessman’s campaign had reached ‘the beginning of the end’. In September, statistician Nate Silver gave Trump only a 5% chance of winning his party’s nomination.

The Republicans’ Democratic opponents are witnessing a strong insurgent challenge of their own. Pollsters now say Bernie Sanders — a 74-year-old Senator who only recently joined the party — is likely to win the crucial early state of New Hampshire. During a debate last week, Sanders’ name was the most searched on Google in every US state.

Trump says he is ‘very, very angry’ and his campaign tagline is ‘Make America Great Again’. ‘Our country is being run by incompetent people,’ he said last week. He has attracted attention for radical policies, such as placing a temporary ‘shutdown’ on Muslim immigration and pledging to kill terrorists’ families.

Sanders has called for a ‘political revolution’. Inequality has been the central focus of his campaign: he has frequently attacked ‘the billionaire class’ and says the economy is ‘rigged’. His programme includes providing healthcare as ‘a right’ and making college tuition free.

Voters defied expectations in several elections last year. In Greece, the populist left-wing Syriza party was elected twice, while pollsters failed to predict results correctly in the UK, Poland and Argentina.

Out of touch?

The pundits have lost touch, say some. They spend their time concerned with the politics of personality and writing about intrigue in the corridors of power. Meanwhile, as globalisation brings rapid economic and social change, voters’ opinions are becoming more diverse. The rules of the game have changed, and the experts do not realise it.

That’s not true, say others. Voting intentions may change, but people’s most pressing concerns do not — they want to feel secure in their jobs and live freely and safely. Fringe candidates may get the most attention, but they do not represent most people. The pundits usually speak for a sensible majority.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel confident making predictions?
  2. Have political commentators lost touch with voters’ intentions?


  1. Go on the FiveThirtyEight website (under Become An Expert). Create a graph showing how the polls have changed for the presidential candidates over the last six months.
  2. Get into groups of three. Two of you should each choose a candidate for president who you would like to be. Research their policies and then prepare to debate each other. The third person should prepare, and ask, the questions.

Some People Say...

“The issues we care about do not change over time.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do people care about the US election so much?
The USA is currently the world’s leading superpower in most regards, and its foreign policy has a major impact on economic and social circumstances around the world. The next president will make an important impact on global issues such as tackling jihadist terrorist groups (including Daesh), climate change and international trade policy.
Do I prefer the Republicans or the Democrats?
The Republicans are generally regarded as more right-wing; the Democrats are more left-wing. Republicans tend to be more conservative, meaning they support lower taxes, a tougher foreign policy and a Christian social policy. Democrats tend to prefer more state spending, a more conciliatory foreign policy, and a liberal attitude to social policy.

Word Watch

The two main US parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. Each party will nominate a candidate for the general election in November. Both parties begin by holding caucus gatherings in Iowa on Monday.
According to the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s current polling average is 36%. His nearest rival is the staunch conservative Ted Cruz, on 18%.
This was an online poll by Ipsos.
Between July and September alone, political pundits and strategists publicly used the phrase ‘beginning of the end’ 33 times in reference to Trump’s campaign.
Nate Silver
The founder of FiveThirtyEight. Silver correctly predicted the outcome in 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election. In 2012, he called all 50 correctly.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was initially regarded as the overwhelming favourite for the Democratic nomination. Last March, for example, commentator Fernando Espuelas wrote: ‘Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party’s nominee’.
FiveThirtyEight gives Sanders a 70% chance of winning the state.

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