What Happened?

What the election polls this year say about market research, sports, and the way we make decisions.


Here we are. The election results are in and a new Commander in Chief (like him or not) has been chosen. Donald Trump not only shocked the world, but defied the predictions of almost every political poll.

While debates will continue about how Trump won the presidency, the question for those of us who live in the world of market research is not so much, “Did Trump defy the odds of probability?”, but rather our questions is: “Did the combined sciences of sampling, big data, and algorithms cover-up some hidden truths behind these polls? And more to our industry, “Are we too often making the same mistake in sports and sponsorship research?”

i-voted-todayWell, there are a multitude of explanations for the election predictions, including under-sampling, the heavy reliance on irrelevant data, flawed election models, and not enough differentiation between data collecting techniques. Another failing could be silent Trump supporters who were simply not honest with pollsters about who they were planning on voting for. (Years ago Performance Research had similar hurdles surveying WWE fans by phone, many of whom were “in the closet” so to speak about their attachment to the sport.)

More than 50 years ago a sociology professor named William Bruce Cameron published an article in the bulletin of American Association of University Professors titled “The Elements of Statistical Confusion”, and wrote, “It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Cameron would probably be annoyed that this quote is more often misattributed to Albert Einstein, but he would probably laugh at how adeptly his statement applies to the recent election, and possibly intrigued that we should apply the same thinking to sponsorship research.

Performance Research VP Bill Doyle was asked in late August to comment on a news story about Trump’s rise in popularity, and if parallels can be made to sports audiences that many elitist onlookers simply don’t understand- NASCAR, UFC, and WWE to name a few. Bill’s response was: “we don’t look solely at demographic similarities that build audiences for specific sports, but rather we dig for the emotional connection that ties fans together. Once you find those emotional triggers and passion points, the demographic data tends to take a back seat.”

That same point was made the day after the election by Tom O’Toole, former CMO of United Airlines, addressing the 2016 Momentum Sports Marketing Symposium “What can the sports industry learn from last night’s outcome? Marketing in the sports industry is driven by information, but it is also driven by passion and identity. And relying entirely on the information … while not fully taking into account the passion and identity can lead to very unexpected outcomes.” At the same conference, Todd Kline, Senior VP of the Miami Dolphins said, “Much like we have fans, these candidates do, too. You can never underestimate the passion fans have for you or for a candidate.”

Filmmaker Michael Moore got it right last July, writing, “In most elections, it’s hard to get even 50% to turn out to vote. Who is going to have the most motivated, most inspired voters show up to vote? You know the answer to this question. Who’s the candidate with the most rabid supporters? Whose crazed fans are going to be up at 5 AM on Election Day, kicking ass all day long, all the way until the last polling place has closed, making sure every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Bob and Joe and Billy Bob and Billy Joe and Billy Bob Joe) has cast his ballot.” Just like sports, passion in politics is contagious.

At Performance Research, the core of our sponsorship research has always been on the influence of passion. Survey numbers give us quick answers to simple questions, but quantitative surveys by themselves cannot tap into the emotional content and strength of conviction that decisions are interlaced with.

We share the excitement over big data analytics and advanced modeling in sports and sponsorship research, but we also believe in providing a balance between quantitative and qualitative data to create the most accurate report we can offer.

A November 10th New York Times article, “How Data Failed Us in Calling an Election”, quotes Thomas E. Mann, an election expert at the Brookings Institute: “If we could go back to the world of reporting being about the candidates and the parties and the issues at stake instead of the incessant coverage of every little blip in the polls, we would all be better off. They are addictive, and it takes the eye off the ball.”

And maybe that’s the tie between the election, sports marketing research, and the way we make decisions: Don’t ever take your eye off the ball.