Trump win: lessons from Zimbabwe

By Siobhan Fenton & Lenin Ndebele

AFTER one of the most extraordinary elections in history, Donald Trump became the most powerful man in the world, storming to victory to beat Hillary Clinton to become US president in results announced on Wednesday.

People both in the US, and around the world, are processing the result, which has come as a shock to many.

Throughout the campaigns and until the very last days, all – media organisations, social media and pollsters – appeared to suggest a victory for the Democratic politician by a comfortable margin with a solid six percent lead.

So how did the polls, journalists and the pundits get it so wrong? Just as with Brexit, the British 2015 general election and the Scottish referendum, the polls have set voters and pundits up for a fall.

Polling is major business around the world, with political campaigns pumping huge funding into them in a bid to gain a strategic advantage over rivals and prestigious universities and academics investing considerable time and intellectual effort in developing and backing particular models.

In the coming days, months and years, the polls which underestimated Trump will be pored over as statisticians scrutinise how and why they failed so spectacularly to spot the remarkable result. It will play a major part in the story of this election and how polling is perceived and performed in future.

Africans have seen it before, in Zimbabwe in particular, where Western-funded pollsters have tried to project how elections will go. As is often the case, the polls have raised hopes of an opposition victory which, when it does not come, has led to claims of rigging without any proof being produced.

Zimbabwean newspaper columnist and blogger Ranga Mberi says inaccurate projections have not proved too useful in the African context as they serve only to raise false hopes, which soon dissipate when the reality sets in.

“The US media and their pollsters learnt nothing from what we learnt in the Zimbabwean media in 2013: assume nothing, don’t believe your own hype, don’t believe only what you want to believe,” he said.

Said South African journalist, Sure Kamhunga: “Social media has never been, will never be for a long while, be the accurate measurement of political temperature in any country.”

Dr Phillan Zamchiya, a Zimbabwe political analyst, says social media, which is often used by people who are typically in the Diaspora or are not part of the critical masses in the rural areas, has announced false dawns.

“With Google and social media, many people have become political experts overnight.

They impose their views on the electorate, and base their analysis on how they would vote when put in the same shoes rather than on any scientific study,” he said.

“They feed the world with personal opinions disguised as scientific pieces.

Even established pollsters tend to rely on old, sticky paradigms that only serve as blinkers in the changing environment.

“The most dangerous part is that wrong predictions will continue home and abroad. Self-serving and self-appointed political experts, when they get it wrong like in Zimbabwe in 2013 (when President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF cruised to a crushing win), Brexit, Zambia 2016 and now Clinton, they rush to blame only voters as ‘irrational’ and the system as broken, which might be in some cases, but never their overnight acquired skills and flawed self-serving political analysis.”

Margaret Sullivan, a Media Columnist for the Washington Post, says the US election was also pregnant with lessons for journalists who “didn’t want to believe Trump could win, so they looked the other way”.

“To put it bluntly, the media missed the story. In the end, a huge number of American voters wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening.

They didn’t get it,” she says.

As the result showed, she said, journalists and pundits were caught up in projecting their own wishes as reality.

“Make no mistake. This is an epic fail. And although eating crow is never appealing, we’ll be digesting feathers and beaks in the next weeks and months — and maybe years,” she said.

Additional reporting: Independent (UK)

November 2016
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