‘October surprises’ and Electoral College in focus as US presidential election nears

October 26, 2020

ABU DHABI — One week before the US presidential election, opinion polls predicting the winner have become a major focus but election watchers are keenly looking at whether "October surprises" and Electoral College votes will alter the predictions.

Although major opinion polls have given an edge to Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden over the incumbent President and Republican candidate Donald Trump, everyone is closely watching the factors that may influence the voters in the final leg of the campaign ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

"The October surprise idea is that something is going to happen at the very end of the election that could affect things, but nobody knows what it's going to be ahead of time. That's why it's a surprise," according to an expert.

"Just to give one example, some people attribute former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey's letter in the 2016 campaign about Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server to October Surprise," said Dr. Doug Schwartz, director and vice president of Quinnipiac University Poll, at a recent virtual briefing organized by the US State Department's Foreign Press Center.

He pointed out that Comey’s letter on investigating then-Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came out ten days before the election.

"And some folks say that the last-minute shift or the last-minute late deciders going for Trump was caused by that. And so, it affected the election, but pollsters didn't know that it was going to happen. We just keep polling," said Schwartz who leads one of the most respected polls of national and state-wide opinion.

Hillary Clinton had a bigger lead in national and state polls but after Comey’s letter emerged, the gap between two candidates narrowed in the final week of the campaign, he said.

Dr. Schwartz began his career as a survey associate with the CBS News election and survey unit, and as an election night analyst. He has taught courses on polling methodology and has served as president of the American Association for Public Opinion, Research, New England chapter.

The polls conducted by him have also predicted a lead for Joe Biden.

Schwartz said pollsters have rectified the flaws in 2016 polls that underestimated Donald Trump's support base.

"You may have heard a lot about education subgroups in particular as the 2016 election put white voters without a college degree into the spotlight. They were a key part of President Trump's base and an important factor in what happened with polling in 2016," noted the pollster, adding that pollsters have improvised some other methodologies as well afterward.

Electoral college

A single state can be decisive in the presidential election because of the way the US electoral system works, Schwartz said.

This is because the president is determined not by the national popular vote, but by the Electoral College.

Each state is designated a certain number of Electoral College votes based on the size of the state's population. In almost every state, whoever wins the majority of the votes in that state gets all of the Electoral College votes. A candidate needs 270 out of 538 electoral college votes to win the election.

Explaining the system, another expert said, basically, in the US Constitution and in federal law, "we have no federal constitutional right to vote for president or vice president, instead we vote for presidential electors."

Dr. Lonna Rae Atkeson, Professor and Director, Institute for Social Research, University of New Mexico, said mostly the popular vote and the Electoral College vote align and historically pollsters have been depending on the popular vote to predict the Electoral College vote.

It worked like that in 53 out of 58 Presidential Elections in the past.

Donald Trump was one of the five presidents who did not win the popular vote to become the president.

Other four were: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000, she said. — WAM

October 26, 2020
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