An App Saw Trump Winning Swing States When Polls Didn't

Nov 10, 2016
Originally published on November 11, 2016 1:05 pm

In 2016, the polls got it wrong. They failed to predict that Donald Trump was winning key battleground states. But a startup in San Francisco says it spotted it well in advance, not because of the "enthusiasm gap" — Republicans turning out and Democrats staying at home. Instead, the startup Brigade's data pointed to a big crossover effect: Democrats voting for Trump in droves.

The company built an app that asks a simple question: Which candidate are you going to vote for?

It's like what boots-on-the-ground organizers do. Though there is one big difference. In the physical world, most people aren't wearing their candidate button for the 18 months leading up to the election.

On the app, Brigade CEO Matt Mahan explains, people share their pledge and invite their friends.

"It's a little bit of a change from what most people are used to. People don't go around in the offline world broadcasting [whom] they're voting for," he says. "They may share it with friends or family. But I think many people feel that it's a fairly private decision."

The app seemed to work. It has nearly 200,000 verified users — not just signups or Twitter bots or trolls, but citizens the startup has crosschecked with voter registration records to confirm identity.

When Mahan looked at the pledges, he didn't see data among Republican voters to back up the trending hashtag #NeverTrump. Among registered voters on Brigade, 94.5 percent of Republicans pledged to vote for Trump and only 2.2 percent pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton.

That's roughly what you'd expect.

Here's where it gets fascinating: On the Democratic side, Mahan explains, "we saw something entirely different." Only 55 percent of registered Democrats pledged to vote for the Democratic nominee.

It's not the Bernie Sanders effect. This result is in the general election, after the primaries. It looks more like the Trump effect. Of Brigade's verified voters, 40 percent of registered Democrats pledged to vote for Trump.

Brigade saw this pattern back in September. But the company didn't trust it because its user base skews conservative. Even though Brigade was started by liberals in San Francisco, it went viral in Republican circles.

Once the election happened, however, it realized it was on to something after all.

Company analysts noticed that their data foreshadowed the outcome in states where Trump beat the predictions, as stated on Nate Silver's popular site FiveThirtyEight.

Let's take the swing state North Carolina. Trump beat the final prediction on FiveThirtyEight by 4.5 percentage points. According to the app, it was also a state where about 25 percent more than Brigade's baseline of Democrats pledged to vote for Trump. That is, when Brigade analysts compared North Carolina to the overall baseline of Democrats crossing over on the app — the analysts saw it happening even more, at this far higher rate there.

The same thing happened in another swing state, Pennsylvania, where Democrats on the app appeared 15 percent more likely to cross over.

(Small note: Michigan voter records don't provide party affiliation, so Brigade couldn't analyze that state).

In contrast, registered Democrats on Brigade were 30 percent less likely to cross over and pledge for Trump in Nevada. Trump underperformed FiveThirtyEight's forecast in that state by 1.2 percentage points.

These crossover effects break political science as we know it. For months, the media have been telling the story of how Trump has upended the Republican Party. Turns out there were early signs he's upending the Democratic Party, too — and possibly with the voters you'd least expect, like women.

Mahan's team is still poring over the data, and he shares a fresh finding. "Interestingly one of the data points we just pulled in the last hour indicated that a higher percentage of these registered Democrats crossing over to vote for Trump were women," he says.

In states with outcomes that didn't match the polling results (i.e., Trump did better than expected), Brigade saw white women registered as Democrats pledge their vote to Trump at a much greater rate (170 percent) than the country as a whole.

Mahan says researchers and pollsters should drill into the states were Trump outperformed the polls, to look closely at what registered Democrats did, and why.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In this election, polls failed to predict that President-elect Donald Trump was winning key battleground states, but a start-up in San Francisco had spotted that advantage well in advance. It wasn't because of an enthusiasm gap - Republicans turning out, and Democrats staying at home. Instead, the start-up's data pointed to a big crossover effect - Democrats voting for Trump in droves. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: The start-up Brigade built an app and asked a simple question - who are you going to vote for? - pretty much like boots-on-the-ground organizers do in the physical world, though CEO Matt Mahan explains one big difference is that people share their pledge.

MATT MAHAN: It's a little bit of a change from what most people are used to. People don't go around in the offline world broadcasting who they're voting for. They may share it with friends or family, but I think many people feel that it's a fairly private decision.

SHAHANI: Most people aren't wearing their button for, like, the 18 months leading up to the election.

MAHAN: That's right.

SHAHANI: The app seemed to work. Brigade has gotten nearly 200,000 unique users - not Twitter bots or trolls, but citizens the start-up has cross-checked with voter registration records to verify identity. And when Mahan looked at the pledges, he sees data to back up that popular hashtag, #NeverTrump, among Republican voters.

MAHAN: So for registered voters on Brigade, 95 percent of Republicans pledged to vote for Donald Trump and only 2.2 percent pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton.

SHAHANI: That's roughly what you'd expect. Here's where it gets fascinating.

MAHAN: On the Democratic side, we saw something entirely different. Of our universe of registered voters, only 55 percent of registered Democrats pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton.

SHAHANI: Repeat - 55 percent, just a little more than half. I ask for a clarification.

And is this while Bernie was still in the race?

MAHAN: This is during the general election.

SHAHANI: So it's not the Bernie Sanders effect. It's Trump.

MAHAN: Forty percent of registered Democrats pledged to vote for Donald Trump.

SHAHANI: I'm sorry. How many?

MAHAN: Forty percent.

SHAHANI: Brigade saw this pattern back in September, but they didn't trust it because their user base skews conservative. Even though the company was started by liberals in San Francisco, it went viral in Republican circles. Once the election happened, brigade realized, oh, yeah, we were on to something. Let's take the swing state North Carolina. Brigade's Aleks Mistratov.

ALEKS MISTRATOV: Donald Trump beat the final projection by 4.5 percent. And it was also a state where about 25 percent more than our baseline of Democrats pledged to vote for Donald Trump.

SHAHANI: That is, when he compared North Carolina to the overall baseline of Democrats crossing over on the app, he saw it happening even more at a far higher rate there. And it happened in other swing states, like Pennsylvania. These results break political science as we know it. For months, we've been telling the story of how Trump has upended the Republican Party. Turns out, there were early signs that he's upending the Democratic Party, too, and possibly with the voters you'd least expect, like women.

MISTRATOV: Interestingly, one of the data points we just pulled in the last hour indicated that a higher percentage of these registered Democrats crossing over to vote for Trump were women.

SHAHANI: Huh (ph).

MISTRATOV: Yeah, it's interesting.

SHAHANI: Mahan says researchers, pollsters should drill into the states where Donald Trump outperformed the polls and look closely at what registered Democrats did and why. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.