In close contests, final Elon Poll foreshadowed Election Day results
The Elon University Poll conducted three surveys this fall, with the final one coming a little more than a week before Election Day.
Election Day saw Republican Donald Trump create a path to the presidency that included winning closely contested battleground states, catching off guard many around the country attempting to predict the outcome of top races.
It also saw a verification of the trends and insights gathered by the Elon University Poll, with its final survey conducted a little more than a week before Election Day closely mirroring the results in North Carolina when voters cast their ballots on Nov. 8. The poll's accuracy in predicting the preferences of North Carolina voters stands out as many are calling into question the results from national and regional polls that badly missed the mark leading up to Election Day.
The poll identified the trend of growing support for Trump in North Carolina with its survey results for the presidential race just outside the margin of error. The final Elon Poll of the season also pointed to a widening gap in the U.S. Senate race that saw incumbent Republican Richard Burr hold onto his seat, and found Republican Gov. Pat McCrory trailing Democrat Roy Cooper by 0.1 percentage points — the exact margin on Election Day that has that contest heading for a recount.
“The Elon Poll was remarkably accurate on the North Carolina gubernatorial race,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll and assistant professor of political science. “Additionally, we were very close on the U.S. Senate race. We showed Senator Burr ahead and gaining momentum.”
In the presidential race, the results of the last Elon Poll of the campaign season released on Nov. 1 found a tie between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, with each capturing 43.5 percent of the vote when taking into account which way undecided voters were leaning. That puts the results just outside the 3.7-point margin of error in the final results, which saw Trump pull in 49.9 percent of the vote to Clinton's 46.1 percent share — a gap of 3.8 points.
Husser notes that the Elon Poll completed its survey the day before FBI Director James Comey announced a renewed investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State, a top issue for Trump in his attacks on Clinton that locally and nationally appeared to strengthen Trump's numbers heading toward Election Day.
“The last Elon Poll found that the Trump and Clinton were essentially tied in North Carolina,” Husser notes. “However, we also found Trump gaining substantial ground in key demographic groups and that undecided voters were breaking Republican. The FBI investigation after our results only added to this trend. North Carolina going for Trump was no surprise to me based on our final Elon Poll.”
Looking back across the Elon Poll's surveys of the fall, results in mid-September found Trump with a 1.4-point lead in North Carolina that by the end of the month, and following the first presidential debate, had been erased.
Results for a Sept. 27-30 survey reported in early October found Clinton enjoying a sizable bump from her debate performance with a nearly 6 point lead. But by the final Elon Poll of the fall, that lead had vanished in North Carolina as the race had tightened nationally, with the two candidates essentially tied in the state.
Shifting to the N.C. governor's race, the Election Day tally ended with Democrat Roy Cooper ahead by 5,001 votes out of nearly 4.7 million cast. That translated into Cooper capturing 48.97 percent compared to McCrory's 48.86 percent, with a recount and accounting of provisional ballots in the race now underway.
The results and what will likely be a slim margin of victory in the race mirror what the Elon Poll found in its Oct. 23-27 survey of likely North Carolina voters. That survey of 710 likely voters found a virtual tie between McCrory and Cooper, with 44.4 percent of voters preferring Cooper and 44.3 percent backing McCrory.
One of the earliest races called in North Carolina on Election Day was the U.S. Senate contest, with Burr winning a third term in the U.S. Senate as his support grew in the final weeks of the campaign. The Elon Poll found the race essentially tied during its surveys in September and early October, but its final survey a little more than a week before the election showed the race had shifted toward Burr.
The final Elon Poll conducted Oct. 23-27 found Burr with a 3.6-point lead — slightly inside the margin of error for the survey of 3.7 percentage points. Burr was able to widen his lead by Election Day, and finished with a 5.8-point win over Democrat Deborah Ross.
“At the Elon Poll we went to great effort to develop a high-quality sample,” Husser added. “Our accuracy, despite an election cycle with substantial error, is due in large part to using best scientific practices to find hard-to-reach voters while achieving a high response rate.”
Conducted in the fall and spring of every academic year, the Elon University Poll was started in 2000 and is fully funded by Elon University as a public service to citizens. It is a neutral, independent operation that does not do contract work. The poll uses live, trained interviewers operating in a computer-assisted telephone lab on campus.