An Election Year Lesson in Anecdotes

Bernie Sanders at a rally in New York before Primary Day.  Source: Justin Lane/EPA.

Bernie Sanders at a rally in New York before Primary Day.  Source: Justin Lane/EPA.

28,000.   Stories of enthusiastic crowds all over NY State were a familiar news story leading up to the primary. Pundits proclaiming that the enthusiastic crowds were a pre-cursor to a potentially shocking upset victory in NY that would betray the polls.

Hillary Clinton won by a little over 300,000 votes, taking 58% of the vote.  As described in this article from Vice News:

His defeat in New York was bleak.  Despite record-setting rally turnouts of 28,000 and a grassroots effort manned by some of his most vocal and vehement supporters both on and offline in the Empire State, Sanders' momentum after eight straight primary victories failed to translate to the polls in New York on Tuesday.

This political narrative reminded me of one of my favorite quotes in the book-- "The plural of anecdote is not data."   Large, boisterous crowds are anecdotes.  But having a large crowd doesn't necessarily mean that it will translate to broader support on election day.  The same narrative was reflected in the 2012 Presidential Election.   Here is a description of Mitt Romney's shock on Election Day from CBS News:

"He was shellshocked," one adviser said of Romney.

Romney and his campaign had gone into the evening confident they had a good path to victory, for emotional and intellectual reasons. The huge and enthusiastic crowds in swing state after swing state in recent weeks - not only for Romney but also for Paul Ryan - bolstered what they believed intellectually: that Obama would not get the kind of turnout he had in 2008.

Large crowds may be energizing for candidates, and may well be a sign of a deeply loyal following.  But, when you are dealing with millions of potential voters, tens of thousands of supporters is merely an anecdote.