Four years ago I predicted that Romney would win the election because the polls were wrong, and when he lost I wrote another post in which I claimed that I was correct even though Obama won. Those posts are no longer available online because the blogging platform I was using (Posterous.com) is out of business, thank you very much, but I have pasted them here and here.
Now that the pollsters have been shocked in 2016, I feel vindicated from four years ago. The most important point I made then is that the aggregated RealClearPolitics polls had Obama winning by 0.7% but he won by 3.9%. In other words, the 2012 polls were off by three percentage points but no one cared because they were off in the right direction.
This year the polls were also off by two to three percentage points but they were off in the “wrong” direction. I think it’s clear that we should take pollsters seriously when they talk about a margin of error. And maybe we should stop calling what they do “data science” and start calling it “data estimating.”
Polls that predict what people will do are notoriously squishy . When you think of how hard it is to get anyone on the phone these days, especially young, African American and Latino voters, it’s amazing they come as close as they do. The problem is bad enough with national polls that have big sample sizes and frequent surveying, but the problems with state polls, which have smaller sample sizes and fewer surveys, is even worse.
In any event, it seemed to me there were three big problems with the way the polls were analyzed this year:
- The assumption that African Americans would turn out for Hillary Clinton with the same enthusiasm they did for Barak Obama was crazy and should have been seen as crazy at the time. Yet big African American turnout was baked into all the models.
- The idea that women would automatically vote for Hillary because of her gender was also self-delusional. If political strategists expected women to abandon their political beliefs just because of the gender of the candidate, they should ask themselves whether women would have been as excited about the first female nominee if it had been Sarah Palin instead of Hillary Clinton. Well, Hillary Clinton is about as popular among Republican women as Palin is among Democratic women. Why should Republican women vote for Clinton if Democratic women wouldn’t have voted for Palin?
- The polls consistently showed Clinton with a two-to-four percent lead nationally but also winning the battleground states, even though most of her national votes were coming in states like California and New York. In other words, if she was winning by three million votes nationally but was winning CA and NY by six million votes, that meant she was behind in the rest of the country. That math never added up.
I’m not really here to beat up on the pollsters but I do think the people who people who are supposed to interpret them let us down this year. Was there ever a greater failure of group-think than what happened in 2016? The media fed the narrative that Trump was going to lose because that’s what they fervently desired; in turn Trump supporters (like the Brexit supporters before them) either lied to pollsters or avoided them altogether; and any poll that didn’t follow the group think was immediately derided by the their colleagues. It became a vicious circle of pollsters and media deluding themselves into complacency and not really thinking hard about their assumptions.
Some other thoughts are the election.
— The best campaigner wins. This should be obvious but the presidential race is always a contest between two people. Political scientists (that misapplied word again: “scientist”) want to argue that demographic trends, ideology, economic fissures, etc. are what drive campaigns. Maybe, but it’s also true that in every campaign since 1968 (when Humphrey was arguably a better campaigner than Nixon), the most charismatic politician has won. Think about it: Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Reagan were all gifted politicians and much more appealing than their hapless rivals (Romney, McCain, Kerry, Gore, Dole, Bush 41, Mondale, Carter). The first George Bush and Jimmy Carter were not great politicians but they were lucky enough to face Michael Dukakis and Jerry Ford. For all his faults, Trump is a powerful campaigner, although you’d never know it because the media only covered the craziest things he said at his rallies. And of course Hillary Clinton is a stiff who didn’t have a common touch. Lesson for the parties: get the candidate who can do the best job of rousing your base by articulating their hopes, dreams and fears.
— Hillary Fatigue. Another clue that Clinton was going to have a tough time: No President has ever been elected who’s been in the public eye for more than 20 years. The record belongs to Nixon, who came to prominence during the Alger Hiss case of 1948 and was elected president in 1968. And Nixon was an outlier. Reagan, for example, became President 14 years after being elected governor of California. FDR was elected 12 years after being nominated for Vice President in 1920. Eisenhower became president eight years after D-Day. The truth is there’s a sell-by date for politicians, after which serious fatigue sets in. Which was a problem for Clinton. She first came to fame during the 60 Minutes interview in February 1992 when she famously said she wasn’t like Tammy Wynette standing by her man. That was 24 years ago. There are people in their 30’s who have never known a world in which Hillary Clinton wasn’t a divisive public figure.
— The Supreme Court. In retrospect it’s clear that the worst blow to the Hillary campaign was Anthony Scalia’s death. Conservatives always knew that the next president would be able to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy but everyone assumed that would be Ruth Bader Ginsberg, which would not change the balance on the court. The idea that the next President would get two to three changes to swing the court to the left for a generation was too much to bear and millions of Republicans who couldn’t stand Trump voted for him anyway for this issue alone. There’s a good case to make that the Supreme Court should not be sticking its nose into every aspect of American life but until that changes, each nomination will be a fight to he death.
— Racism and misogyny. The most appalling thing about contemporary public affairs is the casualness with which people on the left accuse their opponents of racist or misogynist tendencies. Every single pushback against an Obama policy, from Obamacare to the Supreme Court, was blamed on racism. And similarly, any objection to Hillary Clinton was depicted as male hatred and fear of a strong woman. Well guess what? I guess 53% of white women voted for Trump because they hated their own gender. And then there were all those blue-collar voters who voted for Obama four years ago but were too racist to vote for his designated successor. Sometimes people just don’t realize how deplorable and irredeemable they really are.
— Marco Rubio. I had a prolonged argument all year with some of my conservative friends over whether supporting Trump would hand over the election to a very beatable Clinton. Now that I’ve been proven wrong about that, I still make the case that a more conventional candidate like Marco Rubio would have beaten her by more. For starters, Trump received fewer votes than Romney did four years ago. Even Romney would have beaten Hillary! What we can’t know is whether the white working class voters who voted for Obama in 2012, especially in the Rust Belt, would have flocked to Rubio the way they did to Trump. Also hard to know is whether those new Trump voters made up for the votes that Trump drove away — the college-educated, the married women, the suburban voters. It’s pretty certain that a younger Latino like Rubio would have done better than Trump did among Millennials and Latino voters. This is an important thought experiment so the party doesn’t learn the wrong lessons from this election.
— Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz had a theory that if he could rouse the white disenchanted voters who hadn’t voted in 2012, the GOP would not need to cater to Latinos and other more moderate groups. He turned out to be partly right, but was the wrong man at the right time. Trump was the one who capitalized on that theory and became the champion of the disenchanted. Where Cruz was wrong was in thinking he could attract those voters by being more-conservative-than-thou. To that end, he had forced a government shut-down over Obamacare funding, something that damaged the party before the 2014 elections. But the Trump voters were not ideologically conservative; they didn’t like things like government shut-downs. They’re not against the government, they just want the government on their side, not on the side of the the special interests. So like much of what Cruz tried, he was too cute by half.
— The Future of the Fillibuster. With the Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, the one weapon the Democrats have left is the fillibuster in the Senate. Unfortunately for them, Tim Kaine promised that if the Democrats won the Senate and White House they would ditch the fillibuster for Supreme Court nominations. I’m pretty sure the GOP will do the same, thank you very much. But what about other legislation? It was never the intent of the Constitution that you needed 60% of the Senate votes to pass a bill. Mitch McConnell, however, is a lover of Senate tradition and probably doesn’t want to change the current rule because he’s used it effectively when he was in the minority, but I don’t think Trump will stand for this for long. The pressure on McConnell to change the fillibuster rules will be strong if some basic bills get hung because they don’t have 60 votes.
— Harry Reid. One of the untold stories of the Obama years has been the nastiness of the Harry Reid, the Democrats’ Senate leader. A lot of the dysfunction in Washington lays at the feet of the extreme right-wing Republicans in the House, but over in the Senate, Reid himself has been a dysfunction machine. The House is gerrymandered in a way that ensures extreme partisan divide but the Senate is not gerrymandered at all and should be more open to collegial log-rolling. Reid’s hyper-partisanship, combined with Obama’s diffidence about politicking, contributed to a poisonous atmosphere. The new Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, is a more practical politician will probably be more willing to cut deals with his fellow New Yorker Donald Trump, than Reid was willing to do.
— Clinton Foundation. As bad as the Clinton email scandal was, Clinton was lucky that it distracted attention away from a truly terrible scandal — the Clinton Foundation. There is no question in my mind that foreign governments contributed to the Foundation in the hopes of getting preferential treatment at the state department and in an expected Clinton Administration. The WikiLeaks documents clearly showed a pay-for-play operation at work. And if you don’t think so, let’s see whether foreign donations continue to arrive at the same rate next year, when the Clintons have no influence to peddle.