Everyone Was Wrong

Pundit types, pollsters, the vast majority of liberals and leftists who write things on the internet—almost none of them saw this shit coming.

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Nov 9 2016, 6:00am

Members of the press at Hillary Clinton's official election night campaign event in New York City. Photo by Jason Bergman

After the first polls closed Tuesday night, millions of Americans huddled around their TVs, posted up at bars, and bathed in the cool light of their phones. Many of us, those who followed the polls and listened to the experts, figured we knew what was about to happen. Donald Trump, the man accused by many women of sexual assault, the man who has promised to build a wall along the Mexican border and ban Muslims from entering the country, was going to get stomped. And not just in the electoral sense—he was going to be humiliated in the most dramatic fashion possible, a sort of cathartic moment of national awakening.

Instead, it was the naysaying media that got humiliated. Pundit types, pollsters, the vast majority of liberals and lefties who write things on the internet—almost none of them saw this shit coming.

When initial results were posted by the national news networks and on prediction sites like FiveThirtyEight Tuesday night, it quickly became clear this was not going to be a smooth ride for Democrats. The other thing that was clear almost from the jump: There are a lot of angry white people out there, and they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

In recent years, many Democratic thinkers have been optimistic about their party's future thanks to what they see as baked-in advantages among Hispanics and socially progressive, upwardly mobile white voters. Those blocs have been setting up camp in a big way in key swing states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado, and the fact that Barack Obama carried all three in 2008 seemed to send a clear message: The version of conservatism based largely or partly in a white racial identity was on the way out, and a politics of inclusion was the new thing. Obama's victory in 2012 (he narrowly lost North Carolina, but won fairly easily nationwide) seemed to reinforce the prospect that presidential elections just weren't friendly to the GOP, even if their advantage in rural areas allowed them to remain powerful in Congress.

The message America got on Tuesday was really this simple: Demographics are not destiny. Or, maybe simpler: Not yet they're not.

Downwardly mobile white voters, so often dismissed as racist misogynists who are practically going extinct, asserted themselves in a big way on Tuesday. Massive turnout that exceeded projections more than compensated for a burst in early voting (and strong support from Hispanics) that favored Clinton in battleground states. And while some Clinton supporters were quick to pounce on what they saw as evidence of simple prejudice in such massive support for Trump, the story is obviously a bit more complicated than that.

"I don't believe it's helpful to say 'anger at economics versus anger at culture,'" Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist and sociologist who studied the Tea Party, told me of Trump voters. "I think it's a sense of being bypassed, and a loss of status that Trump was giving expression to.

"I also happen to think we can overdo the sociology of this," Skocpol added by way of caution. "I think the [FBI director James] Comey letter was crucial. It created a window in which all of the attacks on her could be renewed."

It's easy to blame Clinton's loss at least partially on the aura of scandal that, rightly or wrongly, surrounded her all campaign. But regardless of Clinton's perceived flaws, weren't Hispanic voters, irate or terrified at the prospect of Trump taking over, going to save the day? All we heard about in the run-up to the vote was how dominant Clinton was at getting her voters to the polls, which seemed to herald victory.

"But that probably also signaled to people in these whiter and rural exurban areas that it was a competition, and they needed to mobilize themselves," Skocpol suggested. "I think the pollsters missed this was because the turnout level went up above what they expected" in rural America.

The professor is getting at another apparent truism in American politics: that polls, well, work. They tend to be accurate, or at least they have been in recent national elections. Political observers were generally confident Obama was going to win the 2008 and 2012 elections, and polls in key states proved accurate in almost every case in those cycles. They had also anticipated the Republican takeover of Congress in 2010, and with the exception of a surprise defeat for Clinton in Michigan, they were pretty spot on during the 2016 presidential primaries, too.

But something went terribly awry on Election Night—and pollsters are the first to admit it.

"We have to figure out what went wrong, honestly," Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster, told me late Tuesday. She went on to say she saw evidence of a "hidden" or "secret" vote in her firm's own polling and other surveys this summer, where online surveys captured more support for Trump than phone ones. That might speak to a Trump-specific version of the "Bradley Effect," so named after the Democratic mayor of LA who polls predicted would cruise to a victory in the 1982 California gubernatorial race but in fact was defeated. The explanation for the discrepancy, many observers came to suspect, was that white voters experienced social desirability bias and didn't want to admit a lean against the black candidate to pollsters over the phone. Basically, they didn't want to seem racist.

Trump has been claiming the polls are biased in favor of Clinton for a long time, and as of this writing, he was ahead in states like Wisconsin and Michigan where Clinton was strongly favored—with Florida and North Carolina already safely in his column. All of which suggests what will, for some, be the most disquieting possibility in an age of seemingly limitless knowledge and scientific inquiry: Maybe we actually don't know how to gauge public opinion after all. Maybe America is just a big, mysterious mass.

Of course, let's not forget that even as Trump wins the presidency, he may lose the popular vote, or at least not earn a majority of it. His victory is far from absolute.

"I don't think the evidence is that the American people as a whole are embracing Donald Trump," Skocpol told me. "They're deeply uneasy about him, which means that his presidency is going to be even more fragile in some ways than hers would be."

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

This article has been updated to account for Hillary Clinton's concession to president-elect Donald Trump.

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