Donald J. Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. It’s shocking, it’s scary, and it hasn’t sunk in yet, but it’s real and inevitable. As a result, conventional political science wisdom has been turned on its head. With minimal ground game, far less campaign money than his opponent, a failure to regress toward the political center, and the relative lack of support from his own party, Trump should have had no shot, especially considering that he was competing against one of the most experienced politicians to ever seek the office of the presidency. Instead, he pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in American history.
Last night’s results suggest several things:
1) They lend credence to the “Shy Trump Voter” theory, that social desirability concerns incentivized Trump supporters to hide their support both in polls and in public discourse, particularly in Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan where Clinton was projected to win by several points. White working class voters, though dwindling, are still the largest voting bloc in the electorate and hold the most power, and in this election the “silent majority” turned out in droves. The CNN telecast last night referred to these voters as “leaners;” when a correspondent went into Pennsylvania to talk to prospective voters and ask them who they preferred, many leaned in and in a hushed voice said “I don’t know, I really think I might vote for Trump” so no one could hear, aware that supporting Trump isn’t generally considered socially desirable. The Shy Trump Voter theory especially applies to white women that supported Trump, who were much less likely to admit that to pollsters than other demographic groups.
2) Democratic hubris and/or voter apathy may have suppressed turnout for Clinton. She maintained a decent lead for most of the election cycle, which reinforced the narrative that she’d more than likely be the next president and made some Democrats complacent enough not to vote. Anecdotally speaking, I could definitely see this being true given that I’ve heard plenty of stories of millennials not voting because they either didn’t think their vote mattered, were disillusioned with how Clinton treated Bernie Sanders in the primaries, or believed Clinton’s lead was so large that voting was a waste of their time. Additionally, when looking at the raw popular vote totals, both candidates suffered from turnout problems—Trump won the election with fewer votes than Mitt Romney received in 2012. But Clinton clearly suffered more, receiving roughly 4.5 million fewer votes than Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump’s 400,000 fewer than Romney.
3) Trump’s upset victory has undermined the credibility of the polls and polling science writ large. The polls missed Clinton’s totals by about 2 points, the equivalent of one voter out of every 100 switching their vote from Trump to Clinton. If one out of every hundred voters had indeed switched, Clinton would have won the national popular vote by around 3 to 4 points, about what was expected, and would have flipped Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, producing an electoral map in line with most predictions. This miss isn’t unique or unprecedented from a pure numbers standpoint. But while a margin of error of 2 to 3 percent is normal for most polls because they’re probabilistic in nature, in a close election where most people expected Clinton to pull off a victory, that margin of error can be the difference between winning and losing. Ironically, the Huffington Post ridiculed Nate Silver and accused him of political punditry for factoring in such a large margin of error and giving Trump a roughly 1-in-3 chance to win the election a few days ago, assuring us that Clinton had a 98 percent chance to win. So much for that.
Of course, even though the results technically fell within the margin of error, the polls were still off, indicating a struggle to accurately predict Trump’s support. This could have to do with faulty methodology, such as poor questions or poor sampling, or a misestimation of turnout on the part of Democrats and the white working class. Trump performed around 5 points better in the Midwest on average than expected, indicating that polls significantly underestimated his chances. This may suggest a trend; polls have underestimated populist outrage this entire year, from Brexit to Sanders and Trump in the primaries. It might be time to revisit polling methodologies.
4) The party configuration that has defined our political system since arguably 1968, the Sixth Party System, has probably come to an end. Democrats used to represent the working class, minorities, labor, and pacifism while the Republicans championed the elites, the wealthy, and interventionists. Now, the GOP has become the home for a white working class looking to air cultural grievances, and the wealthy, liberal, cosmopolitan elites have flocked to the Democratic Party. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Midwest, a blue stronghold since 1988 and once considered part of Clinton’s firewall. Somehow, I accurately predicted how the Midwest would vote back in March when discussing the similarities between Trump and former Democratic presidential candidate Jim Webb:
With Trump’s campaign under full swing and Webb’s dead before it even started, it’s possible that many of Webb’s Democratic would-have-been supporters who don’t love the idea of a Clinton presidency could present a liability to the Democratic Party if Trump indeed wins the Republican nomination. If those voters defect, then suddenly, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which all threw their electoral votes behind President Obama in 2008 and 2012, might all come into play and could help secure a Republican victory this fall.
Instead of following suit with previous elections, the region repudiated the Democratic Party in favor of Trump’s populist rhetoric on trade and immigration. It’s possible that, if the Republican Party continues to embrace populism over movement conservatism, the Midwest could fall back into the GOP’s column moving forward. On the other hand, though Clinton didn’t win these states, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and possibly even South Carolina, states with large and growing minority populations, may well be on their way to becoming purple or blue states in the next 8 to 12 years as part of a “New South.” Given the rhetoric coming from Trump this election cycle and Republicans’ failure to denounce it, these states could increasingly slip away from the GOP in the future.
5) The Electoral College screwed over Democrats for the second time in five elections. Clinton won the popular vote by close to a million votes despite losing the electoral vote, 306-232. I’ve inveighed against our antiquated electoral system ad nauseam, so if you need a refresher about why it’s time to abandon the Electoral College for literally any other system, read this.
6) It may be easy to blame third party voters* for swinging the election to Trump, but the reality is not so simple. A viral post circulating around social media points to how Gary Johnson covered the margin of difference between Clinton and Trump in enough swing states to make up 75 electoral votes, implying that if Johnson hadn’t been on the ballot, those votes would’ve pushed Clinton over the edge. For example, Trump won Florida by 119,700 votes, and Johnson received 206,007 votes in the state. In Pennsylvania, Trump won by over 68,000 votes, and Johnson received over 140,000. The list goes on.
First of all, this assumes that every Johnson voter would have voted for Clinton instead of choosing Trump or staying home when it’s entirely possible that Johnson actually helped Clinton. According to FiveThirtyEight, in three-way polls that included Johnson, Clinton’s lead over Trump rose very slightly when compared to head-to-head polls. Considering that both Johnson and Bill Weld are former Republican governors, that would make sense. Then again, that article is months old, and for every source that says he helped Clinton, there’s another claiming he helped Trump. We’ll never know his true effect on the election, but it’s unlikely his presence on the ballot tipped the results one way or the other. Now, Jill Stein’s presence in the race probably hurt Clinton considering that the vast majority of her supporters would’ve either backed the Democratic nominee or stayed home. Indeed, Stein made up the margin of difference between Trump and Clinton in Michigan and Wisconsin. However, even assuming all of Stein’s supporters would have backed Clinton, those 26 electoral votes would have only put Clinton at 258, not enough to reach the coveted 270-vote benchmark.
Second of all, blaming third parties defers responsibility for Clinton not being able to build a winning coalition to beat Trump. Every voter is different, and no candidate is inherently entitled to someone’s vote, no matter how one may feel about the election. Third party voters have different interests and worldviews than Clinton voters, and many of them felt that voting for Johnson, Stein, Evan McMullin, or anyone else was the best option. Castigating these voters for “being complicit in electing a fascist” or “not caring about women, Muslims, immigrants, or people of color” or “exercising their white privilege to vote their conscience” makes for an easy scapegoat, but such name-calling doesn’t address the deeper issue: why couldn’t Clinton ultimately attract these voters, and what more could she have done to sway them?
When all is said and done, a treacherous road lies ahead. I have deep concerns about what President-elect Trump will do with foreign policy, the economy, and civil liberties, but I’ll largely make it out of a Trump presidency unscathed. I can’t even begin to imagine how undocumented immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, women (particularly survivors of sexual assault), or people of color feel with everything Trump has said or proposed. Emotions are raw, the atmosphere is tense, and people are scared. But at the end of the day, we’re all Americans. It may seem like this country is full of hate and bigotry and that all hope is lost, but there will always be people on the front lines fighting for liberty, justice, and equality. Love trumps hate, and somehow, someway, we’ll get through the next four years together.
But for better or for worse, Donald Trump is our next president, and we have to respect our democratic institutions. Arguing that he’s not your president and refusing to work with him is exactly what Republicans did to Obama after 2008, and that intransigence produced the Tea Party, which gave way to Trumpism in the first place. Instead, we must reach out to the other side, work toward compromise, and make the most of the next four years. As Hillary Clinton said this morning in her very powerful concession speech:
Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it. It also enshrines other things. The rule of law, the principle that we are all equal in rights and dignity, freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.
As for the future of this blog, Sam and I will likely take a break from talking about electoral politics for a while and shift our focus to explanatory and argumentative pieces on different concepts, ideologies, philosophies, or specific policies. We appreciate your support and readership over the past nine months and hope to continue to turn out high quality pieces for you to read in the future.
*Quick side note: I still stand by my decision to vote for Gary Johnson here in Georgia, not because I think Clinton is anywhere near as bad as Trump or because I wanted a clear conscience, but because I sincerely wanted Johnson to reach the 5 percent threshold to guarantee the Libertarian Party matching federal funds and help break down the two-party system long-term. I reasoned that either Georgia would go red and a vote for Clinton would be entirely wasted and meaningless, or Georgia would go blue and Clinton would have won the Electoral College by a landslide anyway. But as a disclaimer, I don’t think anyone should be voting for a third party candidate in a swing state when so much is at stake.
Updated Nov. 15 at 4:36pm to reflect changed popular vote totals.