We are suddenly to understand that a candidate who “had it in the bag” 12 hours before the polls opened, was simply “too unpopular” to win. This is not a good enough explanation for what has happened.
Like many, I spent yesterday reeling. I stayed up watching the TV to the bitter end of the US election, then started the trek back across country next morning, listening most of the way to radio commentators. Having had about 24 hours or so to absorb the event and the interpretations, I feel there are some things that need to be said—and are not being said—about what happened in this vote.
I think there is a clear reporting bias going on that is tending to blame Hillary Clinton for losing this election—she is so “unpopular,” after all—when a more compelling explanation is needed for an upset of this magnitude, with these frightening implications.
I don’t like it that the scariest voting decision ever made by the American people is being blamed on Hillary Clinton. And I think it is important that this loss does not go down in history as the first female candidate’s failure. I have a different—and I think better—explanation.
Though voter turnout was reported high throughout Election Day, in particular showing a “Hispanic surge” and featuring long lines at the polls, we now know that, in fact, the turnout was lower than it has been since 2000 (Bush-Gore), with special weakness showing in the urban areas of the Midwestern industrial states. This news is being interpreted as Hillary Clinton not garnering as much support among traditional Democratic groups, especially African-Americans, as Obama did. So, that explains why the “blue wall” fell. Her fault, right?
Yet reporting before and during Election Day was also full of experts telling America that Hillary had it in the bag, with most journalists giving her astronomically high chances of winning (84% was the New York Times’ number). On November 8, the exit polls were being largely ignored due to their absurd proliferation, but were also still showing a Hillary win. And, indeed, several hours before the polls even closed in the Midwest, a new location-based polling company named Qubix was saying they had captured it in real time that Hillary was sweeping the country.
Bear in mind further that the opening shots in every election year’s coverage focuses on maps of states, red and blue, with pronouncements about which ones can be moved and which ones are safe. Americans are thus taught, year after year, about heavy voting patterns that are very hard to move. It becomes easy to infer that individual votes are unlikely to make a difference in some places. Those very states that went rogue on Tuesday are usually among the strong blue states and the voters in them know that.
An example: I drove halfway across the country to vote for Hillary largely because I wanted to cast my ballot for the first woman President. I told all my friends in Illinois that it was also because I would never forgive myself if the state unexpectedly went red. People laughed at this lame excuse. Everyone thought I was being overzealous because the conventional wisdom is that the chance of Illinois, especially Chicago, going red is near zero.
From behind the Blue Wall of the Midwest, the experience on the afternoon of November 8 was full of news reports of (1) a huge turnout, (2) long lines at the polls, and (3) a Hillary landslide. I’m guessing many people thought their votes were not needed. Taking off early on a working day is not that easy for some people, even to vote. So, if they felt the outcome was assured, some might have decided to let their state do its thing. I do not think there is any reason at all to think this decision was a reflection of their “enthusiasm” for Hillary. I am saying some people did not get out to vote not because they did not want Hillary to win but because, in the moment, they understood that she had already won.
Trump supporters, on the other hand, were told they were unlikely to win, but that the margins were small. It makes sense that they would have turned out. But even the Trump supporters, indeed even the Trump campaign staff, did not seem to really expect Trump to win. Nor did anyone else. The morning after the election, The Economist‘s website said they were going to have to get back to us in a few days with their predictions about what would happen in politics and markets based on a Trump win. Really? They had not even prepared the scenario? That’s right: because nobody saw this coming.
OK, guys: Social Science Ethics 101. A responsible researcher takes careful steps to ensure that the act of observation does not change the outcome of the phenomenon being measured. Yet, in the American political machine, we have “scientific” pollsters failing to take that one very basic ethical precaution. In the aftermath of this disaster, they are such amateurs that they cannot even see their own fingerprints on what happened.
All through Election Night, I saw pollsters on television panels trying to explain how the polling community had been “so wrong.” Pundits were opining that the results suggested something deeply disturbing about America. After all, the US was putting someone in office who is flatly unqualified, insulting to most of the populace, and temperamentally unfit to be President. We must be a bunch of ignorant bigots, right? Or massively angry, yes? Certainly the Democrats should have picked a better contender for the other spot, agreed? These commentators obviously could not hear themselves contradicting their own complacent predictions from less than 12 hours before.
I am saying the pre-election polls weren’t wrong. Instead, the collective act of reporting on Election Day changed the outcome in real time by telling people, especially those in traditionally Democratic states, that Hillary’s victory was already assured.
Yet we are now hearing that Hillary failed. She was not able to “hold together the coalition” Obama had. She was “deeply unpopular.” Yet these same pundits told us for months that Hillary was unstoppable. Why are they suddenly harping on this fatal “unpopularity”—which has been there among the Trump types since the mid 1990s—on the day after they themselves screwed up?
It is completely implausible that Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump because she was less popular. Even on November 7, the polls were showing that Clinton’s approval rating was 60%, while Trump’s was only 40%. Neither of these are great numbers, but we must realize that, overall, Donald Trump was not a candidate that most people were dancing enthusiastically to the polls to support. We are being told that now because the pollsters can’t see their own fingerprints on the election results. The significance of what has happened here is being glossed over with sudden “insights” into Trump’s appeal and convenient memories of “just how much people hate Hillary Clinton.”
The American voting process has just put a man in charge who is a grotesque. Worst: the commander-in-chief of the largest and most sophisticated military in the world is now a man who is uninformed, short-tempered, unwilling to listen, short of attention, vindictive, lacking conviction, untruthful, friendly to our biggest enemy, and driven by an astonishing level of bigotry. He has won out over a woman who was not only the most highly qualified candidate in history, but had the full and enthusiastic support of the Democratic party, a big war chest, and a highly capable campaign staff. This outcome demands a better explanation than to say that a woman who, 48 hours ago, was everybody’s clear winner is now “unpopular.” Where is our sense of perspective? Something went very, very wrong here and I am saying it was the process itself.
But it wasn’t just the pollsters. Two other things to bring up: the protest vote and the electoral college.
I was pained, as I am sure were many, to see how close the vote was in the “blue wall” states. No doubt a few thousand people who may have saved themselves the time to go to the polls, thinking it was safe to do so, would have made a difference. But, as a result, we all had to witness, yet again, one of the most demoralizing things about the American system. You would sit there watching a near tie, with hundreds of thousands of votes on each side, then a few thousand votes would tip the scales and the state would be “called” for one candidate—and half a million votes that stood for the other candidate would just be wiped away. And then they wonder why people don’t think their votes count?
Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote. So, once again, the problem was not her lack of popularity. But the electoral college, as so often happens, gave the election to the person who had not won.
When are we going to take action? This electoral college system is not only profoundly unfair to voters, it teaches them, year after year, that, despite all the flashy rhetoric encouraging them to go to the polls, their vote does not really matter. Between that and all the imagery about the inevitability of states going this way or that, is it really any wonder that the citizenry draws the conclusion that voting is pointless?
There are two protest aspects to this vote. Since Trump was actually not popular, but nevertheless got a lot of votes, the takeaway is that many voted for him out of protest. As some have said, voters were just giving a giant “fuck you” to the political system. Americans do that. They get so fed up they vote for an absurd candidate just to show their frustration. It is what Michael Moore calls the “Jesse Ventura effect.” But Jesse Ventura did not have access to the nuclear codes. Shame on anyone who did this.
The second protest aspect is the Millennials who supported Bernie Sanders. Many on the Clinton side are blaming them for having “wasted” their votes on third party candidates. But the system failed to hear these voters and Hillary was no exception. I was appalled when Hillary, Gloria Steinem, and Madeleine Allbright arrogantly told younger women they should vote for Hillary just because she is female. Does that mean French women should all vote for Marie LePen? Or that we should be indifferent between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin? On its face, such a position is preposterous.
But the failure to understand and respond to the very real needs of the Millennial females was unforgivable. Since 2008, this generation has been unable to get an economic foothold from which to build their lives and families. They are saddled with astronomical student loans, impossible childcare costs, and, even with Obamacare, unthinkable healthcare expenses. This stuff has been going on for nearly ten years and may have permanently damaged this generation’s prospects. The “kids” are now grownups, some already well into their 30s. Yet, once Bernie Sanders failed to win the nomination, all the Democrats and pundits could talk about was whether he was going to give the Millennial votes—as if they were nothing but a stack of baseball cards—to Hillary. Telling the Millennial women that they should just vote for Hillary because she’s a woman came off like your mother telling you not to wear so much makeup. It was trivializing.
These young people deserved a better answer. Instead, they were left to mark their pathetic powerlessness, as so many younger generations (including my own) have been left to do, by voting third party or staying home. Their votes, in a very real sense, stopped counting long before Election Day. I don’t think we can blame them.
Was there a gender component? Yes, I think there is evidence of that, though I do not think it was the main factor. Because I am on the road still, I have not been able to check numbers. But I have heard, between the TV and the radio, that married men, but not married women, or unmarried citizens of either sex, went for Trump. About 55% of white women voted for Trump, but that does not mean it was not a gender issue. About a third of Hispanic men voted for Trump and apparently so did an unexpected number of African-American men. I heard an African-American male pollster on PBS interpret this as “race trumping gender.” That is an impossible interpretation and reveals nothing so much as the gender blinders of the pollster. If Hispanic men, who have been roundly insulted and called “rapists” by this candidate, nevertheless held their nose and voted for him, it is certainly not a case of race trumping gender, but very clearly a case of gender Trumping race. I think there is a lot still to be learned about how gender affected this outcome. We need to dig into it and not listen to these amateurs and their self-serving explanations.
It is very easy, given the overall unresponsiveness of the American system to its voters, to see why people feel like their ballot doesn’t matter. Yet, this time was a painful case where it did matter. We needed every single person on Tuesday to get out there, no matter what the pollsters were saying, no matter how long your neighbor said the line was, no matter how much your boss grumbled when you left work early, and vote, soberly and responsibly, for whichever candidate they genuinely thought, at that moment, was best for America. That is not what happened, in my opinion. No one deserves what will happen next because of how they voted. Indeed, none of us deserves what is likely to happen next. It mattered that much.