You'll find most of us angry-crying into Ben & Jerry's while we figure this out.
by Declan Murphy
Let me begin by saying that I am despondent. I am outraged, I am frightened, I am hurt, I am betrayed, but above all else, I feel hopeless. It seems impossible for me to reconcile the things I believed just days ago—that the American people were not defined by hate, that sexual assault victims would be believe and that rapists would face justice, that women could break through the glass ceiling over prejudice—and the reality of today. I am hopeless. I am weak. I am sad.
That being said, I have an obligation to you. I have an obligation both as a student of political science, and as a writer for this publication, to explain exactly what happened. It is enough for us to know why progressive values lost last night; we must know why. We must demand answers. I know that I, for one, will demand answers. Whatever happens, we cannot ignore its significance. The result, however horrific, bears meaning. It is up to us—the community of citizens, analysts, and students—to imbue this result with proper meaning, and to identify the sources of our error. Today, I hope to bring before you my understanding of what happened. My sincerest wish—and I realize this is difficult—is that analysis will provide, if not consolation, then at least explanation. As we grieve, we must arm ourselves with knowledge. As we face the harsh reality, we must confront the truth.
Let us first address the most bizarre and infuriating aspects of this Tuesday’s result. Nationwide polls, across the board, were wrong. They were wrong in meaningful ways. They lulled us into a sense of false security. Looking at the prediction markets, it was easy to feel complacent. I remember these numbers without having to look them up, because I spoke them with confidence to my nervous parents on the morning on November 8th. FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s polling site, had Hillary with a 71% chance of winning the Presidency. The New York Times had her odds at around 84%. RealClearPolitics had her winning; a number of other sourcesconcurred.
The first conclusion we must draw is that our polling methods are inadequate. The disparity between the projected vote share and the final vote proves that. Losses in state predicted to go blue prove that. It may sound unbelievable now, but FiveThirtyEight had Hillary with a 71% chance of winning Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania—which most analysts agreed was the absolute firewall, the state which Clinton had to hold to win and without which Trump could not—was slated to go to Clinton. When it went red, the election was over.
There are a lot of reasons why polls are wrong. I encourage you to check out FiveThirtyEight over the next few days and weeks, because I am certain Nate Silver will spend the rest of the year explaining to the nation why his model was so off. But there are several factors that we already know can make polls wrong. One is a lack of representation; that is, if a poll’s sample of voters does not correspond to the demographics it aims to represent. This may have thrown off polls in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania. Another factor is the so-called “shy Trump” phenomenon. This may become clearer in the weeks ahead. The basic premise is that voters are hesitant to admit in polls that they will vote for Trump, but nonetheless did so. This is possible; certainly the vote share for Trump was higher than projected, so it seems likely that people voted for Trump who said they would not have. Other sources of error, from what I’ve gathered, include disparities between live-voter and automated polls; insufficient number of polls conducted (particularly in Wisconsin); and bias by certain polling firms (the LA Times was, for this whole cycle, a notable Trump outlier).
The second conclusion we should draw, though, is that voter turnout was lower than expected, and that hurt Clinton. Early voting data, as I’m sure many of you heard, indicated that Hispanic turnout would be high, perhaps even at unprecedented levels. Looking back on it now, that seems not to have been the case. Additionally, as many analysts predicted, voter turnout was low in the black community. While it is logical for black turnout to be lower in 2016 than in either ’08 or ’12, the importance of this cannot be overstated. Black voters did not connect with Clinton. They did not trust her, and by and large, they were turned off by her candidacy. As such, black turnout was low. This kept Clinton from winning key states. Take, for example, North Carolina. North Carolina’s large black population might have won her the state—had turnout been high. However, with low turnout, Clinton lost North Carolina, further cutting off her path to victory.
On a separate but related note, this is the first Presidential election since the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Shelby County V. Holder. That case struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (specifically, the provision identifying areas of past discrimination), which effectively allowed states to try and pass discriminatory voting legislation. North Carolina did so almost immediately. According to CNN, restricted access to early voting cut down the black vote significantly. Other laws, such as voter ID laws, were put in place to discriminate against black voters. While (some of) those laws were struck down by lower courts, we must not discount the possibility of voter suppression, both in North Carolina and elsewhere.
In contrast, turnout among Trump’s base was higher than anticipated. Particularly in the Rust Belt states, Trump was effective at mobilizing his base—white, working-class voters. Much has been made of the demographics of Trump supporters. They are, as well established, overwhelmingly white. Many are working-class; he does particularly well with voters with a high school diploma or lower. The sheer fact is, there are a lot of people like that. They voted. They propelled him to victory. As derisively as one may try to paint them, these people went to the polls. They won him key states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. The Trump presidency rests in large part on their shoulders.
Overwhelming, there is the sense that many voters are supremely unhappy with “politics as usual”. This is the rationale for both Trump supporters and third-party votes, such as those cast for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. The idea of a “protest vote” is not new, but it has come to be focal in this election cycle. Trump won the Republican nomination over a field of better-qualified Washington politicians. Established party leaders like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were brushed aside. At one time, Ben Carson was a close second to Trump. The people wanted, more than anything, a candidate who was an outsider. That enthusiasm carried over to the general election. In their view—and indeed, in the eyes of many Democrats in the primaries—Hillary Clinton is conventional politics incarnate. She is an entrenched bureaucrat, former First Lady, and all-around Washington insider. With satisfaction in government so low, it is not altogether surprising that people wanted something besides business as usual. It is only the form it took that is so abhorrent.
There is more work to be done. More analysis will be made in the coming days, weeks, and probably even years. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider this: Hunter S. Thompson’s phenomenal meditation on the 1972 election of Richard Nixon over George McGovern, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, is still widely read today.) My interpretation is my own, and it is based on general impressions; the hard data will follow. But, numb as I am right now, this is my attempt to make sense of what has happened. Again, my sole wish is that this helps you to understand where we are as a country, and to get a general sense of what went wrong and why.
I will never forget this election. I hoped beyond all hope that I could stand proud today, having voted for our nation’s first female President. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure when I’ll have the chance to vote for another female candidate. I hope it’s soon, but there are no guarantees. I am broken and weak from this election. I wrote this a way to cope, and in a small way, I think it has helped. I hope it can do the same to you. Remember, now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to fight back, and get ready for the tough years ahead. We may be down, but we are not beaten. As long as brave Americans are willing to stand up for what’s right—for our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, for our Muslim brothers and sister, for all Hispanic residents of this country whether legal or not, and from women—then we will not let evil triumph. I won’t stop fighting. All I can ask is that you don’t stop, either.