THE WILDCATTERS: Missed Elections And Losing Campaigns

Let’s start with the obvious: We missed the election. We missed the election because we failed to adapt our models to a new reality created by Donald Trump. We’ll be studying carefully exactly why we missed, but for now we can offer several preliminary hypotheses.

  1. Donald Trump broke the turnout model. We assumed the Clinton ground game would make the difference in the election, but Trump enthusiasm proved to be more powerful than Clinton’s organizational muscle. [Do we know anything about African-American vote?]

  2. Survey nonresponse may have finally exacted a toll on election polling. Response rates have been falling for years, but luckily for election pollsters, nonresponse has typically not been correlated with vote choice. A growing partisan gap in education may have played made survey nonresponse more consequential.

  3. We are not as convinced that Trump supporters were “hidden,” meaning that some Trump voters didn’t want to admit they supported Trump. Have you met any Trump voters who are shy about acknowledging their support of Trump? Still, we offer that as a possibility.

Only time and careful analysis will lead us to better understand where we went wrong in our projections. Our job as political scientists is dust off our pants, admit our mistakes, and get back to work.

For now, we want to offer a perspective on what it means to lose an election. It is not the end of the world, and parties that learn the correct lessons from a defeat can come back stronger and better positioned for the future.

Moreover, politics moves not in linear trends but in cycles. Today’s winners will be tomorrow’s losers, so we should take care not to over-interpret the findings of a single point in time. In fact, it is highly unusual for one party to win three consecutive elections. The last successful successor was George W. Bush. Before that, you have to go back to Harry Truman. Trump’s lack of political experience and seeming disregard for Constitutional constraints is disturbing but we have survived bad presidents before.

And, the political losers have almost always over-dramatized just how bad the next president would become. You might remember that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was seen by those on the right as a sign of the end of times. Consider, for example, the following quote from a Republican following the 2008 election. “My reaction is: what is America thinking? How could he get hold of the country? I am afraid our way of life is about to change drastically.

Or in 2012, likely President-Elect Donald Trump proclaiming (on Twitter) after President Obama’s reelection that “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy.” He followed with subsequent tweets calling for a revolution.

At the end of long and divisive campaign, we remain a deeply divided country. Despite this surprising result and what seems like an overwhelming Republican victory in the electoral college, the gap in the popular vote between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is thin.

This is a narrow win that can easily be undone in the next election. Politics, after all, moves in cycles, which means Republican gains in one election cycle become Democratic gains in the next. Smart Democrats won’t bury their heads in the sand but will begin working toward the 2018 midterms. Smart Republicans similarly know that election wins that don’t translate into meaningful policy outcomes will be short-lived.