Sorting Through the Election Wreckage

By William Hausdorff

It has been almost three weeks since Election Day and I’m still sorting through the wreckage of my preconceptions and my expectations.  I’ve gradually realized that four related but distinct sources of shock are amalgamated in my head and need to be teased apart.   These are:

1.  Failed polls
2.  Failing Democratic Party
3.  Trump as President?
4.  The Voting Public’s Tolerance

1.  The utter failure of the polls to predict the outcome in the key firewall states.  

My initial shock was mainly because I just didn’t see it coming.  A look back at the poll analyses indicates this was not simply a case of wishful thinking.   In fairness, poll analysts got the key states of Florida and North Carolina right—they were predicted to be more or less toss-ups.

But this was not the case for Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin.  For example, fivethirtyeight had the probability of Clinton winning each of the firewall states to be 77%, 79%, and 83%, respectively, making Trump a long shot.

Most strikingly, in none of their forecasts, updated daily after the conventions through Election Day, did the predicted vote margin in favor of Clinton EVER dip below 3.2% in Wisconsin and Michigan, and went no lower than 2.5% in Pennsylvania.  In each state, their final predictions were a victory margin of 3.7-4.3%. This, in my book, is a clear polling failure. 

Why did this happen?  Perhaps it didn’t, and that recounts could reveal that.  The differences between the two candidates in Wisconsin and Michigan are 1% or less.  I don’t understand why there is any doubt about the need for recounts in these key states, given the repeated allegations that the “system is rigged” and the known attempts by foreign governments to interfere with the US election. Just as the apparently losing Republican governor in North Carolina was obviously justified to ask for a recount in his election—the race there is just too close.

There is absolutely no question that Trump’s campaign and the Republican party would be demanding a recount if the situation were reversed, and that it would be seen as legitimate.  Why is it considered “being in denial” if the Democrats/Greens ask for a recount?

That being said, I’m not aware of evidence that there were irregularities of sufficient magnitude to change the results of the election. Yet I don’t find it reassuring that the same polling statisticians whose models utterly failed are now using similar models to “explain” that the election results in Wisconsin are not due to irregularities.  Just recount the votes!

So upon reflection, this shock is lessening, as there are multiple rational reasons why the pollsters failed.  When fewer than 10% of households targeted will provide an answer to a pollster, for example, it is difficult to believe that those who do are fully representative of the other 90%--even assuming the original household targeting was representative.

And, to be fair, pollsters everywhere are having a tough time.  The list of recent polling failures encompasses not just Brexit, but also the Colombian referendum on the peace deal with the FARC guerrillas, as well as the first round of the French “Republicans” primary.

2.  The Democratic Party is not a serious political entity at the state governmental level in most parts of the US.  It’s barely treading water in the House of Representatives. 

This is now glaringly obvious, and continues a trend that has been going on for years.  Conversely, the Republican/Tea Party is alive and well.

The media obsession with the national election obscured the fact that the state and regional figures are stunning.  As Daily Kos neatly summarized:  

Republicans [are] in charge of 68 state legislative chambers and Democrats just 31.  Republicans control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Those 32 states cover 61 percent of the U.S. population. Democrats, meanwhile, control the legislature in just 13 states, amounting to 28 percent of the country’s population; only four of those chambers have veto-proof majorities.
In addition

Republicans now control the governor’s office in 33 states, amounting to 60 percent of the population, while Democrats control just 16 states with 40 percent of the population.

The Republican/Tea Party holds a seemingly unshakeable 55% of the seats (238 to 194) in the House of Representatives, easily absorbing the handful of seats lost to the Democrats.  Given Republicans’ generally acknowledged superior ability to gerrymander House districts, it may just be a matter of time before the Republican-dominated state governments adopt allocation of electoral votes on the basis of congressional districts,  This is, at present, only done in Maine and Nebraska but was more popular in the past.

But perhaps this isn’t necessary. Clinton’s slender advantage in the popular vote makes the electoral college vs popular vote results a red herring.  I find convincing Trump’s recent boast that, if the system were based on the national popular majority, he would have focused his campaign in New York, Texas, and California and likely picked up the needed votes there. 

I have to admit that I had drunk the Kool-Aid in believing that, as the proportion of the electorate comprised by whites continues to shrink, a great demographic transition will make the Democrats the inevitable party—Georgia and Texas are soon to fall! 

One can blame gerrymandering, differential funding issues, voter suppression laws—all of which I’m convinced play a significant role--but the bottom line is that the Democrats are clearly not inevitable. There is little reason to buy the underlying assumption that the vast majority of Hispanics and blacks will always prefer an establishment Democratic candidate to a Republican maverick, or that even if they do, they will be sufficiently motivated to come to the polls. 

3.  The supremely unqualified and buffoonish Donald Trump will be President, and the face of the US to the world, for at least the next 4 years

In certain ways Trump is most reminiscent of Ronald Reagan.  This is simultaneously painful and oddly comforting: while the 8 years of Reagan were brutal in a lot of ways, we did survive them.

In an incisive piece, Frank Rich highlighted the striking similarities of Reagan and Trump as candidates.  Trump’s fabrications and pathological mendacity are well established.  But Reagan’s

… fantasies and factual errors [were] so prolific and often outrageous that he single-handedly made the word gaffe a permanent fixture in America’s political vernacular.

In light of his subsequent diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, I find especially intriguing Reagan’s repeated claims to have personally filmed the liberation of a concentration camp in WWII, when he actually spent his war years in Hollywood.

As President, Reagan named as cabinet heads people inherently opposed to the mission of their agency, whether environmental protection, stewardship of public lands, or enforcement of civil rights.  Infamous examples included Anne Gorsuch at EPA, James Watt as Secretary of Interior, and Ed Meese as Attorney General.  Trump seems headed in the same direction.

Trump is obviously little interested in the details of the job of President.  There is the bizarre account of his son offering the vice presidential slot to John Kasich with the carrot that he would be “in charge of foreign and domestic policy,” while Trump would be preoccupied with “making American great again.” This, unfortunately, bodes poorly for oversight of subordinates.

President Reagan’s own hands-off management style gave rise to the major scandal of his presidency, Iran-Contra.  He was supposedly blissfully unaware that his National Security Council was secretly selling armaments to America’s arch-enemy Iran, whom his administration had only recently designated a “state sponsor of terrorism.” 

Despite his subsequent denials, these arms sales were ostensibly to help free American hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to improve relations with Iran.  Notoriously, they were also used to divert funds from the proceeds to the Nicaraguan rebels (Contras) fighting the existing government, in direct defiance of the Congressional restrictions via the Boland Amendment.

It’s worth recalling that several very high ranking Reagan administration officials were eventually indicted (Secretary of Defense) and/or convicted of felonies (e.g., two National Security Advisors; Assistant Secretary of State; high ranking CIA officials).  Yet almost nobody went to jail: they were either sentenced to probation, or had their convictions overturned, or were later pardoned by Bush Sr. 

While no evidence emerged that Reagan directly approved the individual actions, he was strongly criticized by the Tower Commission for lack of critical review, accountability, and performance review of his own National Security Council. 

One big difference from Reagan is that Trump seems mainly focused on the progress of his business and touting how smart and rich he is. Because Trump “knows” that, from a legal standpoint, “the president can’t have a conflict of interest,”  I don’t see any reason to believe he will do ANYTHING AT ALL to managerially and legally distance himself from his businesses.  Particularly worrisome is the current media perception that the legal community agrees that he can freely commingle his business with that of the US government, as long as he doesn’t benefit from gifts from foreign governments.  I can’t even begin to estimate how quickly this will seriously tarnish the US image around the world.

4.  Half of the US electorate voted for a candidate who was openly misogynist and racist,  used threatening rhetoric, and explicitly ridiculed many American values and traditions. 

This, for me, is the most difficult aspect to digest.  It would have been only slightly less painful if Clinton had eked out a majority.

Perhaps there are mitigating factors.  We know that Trump as a candidate would say virtually anything, and reverse himself the next week (or day).  Perhaps most “decent” Trump voters-- everybody has people in their family they love who voted for him—were clever enough to never take seriously almost anything he said, recognized him for the essential conman he is, but decided that he embodied “change” and was neither the establishment nor the diabolical Hillary.  And assumed he couldn’t or wouldn’t implement the really vicious stuff.

And maybe many of the 53% of white women who voted for him think most men essentially see women as Trump does, or would be like Trump if they were in powerful positions. 

And I’m wondering what the role was of The Apprentice, where week after week and year after year Trump portrayed himself as an authoritative, tough but Solomonic leader worthy of respect and awe.  I’ve previously suggested that TV shows glorifying torture, or showing a competent, intelligent black president, or with openly gay characters, may have helped shape public acceptance of previously taboo topics. Could The Apprentice have imprinted an enduringly positive, if not Presidential image of Trump in the minds of the tens of millions of viewers?

Nonetheless, as a candidate Trump really did openly stoke the flames of racial and religious resentment, scapegoated minority groups, and gleefully talked about torturing families of suspected terrorists.  In a time of serious economic challenges, but certainly not crisis, half the voting population supported him.

It is true that he doesn’t have a history of actually putting into practice his violent rhetoric.  But what will happen if there is a real depression—will we elect a “change” candidate who actually had a track record of violent, racist activities?

What I didn’t hear, and still don’t hear, is clear condemnation of his misogynist/racist/nasty aspects by the “decent” people who voted for him. People admitting there is a point beyond which “he could go too far.”  I guess I’m no longer sure where that point is for half the US voting population.