Nate Silver, editor in chief at FiveThirtyEight, has been thinking about this issue for two and a half months, and has come up with perhaps the best analysis I’ve seen to date in The Real Story Of 2016: What reporters — and lots of data geeks, too — missed about the election, and what they’re still getting wrong.
Silver’s primary focus is on how the press covered the election, and how it is reflecting now on what happened. However, he puts his finger on some of the key factors.
He says that academics and journalists who’d built models to estimate the election odds have engaged seriously in self-assessment, but some traditional reporters and editors have built a revisionist history about how they covered Trump and why he won.
The biggest myth, he says, is that they now claim they weren’t making predictions about the outcome, when rereading the files shows that they were.
Another myth is that Trump’s victory represented some sort of catastrophic failure for the polls.
- Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state.
Certainly Trump’s margin in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which won him the election, was larger than that and was missed by the polls. Nevertheless, Silver says:
- the result was not some sort of massive outlier; on the contrary, the polls were pretty much as accurate as they’d been, on average, since 1968.
Silver is anxious that the press lift their game in the future, so plans a series of articles which suggest that they should do better than blaming the polls and also that:
- there are real shortcomings in how American politics are covered, including pervasive groupthink among media elites, an unhealthy obsession with the insider’s view of politics, a lack of analytical rigor, a failure to appreciate uncertainty, a sluggishness to self-correct when new evidence contradicts pre-existing beliefs, and a narrow viewpoint that lacks perspective from the longer arc of American history.
He then produces a table which shows the before and after story on various factors, together with the real story. I’ll try to give the sense of what he says here.
On the polls, the conventional view was that they showed that Clinton was almost certain to win. Now the media are saying that the polls got it wrong and should never be trusted again.
The real story:
- Polls showed an uncertain and volatile race with Clinton as a modest favourite and Trump with a real chance.
The view on the role of the Electoral college was that it provided a clear advantage to Clinton, because of the “blue wall”, demographic changes, and the sophistication of her campaign in targeting voters.
Now they are saying that the Electoral College was obviously a problem, but her underperformance was the result of preventable tactical errors.
The real story is that the Electoral College was a real problem for Clinton, because her voters were disproportionately represented outside the swing states.
The proficiency of the Clinton campaign was seen as very savvy by the media, with a better read on the election than the public polls.
Now they are saying that Clinton’s campaign was arrogant, misread the conditions on the ground, had poor internal polling and blundered by not campaigning in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Silver says that the campaigns probably don’t have all that much effect on presidential elections. He points out that Wisconsin and Michigan were not big enough to win the election for Clinton. She needed Pennsylvania or Florida as well, both of which she lost although she campaigned there extensively.
The view of the [FBI] Comey letter was that it was a “game changer” but probably would not change the outcome because of Clinton’s strong position in Electoral College votes.
Now they are saying the Comey letter didn’t make the difference. Comey can’t be blamed because Clinton’s lack of trustworthiness was already well established, and the election should not have been close in the first place.
The real story is that the Comey letter corresponded with a sharp decline in Clinton’s polling, enough to change the result. Moreover, the media gave disproportionate attention to the letter and other email-related stories.
The media thought racism and “racially charged” attitudes may have helped Trump, but not enough to make the difference. There weren’t enough white racists to put Trump in office.
Now the view is that anger at the establishment and economic anxiety gave Trump victory. There may be some correlation with racist attitudes, but to label Trump voters with racism is to demean them.
Silver says that racism is hard to disentangle from other factors such as economic conditions and education levels. However, the evidence shows that racism had a significant impact on the campaign.
One study has found that racism and sexism played a bigger part in support for Trump than economic dissatisfaction.
Finally, Silver makes three broad statements on why Trump won.
First, the background conditions were pretty good for Trump.
It’s hard to win three in a row for any party, and Clinton was trying to do that “amid a mediocre economy and at a time of high partisanship.”
Second, demographics gave Trump a big advantage in the Electoral College.
Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points but lost in the biggest popular vote-versus-Electoral College discrepancy since 1876.
- White voters without college degrees, by far Trump’s strongest demographic group, were disproportionately concentrated in swing states, while Clinton’s coalition of minorities and college-educated whites (but with declining turnout among black voters) produced huge gains for her in states such as California and Texas without winning her any additional electoral votes.
Third, voter preferences varied substantially based on news events, and the news cycle ended on a downturn for Clinton.
The news cycle probably had more effect than usual, with third-party voters in the game and two unpopular candidates.
- public opinion was sensitive to news coverage and events such as debates, with Clinton holding a national polling lead of as much as 6 to 8 percentage points over Trump in most of June, August and October, but Trump within striking distance in most of July, September and (crucially) November. Late-deciding voters broke strongly toward Trump in the final two weeks of the campaign, amid a news cycle dominated by discussion of the Comey letter and the WikiLeaks hack of Democratic emails.
So there you have it. A topic Silver does not address is whether sexism played a part. There are other narratives, such as ethnic Chinese campaigning for Trump, and I heard on the ABC the 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump.
The conclusion, I think, is that a lot of factors broke Trump’s way, so rather than a broad and deep wave of nationalism, anti-politics and economic discontent, it’s a bit of a freak result. Remember, he won by a handful of votes in three states, and in total about 28% of eligible voters voted for him. That is not to say that we can all just go back to politics as usual. When some things happen the world will never be quite the same again.