RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — So, that happened. We’ll be processing this Presidential election for years, if not decades. But my immediate response to Trump’s stunning victory is that it highlights a number of failures in our political system (plus one success):
FAILURE 1: “Post-racial society”
A bunch of election post-mortems have already noted the stark racial disparity in the Republican vs. Democratic electorates. Whites overwhelmingly voted for Trump over Clinton. Trump’s triumphs in the Rustbelt states of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan were surely driven in part by working-class whites who liked his appeals to economic populism. But it wasn’t just blue-collar voters who supported him; college-educated whites also supported Trump by a 4-point margin.
No, not everyone who voted Republican is a racist; but they elected a man who many consider to be openly so, and who has a long history of statements and actions that are problematic on race at best. (And that’s being SUPER generous.)
I’ve seen explanations on social media from Trump voters who are aware of this history, but made their peace with it in order to achieve other goals – “sending a message to Washington,” for example. The problem with this line of thinking is that it reflects a certain kind of – and I know many readers will hate this term — white privilege. It’s easy for whites to “take a chance” on electing Trump, because their lives are not threatened by his proposals and rhetoric.
Now some are arguing that minorities, immigrants (even legal ones), LGBT folks, and even women have reason to be afraid of a new climate and culture under a Trump Presidency. Maybe those fears are overstated; it is true that we know little about how Trump will govern. But we do know what he has said and how he has behaved; and the concern is that, in the words of Vox’s Dara Lind, the worst corners of American society have been “emboldened” by Trump’s victory.
I suspect that many of the whites who voted for Trump will end up feeling buyer’s remorse. But they may not be the ones who will bear the brunt of their choice.
FAILURE 2: Public Opinion Polling
Almost all major polling operations missed the outcome of this election by a sizeable margin. (For example, Larry Sabato’s UVA team posted a “mea culpa” this week, noting that their “crystal ball is shattered.”) There’s a lot of explanations why, including an increasing trend of low response rates, as well as the idea that there really were “shy Trump voters” out there – people who planned to vote for Trump but felt a social stigma about putting it on the record. But the main thing we need to remember about polling is that it’s as much an art as a science.
Polling requires TWO steps. The first is the obvious one – reaching out to a small cross-section of citizens and asking them their opinions. But there’s a second step which involves matching this small sample to the electorate as a whole. And there’s a whole host of assumptions built into that second step – who likely voters are, how many of each category (race, partisan affiliation, gender, etc.) there will be, etc. This is the art of polling, and it appears to be failing.
FAILURE 3: Traditional Campaign Methods
Clinton’s loss upends a number of assumptions about how to run an effective political campaign. Much was made of the fact that Trump’s campaign organization put little effort into television ads or “Get Out the Vote” efforts. But his lack of a “ground game” proved less important than many observers thought, and the Democrats were unable to turn out voters at the same levels as Obama did in his two campaigns.
It remains to be seen if future candidates, either for President or elsewhere, are able to duplicate Trump’s free-media and rally strategies. Plus this lack of a ground game may be overstated; while Trump didn’t work to turn out voters, the Republican Party did. Still, Trump suggested that there may be alternatives to victory beyond what campaign consultants would recommend.
(Ironically, the mayoral race here in Richmond taught the exact opposite lesson: Levar Stoney rode to victory thanks to a disciplined, professional campaign built on a well-executed game plan of trained canvassers, targeted media buys, and strategic use of both positive and negative ads.)
FAILURE 4: Media Coverage of Campaigns
There was some terrific investigative reporting this year. But overall, the national news media did not do a good job of representing the campaign. I think the media holds some responsibility for the fact that one candidate – now the President –may have lied more than any other candidate in the history of political campaigning, but Americans felt that his opponent was more dishonest.
Nothing was worse than the response to the infamous James Comey letter, where a number of news outlets misrepresented the facts (and essentially parroted Republican spin) in their rush to publish. (Comey, by the way, almost certainly wasn’t trying to swing the election; but his letter was a craven response by a bureaucrat who clearly has lost control of his agency. I would be surprised if he still has his job next year, even in a Trump administration.)
SUCCESS: The Old Republican Playbook
Finally, one thing still works like it used to: the Republican playbook for winning elections.
For what seems like decades, we’ve been hearing about the coming demographic changes in the country, and how those changes bode well for an emerging Democratic electoral majority. The Republicans even noted in their 2012 post-election “autopsy” report that they needed to reach out to minorities or face decades of electoral losses.
And yet Trump and the Republicans will control all branches of government next year in part because they ignored that advice. Instead, they won in 2016 using the same three techniques that Republicans have been using for years: (1) Anti-government ideology; (2) coded (at least until Trump) racial appeals; and (3) attempts to restrict the electorate (voter ID laws, stories about “fraud”, overturning parts of the Voting Rights Act, etc.).
Demographics may produce a day of reckoning for a party that appeals solely to whites. But Trump’s victory puts suggests this day is still in the future. There’s no incentive for the Republicans to change. And why should they? They won. And if Democrats can’t figure out where they went wrong this year, then they will continue to do so.