How We Got Here

By Ken Burnside

What Was This Election About?

This election wasn’t defined by “conservatives” and “liberals.”  It was defined by “rural” versus “urban.”  While the partisan media made it all about “isms” — racism, sexism, nativism — the reality was far more grounded.

It’s about the economy, stupid.  In particular, about globalization.

Clinton was the quintessential Washington Insider selling the 20-year old nostrum that Globalization Is Good For Us. If you live in an urban area, it’s easy to believe that globalization is an abstract benefit, or something not worth caring about.

If you live in flyover country?  This election is about jobs. A lot of rural towns have one or two employers, and when the factory shuts down it’s like a Bruce Springsteen song set in Indiana or southern Illinois. With the final verse about how not only did your boss not care, but no politica party did either.

Human beings being human beings, the first thing we seek is someone to blame.  The obvious scapegoats are off-shore manufacturing, hiring immigrants who’ll work for less money, and automation.

It’s that last item that’s done the most harm to middle-class wages in the upper Midwest and the northern tier of Dixie.  We export three times the volume of goods in 2016 as we did in 1986.  In terms of inflation-adjusted dollar value, we make about five times the gross revenue from those exports.  Yet we employ only a third of the people we used to in manufacturing, and their pay has stagnated since 1990, barely keeping up with inflation.

And Clinton’s campaign (and Clinton’s public persona) simply did not acknowledge this fear in a large, white electorate that was tired of being condescended to.

Rather than try to see the voters of her opponent as a group of people in distress, she made the infamous “deplorables” comment.  I think that line was when the polls diverged from reality.

Why Were the Polls So Wrong?

Two major reasons.  The first is that polling agencies use land-lines to contact voters.  I’ve got a cell phone with a number ported from a land-line and it’s my only phone.  I got one polling call all election season, and they thought I still lived in Madison, Wisconsin, which I’d left in 2004.  Entire demographics with only cell phones don’t show up in polling data.

The second reason for the polls being off?  In Great Britain, it’s called the “shy Tory” effect–people will lie to pollsters for fear of being judged for their choices.  When the opposition candidate refers to you, collectively, as a group of racist, homophobic religious terrorist bigots, and you’re not confrontational…you’re unlikely to admit to voting in a way that gets you flak for admitting it.  CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed a Philadelphia patisserie owner who said he had a lot of “leaners” — people who would lean across the counter and quietly say, “I’m voting Trump.” (Link: http://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2016/07/26/jake-tapper-philadelphia-dnc-the-lead-cappuccios-meats-termini-bros-genos-steaks.cnn — see about 1:08 in.)

In short, when you dehumanize your opponent’s political supporters, you lose track of them.  They’ll only reveal their preferences to people they trust not to judge them.

The media coverage of Trump was complicit in this.  Trump’s verbal spew created one to four new controversies per 24-hour period. His campaign staff wrestled his Twitter account from him in the last days of the campaign.  At no point did any news coverage ask why Trump was appealing to voters.  The blithe assumption, nurtured by 24 years of narrative from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, was that the Republican Party gets people to vote against their own interests.  It never examined the statements of interest from those voters, or considered them valid. They were filed away as bigotry and poor-dumb-hick concerns, and left to fester.

Trump’s flair for controversy served as a tar-baby for a press that wasn’t willing to examine what he was saying to his people, or ask why they were listening.  Sure, he’s endorsed by the KKK and Stormfront!  We can dismiss him!

Did anyone think that 15,000 person rallies were being filled solely by white supremacists?  In venues as far apart as Colorado and Florida?  Every single time?

To the people voting for him to protest about jobs being sucked overseas, or taken by immigrants, the lack of media questions asking about why was a big tell.  They weren’t going to be listened to anyway, so they could just vote for the big toupee’d middle finger at both political parties.

There is one truth in campaigning: People vote their fears.  If you don’t take a bloc’s fears seriously, you won’t get their votes.  When 40% of the country is afraid of losing their job, their car, their house, or the ability to send their kid to college, you’re not getting their votes without acknowledging that fear is real.

Ultimately, Trump said “I feel your pain,” like Bill Clinton did.  It slipped him into office, but it wasn’t enough by itself.

Laying Blame

In the immediate term, what happens now is wailing and beating of chests and gnashing of teeth.  There will be blame spread around.  Before you’re taken in by the emotional freight of the blame game, consider this:

Trump has one point six million fewer voters than Romney did.  He did worse in a lot of the places Romney did well, and he did fantastically better in the upper Midwest, which is the data behind my assertion that jobs were the key issue of this campaign.

Clinton has six million fewer voters than Obama did.

Wisconsin and Michigan cost her the election.

Wisconsin was lost on 27,000 votes.  She got 235,000 fewer votes in Wisconsin than Obama did in 2012.  Michigan was lost on 12,000 votes.  She got 400,000 fewer votes fewer than Obama did in 2012.  Late money spent by the RNC, the Chicago Cubs Rickett’s family, and Sheldon Adelson to salvage the downballot races appear to have incidentally turned the tide.

 If you’re a Clinton supporter, these are the hard questions: 

Why did six million Obama voters stay home?
Why didn’t anyone take Trump’s message of economic malaise seriously?

Compared to the Obama voters who stayed home, the third-party voters are statistical noise.