Trump’s Huge Win: How the Pundits & Pollsters Got it Wrong

Trump campaign signs

Trump speaking to a crowd in Florida in 2015/Image Thursday Review

Trump’s Huge Win:

How the Pundits & Pollsters Got it Wrong

| published November 11, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The editors here at Thursday Review wrote two headlines early on Tuesday: Clinton Wins, World Ends at Midnight; Trump Wins, World Ends at Midnight. Both headlines, however, were deemed obsolete at 2:30 a.m. The world did not end, the sun came up, and there was no rush on train and plane tickets to Canada, New Zealand, or Costa Rica. Instead, our headline—written at 2:45 a.m.—was somewhat more conventional: Trump Wins, Defies Odds, Polls, Pundits.

Businessman Donald J. Trump, after a long and brutal campaign marked by unprecedented levels of name-calling and personal attack—by both sides—won the presidency by defeating Hillary Clinton, delivering to the former Secretary of State and the former U.S. Senator her second top-job loss in less than a decade. In the process, Trump may have rebooted the electoral map, laying to waste a narrative landscape crowded with assumptions about the voting tapestry and complexion of the country, as well as the depth of the frustrations felt by many Americans. Once again, the political and societal elites—speaking through proxies in the media—got it wrong. And once again, the disconnect that exists between Washington and the American people was exposed.

A search on Google reveals very quickly the collective attitude of those talking heads and political savants: the most common headline phrases used by news services and newspapers coast-to-coast and around the world: stunned, stunning, shocking.

Trump’s unlikely and controversial trek toward the White House is over. His near-landslide victory in the Electoral College smashed shibboleths and invalidated canards so widely reported in the news that those items became not merely talking points but articles of faith: that a surging Latino population in the U.S. would shift millions of votes decisively away from the GOP and instead toward Hillary Clinton, especially in the wide wake of Trump’s sometimes bellicose anti-immigrant rhetoric; that the energy of the so-called Millennials and younger voters would channel support toward Clinton, especially those who had once supported Bernie Sanders but could not support Trump; that women voters would prove pivotal, as millions of women—horrified by Trump’s locker room language and rallied by Hillary Clinton’s quest to become the first female president—would push Clinton decidedly over the top in the election, smashing that glass ceiling.

No such prognostications came true. In fact, if the exit polls are to be believed, Trump won deeper inroads into all those groups—Latinos, women, Millennials, even African Americans—than anyone would have previously imagined. Trump himself often boldly predicted such scenarios even as those in the media dismissed the talk as typical of Trump’s bluster. Trump’s top people talked of a sea of “hidden support” for the billionaire, and Trump himself often suggested that there was no genuine love for Hillary Clinton among those telling pollsters they were leaning toward the former Secretary of State. Her support was soft, Trump’s was a sleeping giant, spurring the inevitable comparisons to Ronald Reagan’s “stunning” victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, another election which reshaped the map.

Trump won a significant share of votes from women; and from Latinos; and from more African Americans than ever thought possible only 48 hours earlier. This despite the constant barrage of political roundtable discussion which said, almost universally, that Trump had severed the bridgehead to those groups perhaps permanently.

Conversely, or perhaps as a natural adjunct to the shattered patterns, low turnout by Democrats—a reflection of a dearth of enthusiasm for Clinton, even by those predisposed to support Democratic candidates—undercut Clinton’s grand strategy. Some of the most reliable Democrats stayed home. Others were so put off by Clinton or so numbed by her negative baggage they avoided the top line on the ballot, and skipped ahead to those local elections and initiatives on solar panels, guns, and pot.

Indeed, Clinton and her strategists assumed the traditional loyalty of blue state Democrats would keep the foundation of her numbers solid, and instead she and her top people turned their firepower (logically) toward the swing states of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri, but ignored the basics. In some states, the lost opportunity was fatal, handing over deep blue states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan to the GOP for the first time in decades. Just as Trump’s modest coattails helped Republican candidates across the map, Clinton’s deliberately shorn jacket tails robbed Democrats of the chance to retake control of either the House or the Senate.

The pundits, the news analysts, the editors, and even the pollsters have been alternately stunned and humbled by the deep red penetration of Trump’s win. Just short of a textbook electoral landslide, Trump still comes up short in the popular vote—a count which remained tight almost from the moment the polls first opened, and from the moment that the early voting results became official. At times on Tuesday night Clinton led in the popular vote; at other times Trump surged ahead, the tweaks and tics and turns often the result of heavy blocs of vote results rolling in from population centers in North Carolina, Florida, Ohio or Illinois. Democratic strongholds typically notoriously slow to report results were maddeningly glacial through Tuesday’s late hour and Wednesday’s wee: Broward County, Florida; Wayne County, Michigan; Mecklenburg County, North Carolina; Milwaukee; Philadelphia.

In the end, a dozen of those population centers pushed Clinton ahead in the national totals without nudging her lead in those same states. So for the fourth time in U.S. history, an incoming president has won in the decisive Electoral College but fallen short in the popular vote. If this were accompanied by a sharply and evenly divided electoral map, we would be in the throes of a cliffhanger fraught with legal challenges similar to those agonizing six weeks in 2000. Instead, Trump turned the map red, leaving Clinton with scant few islands of blue, and the big electoral jewels of New York, California and Illinois.

Still, how did the media and the pollsters get so much wrong so broadly and collectively? How was it that Donald Trump—only a year ago still the scourge of the GOP and the skunk at the garden party—tapped so effortlessly into a surge of anger and frustration unprecedented in American history.

Signs of trouble for Clinton began early on Tuesday evening, and gathered steam as the night wore on, each new tally and each new subtotal ranging from vexing to dismal. Signs that lower-than-expected turnout in key urban areas in key states was producing a dangerous flirtation with disaster in reliably Democratic safe havens began to produce nervousness on the part of Clinton’s surrogates and strategists. Conversely, even the Trump campaign high command seemed stunned as the vote totals rolled in, turning counties that had abandoned the GOP in 2012 back into the red column, and nudging Democratic strongholds like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin into Trump’s hands. Trump’s so-called organic vote easily overwhelmed the choreographed and micro-managed early voting deemed by the experts to be so critical for Clinton.

Some states remained precariously tight for hours, with only a few thousand votes—or a few hundred—separating the candidates, a sure sign of trouble for the Clinton strategy of a big early win, burnished by what they hoped would be runaway leads in North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri, and slam dunks in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Instead, those razor thin margins in the Keystone State and the Tar Heel State were early bellwethers of a rough night for Clinton; her staff knew something was wrong, though it was not clear what was happening on the ground where an army of field operatives had assured Clinton’s high command hours earlier that victory was in hand.

By 10:30 p.m. in New York, the slam dunk that ten thousand Clinton supporters had thought would arrive by 9:00 had not arrived; worse for Clinton, Trump’s vote totals were swelling inexplicably, rising like incoming storm surge as Clinton’s totals—even in her presumed safe havens—were showing signs of anemia. Trump’s wins were becoming increasingly lopsided in the suburbs, exurbs, the farmlands, the rural areas, where turnout was apparently much higher than expected. Some pundits on CNN and ABC were openly asking the questions: where were all these Trump votes coming from? John King, using his big interactive map in the CNN studio, illustrated repeatedly how Trump was winning bigger in some counties than had Mitt Romney in 2012, or John McCain in 2008.

More troubling for Clinton: those expected shifts toward Clinton in the suburbs where the educated women lived were not forthcoming. By 11:00 p.m., Clinton’s normally chatty lieutenants and talkative surrogates stopped talking, and their posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram fell silent. Across a vast swath of central and south Florida where more than 400,000 relatively recent arrivals from Puerto Rico and tens of thousands of other Latinos were expected to tilt the balance, no such shift materialized. Instead, the counties began to fall for Trump.

By midnight the pundits were forced to acknowledge the sea change that was taking shape. Polls were now closed almost everywhere. They spoke often of Clinton’s dismissals of a dozen blue states as an unnecessary waste of resources. They revisited all the lost time during Clinton’s noticeable absence from the campaign trail before and after her reluctant admission of pneumonia in September. The few Clinton surrogates who would talk to reporters groused angrily about the FBI investigations and James Comey. A behind-the-scenes blame game began in earnest, with those handling the polling data butting heads with those who managed the field operations in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire.

By 12:30 a.m., as the electoral map began to break for Trump, every electoral digit counted; Clinton’s top people were phoning every Democratic stronghold for assurances that every vote had been counted and that every precinct coordinator had delivered. CNN, Fox News, NBC and CBS were all simultaneously talking of a huge Trump win, and were already dissecting what had gone wrong. The common question was now hanging in the air like a half-filled balloon: how could the polls have got so much so wrong? Where were these votes for Donald Trump coming from?

Backlash became synonymous with an electoral shift, as millions of middle class white voters—for dint of a better definition—turned out in large numbers to repudiate the myth that demographics had reshaped the map in favor of the party of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Obama, and stripped the GOP once and for all of the so-called Reagan Democrats. What part frustration over a broken political system played, and how deeply fear over a demonstrably struggling economy—especially those millions of jobs shunted off shore by American companies and through various trade deals—in Clinton’s stunning loss and Trump’s surreal victory, may not be clear until all exit data has been examined.

Trump, in his acceptance speech in New York City, asked for unity between Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and said that the immediate priority should be for all Americans to come together to begin the process of healing. Trump will now begin taking the first steps to put together a transition team, and making plans to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday.

Clinton, conversely, withdrew almost within seconds of completing her phone call to Trump at 2:35 a.m. As tens of thousands of Clinton supporters dejectedly left the dazzling, sparkling Javits Center in Manhattan—a venue meant as an overt emblem of the glass ceiling Clinton had promised to shatter completely—Clinton retreated into her hotel room amidst an air of genuine shock and dismay at having travelled so far toward victory and vindication, but having now experienced her second catastrophic defeat to her presidential aspirations. Indeed, the soaring steel and crystal ceiling and the cavernous space proved to be a tragically ironic image and space.

Instead, the former First Lady and the former Secretary of State would defer a face-to-face with her supporters, friends and television cameras until the next day at noon, by which time ten hours had passed and a suitably more appropriate venue could be retained. After hours of delays, a visibly emotional Clinton choked several times on her words, the faces of Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton revealing even deeper levels of grief than that of the candidate. But Hillary Clinton acknowledged the pain and admitted it would last. Urging cooperation and unity, Clinton offered an olive branch.

“Donald Trump is going to be our next President,” Clinton told her followers, adding “I hope he will be a successful president for all Americans.”

Clinton urged those watching to accept the election results and give an “open mind” to Trump as he enters the White House. For Clinton, it was a bitter pill to swallow, especially in the context of her long campaign for the Presidency—a run which effectively began in the hours and days after her previous campaign was ended by then-candidate Barack Obama in the summer of 2008.

The what-ifs had begun as early at 9:00 p.m. on the east coast Tuesday night, and pundits and analysts and numbers savants questioned the Clinton camp’s strange strategy of dismissing heavy campaigning in a dozen states. Wisconsin may become the textbook case of overconfidence: after finally vanquishing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in a hard fought primary and caucus season, Clinton never set foot in the Badger State again, effectively shunting it aside as a sure win. Likewise, a fast-but-loose ground game in both Michigan and Arizona led to those state’s valuable trove of electoral votes being lost forever—a reliable Democratic state turned red, and a potential swing state now lost for at least four years.

Complaints came too from those more scrupulous long-range thinkers who have said that Clinton’s sluggish, reluctant, unapologetic—even at time insincere—personal and official response to the long slow burn of the email and server crisis effectively produced fatal cellular damage. The email controversy left some wounds unhealed and unresolved (Beghazi), and allowed others to fester into a wider cancer, such as the questions—however nitpicky—over the apparently cozy relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the U.S. State Department. A more proactive strategy toward the email imbroglio—including contrition and an early apology—would have surely diffused those questions early, but instead, Clintonland circled their wagons in typical Clinton style—a stubborn but pointless fight against what was already self-evident. The Clintons, in typical fashion, became their worst enemies.

Bill Clinton too chose the worst possible time to issue his own doubts about Obamacare, a moment of unparalleled unguarded candor caught on tape at the worst possible moment—just as the news that premium costs would increase by some 50% nationwide. The cost spikes coupled with Bill Clinton’s pontifications and self-doubts reignited an old Republican fire, and undercut Obama’s legacy along with Hillary Clinton’s linkage to his signature piece of legislation.

Present also in any conversation must be an age old political adage: turnout still matters. Democrats, as we now know, turned out in lower numbers to vote on Tuesday, producing a massive deficit. As Democratic strategist Paul Begala noted on CNN on Wednesday, roughly two million fewer Democrats voted in 2016 than voted in 2012, an inexplicable problem for a political party thought to have grown during that same four year period. That loss alone may have robbed Hillary Clinton of her biggest prize, and handed Trump his mathematical opening.

Lots of snap explanations have been offered: that Democrats just were not excited by Hillary Clinton; that some actually did not relish another four or eight years of gridlock featuring Clintonland as the centerpiece; that neither the Clinton campaign nor the DNC put appropriate effort into mobilizing Democrats and burnishing plans to get them to their respective polling places; that some supposed Clinton backers actually quietly pulled the lever for Trump instead, becoming another source of Trump’s so-called hidden support; that the Obama legacy, for lack of a better word, may have already become threadbare even to some Democrats, and since Clinton was to be the new standard bearer of that legacy, uneasy Democrats—many of them yearning for the same “change” being demanded by Republicans—quietly rejected Clinton altogether.

Another inescapable factor is Clinton’s long fight with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders very nearly robbed Clinton of her nomination prize, battling her narrative and her claim to the White House in every state and matching her head-to-head and point-for-point in every debate. Enthusiasm for Sanders was not only real, but visceral, and his effort to revolutionize the Democratic Party through an upending of the norms bears a striking resemblance to Trump’s own calls to slash-and-burn. Though they could not be more opposite on issues and temperament, Sanders and Trump were each vectors for change in a year clearly marked by anger and frustration on the part of voters. The mainstream media largely ignored this parallel, and chose mostly to compartmentalize the two movements, as if Trump’s followers and Sanders’ followers were part of wholly independent political reactions to gridlock and paralysis.

Sanders undeniable staying power and his ability to channel progressives to his message was an early warning that Clinton was not the future of the Democratic Party, nor the politics of the country. Democrats like Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chaffee had said as much, warning Democrats that Clinton was a creature of the past, not the future.

One explanation that does not pass muster: that Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein pulled significant votes away from the Democrats. This is the Nader Effect so bemoaned by the same party that watched as George W. Bush grabbed victory in 2000. Bush and Gore may have waged a battle royale over those 472 Sunshine State votes that fall, but the real question for Democrats that year was why Floridians cast 97,480 votes for Ralph Nader. The explanation: Gore’s message did not resonate with progressives, and they left adrift.

This year, despite a powerful surge in polling in late September which pushed the Libertarians to 9% in some surveys, and the Greens to 3%, neither Johnson nor Stein robbed either Trump or Clinton of substantial support in any key state. (Historically, it has been unclear whether those who vote for the Libertarian candidate are at their core Democrats or Republicans; Stein, it can be safely understood, would have pulled in many voters likely to have at one time backed Bernie Sanders).

The “what went wrong” questions in the Clinton camp will be soon overshadowed by the “what went right” questions for Trump, where top strategists still seem dazed and bleary-eyed from a victory which they clearly did not see coming.

Defying easy comparison, Trump’s win is a political upset unlike anything the United States has experienced, but wrought by a level of frustration which should have been more obvious to the reporters, pundits, and chattering elites who have been so immersed in the day-to-day drama of the primaries, caucuses, conventions and debates, that they failed to sense the sea change.

Meanwhile, the networks cover masses of protesters in the streets in a split screen—demonstrators in one image, Trump meeting with President Obama in the other. World markets reacted for a few hours with unbridled fear, then, settled in for the ride as U.S. markets largely recovered. The sun did come up on Wednesday, and it has come up each day since the votes were counted. New headlines will be written.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Trump Wins Presidentcy Defying Odds, Pundits, Polls; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Wednesday, November 9, 2016.

McMullin Hopes to Deny Both Clinton and Trump Win; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; October 24, 2016.