Sunday, November 13, 2016
How Could Hillary Lose?
I don't know how many times I have heard that question in recent days, but I know it has been a lot. I can understand some people's bewilderment. The polls showed Hillary Clinton leading from wire to wire. How could she possibly have lost?
If anyone is interested, I have a few thoughts on that.
The best place to start is with the declaration of a simple fact: History has always fascinated me. Whenever I have written about this election this year, my writing has almost always been grounded in the lessons that history can teach us.
In the last couple of years, many people have told me I was wrong, that just because Americans did something in the past did not mean they would do the same thing again (which was contradictory to the belief that states that had voted for Democrats for several elections would continue to do so).
For example ...
I frequently pointed out that Americans have only voted for the same party in three consecutive national elections once since the end of World War II. That was in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected twice and George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Reagan when he was term–limited out of office in 1988.
Post–WWII Americans have changed the party in the White House every eight years since 1945 like clockwork. Well, one time they changed parties after four years. That was in 1980, when Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter.
But aside from those two exceptions — both of which came during the post–Vietnam/post–Watergate period — post–World War II Americans have given a party two four–year terms in the White House, then they have been in the mood for change.
Historically, 2016 was destined to be a "change" election from the night in 2012 when Barack Obama was re–elected.
Is it really that simple? No, there is more to it than that, but it is an appropriate starting point.
Americans were predisposed this year to turn to the party that was out of power. Sometimes they have been reluctant to do so, and it has resulted in close elections, but that inclination for change runs strong in the American electorate. True, many (perhaps most) Americans found Donald Trump objectionable, but they still voted for him. Narrowly, yes, but still they voted for him, and it didn't surprise or shock me.
For a long time, I have known of an incredible sense of anxiety among Americans. I have seen election years when Americans were anxious but never to this extent before. They were frightened by terrorism and an immigration policy that seemed to encourage terrorists to come here. They were stressed economically by continually rising health care premiums that they were required by law to carry and incomes that didn't cover the necessities, let alone a luxury or two.
My main thought on election night was that a less flawed Republican would have crushed Clinton.
After all, Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate, too. The polls in which her supporters placed so much faith consistently showed that both she and Trump were unpopular. I started calling it an unpopularity contest when it became clear who the nominees would be, and I regarded their unpopularity as offsetting penalties (to use a football metaphor), canceling each other out.
Again, I believe a less flawed Republican candidate would have cruised to victory — even Ted Cruz.
I have also written in the last year of the Bradley effect, named for Tom Bradley, a black man who ran for California governor in 1982. Polls consistently showed him leading his Republican opponent — but on Election Day Bradley lost. Political scientists determined that, in pre–election polls, many respondents said they would vote for Bradley because they feared being labeled racist — even though it was extremely unlikely that the pollsters and the people being polled knew each other or that a pollster would give a second thought to anyone's responses five minutes after the conversation ended.
On Election Day, though, the voters were alone in the privacy of the voting booth, and Bradley's opponent won the election.
I wrote nearly a year ago that I thought we could be seeing the same thing in this campaign, and I never changed my mind about that. I don't have any evidence to back up my conclusion that the Bradley effect played a role in this year's election, and I suppose it will require some research before a verdict can be rendered, but I sincerely believe there may have been Trump supporters who told pollsters they would vote for Clinton because they didn't want to be labeled racist or sexist or homophobic.
I could be wrong about that, but I have read articles that point to that as a possibility, and I have heard people speak of something like that taking place. It wouldn't surprise me to learn there was an element of that in Trump's silent victory.
But I continue to believe that historical voting patterns offered significantly more clues to people that something like this was going to happen.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a post on this blog about states that I saw as up for grabs based on whether they gave Barack Obama or Mitt Romney 53% or less of the popular vote. Those states, I wrote, were candidates for flipping party allegiance in the general election — even if they had voted for one party for several election cycles.
For example, I wrote that Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes were at risk for Democrats, who hadn't lost the state since 1988. I didn't have to hear stories about how blue–collar workers there were suffering under adverse trade agreements. I looked at recent election returns. In 2008, Obama carried the state with more than 54% of the vote, a popular vote margin of more than 600,000. Four years later, he carried Pennsylvania again in his successful re–election campaign, but the margin was cut in half and his share of the vote was just over 51%.
Even with an incumbent on the ballot Democrats were losing altitude in 2012, and the results of the midterm elections of 2014 indicated that they were still losing altitude in spite of Obama's personal popularity. On election night, Trump beat Clinton in Pennsylvania by more than 65,000 votes.
The Democrats' strategy in 2016 was predicated on the belief that all the states that had voted for Obama in either or both of the last two elections — and many that had been voting for Democrats for decades — would continue to do so. It was called the "Blue Wall," and it was largely taken for granted.
That wall crumbled on election night.
Many people probably thought I was crazy when I wrote in September that Illinois appeared to be about the only sure thing for the Democrats in the Industrial Midwest.
It was well known that Ohio would be a swing state so when it swung to Trump, that may not have surprised too many people. Nor, I suppose, did Indiana's support for Trump surprise many people. Indiana did support Obama when he ran in 2008, but it voted against him in 2012, returning to its Republican roots, and this time Indiana's governor was on the Republican ticket.
But the defection of Michigan, which also had not voted for a Republican since 1988, did surprise a lot of people. At the time I acknowledged that Michigan's vote for Obama in 2012 (54%) exceeded the limit I imposed, but that was a drop of more than three percentage points compared to 2008. Surveys that indicated how much people there were suffering economically convinced me this fall that Michigan might very well flip.
I pointed out that Obama's support declined in Wisconsin between 2008 and 2012, making it a prime candidate to flip as well. Wisconsin had not supported a Republican since voting for the re–election of Ronald Reagan in 1984. It voted for Trump by about 25,000 votes.
I also observed that Iowa was a prime candidate for flipping. The only Republicans Iowa had supported since 1968 were Republicans who were already president and were seeking re–election (Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, George W. Bush in 2004), but the returns from 2008 and 2012 clearly showed that Democrats were losing altitude in Iowa, too. It only offered half a dozen electoral votes, but it was one of the bricks in that Blue Wall.
Was the collapse of the Clinton campaign inevitable? I suppose opinions on that will vary. There are indications that the Clinton campaign, by virtue of its own hubris, contributed to its demise in the Industrial Midwest. It assumed that, because those states had been voting for Democrats for so long, they would continue to do so.
I went online early on election night and looked in at Facebook. A friend of mine from my graduate school days, a dyed–in–the–wool Democrat, was encouraging his friends to forecast Clinton's total in the Electoral College. He predicted she would receive 332 votes, overshooting the actual total by, oh, about 100 votes. All through the campaign, he kept saying he wasn't worried about Trump. The polls showed him safely behind.
He's been keeping a low profile since the election. Hubris.
But Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell, who succeeded her retiring husband in the House in January 2015, wrote in the Washington Post recently that she warned that the Clinton campaign was in trouble in Michigan back in the spring before the Democrats' presidential primary, which was won by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Clinton's campaign was too slow to recognize its problem with Sanders in Michigan, Dingell wrote. "They never stopped on a campus; never went to a union hall; never talked to the Arab American community. Sanders was in my district 10 times during the primary. How would any sane person not predict how this one would go? It was fixable for the general election."
But, clearly, it wasn't fixed. Repeatedly I read and heard that the Clinton campaign would reassemble Obama's winning coalition of blacks, Hispanics and young voters, and that would propel her to victory. But Clinton couldn't duplicate the enthusiasm that surrounded the Obama campaigns. Her share of the black vote was lower, as was her share of the young vote, a group that has never been known for showing up at the polls in great numbers. Hispanics voted for Trump at about the same rate they voted for Romney four years ago.
In the closing days of the campaign, Clinton repeatedly urged her supporters to vote early. But neither Michigan nor Pennsylvania allow early voting. There are procedures in place for old–fashioned absentee voting, but most voters in those states cast their ballots on Election Day.
Those voters went to the polls knowing about Trump's secretly recorded locker–room conversation, the reopening of the email investigation, the looming hike in health insurance premiums and the warning about possible terrorism activity the day before the election. People who cast their votes early knew little if anything about those events. Might they have changed those votes? We will never know.
The outcomes in those states that do not allow early voting can be said to be reflections of voter sentiment about events that hadn't happened when many voters went to the polls.
Ultimately, it may turn out that the voters made the wrong choice. Wouldn't be the first time.