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Why did we get the US election wrong?

7_scary_realities_for_americans_with_donald_trumSome didn’t. No doubt they’re feeling smug as others flail around in horror. But for the bulk of “us”, the commentariat people spanning the academic pundits specialising in voting behaviour, the professional commentators paid for their opinion-forming opinions, and neither forgetting those weirdos who write about politics because they want to, Tuesday represented a unanimity of failure. That so few called it for Trump goes beyond bad analysis: it’s a social phenomenon. How then did everyone get it wrong?

Well, for starters, we didn’t. We were wrong, and yet we were right too. Not only did Hillary Clinton win the popular vote, she might surpass Trump’s tally by some two million once all the ballots are counted. So yes, all the analyses were right that the GOP wouldn’t out poll the Democrats – and the size of that margin could give Trump added extra legitimacy problems later on. Yet, despite knowing about the electoral college, too many of us treated the contest as if it was a simple popularity contest. The vagaries of this anti-democratic and archaic stitch-up system were rarely factored in.

The second point was polling. Most people writing about American politics, including Americans writing about politics, are removed from the action on the ground. You have to take what passes as evidence as your guide. And that, traditionally, has been opinion polling. While they were a bit all over the place, they favoured a Clinton outcome as per the final vote tally. Yet they also posted clear leads in the crucial battleground states, including Wisconsin where not a single poll put Trump on top. In Britain, the experience of the 2015 general election and Brexit should, by now, have taught us to treat polling with caution. On each occasion, they’ve been able to pick up movements in opinion but not the actual figures. Sucks to be them, sucks to be fooled by them.

And then there are the demographics. Asked about it in the lead up, like many others I couldn’t see how Trump might win with such a coalition arrayed against him. Surely the bulk vote of America’s ethnic and sexual minorities, allied to a sizeable chunk of white people would be enough to bury his chances? As we know, they weren’t. The white middle class and well-to-do base of the GOP turned out in the states Trump needed them to turn out in, while the Democrat vote deflated. All the stars aligned for a Clinton win, and without anything else intervening we went with that.

Lastly, there’s a strange sort of groupthink. In my bones, I felt we weren’t going to win the general election, that Leave would put us on course for exiting the EU, and Trump was set to come out on top. But I ignored it, took Tony Blair’s advice and had a heart transplant, substituting emotion for the cool analysis of hard numbers. This, however, was a conceit. The fear of the alternatives engendered a herd wisdom that appeared to have a close relationship to the simulated results of polling and extrapolations of demographics, but this was coincidental. In truth, commentators hostile to Trump right across the spectrum of opinion fooled themselves into think that he couldn’t win because, well, he just couldn’t. In the same way Britain just wouldn’t leave the EU, how Labour wouldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn (twice), how the Conservatives wouldn’t be victorious in 2015. Being wedded to the established way of doing things, whether cheerleader or critic, meant projecting its assumptions onto a wider electorate. They couldn’t possibly support ….

How to prevent this from happening again? Going in the opposite direction and forecasting doom and gloom is not an answer. Treating polling data more critically is the easy thing. Keeping a sociological imagination is necessary but not sufficient. One has to be alive to the play of tendencies and counter tendencies, their strength and weaknesses. But most importantly, and more difficult more difficult to accomplish is sustained self-criticism combined with the checking and rechecking of one’s underlying assumptions, including acknowledging and allowing for your stakes in a issue and how that might colour your findings. It’s not just fresh thinking that’s needed now, but critical thinking and intellectual honesty. If that can be managed, then fewer in may be blindsided by so-called freak events in future.


  1. Richard MacKinnon says:

    “Keeping a sociological imagination is necessary but not sufficient. ……. tendencies and counter tendencies, ………strength and weakness……… sustained self-criticism ……… checking and rechecking ………..assumptions, including acknowledging and allowing for your stakes in a issue and how that might colour your findings. ”

    This last para tells me the author does not know what he is talking about. He wants to say something but does not know what it is it. He refers to another’s gobbledegook, such as ‘sociological imagination ‘ without explanation of what it means.
    When an author feels it necessary to publish his thoughts but cant put those thoughts down in words, this can only be explained in two ways.
    1. The author is inarticulate and is unable to transfer his ideas into words.
    2. The author does not have a rational opinion and as a consequence he is unable explain himself.
    No. 1 is forgivable. No 2. is not.
    Phil Burton- Cartlededge is not inarticulate. He should take on board his own advice when he says, “It’s not just fresh thinking that’s needed now but critical thinking and intellectual honesty. ”
    I understand ‘intellectual honesty’ to mean, that if you don’t know what you want to say, better say nothing at all.

  2. Tony says:

    For the 2008 presidential elections, Senate Democrats were so keen to stop Hillary Clinton that they approached Obama to run. He was only in his first senate term. A different candidate this time may well have made a crucial difference. A lot of people who voted for Trump did so despite their dislike for him.

    Hillary’s campaign spread its efforts too thinly. Arizona should have been ignored and the resources put into Wisconsin and Michigan instead. These two states were each lost by less than 1%.

    With these two states, she would have had 258 Electoral College votes. Any one of these three would have then put her over the finishing line: Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina. The margins of defeat in these three were respectively: 1.24%, 1.27% and 3.77%

    By contrast, Bill Clinton in 1992 had a plan and stuck to it. The only target state that failed to fall was North Carolina. Only one non-target state fell—Nevada.

    The lesson for the Labour Party is, once again, concentrate the effort and don’t worry about seats that are not crucial to victory.

    Question: Can you name Trump’s campaign slogan? Yes, of course you can.
    Now, can you name Clinton’s campaign slogan? No, of course you can’t. I’m not sure there even was one.

    A well-chosen campaign slogan could have flipped this election:

    “Keep America moving” or “Much done, more to do.”
    This is arguably the fourth presidential election that the Democrats have thrown away (1988, 2000, and 2004 being the others).
    For the Republicans, the tally is probably two: 1960 and 1976.

    Cook Political Report analysis, worth reading:

  3. David Pavett says:

    Keeping a sociological imagination is necessary but not sufficient. One has to be alive to the play of tendencies and counter tendencies, their strength and weaknesses. But most importantly, and more difficult more difficult to accomplish is sustained self-criticism combined with the checking and rechecking of one’s underlying assumptions, including acknowledging and allowing for your stakes in a issue and how that might colour your findings.

    The only point of this article seems to be that objective comment requires proper research and an awareness off the possible effects of personal bias. That’s true but somewhat preachy and, for anyone who takes politics seriously, rather trivial. Besides, many were aware of the distorting possibilities of the US electoral college system (similar to thar of our first past the post system still defended by some on the left).

    I was also intrigued by the idea that “keeping a sociological imagination” did not of itself include being alive to the play of tendencies and counter-tendencies and also being aware of problems of personal bias.

  4. Rob Green says:

    Hillary was the Stop Bernie candidate. The Democrats were determined to lose the election with this neo-liberal throwback rather than to win it with Sanders. It’s as if Labour went into 2020 with Tony Blair back at the helm. It’s amazing she got any votes.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Having been in America last week,there was mixture of Hilary, her reputation rightly or wrongly,y being smeared by dis news, and shines whispers, and apathy

    But the continued quotes Trump is but, the republicans are veil, were slipping away and then quiet Trump supporters started coming out repeating the guff they’d heard in Fox News

  6. Jim Denham says:

    The following was sent to me by a comrade; I broadly agree:

    I’ve frequently seen those who attempt to argue that voters’ conscious adherence to reactionary (racist, etc.) ideas was a key factor denounced as “patronising” (“you can’t just dismiss them all as bigots!”); and, on the “other side”, those who attempt to foreground class, economic inequality, etc., are denounced as being dismissive of or unconcerned about racism, sexism, etc.

    What often seems to be missing on all sides is a conception of “the plebeian masses” (because we’re not quite talking about “the working class” in a straightforward Marxian sense) as being comprised of conscious actors capable of taking ownership over ideas and reaching political conclusions. The masses are reduced to a kind of reactive blob, simply pulled around by the forces of history.

    I think this expresses itself in the figurative language many on the left have used in response. We talk about “redirecting their anger”, or “channelling it” in a different direction. That Sanders could have beaten Trump is (rightly) made much of, but we shouldn’t conclude from that the existence of some politically-neutral plebeian rage that can be confiscated equally straightforwardly by forces left or right.

    Isn’t there a risk of seeing plebeian anger, discontent, experience, etc., as something we (the left) are merely trying to corral, redirect, rechannel, rather than engage with, shape, and, in some cases (where that anger and discontent is actually with elements of capitalist globalisation we’re in favour of, such as freedom of movement and erosion of borders; or relative advances in gender and sexual equality), confront? Our job is to shape and develop working-class consciousness, not merely to “redirect” working-class “anger”.

    For our politics to win requires at first a significant minority and, eventually, a majority, of the global working class to take conscious ownership over socialist ideas on a profound level. Getting there is a dizzyingly ambitious task, and one that most of the left just seems to have given up on. The whole experience of the far left in Britain in the past period – pathetically launching this or that short-termist, dumbed-down political project in the hope that this would allow them to corral mass working-class support, to direct around in a commandist fashion, rather than making any meaningful attempt to rebuild or build socialist consciousness in workplaces and communities.

    Large sections of our class have become persuaded of reactionary ideas. Understanding that is a necessary prerequisite to persuading them of different ones, rather than imagining their existing consciousness represents an “anger” that we could easily “redirect”.

    I should stress that I’m not in dialogue with you here, but mainly with the hopelessly politically-lost British far left, the two biggest sections of which backed “Brexit” and whined pathetically that if only Jeremy Corbyn had been prepared to lead the anti-EU campaign, all would be well – completely ignoring the fact that very many people in our class, in our workplaces and communities, adhere to nationalist ideas about immigrants and immigration.

    One might say, well, their adherence to those ideas doesn’t go that deep. It’s a passive adherence to the only political narrative on offer. Well, yes, on some level that’s true. But firstly, that’s not the terrain on which we want to compete – we don’t want “passive adherence” but conscious ownership over ideas. And, secondly, offering an alternative political narrative requires actually offering an alternative political narrative, something the left has largely failed to do in the past period, settling instead for lowest-common-denominator “anti-austerity” platitudes that frequently avoid thorny issues like immigration.

    I might be arguing (I say “might be”, because, again, these thoughts are half-formed, or less) for a kind of “existential resetting”, for socialists to reconceive of our role first and foremost as being propagandists, educators, and persuaders for socialist ideas. I’m always struck by the fact that Gramsci called his post-1920 faction the “communist education group”. He had the right priorities, I think.

  7. Tim Bernards says:

    I think you’re all over-thinking it. Americans faced a choice between a genuine idiot and a plastic crook, so they chose the genuine idiot. Now they’ve got a blusterous poor negotiator for a statesman, instead of a fill-in nodding dog that buried 33,000 bones.

    I’m glad I’m alive to witness it.
    It’s going to be yuuuuge.

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