Early Observations from Election 2016

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Now that we’re all beginning to recover from one of the most contentious and vicious election seasons I have ever experienced, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the thoughts that have been and remain on my mind in the days and weeks following Election Day.

The other motivation for this is that I was kindly invited to speak at the November 19, 2016 League of Women Voters meeting in Jackson, Mississippi to provide some analysis regarding the 2016 election cycle and the outcomes. Because there are still so many lingering questions, I decided to create a list of my main observations and considerations time to use as the starting point for a discussion that morning. I wanted to share that list with all of you and invite your feedback either here on this page or via email at nathan@nathanshrader.com.

1) Many pundits, professionals, and forecasters clearly got it wrong. This obviously pertains to those who are prognosticators like Nate Silver who gave Clinton a 68% chance of winning and Nate Cohn who had her chances at about 85% as late as the day before the election. Maybe it is time to reevaluate our commitment to that approach? Let’s allow the voters to do what they do before we try to convince people that a preconceived result exists. Meanwhile, I would argue that political scientists would better serve the public by being able to explain what happened and why instead of engaging in the development of tedious predictive models.

2) Trump won the race in the upper Midwest and the Rust Belt by carrying traditional Democratic strongholds like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. He also over-performed prior GOP nominees in Ohio and Iowa. The margins of victory Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Florida, and Pennsylvania point to those states as being the real battlegrounds for 2020. How can the Democratic and Republican Parties best respond to the interests of voters in those states? Likewise, how many of the 13 or so “swing states” from 2016 will actually battle grounds moving forward?

3) Given that they will not have control of the House (240 to 194) or Senate (51 to 48, maybe 52 to 48), the GOP is going to have to deliver results rather than agitate from the sidelines. Are they capable of this given the philosophical divisions between the small government conservatives like Paul Ryan, the big government conservatives like Donald Trump, and the (almost) no-government types like the House Freedom Caucus?

4) Where was the great wave of independents who were supposed to wash over the country this year? According to Gallup, 45% of voters said that they are “independent” back in May 2016. Only about 4.5% of all votes cast went to third party candidates. As a nation, it seems as if we’re far more partisan than we like to admit.

5) According to projections by David Wasserman of the US Census Bureau, if you look at the U.S. population as a whole, Trump was elected with the votes of 19.5% of the entire nation. Clinton won 19.8%, 28.6% were legally ineligible to cast votes, but 29.9% were eligible but didn’t vote. This has to be a factor in our discussion of how to make the system of elections easier to navigate and more democratic through things like automatic registration upon turning 18, moving to vote-by-mail in all states, and finally adopting a national popular vote.

6) Do issues matter as much as rhetoric and salesmanship? Examples for conversation include general slogans like “Make America Great Again” and attacks on NAFTA and international organizations. In other words, it doesn’t seem like the news media or the electorate really asked how America will be made great or how these agreements will be amended to help Americans who have been left behind, leaving voters to make choices based on rhetoric rather than reason.

7) Many experts are trying to discern why voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 shifted gears and voted for Donald Trump—especially in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Some of the general theories have included low-levels of information about what the candidates stand for, the gap between those with college degrees going with Clinton and those without going with Trump, and divisions related to the voter income. I sense that we haven’t spent enough time discussing the idea that the rational actor model could have some explanatory power. In other words, voters in places that experienced sharp deindustrialization voted for the person who said that he would address their most pressing economic concerns. This isn’t as glamorous as some of the other explanations, but it makes more sense to me than some of the other theories discussed since the election took place.

7) Make no mistake about it. Democrats took—in Barack Obama’s terminology from a few years ago—a “shellacking” this year. We ought to remember that America’s political parties are resilient and tend to bounce back after staggering defeats (think about the GOP after Goldwater’s 1964 drubbing and the Democrats after their losses in the presidential races of 1980, 1984, and 1988). Here are a few potential bright spots for the Democrats at the national level:

  • Demographics in states like Arizona, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada likely favor them in long-term should the parties retain the general ideological orientations that they have now
  • Trump’s win delays much-needed Republican moderation on critical issues that could impact the previous point
  • Democrats can now debut national talent without waiting four to eight years for a Clinton presidency to come to a close
  • There is an opportunity to test the viability of issues and ideas as a young Bill Clinton and Al From did with the DLC during the party’s dark days in the 1980s and early 1990s

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