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Posts Tagged ‘election’

A few months ago, I sketched preliminary explanations of last November’s election; those conclusions still hold up well. This post addresses how well–or, poorly–the election polling did, why, and with what implications for using polls as a voice of popular opinion.Truman-Dewey

Putting the major polls together, their miss in last year’s presidential election was, on average, 4 percentage points, mainly because they underestimated the Trump vote; they also underestimated the Republican down-ballot votes by about the same margin. (Fivethirtyeight.com’s final averages of polls gave Biden an 8.4-point lead; he ended up winning by 4.4 points.) As presidential elections forecasting in recent decades go, this error was roughly average.

However, the 2020 polling stirred considerable and appropriate consternation; Politico declared the morning after that “the polling industry is a wreck and should be blown up.” The reasons for consternation include these:

* Although the polls got the electoral college winner right this time, the 2020 error was actually larger than the 2016 error, which was only 1.8 percentage points (Clinton was predicted to win the popular vote by 3.9 points, but won it by 2.1 points).

* This deterioration in accuracy occurred despite major efforts by polling organizations to fix the apparent 2016 problems and notable improvement in the 2018 off-year elections. The average 2018 error in forecasting party shares of the congressional vote was exactly zero. FiveThirtyEight.com declared that the “Polls are Alright.”

* In particular states (e.g., Wisconsin, Florida) the 2020 presidential polling error was much larger than the national 4 points.

* Many projections for down-ballot races, such as the Senate race in Maine, performed a lot worse than the presidential ones.

* The polls’ errors leaned in the same direction as in 2016, underestimating the Republican vote yet again.

Post mortems on the election now have some analysts and some political action groups (e.g., Swing Left) looking to rely less on polling going forward and more on “fundamentals” such as how a district voted in prior elections.

What happened?

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It’s been about 50 days since the networks declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential race. It will be probably a year or two before enough distance and enough research yield a trustworthy analysis of what happened. But it’s not to soon to speculate; everyone is doing it. Some preliminary conclusions and some preliminary lessons are possible.cupofjoe3

One topic of discussion is why the 2020 polls were off. They were modestly off at the presidential level, about 3.5 points, but that’s a greater error than in 2016. And the 2020 polls were off even more in many lower races. I’ll eventually write about polling in part #2 of First Takes. Here I just address the overall results, using the polls as little as possible.

Donald Trump clearly lost, sore loser tantrums notwithstanding. Otherwise, it was about a 50:50 election between the two parties. As his last hurrah (maybe), Trump mobilized enough new and irregular voters from his base to help his party do well but not well enough for him to do well. I’m certain he would have preferred the reverse.

For Democrats, disappointed by the results beyond the White House, one lesson was that they were overconfident about mobilizing “people of color”; another is the danger of cultural overreach by big-city progressives.

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This blog has periodically summarized some of the hundreds of studies analyzing Trump’s 2016 success and of his continuing popularity. This particular post will be, I trust, the almost-final one. (I’ll no doubt be sucked into reading the studies following up on the 2020 election.)  

My last update was about a year ago. The research then basically confirmed even earlier findings that Trump effectively combined a blatant appeal to the cultural anxieties of native-born, white Christians, together with overwhelming Republican party loyalty in this era of polarization and with the Founding Father’s kludge, the electoral college, to eke out a win. New research largely elaborates that explanation. So, after a brief review, I’ll turn to asking what this recent history might say about the forthcoming election. 

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Explaining Trump

Explaining how such an unfit candidate and such a bizarre candidacy succeeded has become a critical concern for journalists and scholars. Through sites like Monkey Cage, Vox, and 538, as well as academic papers, we can watch political scientists in real time try to answer the question, “What the Hell Happened?” (There are already at least two catalogs of answers, here and here, and a couple of college-level Trump syllabi.) Although a substantial answer will not emerge for years, this post is my own morning-after answer to the “WTHH?” question.

I make three arguments: First, Trump’s electoral college victory was a fluke, a small accident with vast implications, but from a social science perspective not very interesting. Second, the deeper task is to understand who were the distinctive supporters for Trump, in particular to sort out whether their support was rooted mostly in economic or in cultural grievances; the evidence suggests cultural. Third, party polarization converted Trump’s small and unusual personal base of support into 46 percent of the popular vote.

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Election Reflection

Mid-day, November 8, 2016. Not knowing the outcome and not being a scholar of elections, I thought I’d nonetheless make some comments on the election–hopefully informed ones.

The central question, the one that will occupy dissertations, articles, and books for many years to come, is how could about half of American voters, the great majority of whom are normal, decent, salt-of-earth Americans, choose as their president a self-admitted sexual predator and tax evader, policy ignoramus, major BS-er, unstable personality, and schoolyard bully who surrounds himself with neo-fascists?

(Does academic even-handedness require a similarly blistering description of Clinton? No, polite symmetry is not appropriate here. Clinton is in the historical range of somewhat-soiled presidential candidates–say, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy. That pillars of the Republican party such as the Presidents Bush and Mitt Romney at least implicitly and conservative newspapers explicitly–the Arizona Republic and the Manchester Union-Leader, for example–do not endorse Trump testifies to his exceptionalism.)

One feature of this year’s campaign is that we have been able to follow social science research on it in real time. Web sites like Monkey Cage, Vox, Five-Thirty-Eight, and others have provided not only a running score based on the polls, but also often substantive analysis directed at answering that question, How could Trump could have so much support?

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I spotted a bumper sticker as it passed through Berkeley on a blue Camry the other day. It read “McGovern-Shriver 1972.” It was a fresh sticker, not a 44-year-old relic, the driver’s wry comment on historical memory.

All but the shouting is over preparatory to the Trump/Clinton face-off this summer. (Full disclosure: I, like almost all “observers” excepting Norm Ornstein  and Sam Wang, dismissed Trump’s chances. For one post-mortem on how we screwed up, see here.) With the emotions of the primaries perhaps dampening, it becomes easier to inquire about the amazing age gap between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters.Sanders Clinton

In an April Field poll (pdf) of California’s likely Democrat voters, Clinton won the 65-plus crowd by about 3:1, but Sanders won the under-30 crowd by over 4:1. Age–much more than class, race, gender, or even ideology–differentiates pro-Clinton and pro-Sanders voters. (Full disclosure: I’m with her, as you would predict from my age.)

Why the canyon-sized gap? Maybe the Sanders vs. Clinton messages–boldness vs. pragmatism, frankness vs. calculation, independence vs. establishment, etc.–divide the young from the old. Maybe voters’ personal interests–say, student debt vs. protecting social security–do. But it is striking that age separates the two camps much more than how far left people say they are, their policy choices, or their social positions. One important explanation, I’ll suggest below, is historical memory, as captured by that bumper sticker.

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