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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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Let’s start with these quotations:

From President Obama:

“[T]he small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods… and detracting from the larger cause…. [L]et’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.”

From Terrence Floyd, brother of George:

“In every case of police brutality the same thing has been happening. You have protests, you destroy stuff … so they want us to destroy ourselves. Let’s do this another way,” he said, encouraging the crowd to vote and to educate themselves. “Let’s switch it up, y’all.”

From Congressperson Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis:

“When we see people setting our buildings and our businesses ablaze, we know those are not people who are interested in protecting black lives… Every single fire set ablaze, every single store that is looted, every time our community finds itself in danger, it is time that people are not spending talking about getting justice for George Floyd…”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta:

“What we saw overnight was not a protest, and it was not Atlanta. We as a people are strongest when we use our voices to heal our city instead of using our hands to tear it down. . . .  If we are to enact change in this nation, I implore everyone to channel their anger and sorrow into something more meaningful and effective through non-violent activism.”

These statements by African Americans contrast with some of the commentary that I have been hearing and reading in the liberal-tilting media like NPR, CNN, MSNBC, the Times, the Post, and online sources, commentary that effectively tries to ignore or wave away the destruction of public property, private businesses, and workers’ jobs. (When a business is destroyed, its employees as well as its owner lose.)

At this writing (midday, June 2), it appears that the street action involves three groups: One, the largest, comprises genuine protesters legitimately outraged at yet another unwarranted killing and at the persistence of institutional racism. The second are anarchist terrorists, overwhelmingly white and young, fomenting destruction. We in the Bay Area are familiar with them. They show up wearing helmets and Guy Fawkes masks, carrying hammers and incendiary devices, to hijack political protests and to break and burn. The third group is comprised of criminals, sometimes organized in caravans, exploiting the situation to break into upscale stores.

The inclination of well-intentioned whites to airbrush the ugly parts of this scene is condescending and it is bad politics. It helps the Trump administration claim that it is defending the peace against the violent and the appeasers of violence. Modern American history tells us that the political winner of these street confrontations is almost always the side of reaction and repression. So, it could be again on election day, 2020.

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Along with reviving The “failing” New York Times, Donald Trump can take credit for having launched an entire academic enterprise, Trumpology: trying to understand how and why he rocketed from a reality show celebrity to the White House. It’s been about a year since I summarized studies trying to answer that question and it’s now about a year before Americans revisit their 2016 decision. What does the last year’s research show?Trump

My previous two entries on Trumpology (“Explaining Trump” and “Explaining Trump Some More”) suggested the following tentative conclusions from earlier studies:

* Explaining why Trump actually won the electoral college is not very interesting. The election was close and any number of minor events could have made the difference. We need to understand why such an improbable candidate won the nomination of a major party and, in particular, what motivated his MAGA enthusiasts.
* The key seems to have been cultural anxieties–Trump’s success in addressing and inflaming worries about race and immigration, clearly, but also worries about feminism and other elements of the “culture wars.” Trump’s attention to economic distress was, at best, secondary.
* Once Trump won the nomination, party partisanship–much greater in 2016 than it was a couple of decades ago–ensured strong support from Republicans and strong opposition from Democrats. Thus, the fall campaign was fought over a very narrow no man’s land, where any event (say, Access Hollywood, purloined emails, or an FBI news conference) could make the difference.

The new research I report below is consistent with these conclusions but fills them out, particularly telling us about Trump’s takeover over the Republican party and his nature as a populist. I am sure that there are many more studies out there, but this is a start. I will review what new we have learned about Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination and of the fall election, place Trump the populist in international perspective, consider parallels to a 1960s-’70s precursor of Trump, and close by speculating about 2020.

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This year has seen disturbing flare-ups around issues of race, immigration, and white nativism generally.

Flags

Source: Chet Strange/Getty Images News

They ranged from clumsy White House tweets about Jewish “disloyalty” to angry controversies around two Muslim congresswomen, more episodes of police shootings of blacks, all the way to mass murders such as the slaughter of Latinos in an El Paso Walmart (and last year of synagogue-goers in Pittsburgh).

Correspondingly, Americans’ anxieties about race have spiked in recent years. In 2016, 38 percent of respondents told the Pew survey that they thought race relations have worsened; in 2019, 53 percent did.[1] Respondents to the Gallup Poll felt the same surge of concern. The following graph shows the percentage who said that they worried a “great deal” about race relations.[2]

Worry_Gallup

Does the rising tide of worry mean that the nation is descending into a maelstrom of racial conflict? More likely, we are seeing the kind of fearful and angry reaction that major social change often brings.

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[Note to readers: I started this blog not for political comments but for reporting social science, especially American social history. But I will scratch the itch… and then return to “regular programming.”]

Premise: Removing Trump is America’s number one priority, because his re-election would make us fall further behind in addressing priorities number two through n–slowing climate change, tamping down war, moderating inequality, repairing the infrastructure, learning to live with growing diversity, and more.

Strategies: They largely boil down to hard-nosed pragmatics: We on the left should not shoot ourselves in the foot.

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Chain Migration

What’s an ivory-tower social scientist to do when he looks up from his cluttered desk and realizes that a handy but obscure academic term has become a mortar round in the culture wars? “Chain migration” used to have a serviceable technical meaning. Then, anti-immigration forces–anti-legal immigration forces–now joined by President Trump decided that chain migration is a tidal wave of foreigners submerging the American Way of Life (although more Norwegians would be OK). And it did not help that Senator Durbin further confused matters by saying that the phrase hurts the feelings of African Americans whose ancestors came in chains.

Here’s what immigration scholars have meant by the term: “People immigrate to locations where they find connections and a measure of familiarity.” “Migrants who already live in the destination…. help their friends and relatives by providing them information, money, and place to stay, perhaps a job, and emotional support.”

Immigration restrictors use the term, however, to refer to a specific version of chain migration: family reconstitution, the process by which naturalized American citizens can bring in extended kin who can bring in extended kin who can… etc. The idea is that each legal immigrant will, especially once a citizen, open the door to dozens of others. In fact, this is, as is well explained by an article in Vox, a great exaggeration. Each immigrant brings in very few extended kin and even those arrivals usually take decades.

But this post is about what real chain migration brought to America over the course of our history. Here is a pretty common story: A teenage boy sails into New York City to join and room with his older sister and her husband; they had made the trip two years earlier. Not speaking English, he nonetheless quickly gets a job from another immigrant of the same origin. He lives for several years in a neighborhood that is an enclave of aliens from his home region. Years later, after much adventure, he returns a wealthy man to his city of origin and brings a wife from there back to New York. This successful man is a link in a chain of migration. This man is Fredrick Trump, the president’s grandfather. (A recent Politico story looks at the family histories of other anti-immigrant activists.)

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Explaining Trump Some More

It’s over a year now, but academics, journalists, and political junkies still cannot get their fill–nor can I–of addressing the question, Why Trump? The obsession is understandable. Aside from the clear and present dangers his administration poses to the nation, there is the compelling puzzle of how so many Americans could vote for a man who…. well, whose own leading appointees call him an “idiot” and a “f**king moron.” As I wrote before, the social science question is not why he won. Trump’s electoral college victory can be blamed on many small incidentals (and, perhaps most deeply, on the Founding Fathers’ suspicion of popular democracy). The big question is why Trump did so much better than other also out-of-the-mainstream but less outlandish candidates like Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ross Perot.

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Discussion has largely focused on whether Trump’s special appeal to white working class (WWC) voters which helped him win the Republican nomination and then key swing states arose more from those voters’ economic anxieties or more from their cultural anxieties. Journalist German Lopez’s recent review in Vox of several studies leads him to conclude that “the evidence that Trump’s rise was driven by racism and racial resentment is fairly stacked.” That “Trump! Trump! Trump!” has become a racial taunt underlines Lopez’s claim.

In response to such assertions, conservative columnist Ross Douthat reasonably responded that both motivations mattered and that economic concerns should not be dismissed as an important source of Trump’s appeal. Liberal columnist Kevin Drum responded that Trump’s racist support was no different than that of past GOP candidates and, anyway, it’s all besides the point, because his election is former FBI Director Comey’s fault. Neither Douthat’s nor Drum’s responses is compelling–nor is it compelling to reduce Trumps’ supporters to racists. Better understanding of the Trump phenomenon is both intellectually interesting and potentially important. So, I return to the topic of a post about a year old, “Explaining Trump,” only this time with much new data and debate to integrate.

As before, distinctions must be made, even after setting aside the question of why Trump won the electoral college. We must separately address the question of who became key Trump enthusiasts from the question of why he managed to get 46 percent of final vote (while Goldwater in ‘64 got only 38 percent, Wallace in ‘68 14 percent, and Perot in ‘92 19 percent).

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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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