We thought it could never happen. That’s what happened.

I’m listening to Hillary Clinton’s book on my commute. Its publication brings back the usual debates about how Donald Trump was able to win the Presidency, given his obvious, comprehensive unfitness for the position.

How did that happen? When I was asked to give odds before Election Day, I always quoted Nate Silver’s estimates. I said there was a one in six chance Trump could win.*** In my bones, I never really believed the risk was that great. Most people I knew–with the notable exception of Keith Humphreys–felt the same way. That’s how it happened.

The biggest single factor in President Trump’s upset election victory was the collective sense that Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly lose. That conviction in our bones–that the unthinkable outcome was really impossible–freed everyone, across the political spectrum from doing their part to prevent the national catastrophe that actually ensued.

That complacency freed unenthusiastic voters who despised Trump to stay home or cast protest votes. It freed Clinton and her team to run a less-urgent, less-effective campaign than they might have been. It freed Bernie Sanders not to do everything he might have done to rally his supporters on Clinton’s behalf.

It freed the media to cover her as the presumptive President, to ridiculously over-hype the email scandal, to treat Trump as a clownish and entertaining side-show, to give him free air time, to hire dishonest Trump spokesmen as cable news talent, to take refuge in bromides about the two-party duopoly and both-siderism. Hillary Clinton deserved criticism and scrutiny on many fronts, particularly her decisions regarding the lucrative speeches. She is absolutely, absolutely correct to lambaste the New York Times, Matt Lauer, and other media outlets for terrible and consequentially biased campaign reporting.

That same complacency freed folk on the left to snipe at her without worrying that this would influence the contest. It freed many in the political right and center to avoid mobilizing around Hillary although they knew perfectly well that Trump was a threat to the nation. It freed President Obama to be less aggressive than he might have been in addressing Russian interference in the election. It freed FBI Director Comey to behave as he did, excessively upbraiding Hillary Clinton even as he (perhaps appropriately) shielded much more serious investigations of the Trump team from public view. It freed all of us to be more passive and not to do as much as we might have done to help her when things got close.

As it turned out, most of us overestimated the impact of Trump’s comprehensive unworthiness to impeach him among key Republican-leaning voters. We underestimated the impact of Trump’s racism, sexism, and other bigotries to specifically validate him within another key group of Republican-leaning voters that was larger than many of us expected.

That left a hole, not as deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but enough.

***Dina Pomerantz reminds me over Twitter that Nate Silver on Election Day had given Donald Trump an almost-thirty-percent chance of winning. Indeed Silver and the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein anticipated with great insight precisely the dangers Clinton faced in the battleground states. I would tell people one-sixth because I believed the hype that Clinton’s campaign possessed superior analytics and a better ground-game. Ah, those were the days. 

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

13 thoughts on “We thought it could never happen. That’s what happened.”

  1. I agree with everything above except two things. First, unless Comey has said so, you cannot know that he behaved as he did because he was complacent that Clinton would win. He might have behaved as he did because he thought that Trump had a chance–or would have a chance if he, Comey, behaved as he did.

    Second, you omit the main reason that Trump won, which is the Electoral College. Trump did not really win; an antiquated, irrational system, created to protect slavery, made him President even though he lost. Why do we put up with it? Most people probably do not even know that the number of each state's electoral votes is not proportionate to its population. Every state gets two extra votes merely for having two senators.

  2. I would like to abolish the electoral college. The depressing aspect is that it wasn't 65-35….

    1. Electoral college fan here. And a Johnson voter. Remember the huge torchlight rallies in Fresno and Sacramento and Buffalo for Trump? No? Right, they didn't happen – the campaign would have been run much differently if the electoral college had not been in place. Would Clinton have won? Probably, but we don't know. The electoral college requires the candidates to pay attention to regional differences and opinions – something at which Trump did a far better job than did 'deplorables' Clinton, in her bubble of sycophants. Now, my state went Clinton by four per cent, so my Johnson vote did nothing to sway the national election.
      I would like to see a Maine-Nebraska type reform of the EC, awarding electoral votes by congressional districts.

      1. The rejoinder to this suggestion is gerrymandered House districts. Allocating the EC in this way would make it considerably to easier for a candidate to win less than a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of the EC. At least now, the gerrymandering is limited to state boundaries. The finely tuned gerrymandering possible with Congressional Districts would likely generate at least a generation of presidents who lose the popular vote to another candidate.

        1. Good point. Don't know. If you have, like Wisconsin, a state where the Reeps have adjusted the districts for big dominance with several predictable low-margin Reep win districts and all the Dems shoehorned into Madison (or the mirror image of that in Maryland for the Dems) what happens in an election like the one just past? It seems at least plausible that the low-margin districts for both candidates are more in play, and the party which has nominated the nutso candidate loses those electoral votes. Dems would win a bunch of electoral votes in Florida and Texas and Reeps would get some in Calif and NY.
          I think it would create centrist pressure in both parties, and that's something I would like to see.

          1. (I posted something about this a few hours after the comment immediately above to which it is a response, or thought I did, but I do not see it now. So I am posting a quick and dirty version of the original).

            I am skeptical that it would create centrist pressure – awarding House seats by (gerrymandered) CD does not seem to be doing that to the House Dems or GOP.

            Daily Kos has a map, and links there to a worksheet, showing that Hillary won 205 CDs, and TheDonald® won 230. That leaves 100 EC votes corresponding to the senators. If we allocate each pair from a state to the candidate who won the most CDs in that state, Hilary would get 30 (she won the most CDs in 15 states), & TheDonald® would get (IIRC) 64 (he won 32 states). In 3 states (ME, NH & NV), they split the CDs equally, so give each another EC vote for each of those states. That leaves them just about where they were after the 2016 election: Hilary at 235 (205 15*2 3: she won 227 last year) & TheDonald® at 297 (230 32*2 3: he won 304 last year)./1

            Would they have run their campaigns differently if the tally was by CD rather than by state? Likely, but it is not clear that this would have made any difference: what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabout. I think if we are going to take the time and make the effort to change things, this is not a high return thing to focus on.

            FN 1: There are several electoral votes missing both from my calculations (6) and from the tally I found online for last fall (7). I am not sure what is going on here, but the differences are too small for me to be bothered here.
            UPDATE: I see here that 7 electors voted for other candidates.

  3. I just got the hardcover and have not yet dived in, but I wonder what is known about what became known as the "Pied Piper strategy," which came from some of the leaked DNC documents. The idea was to use the GOP field as a whole to inflict damage on itself by not marginalizing the more extreme candidates (Cruz, Carson, Trump) but getting the press to take them seriously as leaders of the pack. Does the book go into this strategy? It probably made sense at the time to maneuver the field to nominate a candidate who would be "unpalatable to a majority of the electorate."

    The strategy worked; the Republicans nominated a candidate who was unpalatable to a majority of the electorate. It was brilliant! Their candidate lost to Hillary by three million popular votes. Is John Podesta a genius or what?

    Very little has been reported about this aspect of the 2016 campaign. Documents purporting to arise from the DNC have been put online; the one dated April 7, 2015 was supposedly among the Podesta e-mails released by WikiLeaks. I do not know whether the Pied Piper strategy even happened, but perhaps other people do.

    What makes this a big deal, and worth getting all bent out of shape about, if the sourcing is reliable, is that we are dealing with a President Donald Trump and not, say, John Kasich. Some would argue that this situation is preferable to having a right wing president who would be getting right wing things done in an efficient manner, but I doubt that a President Kasich would be gutting the State Department and threatening North Korea with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen before.

    1. It's possible you're onto something. But let's be a little more blunt with what you're really saying:

      the Dems chose to *over*estimate the intelligence (well, ok, the -decency-) of the American electorate. And they went broke as a result (yeah yeah 3m votes; the only votes that matter are in the EC, and we lost there).

      It's sad, sad state of affairs, when we basically have to assume our electorate is willing, nay happy, to elect a serial rapist and fraud. FFS.

    2. The Dems nominated the second most disliked presidential candidate of my lifetime. That's how 'candidate who was unpalatable' was able to win. Now, that he was nominated in the first place shows the flaws with the nominating process (as, in my view, does the fact that the Dems nominated a candidate who could lose to him). Ed Whitney's suggestion that his victory resulted from a Dem plot is interesting…
      With six or so Dem senators looking in the mirror and thinking they see a future President, and a number of other Dems preening in the wings, it's very possible the Dems could do a mirror of the Reep process next time, and get a standard bearer who could throw it away again.
      I think it's worth considering whether ranked choice voting in party primaries – on both sides – would make it less likely that a Trumpish candidate of either party would run away with the nomination.

  4. I think she lost because the only thing she had going for her was that she wasn't Trump, and that was not enough. Everything else about her campaign was a trainwreck. Someone recently tallied several dozen reasons that have been put forward for her loss. If you can count more than a half dozen reasons, it would seem to me to be hopeless.

    1. It seems to me that the need to amass a bunch of little reasons speaks to the fact that people still can't figure out why she lost/Trump won. It's when you have a couple of big reasons that it's really hopeless (e.g., Goldwater lost because people perceived him as a dangerous extremist). You can, after all, amass a list of a half dozen or more reasons why any candidate lost an election ((1) Goldwater was perceived as a dangerous extremist; (2) he showed lack of knowledge of military issues, particularly nuclear weapon use, (3) while people still remembered the Cuban missile crisis; (4) he was from a less populous state; he was running against Johnson, (5) who was from Texas, one of the big states and (6) who still had the Kennedy patina and (7) who was a highly skilled politician, . . .

  5. I can't help but wonder how many people who think trans folks are faking it, who think BLM is a terrorist group, that "illegals" are stealing our jobs and ruining our cities, that global warming is a hoax, that gays are disgusting, that it's no big deal if the candidate they vote for has been called racist by a Speaker from his own party and numerous other influential conservatives, and also called sexist most of the same folks, who think that Sharia law is looming just over the horizon and that Muslim refugees and immigrants should be banned from entering the US, who think it's important to cut taxes on the rich and take healthcare from the poor, important to put a pro-lifer on the Supreme Court and deny funding for Planned Parenthood, who think it's okay to attack Gold Star parents because they're Muslim, who think there's a war on Christianity, and a war on white people too, would've voted for Hillary if we liberals didn't talk so badly about them in our cocktail parties. It's also hard to imagine that someone who's on the opposite side of the foregoing issues would've voted for Trump because of liberal snobbery.

    Finally, I've had it up to here with all that "coastal liberal" crap. I live in Texas. Clinton got more Democratic votes here than in any state other than Cal., Fla., and NY. She won all but one of Texas's largest counties. Texas has more Muslims than any other state; in fact, it has more Muslims than Lutherans, Episcopalians or Presbyterians. The most refugees too.

    My zip code is diverse, middle-class with a strong dose of working class and a smattering of upper-middle class. No Hollywood stars live here, and I don't think there are very many perfessors either. Just normal folks, no more likely to drink lattes than any other demographically similar community. Many more meat eaters than vegans or vegetarians. Taquerias on the corners of almost every major intersection. When the Dallas cops were ambushed, there were blue ribbons on a whole lot of our trees. No one disses the white working class at our cocktail parties – that's snobbish and rude and our parents raised us better than that. (I doubt that those infamous coastal parties have as many ugly comments as the stereotype says.) No one expresses hostility toward Muslims or any other bogeymen either (which, I readily admit, would really hack me off).

    We, and millions of non-coastal Dem voters, far outnumber the coastal snobs, mythical or real. We're not monsters, we just believe in equal human dignity.

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