Politics & Policy

The Lessons from — and the Myths about — Tuesday Night

Donald Trump and Mike Pence greet supporters on election night, November 9, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
Donald Trump’s victory was impressive, but that doesn’t mean future Republican election victories are assured.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in one of the greatest political upsets of all time, everyone is rushing to uncover the lessons of the election. Was Donald Trump a unique candidate? Did he uncover a vast movement? Has he crafted a new coalition of voters capable of forming a durable majority in future elections?

The justifiable excitement that surrounds victory often leads to overenthusiastic projections from sparse data points. That’s obviously the tendency after a result nobody sees coming. But it would be a mistake to draw too broadly from a unique election result. Some lessons can be learned; some false lessons should be avoided.

First, the real lessons.

Election Spending Means Almost Nothing When Media Coverage Is Wall-to-Wall

Donald Trump was heavily outspent in the battleground states. In Florida, Hillary destroyed him on the airwaves — but he won the state anyway. The overbroad lesson here would be simple: You never have to spend money on ads. After all, Trump spent practically nothing on TV advertisements during the primaries, but squashed the lead spender, Jeb! Bush. And yet that would ignore the advantages of Trump’s name recognition and massive media dominance.

Mitt Romney didn’t spend early enough on ads in 2012, and it hurt him. Trump was never hurt by staying off the air, because Trump already had name recognition. Republicans running for president should worry about getting their names out there before the primaries if they want to avoid blowing out their bank accounts on ads most voters will speed through with Tivo.

The Media Can Destroy Candidates, but Cannot Help Bad Candidates

The true story of this election cycle isn’t Donald Trump’s supposed mass movement. As of Wednesday afternoon, Donald Trump had won approximately 59.6 million popular votes. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 60.9 million popular votes; Barack Obama won 65.9 million. In 2008, John McCain won 59.9 million popular votes; Obama won 69.5 million. Meaning Trump underperformed Romney and performed on par with McCain in a vastly expanded electorate. That’s not the mark of a huge wave.

The media was able to achieve with Trump what they achieved with his two predecessors: They made him look unpalatable. But they weren’t able to achieve palatability for Hillary Clinton. She lost approximately 10 million votes from Barack Obama’s 2008 election total. This election was clearly a referendum on Hillary, and she failed. The media couldn’t prop her up. Obama couldn’t prop her up. Minorities didn’t show up to vote for her. Nobody showed up for her. And so she lost.

Non-College-Educated White Voters Are a Voting Bloc

For decades, Democrats have treated blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, Jews, and nearly every other ethnic and sexual constituency as an independent voting bloc, targeting them individually. Republicans have heretofore ignored that sort of tribal campaigning. Trump was the first major Republican candidate to see non-college-educated white voters as a distinct voting bloc worth pursuing. He campaigned on the basis of trade restrictions and on punishment for employers moving out of Rust Belt areas, while fighting back against the Left’s anti-white, anti-Christian agenda.

The result: Non-college-educated white voters went for Trump by a whopping 72 percent to 23 percent margin, according to CBS News’s exit polls. By contrast, Clinton won the Hispanic vote 65 percent to 29 percent. In other words, Trump won non-college-educated whites by a larger margin than Clinton won Hispanics. That’s amazing, but it’s also a testament to the alienation of non-college whites from the Democratic politicians who have patronized them for decades — calling them “bitter clingers” and “deplorables.”

#share#Now, the false lessons that people seem to be learning, but that should be put to bed immediately.

‘Polls Don’t Matter’

Pollsters are catching a lot of grief in this election cycle. That’s entirely appropriate, given the fact that the polls were wrong about Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — Hillary had solid leads in the poll averages in all of those states. But in the vast majority of states, the polls were correct, and nationally, they were correct as well. The polls made the mistake of underestimating Trump’s support, or overestimating Hillary’s turnout. As Carl Bialik and Harry Enten put it at FiveThirtyEight, “state polls and forecasts based on them miss in the same direction. . . . The more whites without college degrees were in a state, the more Trump outperformed his FiveThirtyEight polls-only adjusted polling average.”

Yes, that’s an error. Yes, that’s a problem. But the substitution of chicken-entrails-reading or Bill Mitchell-esque poll “uncucking” is not a solution. The solution is better polling, not distrusting all data, or at the very least, understanding the nature of probabilistic predictions, rather than deeming a 51 percent chance of something happening a 100 percent chance of it happening.

‘The White Vote Is Enough’

Donald Trump won on the back of non-college-educated white voters. He specifically got high turnout in swing-state rural areas where Mitt Romney underperformed, and that was enough to turn those states red thanks to Hillary’s egregiously low voter turnout. But the white vote represented 72 percent of the vote in 2012, compared with just 70 percent in 2016; the black vote represented 12 percent in 2016, down from 13 percent in 2012; the Latino vote inched up to 11 percent of the electorate from 10 percent in 2012. Trump did better than Romney among Latinos (he lost them 65-29, compared with 71-27 for Romney) and blacks (lost 88-8, compared with 93-7 for Romney) and young people (lost 54-37, compared with 60-37).

Shift any of those numbers slightly and Trump loses the election. In 2020, Millennials will represent nearly 40 percent of eligible voters, and Latinos will represent 15 percent of the electorate; blacks will likely remain steady. To be competitive in the years to come, Republicans need to make inroads outside their white working-class base.

#related#‘The Ground Game Is in Our Hearts’

The aforementioned Mitchell infamously tweeted that Trump supporters didn’t need a ground game; the ground game was “in our hearts.” It wasn’t. It was in the Republican National Committee’s databanks, at least in large measure. The RNC’s Sean Spicer said that the party’s ground game was “outstanding,” and Trump had no ground game whatsoever. Yes, enthusiasm for Trump was high, particularly in rural areas. But as previously pointed out, Trump’s overall voting numbers didn’t outpace Romney’s in 2012. The ground game did matter.

All of this is important for 2020 and beyond. Republicans would be wise to consider the real lessons of 2016 before buying into myths about spontaneous mass movements, lasting demographic coalitions, and the invalidity of data in the face of anecdotal evidence.

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