Simon Williamson

How ignoring the fundamentals sank Hillary

2016-11-11 09:00
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a meeting with local farmers at Bedners Farm Fresh Market in Boynton Beach, Florida. (Evan Vucci, AP)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a meeting with local farmers at Bedners Farm Fresh Market in Boynton Beach, Florida. (Evan Vucci, AP)

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The fundamentals of American elections pointed to a Republican win this cycle, but the pundit class interpreted Trump in their own manner, and ignored the phenomena that we know affect the results of elections.

I had no idea Trump would win the election on Tuesday, because I fell, like the professionals, for the idea that wealthier and more educated Republicans would lean towards Clinton who made a big play for them. Polling, which turned out to be rubbish, looked like that would be the case, because pollsters have yet to understand who actually votes; the electorate is a mystery to the experts. 

Political science has long noted that you can predict the results of a presidential election by taking into account the state of the economy, the popularity of the president, and a few other factors. The debate about the few other factors and the measurements of the former two also lead to a massive internal battle about whether campaigns actually matter. For those of us that watched events unfold on Tuesday the answer for this cycle is, perhaps, not much.

It didn’t help that Clinton focused her campaign on voters who turned out strongly for Trump. Her attempts at wooing over potentially disaffected Republicans failed, and she spent little time or money in Wisconsin, a usually Democratic state that fell for Trump, along with Michigan. Neither of those states has been won by a Republican in a presidential election since Reagan.

Racism was a feature of this campaign and Trump encouraged it. Its effects are already taking place in the US much like in the UK after the vote to leave the European Union. But although Trump has emboldened racism, it is not clear that this fundamentally changed the race. It is likely that turnout of white supremacists was up, but that is an electoral constituency that generally turns out and votes solely with one party. Those parties on the right side of the spectrum tend to get this vote: in South Africa, for example, there are plenty of racists who vote for the DA.

If we assume this election was about the fundamentals, Democrats paraded a message throughout the campaign that “America is already great” in response to Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.” In fact, Clinton even used Bernie Sanders’ criticism of Obama as a weapon against him during the primary, and if Democrats were not going to work on what Obama did not fix, there was the potential for the fundamentals to remain.

Using GDP or the unemployment rate as a sign of the health of the economy, which the Democrats did, would have shown you a rosier picture than, for example, median income, or labour force participation. Like Bill Clinton, and like George W Bush, Obama continued the American devolvement of power to corporations away from people. And instead of looking at these economic data in aggregate, looking at them in more specific locales could give one an idea of why the white working class vote went from strongly Democratic to being shared more evenly. In Pennsylvania, a catastrophic loss for Clinton, she won the votes of those earning under $50,000 54% to 42%. Just four years before, Barack Obama won that exact same segment of the population 67% to 31%. In overwhelmingly white Lackawanna County, which is where you will find Scranton, Obama’s 63%-35% victory over Romney fell to Clinton’s 50%-47% win over Trump, with a mere 3% drop in turnout. This, reflected around the state, and replicated in others, was where Trump’s margin of victory lay.

Labour force participation is stagnant. Obama’s recovery, while noteworthy, has not created enough jobs, and Democrats weren’t prepared to critique the president – through actions of campaigning – and deal with this fundamental part of what constitutes election results.

Presidential approval is another statistic that is usually incorporated into models, but Obama’s rising popularity – as high at 58% in some polls – is potentially a misnomer. This is because (a) pollsters who put this statistic together have bugger all idea of how to weight this information properly which is why the election polls were so far off, and (b) many of Trump’s voters were Obama voters, and potentially approve of the man they put into office. We know that people approve of the people they vote for, which is why although Congress’ approval ratings are usually in the teens or single digits, the average rating of voters’ own congressman is usually between 40% and 50%. In Pennsylvania, Clinton lost nearly 13% of voters who approved of Obama. In Wisconsin and Michigan she lost 11% of those people. 

This wasn’t to say that Clinton had no path to the presidency. It is quite possible that more of the right moves could have mitigated some of the fundamentals. Democrats, for example, no longer care about organised labour, and union households balked. Clinton won union households in Michigan 53%-40%, compared to Obama who won them 66%-33%. 

Democrats did not make a strong stand on trade, and they ignored the problems left untouched by the Obama administration. They have deserted labour. And the direction their campaign aimed in did not find a responsive audience: women, suburbanites and the educated broke down exactly how they normally do. 

I am very much making this point after the fact (I thought Clinton would win) but Democrats encouraged the fundamentals; they did not try to change them. And ignoring what drives voters, although a Democratic specialty, proved decisive this time around. 

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