Surprise and astonishment was the almost universal response to the results of the presidential election in the United States. Practically all the experts were wrong in predicting that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.
Why were the polls and pundits wrong? Why did Donald Trump win? What does this say about the future of American politics? What difference will a President Trump make? What will be the role of the church in the next four years?
Why were the polls and pundits wrong?
Actually, the national polls were not wrong. Hillary Clinton did win the national popular vote. It was closer than most polls predicted, but the results were within the margin of error.
Pollsters only survey a sample of the population and therefore cannot be expected to be perfectly accurate all the time. This is often expressed by saying that the margin of error is a certain number of percentage points, say 2 or 3 percent. The margin of error is supposed to measure the maximum amount by which the sample results are expected to differ from those of the actual population.
Depending on how you aggregate the polls, the difference between the national popular vote and the final poll aggregation was 1, 2 or 3 percent, which was within the margin of error. Nate Silver, the nation’s most famous number cruncher at fivethirtyeight.com, argues that the final polls were about as accurate as they were four years ago, except that year Obama’s win was bigger than predicted.
People forgot that every presidential election since 2000 has be a close election. In that election, the Democrat, Al Gore, won the popular vote but lost the election in the electoral college just as Clinton did.
In almost every other democracies in the world, Gore and Clinton would have been elected president, but in the United State, what matters is not the popular vote but the electoral college vote. Each state’s electoral college vote is determined by its total representation in Congress—two senators for each state plus the number of members each state has in the House of Representatives. The membership of the House is based on population.
Except for two small states, the electoral college votes of each state are all cast for the winner of the popular vote in that state. That is why the 2000 election was determined by a few hundred votes in Florida.
While the national polls were fairly accurate, the state polls did not do as well. The polls in Wisconsin, for example, never showed Trump in the lead, but he did win that state. Most polls showed Clinton winning Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, with Michigan too close to call. During the last weeks of the election, even the polls in these states were getting closer and a possible Trump victory was within the margin of error; but to win, Trump needed to sweep all of these states. No one expected him to do that.
While the polls were getting closer, the pundits simply could not imagine a Trump victory. They had been underestimating Trump all year. They predicted his political demise on a weekly basis during the primary season but he still got the Republican nomination. It was pure hubris on the part of the experts.
Nate Silver admitted that his predictions were wrong during the primaries because he was acting like a pundit rather than a statistician and didn’t believe that Trump could win. By the time of the general election, he had adjusted his thinking and was being criticized because he only gave Clinton a 71 percent chance of winning, which meant that Trump had almost a one out of three chance of winning. A 71 percent chance of winning is not a sure thing, as any gambler can tell you.
Others put the probability of Clinton winning at 85 percent (New York Times), 89 percent (Predict Wise), 92 percent (DailyKos), 98 percent (Huffington Post) and almost 99 percent (Princeton Election Consortium). Betting sites gave Trump an 18 percent chance of winning the night before the election.
“The New York Times, The Huffington Post—all these other outlets that thought they had their own secret recipe to predict the election—were wrong,” says Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. “They’ll blame the polls, but the polls did not show a 98 percent likely win. It just doesn’t work that way. These models include assumptions that take that polling data and transform it into something that I think might have been wishful thinking.”
One of the key assumptions in these models is turnout. Most of the pundits overestimated the Democratic turnout and underestimated the turnout for Trump, which leads to the next question.
Why did Trump win?
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that Clinton faced a high bar in her quest for the presidency. Political parties in the United States historically get only one or two terms in the White House before the other party wins the presidency. A rare exception was the 1988 election of George H. W. Bush after the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Clinton had history against her. Without a robust economy supporting her election, it was hard to beat back the tendency of voters to vote for change. Although the economy was in much better shape than eight years ago, improvement had been slow and people were not satisfied. She was seen as more of the same while Trump was the candidate of change.
In the recovering economy, some people had prospered but many had not. Especially left out of the recovery were the less educated, blue-collar workers and rural areas of the country. Many of these blue-collar workers had voted for Barack Obama, but they felt that their lives had not improved. They remembered the good old days when a factory worker could earn enough to be part of the middle class. They also worried about the future of their children who, they feared, would not do as well economically as they had.
These people felt abandoned and betrayed by both parties. They were open to candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump who expressed their rage at the establishment of investors, bankers, and politicians who ignored their concerns.
Both Sanders and Trump attacked globalization and free trade for the decline in factory jobs. Clinton eventually did the same in response to political pressure. The consensus among economists, Washington experts, and politicians in both parties has been in favor of free trade. But little was done for workers who lost their jobs to Mexico and China or to increased mechanization in the workplace, which economists think reduced jobs even more than globalization.
Whatever the cause of job loss, in every election the parties promised to help workers in the so-called rustbelt of the upper Midwest, but nothing improved. They felt betrayed and disrespected. They were attracted to a candidate like Donald Trump who expressed their anger.
Pundits were surprised that a New York City billionaire could become the voice of rural and blue-collar America. In reality, these folks hate professionals more than they hate rich people. They rarely come into contact with people as rich as Donald Trump, but they regularly meet professional people who are constantly telling them what to do. Doctors tell them what they can and cannot eat. Teachers tell them how to raise their children. Government officials tell them what they can and cannot do. Lawyers are harassing them for one reason or another. Hollywood and the media make fun of their religion and values. All these experts think they know what is best for these people. The people were fed up with these arrogant know-it-alls.
Trump spoke a language they understood. He was blunt, coarse, spoke in hyperbole, and condemned political correctness. He would have easily fit in at any neighborhood bar or gathering place. He first learned this culture from construction workers putting up his father’s buildings. And while these were not the people who came to his upscale hotels, they were the people who went to his casinos and the wrestling matches he sponsored as well as the people who watched his TV programs. He instinctively knew how to connect with them.
Pundits underestimated the enthusiasm of the Trump supporters. Mark Gray recalls driving through Pennsylvania a couple of months before the election. There were Trump signs everywhere but none for Clinton. “These were rural areas, granted, but I think a lot of people in the media don’t get out into those areas and see the energy,” he says. “I imagine the same kind of thing was evident in places like Michigan and Wisconsin,” he continues. “This rural vote was to some extent something that people didn’t necessarily think about. It wasn’t necessarily captured accurately in the polls.”
Some accused the Trump supporters of racism. There certainly were some racists among his supporters, and his campaign did little to turn them away. Certainly, his anti-immigration rhetoric was aimed at the fear of the “other.” But when people are worried about having a job, it should not surprise us when they fear anyone who could be a competitor.
The Democratic Party strategy has been to get out their base by appealing to blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ persons, and women. When a White working-class person hears this rhetoric, he hears the Democrats saying that they will take his job and give it to one of these minorities. Or he fears that they will get preference over his son in employment or at a university. Who is looking out for him and his family, he asks. If he says this out loud, he is accused of racism by the liberal establishment.
Republicans have been playing on this fear since at least the time of Richard Nixon, but they did little for the working class economically other than promise that jobs would be created by cutting taxes for corporations and the rich. This did not work. Meanwhile Democrats promised job training, which was never adequately funded, and told people to move from old neighborhoods and communities to look for jobs in parts of the country where they could not afford housing. No wonder the working class kept switching parties every couple of elections.
Not only were Trump supporters enthusiastic, Clinton supporters did not turn out and vote for her in the numbers she needed.
For example, experts were predicting a tsunami of Hispanic voters who would punish Trump and other Republicans for their anti-immigrant rhetoric. Turnout of Hispanic voters appears to have been up slightly, but they did not punish Trump. In fact, they voted for Trump (29%) slightly more than they voted for Mitt Romney (27%) four years earlier. (Some Hispanic pollsters believe the media exit polls are wrong and that Hispanics voted more strongly for Clinton, but that is a debate I will leave to the statisticians.)
It appears the Hispanic pushback peaked four years ago. People forget that the Hispanic vote is not monolithic. Cuban Americans have tended to vote more Republican. As refugees or the children of refugees, they have a special status and have no fear of being deported. Likewise, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and not subject to deportation. Cubans and Puerto Ricans make up a large part of the Hispanic population in Florida. Many other Hispanics have been citizens for generations and do not fear deportation.
Nor did Blacks come out to vote for Clinton the way they did for Obama. True they voted for Clinton, but not in large enough numbers. For example, the Black vote from cities like Philadelphia and Detroit was not large enough to overcome the rural vote for Trump in their states.
Finally, women did not vote for Clinton in the numbers predicted. Only 51 percent of college-educated White women voted for Clinton. Most women believe that they will see a woman elected president in their lifetime. As a result, they did not feel the urgency to vote for a woman the way Catholics felt impelled to vote for John Kennedy in 1960 and Blacks felt impelled to vote for Obama in 2008. Many women, especially Republicans and less educated White women, said they wanted a woman president, just not this one.
Meanwhile, religious conservatives, especially White Evangelicals, voted more strongly for Trump (81%) than they did Romney (78%) in 2008.
Most evangelical leaders opposed Trump in the Republican primaries and supported candidates like Senator Ted Cruz. They doubted the sincerity of his recent conversion to the pro-life movement and were appalled by his divorces and casinos. They saw that religion was not important to Trump. But their people loved Trump. It should be remembered that Evangelical leaders were no more successful in 2008 or 2012. They proved to be generals without troops. After he got the nomination, many of them came around to supporting him; politics was more important than theology.
The election even caused most Evangelicals to change their views on the importance of personal morality in politics. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, sexual impropriety was considered a disqualifier by Evangelicals. They no longer felt that way when Trump was the candidate. They gave little credence to his critics and were ready to forgive him for any indiscretions.
The Trump victory was also a defeat for the Democratic political strategist who said the Democrats could win by getting out their base through the use of data mobilization. This strategy argues that if you put all your potential supporters (Blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ, and other minorities) in a database and contact them frequently, you can get them out to vote. The strategy seemed to work well for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Clinton had a huge data mobilization machine for getting out the vote in key states. Trump had nothing comparable, but he won. This led Mark Gray to question whether it was the machine or the candidate that got out the vote for Obama. The machine could not make up for the shortcomings of Clinton as a candidate. Trump did not need a machine. His voters came out on their own.
What does a Trump victor mean for the future of American politics?
On the surface, it looks like a Republican electoral sweep which will allow them to enact their priorities. But Trump the campaigner was not a typical Republican. He ran against the Republican establishment and took positions on trade, Wall Street, infrastructure spending, and Social Security that are opposed by Republican leaders. He did not make gay marriage and abortion central to his campaign. Many Republican leaders opposed him even after he was nominated, although now that he has won, most have come around.
As president, will Trump heal his rift with the Republican establishment and work with the Republican Congress to pass traditional Republican legislation? Probably. They will undoubtedly agree to cut taxes, but how this will sync with their fear of deficits remains to be seen. Their common desire to repeal Obamacare will come up against the popularity of some of its features, such as requiring insurance companies to cover preexisting illnesses. How they can keep this popular policy while getting rid of the unpopular requirement that everyone buy insurance remains to be seen.
In any case, now that the Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress, it will be difficult for them to blame the Democrats for the country’s problems. The Democrats will hold them responsible for anything that goes wrong. Trump has the additional problem of avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest with all of his domestic and foreign investments.
Trump faces the common problem of all candidates of figuring out how to fulfill all of his unrealistic campaign promises. Trump is less ideological than your typical Republican libertarian or religious conservative. He may be capable of switching positions or compromising on issues where they could not. He has already begun backing away from some of his more controversial promises like putting Hillary Clinton in jail and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But if he does not fulfill his promises, then he becomes just another politician who promised the sky and delivered little. If he loses credibility with his supporters, he could be out of office in four years. On the other hand, everyone has underestimated Trump, so don’t count him out.
There is also the question of whether his supporters actually expect him to do everything he said. One political observer noted that his supporters took him seriously but not literally, while his opponents took him literally but not seriously.
If we take him literally, undocumented immigrants are going to be deported, environmental regulations are going to be gutted, global warming is going to be ignored, Muslims will be required to prove they are not terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, NATO countries are going to have to pick up more of the cost of their defense, and trade agreements are going to be challenged to make them more favorable to the U.S.
The U.S. business community is terrified that Trump will get the country into a trade war that could bring down the global economy. The American scientific community fears he will ignore any facts that conflict with his opinions. The American security establishment fears that he will alienate allies and that Putin will run circles around him. They also fear his anti-Muslim rhetoric will feed into the ISIS narrative that there is a war on Islam.
On the other hand, Trump prides himself as a negotiator and deal maker. Could he and Putin negotiate a further reduction in nuclear weapons? Remember, it was under Ronald Reagan that the U.S. and Russia concluded two important arms reduction treaties, the INF Treaty (1987) and START 1 (1991). Could they resolve the Syrian crisis? Could they bring about an ease of tension in Europe?
But unless the economy improves significantly, the Republicans’ chances of holding on to the White House long term will be low. Demographers point out that the country is becoming more diverse and less White not only because of immigration but because minorities are having more children than Whites. In addition, young people are more inclusive than their parents. Red states like Texas and Georgia, which now vote Republican, will become purple and eventually blue (Democratic). Can the Republicans make up for this loss by holding on to the Trump shrinking constituency of less-educated Whites? Can Republicans take more Hispanics away from the Democrats?
Although the Democratic future looks brighter for the White House, for the House of Representatives it is still bleak. The problem is that most Democrats are located on the two coasts and in urban areas where their votes are wasted. Meanwhile in large sections of the country, the rural vote still rules. America will continue to be divided on highly partisan lines. Washington gridlock may continue if the Democrats retake the White House.
Which will be the role of the church in the coming years?
The role of the U.S. bishops in the coming years will be interesting to watch. The Catholic Church is one of the few national institutions that has an almost equal number of Republicans and Democrats. It also has Hispanics, Whites, and Blacks as well as members of every economic and educational class. It is therefore well placed to help reconcile and heal the nation of its divides. When he visited the United States, Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to dialogue with society and to avoid harsh and divisive language. But many Democrats believe that the bishops have tilted in favor of the Republicans in recent years.
American Catholic bishops traditionally do not endorse candidates or political parties, although some have indirectly signaled their support for Republicans because of their opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Trump would not have been their preferred candidate any more than he was the preferred candidate of Evangelical leaders. They distrusted his recent conversion away from being prochoice. And they were appalled by his anti-immigrant rhetoric. The bishops recognize that the future of Catholicism in the United States is with Hispanics since 54 percent of millennial Catholics (those born 1982 or later) are Hispanic or Latino.
But once Trump became the nominee, their antipathy toward Clinton’s positions on abortion and gay rights led a few bishops to issues statements that it was wrong for a Catholic to vote for someone who is prochoice. They quoted from paragraph 34 in their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship that reads:
A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.
They denied that such statements were endorsements of Trump, but as often as not, they skipped paragraph 35, which reads:
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.
Clearly, these bishops did not think there were other morally grave reasons that outweighed Clinton’s support for abortion. Just over half (52%) of Catholics voted for Trump according to the media exist poll.
At the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore after the election, the bishops appeared to be as surprised and unprepared for the Trump victory as other Americans. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, the newly elected president of the USCCB, thought the bishops would be happy with judicial appointments of the Trump presidency. The bishops thought the Republicans would be more receptive to their opposition to government programs that force Catholic institutions to do things contrary to the conscience, especially in the area of bioethics.
But the bishops also issued a letter calling on the new president “to continue to protect the inherent dignity of refugees and migrants.” The bishops also elected Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, a Mexican immigrant, as USCCB vice president. He will undoubtedly be elected USCCB president in three years. Since the two USCCB leaders come from California and Texas, the two states with the most immigrants, immigration will not take a backseat with the U.S. bishops.
The international reaction to Trump’s election
The international reaction to a President Trump is mixed. European leaders are worried about his criticism of NATO and trade agreements. They also fear that his victory will inspire right-wing, anti-immigrant parties in Europe. Asian countries are worried by his rejection of Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which encourages freer trade between their countries and the United States. China is now touting itself as the world leader on free trade.
The feeling is that a Trump presidency will be less critical of governments as long as they help in the fight on terrorism and are good trading partners. Promoting democracy and human rights would have been a higher priority under a President Clinton than under President Trump.
It remains to be seen what a Trump presidency will be like. As the transition moves forward and more appointments are made to key government positions, it will begin to become clearer. Trump may well focus on messaging and the big picture while his appointees deal with the mechanics of governing. Many in the Republican establishment believe they can control Trump, and he is certainly dependent on the establishment for the people who will make up his administration. But no one has ever won by underestimating Donald Trump.