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I will happily admit it: I was wrong about Trump’s election chances

Posted 11/30/16

When a man is wrong, he admits it. Anything less is cowardly.

That said, I admit I called the presidential election wrong. Here in the pages of the Press And Journal, I predicted Hillary Clinton would emerge victorious. I did multiple times, in …

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I will happily admit it: I was wrong about Trump’s election chances

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When a man is wrong, he admits it. Anything less is cowardly.

That said, I admit I called the presidential election wrong. Here in the pages of the Press And Journal, I predicted Hillary Clinton would emerge victorious. I did multiple times, in fact.

I really thought Hillary would clean Trump’s clock. While I sympathized with the president-elect’s attacks on neo-liberal ideology (free trade, lax immigration standards, enthusiasm for foreign policy interventionism) I didn’t think they would put him in the White House. 

What can I say? Being wrong never felt so good.

But why was I, and so many others, mistaken about Trump’s electoral prospects? Professional pundit, I’m not. Yet so many highly paid observers and reporters had Hillary pegged to win. What did they miss? The very same polls that had Hillary walking smoothly into the White House also predicted Trump’s improbable victory in the contentious GOP primary. Why was one wrong and not the other? And why did Hillary’s masterful use of feel-goody identity politics fail before “Make America Great Again”?

The answer is an enigma. It’s so simple, you’d never think it.

During the campaign, there was a lot of buzz about Trump mobilizing the poor white working class. Conventional wisdom held that if the real estate mogul was going to have a chance of defeating a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, he was going to have to rely upon a segment of the population who rarely votes.

It turns out, that wasn’t enough. Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute crunched the data. Here’s what he found: Trump’s gain in white voters wouldn’t have been enough to offset Hillary’s minority support, had her support among non-whites been similar to President Barack Obama’s in 2012. Where Trump made the most gains, and thus clinched the election, was among minorities.

That’s right: Trump won by increasing his percentage of non-white support compared to Mitt Romney’s run four years ago.

All the pother about Trump alienating minorities and forever destroying the GOP’s electoral prospects proved shortsighted. As New York Times data-guru Nate Cohn tweeted following the results, “Dems need to grapple with the fact that they lost this election because voters who supported Obama in 2012 voted Trump.”

That still doesn’t answer the question of “why?” Why was Trump able to gain more minority votes than the Republican nominee in 2012? How did he capture presumably Democratic states like Michigan and Pennsylvania?

Here’s where I, and others, really got it wrong. Voters can be fickle people. Their desires, dreams and wants are not easily understood, though there’s plenty of scientific literature out there purporting to understand what makes voters tick.

One measure I’ve relied on was outlined by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt back in 2012. In an article titled “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacred,” for The New York Times, Haidt dismissed the common understanding that voters vote based on their wallets. “When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves,” Haidt explained. “We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.”

During the Obama-Romney bout, that understanding made sense. Obama, the son of an absent immigrant dad and hardworking mom, fashioned himself as a rags-to-riches symbol for minorities and dysfunctional whites. 

He was a symbol of hope, and a reaction against greedy Wall Streeters that plunged the country into recession. Romney, on the other hand, was portrayed as a protector of the affluent. 

Both were fabrications, but it didn’t matter in the fiction machine of politics.

Likewise, Trump has spent over a year being attacked relentlessly for his anti-immigration remarks and crude gestures toward women. Every liberal epithet in the book was thrown at him. Yet he still performed better than expected among women, blacks, and Hispanics. The question is: How?

The only answer I’ve come to is a simple one. The promise of jobs. And the promise of financial and physical security. Trump didn’t campaign on esoteric policy or paeans to love. His platform was about stopping the country’s hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs and keeping criminals from entering our country. Hillary campaigned on a weird mix of warm-hearted cheer and spite for her bigoted enemies; Trump was all about the material.

Bill Clinton, of all people, noticed Hillary’s slipping grip with working class voters and reportedly tried to intervene in the weeks leading up to Election Day. The former president tried to warn his aloof wife that feting with Jay-Z and Beyoncé while ignoring blue collar types would down her campaign. Sam Stein of the Huffington Post reported that Clinton staffers in Midwest states like Michigan and Wisconsin had to raise their own money for canvassers after they were rebuked by Hillary headquarters in Brooklyn.

I don’t think Bill loves being right in this instance.

This election has upended a lot of modern notions about American politics. Media professionals aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. Identity politics is a potent force, unless your wallet feels thin. And more importantly, the White House is earned and not deserved.

For myself, I ate a heaping pile of humble pie over my shoddy prediction.

Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. We should all hope he succeeds in truly making America great again.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.

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