Despite what you may be hearing from some very smart liberals, Donald J. Trump could win the presidency.
But no, you say; haven’t you looked at the electoral map, Addie Stan? And how can he possibly win without the votes of blacks and Latinos? The math does not add up!
Math, schmath. You know what else does not add up? The denial of the ways in which the system can be gamed or hacked, a rack of new voting laws, and the possibility that pollsters are not able to account for all of the people who actually intend to vote for Trump (because some voters are said to be loath to admit their intention).
Bottom line? While the polls and the maps and the data points that predict trends, and all the speculation about the composition of the 2016 electorate, may still augur in Hillary Clinton’s favor, that doesn’t mean she can’t lose. You don’t have to be a bedwetter to arrive at that conclusion; you simply have to be a realist.
A realist is not a person who simply assumes that the most likely scenario—especially one based on lessons learned from the last presidential contest, which had little in common with the current race—is the only one that could unfold, especially in an election year in which old coalitions seem to be disaggregating, and party structures are strained from floor to rafters. As Trump himself said of his nominee status during his speech on Sunday to the Rolling Thunder biker gathering on the National Mall: “[W]ho in the hell would have thought this was going to happen, right?”
A realist is a person who knows that shit happens. And we’re wading through a river of it now.
In his latest New York Times column, Paul Krugman puts forward something of a complacency narrative regarding Clinton’s chances. While he notes that unexpected stuff can happen, he argues for accepting her narrow lead in averages of national polls as evidence that the electoral map will assemble itself to her advantage, and cautions against cherry-picking individual polls to make the case that it won’t. Yet in his selection of The Huffington Post’s outstanding Poll Chart, one could argue that Krugman himself is cherry-picking. Take a look at the well-regarded RCP Average at Real Clear Politics, and you find Clinton up against Trump by a mere point, as opposed to the 4.3 points at which The Huffington Post average arrives. Which to believe?
The electoral-vote map from Benchmark Politics to which Krugman refers is based on such an average of polls, but just which polls and how many remain mysterious, seeing as this map posted on Twitter offers little context. (Other tweets from Benchmark advise against relying on the RCP Average because of RCP’s omission of certain polling outfits, which may well be a legitimate concern. But just who’s behind Benchmark is unclear from its website, so I find the whole thing a bit obscure.)
Then harken back, if you will, to a post by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver written a year ago, and you learn that the “Blue Wall” ascribed to Democrats by certain pundits eyeing electoral-vote maps is something of a fiction, devoid of a variable for swings in the make-up of the electorate or the possible movement of slivers of the components of the Democratic coalition over to the Republican side. Wrote Silver in May 2015:
If you see analysts talking about the “blue wall,” all they’re really saying is that Democrats have won a bunch of presidential elections lately—an obvious fact that probably doesn’t have much predictive power for what will happen this time around.
More recently, FiveThirtyEight’s David Wasserman warned, in December:
A small shift in the national vote is all it would take for Republicans to break through Democrats’ supposed “Blue Wall.” If all five of our groups [whites with college degrees, whites without college degrees, African Americans, Latinos and Asians/others] were to shift just 3 percentage points toward the GOP in 2016, Republicans would “flip” Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and win 315 electoral votes—almost a mirror image of the 2012 outcome.
Is that likely to happen? No. Could it happen? Sure.
My point is not that the political and social science of electoral polling is irrelevant—just that the sorts of extrapolations traditionally deduced from the most recent past election have their limits in this very peculiar election year. The folks at FiveThirtyEight clearly get that.
On the finer points of data analysis, I’m probably not smart enough to be arguing with Krugman, the Nobel laureate. Make that almost certainly not smart enough.
But I’m smart enough to know this: Liberals and progressives have too often failed themselves and the everyday people we claim to champion by virtue of, when assessing political dynamics, an elitist reliance on reason, and a smug dismissal of the often more determinative currents of resentment and fear that course through U.S. politics. The initial progressive response to the rise of the Tea Party was to point and laugh. Those who actually went out and reported on the phenomenon in its early days were painted as alarmists. Look at how well that worked out for us: The House of Representatives firmly in the hands of the most reactionary politicians in modern memory.
Add to that the fact that 31 of the nation’s 50 governors’ mansions are not occupied by Democrats, and jog your memory to recall the epic shenanigans of Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, and you’ve got another variable not factored into the data geeks’ models. And remember that Osama bin Laden video in 2004?
The truth of this election is that nobody really knows much of anything about how it’s going to go. Which means that Donald Trump could win the White House. To suggest anything else is irresponsible. If Democrats run their presidential campaign according to their own conventional wisdom, they’re betting the fate of the republic on shopworn strategies.
This article has been updated.