Hubris->Nemesis->Pathos. Or the Incredible Story of Admitting I Got It Wrong and What is To Be Done

In this mini-brain dump I make some arguments about why the polls were wrong, the shortcomings of the Clinton campaign (and the Remain and Miliband campaigns…) and how the Left needs to see the world slightly differently to how it does now. I close with a picture of a naked statue of Donald Trump. Consider that a Trigger Warning.

Sorry, world. I effed up. Totally got it wrong. I put up a prediction on my facebook wall the day before the election giving Hillary a healthy electoral college majority (I had her winning those infamous rustbelt states and edging Florida). Comically enough, a few days before, a female friend of mine- an academic with a brain the size of the planet- messaged me to ask about writing for a general public. How do you give off this general air of breezy authority, she asked, when my brain seeks out every caviling criticism in advance and seeks to counter with a caveat, an additional footnote, or a clarifying subclause? I didn’t have a particularly good response- other than I think of Op-Eds like making a case for an argument you want to make rather than a scientific exploration of fact- but I sure do wish that my output contained some more caveats and subclauses now. Perhaps we should be wary of selection bias: fools like me rush in where angels (and people who are smarter) fear to tread. Videos like this one would sting that little bit less if I had had an ounce more circumspection:

The annoying thing is that I flirted with the idea that Trump could win. It was when I was writing this article for Open Democracy. Click on the link because OD deserves your support, but the basic argument was this: Trump was SO odious that the headwinds of missing white voters from previous cycles energised by the issue of trade, the terribleness of the Clinton campaign and her own public perception (can we discuss this now without being castigated for it?), the difficulty of winning the White House for a third term, and the fact that the Obama coalition’s loyalty might not transfer to Clinton by osmosis, would mean that all of these handicaps would still not be enough to put Trump over the top. The most annoying thing is that I got the reasons right and the results wrong. All of the reasons that I gave for Clinton’s shortcomings were underpinned by empirical fact, and the assertion that Trump was so revolting that he rendered all these reasons moot was driven by confident assertion that he was too ridiculous and gross to possibly be President. Emotion clouded my judgment. A misogynistic, unlettered buffoon is our President-elect. H.L. Menken would probably be saying “I told you so”…

Now I could caveat my own counter-argument to my original argument- Clinton won the popular vote when a generic Republican should have won it handily. One of the political science models which has come out of this the best- Abramowitz’s ‘Time for a Change’ model–  allowed me to confidently bet that a Republican would win the White House two years ago and won me a steak dinner from a colleague of mine (full disclosure: at that time, it was when I thought that Rubio would be the nominee, before I changed my mind into the nomination process around the Nevada primary)- even though the model’s own author make the same kind of “tweak” that I did to allow for Trump’s repellence. Around 100,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin determined the winner of the electoral college, and I would be slightly richer than I am now (I had some saver bets on Trump in Ohio and Arizona and Clinton in New Hampshire that covered the beating I took on the Presidential bet overall) if they had voted the other way. But it is important not to equivocate- I got this one wrong. And so did pretty much everyone else (including Trump’s own internal polls apparently). I hold my hands up. I saw this ending differently from how it did.

So, what now? Well, one reaction would be “I was SO right before I was wrong”. The FBI emails were a novus actus interveniens that means we can’t trace the result from my actual predictions. You can’t blame me for an Act of God (or subversion by the FBI and Julian Assange). This is essentially the position of Stan Greenberg in the Guardian. He throws in the additional ingredient that Clinton’s economic change message was muted by the emails and the need to draw a contrast with Trump’s personal failings, as the latter pivoted to an “anti-system” message. On both of these points, there is more than a little merit. Clinton whispered her populist economic message, which dial tests proved was popular, rather than shouting it over and over again, and the emails excentuated Clinton’s negatives just when the last undecided voters were deciding (and there were an unusually high number of undecideds until pretty late). Where I disagree with Stan, however (and full disclosure, I have just finished up a stint working at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and have met and talked to Stan several times), is that the pollsters’ miss can be rationally explained away without a more thorough examination of how polling itself works.

Let’s remember where predictions were a couple of weeks before polling day. Stan spoke at IPPR about the “coming electoral earthquake” (I can be heard asking how the GOP can reform themselves… /irony) as Hillary consolidated African-American and Millennial voters. Talking heads were tripping over themselves to speculate about Hillary pushing into states like Georgia, giving money to down-ballot candidates, thinking more in terms of a mandate than simply a victory. So say that the FBI swung this election- and the c.100,000 votes in WI, PA and MI suggest that it is extremely likely- what it doesn’t prove is that the gap between perception and reality was solely caused by the FBI. The odds are that there were other things afoot. Everyone predicted a Hillary win, but most were predicting a much more comfortable one than could be explained away by simply a late blip.

For those whose excitement at following the American election translated into debating the relative merits of poll aggregators, prognosticators, and pollsters, you have probably seen (or at least glazed over) articles about sampling error, turnout models, cellphones vs. landlines, and herding. Considering the size of the drop, not just in Clinton’s vote but in the margin in almost every contested Senate race (most analysts thought that the Democrats would win back the Senate, they finished with 48 out of 100 Senators), the odds are that there were polling errors, and not just a late swing which made otherwise accurate polling look bad in retrospect. It is incumbent on pollsters to ‘fess up to this reality, lest no one believe them the next time a major miss happens.

Of course, we can use the Senate races as a comparator, but we can also look at the 2012 Presidential election, the 2015 U.K. General Election, and the Brexit referendum for similar polling “misses”. As Dominic Cummings revealed on his blog about polling in the run-up to the Brexit plebiscite:

In 2015 they said to me: ‘If the polls average 50-50 at the end you will win because of differential turnout and even if the average is slightly behind you could easily win because all the pollsters live in London and hang out with people who will vote IN and can’t imagine you winning so they might easily tweak their polls in a way they think is making them more accurate but is actually fooling themselves and everybody else.’ This is what happened. Almost all the pollsters tweaked their polls and according to Curtice all the tweaks made them less accurate. Good physicists are trained to look for such errors. (I do not mean to imply that on 23 June I was sure we would win. I was not. Nor was I as pessimistic as most on our side. I will write about this later.)

Cummings (or at least those advising him) proved to be right, even if we might debate the mechanism for why he was right. The polling’s miss on Trump and Brexit has to be explained alongside the underestimate of Obama’s margin in 2012. A more likely explanation is not a leftist conspiracy but a more volatile electoral composition as norms of participation struggle to adhere within busy populations, campaigns become more sophisticated at reaching difficult-to-reach voters, candidates and campaigns seek to appeal beyond their traditional electoral coalition etc. Campaigns’ use of data might wrongly be thrown into disrepute by Clinton’s well-funded flop. But you only get to run any particular election once. You can track certain behaviours over time- do people change their mind about the candidates? Will they register to vote? Will they donate?- but electors only vote once. It is hard to train your data on an event that has yet to happen.

I have long been sceptical that data can win an election on its own (it can be decisive at the margins, though), and when it comes to elections, most of our frustration with the campaign was that “The Message Matters” and Clinton’s message was not getting through. While Ed Miliband was said to have a better-than-expect campaign, it is fair to say that his vision did not excite. David Axelrod described his smorgasbord of policy initiatives without an overarching vision as “Vote Labour, win a microwave!” Trump had an emotive slogan (“[You know what it is already, can you remember Clinton’s?]” and then recitable policy initiatives that fed into it (“We can make America great again by doing X, Y, and Z” with the Wall, stopping terrorists, and trade/jobs being the three which most people could name). Obama’s charisma and change from the Bush era enthused the potential wider electorate while Romney largely polled similarly to Trump. The Labour Party’s messaging problem seems particularly acute at the moment.

So how should political betters, analysts, and smart readers account for this emerging trend? Here are some initial suggestions which I’d be interested to get feedback on and improve (and remind ourselves of in the lead-up to the next big election):

  • Current measures of turnout are far from scientific and rely on a lot of guesswork
  • FiveThirtyEight were right to caution against both the margin of error within polls (which aggregation can alleviate to a degree) but also sampling error that might move in one direction to give a misleading picture.
  • The direction in which it should probably move is in the direction of the enthusiasm of the last reliable, “low-tide” voter (the last reliable voter was Obama’s, the Tories’, Brexit’s and Trump’s). Is there a way to measure this rather than guesswork?
  • Who are the “stretch” voting population trying to be turned out? If it is working-class voters, then they might not split as overwhelmingly for Labour, say, as African-Americans would for Clinton. Sensitivity analysis suggest some candidates are in more trouble with lower turnout than others. 2% sampling error looks very different depending on differential sub-population error (which is nearly always the case as the base turnout normally looks different in important ways to high-tide turnout targets).
  • What are the spatial dimensions of “stretch voters”? New Labour could survive with a drop-off in working-class voters in traditional voter strongholds, just as Clinton’s surge in Hispanic turnout did not reach states like Arizona and Texas where it could sufficiently counteract a drop in white men and African-America voters.
  • The Message still matters. Of course one can microtarget individuals or sub-populations but this can too often be at the expense of a simple, powerful, and consistent macro-message. Labour policy giveaways or Clinton trying to use surrogates to the African-American population is perhaps not enough to make up for a message which does not resonate strongly with high-tide turnout targets.

How else do we stop ourselves being surprised at the next big “shock” election? Or is it a simple case of better polling, or reading better metrics that lie beneath the data? As well as the pursuit of a perfected positivist data modeling, this election has surely also set in motion a more normative debate about what types of messaging might work better for the Left going forward.

One of the debates emerging from the election has been “stop campaigning on identity politics” because “economics wins elections”. This is an incredibly simplistic take. We can start with the proposition that civil rights is not an optional add-on for the Left. However, the tone does matter (Obama’s more optimistic racial pitch seemed to less obviously activate latent white identity politics, but it is difficult to make direct comparisons) and we should acknowledge the limits of it as a major part of a winning message that can bring together a winning and heterogeneous voting coalition. It is true that the Emerging Democratic Majority of Latinos, African-Americans, Millennials and single women gives the Democrats a built-in advantage, but it is also not the same as saying “ignore white voters” or that the best appeals are direct appeals to these blocs qua identity groups.

African-Americans have twice the level of joblessness as the American national average, Latinos have 1.5x, and millennials are coming out of education into a world of sky-high asset prices, huge loans, and a rickety job market. It shouldn’t have taken a genius to know that an economic change message (yes, even a populist one!) is also an identity politics message when it is aimed at helping those at the margins of the American economy. Bernie Sanders may have lost the primary to Hillary Clinton (and the DNC…) but his messaging approach is likely to be the one taken up by the next successful Democratic nominee.

Those who poo-pooed Bernie’s message and advocated a “purer” identity politics pitch tended to be those most inured from the ravages of the post-2008 economic world. Too often Bernie or Trump voters were critiqued for lacking enough facility or empathy to see the world “correctly” but it was too often this very deficit in the person arguing that position that blocked off the humility needed to see the world from the lived experience of those struggling in other ways and saw the Hillary Clinton campaign as not sufficiently dedicated to addressing the issues that affected them.

The economic/identity dichotomy was also seen in the Brexit campaign and could be seen as a counter-argument to the proposition that we should focus more on an economic message (Remain ran on economics but Leave ran more on Immigration) but this misses some vital points: (I) the Remain campaign was not a “change” message at all but one of urging restraint from prophesied self-harm; and (II) The Leave campaign was both an economic and an identity campaign in that immigration was framed as a threat on both fronts; (III) Making in-roads on the identity front and having a more populist economic message does not mean abandoning good sense when it comes to either set of issues; (IV) numbers matter: unless identity politics is unifying against an elite than identity politics is only as viable as the numbers; native-born Englishmen is a potent bloc of voters while trying to rally African-Americans and Hispanics by reference to “deplorables” is by definition not a dominant strategy numerically. (V) Yes, some centrist mushy corporate centrists might be uneasy but they are overrepresented in the media and form a tiny proportion of the actual electorate. Most of the Left need to be trained to remember both that nostrums of the sensible middle are often wrong; and totally irrelevant to most people’s actual lived experiences. One can adopt a more unifying patriotic tone without having to advocate a return to Jim Crow or the reversal of the Right to vote for women. The problem is elitism, not anti-racism.

The final point to mention is that the “Rising American Electorate” (or “Emerging Democratic Majority”, per taste preferences) and the increasing polarization of the electorate means that a populist campaign will more authentically be waged by someone who is not seen as either (I) part of the old Democratic corporate elite who negotiated a minority share during the previous conservative demographic hegemony which arguably ended in 2008; or (II) someone seen as beholden or compromised by the special interests who are seen as roadblocks to changing a rigged system. A Hillary Clinton might have been the right candidate with an electorate resembling that of 2004, but was clearly the wrong choice for a candidate to motivate the high-tide Democratic coalition of 2016. This is not to be taken as an endorsement of misogyny, a criticism of her policy positions (which were generally well to the Left of her ideological perception), or an argument that she would have been a bad President or worse than Bernie Sanders. But campaigning and governing are two separate endeavours and you need to successfully do the former before people allow you to get on with the latter.

So what now for the Democrats in opposition? There is a limited bench for the next General Election- Sen. Merkley of Oregon might be a dark horse but we can expect candidacies from the likes of Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Sen Gillinbrand, Tim Kaine and perhaps some unlikely candidates like a Matt Damon or some other high-profile “outsider”-type candidate. The more important task is to finish doing the analysis of why the old economic system failed so many people and to get some compelling messages to communicate a vision for an economy which rewards work over wealth and welfare. The Democrats’ base of urban professionals, minority groups, and young people (particularly single women) have largely been seen as obsessed with identity politics concerns because people were assumed as being only interested in issues which directly affected them and were easy to understand. “Patriarchy” and “Institutional Racism” were seen as more easily graspable than “private debt bubbles” and “financialization”. Bernie tried to triangulate by talking about certain economic issues which affected these groups (“debt-free tuition” being the obvious example) but the Democrats need to do the next step at engaging the progressive community on economic issues that speak to all Americans and not just America-as-the-sum-of-its-interest-groups.

That doesn’t mean that Democrats don’t speak up for racial and other forms of justice, but that the Left needs to talk about what unites us too. In a world where the Right too easily critique the Left as unpatriotic, uninterested in working people, and elitists, it is worth remembering that nothing could be more patriotic that rallying the people around a vision of an economy which is not rigged towards finance, creditors, rentiers and others benefitting from the current House of Cards. In resetting the Left’s approach, it is worth reinforcing the bald-faced fact that many people who voted UKIP, Trump, and Brexit did so out of frustration at the very system that the Left was meant to be busy tearing apart and building anew. There is an obvious irony that the Democrats tend to campaign as agents of the status quo and govern progressively, while the Republicans campaign with demotic fervour and govern as agents of the plutocratic class. If the GOP pass Trump’s ridiculous tax cut and phase out welfare and swathes of Medicare without progressive Facebook feeds hurtling out of control amid marches on Washington, then we’ll know that the Democrats have not learned anything from their defeat. The constant refrain has to be that the new Emperor has no clothes.


Defeat gives us two options: blame the electorate or blame ourselves for not convincing enough of the electorate of the worth of our ideas. Trump does indeed pose a threat to those interested in issues normally put in the box of identity politics (the number of concerned messages from friends of mine who are women and/or belong to communities of colour speaks volubly to that), but those wishing to see a Democrat re-take the White House in 2020 would be well advised to spend as much or more time advocating for those who will be screwed by the corporate giveaway jamboree promised in Trump’s first 100 days. I am of course on red alert to take action on assaults on women’s health, on deepening the divisions between police forces and the communities they serve, and on other issues dear to the Progressive Community, but by articulating how Trump voters are losing out between the chasm between what was promised and what will be delivered, we stand a better chance of hauling the Left back into relevance. The same lens can help us pull out the beam from our own eye in terms of policy, strategy, and candidates.

It is also worth remembering that while all of this wailing and gnashing of teeth is focused on how demographics failed to prove destiny in the Presidential Election but the Democrats faced the opposite  demographic problem when it came to House races, Senate races, and key levers of control in State Assembles and Governors’ mansions. The Democrats, just like Labour in the U.K. and Remainers, are a minority party in the vast majority of posts holding real political power. As hard as criticism often is to take, doing the same is only likely to make matters worse when the stakes have never been higher. The old financial and economic system is directly responsible for UKIP, Trump, and the prospects of Nazis and the far-Right throughout Europe. Gramsci perhaps put it best:

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters”

Monsters indeed.

People are well into the seven stages since Clinton’s loss. Those of us who have suffered similar defeats in the U.K. have gone through the process more than once. The two emotions that are key to hold onto is the bravery needed for proper self-criticism (remembering that it applies to us all and should not be taken or assigned personally) and the love needed to empathise with and start a conversation with those who chose a different direction at the election. No one is asking the Left to become racist, misogynistic running dogs of Late Capitalism, but we should understand the pain of joblessness and underemployment, the hollowing out of cities and towns left ravaged by economic change, the humiliation of economic loss as others prosper, the blight of drugs and social decay. Just as the Left needs to refocus its economics lens, we should remember that economic change tends not to be seen through graduate seminars but by connecting macro changes with real cultural and social dislocations. Trump, by identifying trade and immigration as being market forces that cause intensely felt social dislocation, was only channeling Karl Polanyi and other leftist critics of the pace and distribution of economic change.

If the Left is about trying to undermine and erase traditional hierarchies of power and the Right does best when it channels revolutionary energy to counter-revolutionary and hierarchical ends, then the Left will do better when it embraces those losing relative status by reassuring them that the future both includes them and will ultimately be better for them and their family. For too many people the Left does not seem to be on their side. And it doesn’t matter how you choose to poll them.

Edit to add: IPPR has launched an impressively-assembled Commission on Economic Justice. This is exactly the kind of starting point that should reconnect communities who have turned away from the Left with a political agenda to serve their interests alongside a majority vision of the Left. In the U.S., the EPI has long set the agenda on issues of how workers have been losing out over decades. The Roosevelt Institute has also been doing great work in this area. Launching major reports like IPPR’s in order to kick off a political campaign and messaging aimed at winning back those voters that didn’t show up or defected on election day should be a priority for the Democrats. Set out an agenda for the American working class and invite President Trump to collaborate on any of those issues. If and when he doesn’t, clobber him for favoring the billionaire class who populate his Cabinet rather than the working people who trusted him on Election Day.


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