2016 Election Roundtable

2016: The Year We Knew Nothing

Chris W. Bonneau

A quote from a draft of this essay written two days before the election: “What is really interesting to me is that we have had a dumpster fire in an election that was not ever particularly close. Secretary Clinton had a lead over Donald Trump pretty much from the outset, and while the size of that lead fluctuated, it never went away. The same is true with polling in states: they were pretty consistent over the course of the election. So, while there was a lot of noise surrounding the campaign, few voters were actually swayed.” Oops.

CNN Election NightI have been a professional political scientist since 2002. I study American politics from a quantitative perspective, which means I deal exclusively with data, not “momentum,” “feelings,” etc. And in the early hours of November 9, 2016, much about elections I thought I knew I discovered I did not.

In some ways, it’s not surprising that in an election full of unexpected twists and turns, the biggest shock of all would come on election night. Regardless of how we personally feel about the results—and many people feel strongly—scholars and pundits need to begin the hard task of figuring out how almost every poll in key states was wrong.

Just how wrong were they? Exactly zero pre-election polls listed President-elect Trump ahead in Wisconsin and Michigan. The last time polls showed Trump ahead in Pennsylvania? June. While every poll has a margin of error, I cannot remember the last time we witnessed such a massive failure of scientific polls to predict the election. It is important to note that forecasts made by political scientists that focused on such things as economic indicators largely got the popular vote correct, and two models did predict a Trump victory (though these models were widely derided by others). But these models are separate from the polls (which rely wholly on weighted survey data), even though in the past they have largely converged.

So, what happened? It is too soon to make a definitive statement, and scholars want to be careful of making hasty conclusions. That said, here are some things that stand out to me. (Full disclosure: I’ve been wrong about this election for months, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I am wrong about this, too.)

First, doing social science is hard. Unlike the physical sciences, we deal with people, and people sometimes do unpredictable things. For example, on election night, Trump won white college-educated men even though Clinton had led in that demographic for months. Trump also won among white women. Did the polls somehow fail? If so, how? Or did people change their views when it came time to decide? And if people changed their minds, what caused this kind of shift? Was it simply partisanship or something more?

Second, it appears the turnout was a major issue for the Democrats. Consider this: In 2012, Mitt Romney received more votes than Donald Trump did in 2016 (they are still counting as I write this, but best case scenario is that they are equivalent). Perhaps this is where the high unfavorability ratings of both candidates came into play. After the conventions, Clinton’s unfavorable number was at 56 percent and Trump was at 63 percent. Indeed, a week before the election, Clinton was at 60 percent and Trump was at 58 percent. These numbers are an indication of how polarizing these two candidates are, each having very little crossover appeal in the electorate. Given this, perhaps voters who disliked both candidates decided to vote for something new. In the words of Trump, “What have you got to lose?”

Third, we always talk about racial and ethnic groups voting together, as well as women. In this election, whites (especially working class whites) voted as an ethnic group, and this significantly helped Trump. Additionally, early data indicates that Trump outperformed Romney with Hispanics and African Americans despite some of Trump’s rhetoric and his position on immigration.

The reason why scholars and pundits were so wrong in their predictions is some combination of the above factors, and likely others as well. We have a lot of work to do to figure out how to improve the science of polling. I hasten to add that we should not view this election as an indictment of the entire polling enterprise: presidential elections occur once every four years, and given their rarity, we know less about their dynamics than those of other elections. However, given their salience, it makes any miss an important miss.

So, what happens next? Anyone who says they know is lying. Trump needs to unify not only the country, but also his own party. There were several Republican members of Congress who refused to endorse Trump, and now he has to work with them. It’s anyone’s guess how someone with no governing experience will do so; governing is not the same as running a business. Will the wall get built? Will Obamacare be repealed? Will we back out of existing trade deals? Fasten your seatbelt and get ready for a bumpy ride.

I’ll close with a note of hope for those who supported Clinton or who opposed Trump. She won the popular vote. Thus, for the second time since 2000, a presidential candidate will have won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, which over-represents small states and rural areas. In fact, the Democratic Party has not lost the popular vote since 2004, and the last time before that was 1988. So, all is not lost for supporters of progressive causes and policies. Many Americans feel the same way, even if the results of this particular election are disappointing.

Chris W. Bonneau is a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh.


The Post-Election Transition to Governing

Jennifer Hora

The 2016 election is in the books. Protestors are in the streets. Commentators are commentating. Political scientists are trying to separate themselves from the pundits, parse out who made wrong predictions, and why. Analysis abounds.

But as a political scientist, I do not study elections or voter behavior, media or theory. I study institutions and governing. Much as the president-elect must do, I turn now, on  November 14, to look at this post-election transition to governing. In comparison to the 2000 transition, which was shortened by 42 days as the courts decided who would be president, the 2016 transition should be smoother. But the “simple” process facing President-elect Trump and his transition team has its own distinctive challenges.

A president controls approximately 4,000 appointments, with one quarter of those requiring congressional approval. Each appointee must complete at least three forms: a White House Personal Data Statement, an FBI SF86 (background check), and an Office of United States Government Ethics SF 278 Financial Disclosure Statement. Those facing congressional approval must complete a fourth form unique to the committee they will face. Failure to fill out these forms to standard was enough reason for Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers to be withdrawn from consideration in 2005.

One seemingly straightforward set of questions focuses on previous housing: List every address where you have ever lived. Give contact information for at least one person who knew you at that address and point in time. A normal appointee has seen these or similar forms before, and has staff in place (at minimum, a lawyer) to compile accurate information quickly. Many presidential candidates have filled these out themselves for various government jobs. A typical incoming president-elect draws heavily from previous same-party administrations, but Candidate Trump indicated he would reach outside normal politics for key information and decision-making. That means a large number of potential appointees may be unfamiliar with the process and significance of filling out these forms. Additionally, the Trump campaign acknowledged it did not put extensive resources into a transition team (as has been the standard since Jimmy Carter in 1976). The “simple” process mechanics of getting people into place by January 2017 will rival the 2000 shortened transition in terms of chaos, and may quite possibly be worse. A normal
transition typically has one to two prominent nominees withdrawn for various political or personal reasons. The Trump transition could set a record high.

Clay Johnson III, who helped with President George W. Bush’s transition, described the task of staffing the White House in the time between the election and the inauguration as “trying to take a drink of water from a fire hose”—and Johnson had previously served in similar positions for a governor. We have a president-elect who, to continue Johnson’s analogy, has never seen a fire hose, let alone handled one. Trump will be the first US president ever without previous elected or bureaucratic experience, and the first without elected office experience since General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

Beyond the “simple” process described above, the media will be paying far more attention to the precise individuals Trump is announcing for key positions in the Cabinet and the White House. While the media often covers these announcements in a manner befitting a horserace (will the nominee receive an up or down vote in the Senate?), the important aspects to consider are the skills and resources these individuals bring.

Politics is one of the few realms where having experience is routinely seen as a negative trait. Yet governing is a job where experience is necessary for success. Research shows that when term-limits are enacted, it is not the citizenry who experience a growth in power and control, but interest groups.

A handful of appointees without governing experience could arguably bring innovation and creative approaches to problem-solving. But numerous appointees without governing experience spread across a majority of executive departments should expect to be leveled by players with more institutional knowledge. Passing laws is more complicated than Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill.” Foreign policy is more nuanced than Jack Bauer’s version from 24. The persons nominated for the Inner Cabinet (Defense, State, Treasury, and Justice) as well as key liaison positions (Chief of Staff, Congressional Liaison) will make or break the start of the Trump Administration.

One final, personal note. Over the years I have given post-election interviews to campus, local, regional, and even national news organizations. I have written commentaries and delivered talks on the subject. This is the first instance in my professional career I have considered declining this type of work for any reason other than lack of time. That is because the situation is different in post-election 2016. I have friends who have received hate mail from Trump voters for simply stating facts to reporters (“It appears Clinton won the popular vote.”). Other friends, in light of events at their workplace where Trump supporters have tormented minority coworkers, are researching the protections provided through their office of human resources and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I myself was heckled by Trump supporters for wearing what they perceived as a political statement (a pantsuit, to a work event).

I have been a political scientist for 20 years. The editor of this journal almost received an “I’m sorry, I am going to cancel” e-mail this week (six days post-election) as I pondered the ramifications of making any commentary. This is uncharted territory for me, and seemingly, for the country.

Jennifer Hora is associate professor of political science and international relations at Valparaiso University.



A City on Edge

David Lott

My first presidential election after moving to Washington, DC, was the contested race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. For weeks, as the Florida ballots were recounted and lawsuits made their way through the courts, the city seemed to be in a perpetual state of anxiety. This wasn’t just a matter of partisan politics, but the palpable collective stress of thousands of people whose lives had been placed on unending hold, waiting to find out to whom they might be reporting—if they still had jobs at all—under the new administration, and whether they would have to uproot themselves and their families on even shorter notice than usual after an election.

As I walked through the city after Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton, a similar atmosphere seemed to hang over those I encountered (an effect exacerbated by the day’s gray skies and cool, damp air). Every car and person appeared to be moving a bit more slowly; the streets were markedly quieter than on a usual weekday. The few conversations I heard felt like unwelcome disruptions in a city alone in its thoughts and apprehensions. The temporary uncertainty people here experienced sixteen years ago seems bound to last for at least four years, if not far longer.

Elections are probably more disruptive to the DC region than to anywhere else in the country, and Trump’s ascension to the presidency promises to be more distressing than any in memory. While Washington has long since shed its nickname of “Chocolate City,” from a time when African Americans constituted over 70 percent of the population, still today over 60 percent of DC citizens identify as non-white, including growing Latino, Asian, and multiracial constituencies. Moreover, Washington is estimated to have more LGBTQ-identified persons than any other major American city, as well as thousands of international citizens and guests—people of all races and religions who call the city home.

Why is this important? Because Washington is now required to host a presidential administration and Congress that was swept into power in part by the forces of white nationalists and the so-called alt-right, led by a businessman who often echoed their racist, misogynist, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic sentiments with seeming impunity. A man who received only 4 percent of the DC presidential vote. Trump’s supporters feel called to relieve the city of its perceived privilege, even as its federal tax-paying citizens have no voting representation in Congress and very little voice in the policies and practices that affect our day-to-day lives. The conservative cries to “drain the swamp” ignore the fact that we aren’t the swamp—the swamp is being, and always has been, sent to us.

The atmosphere in DC following President Obama’s election in 2008 was very different. The election of our first African American president seemed as unthinkable as Trump’s election seems today, but spurred far more jubilation than dismay. Barack and Michelle Obama championed the city in many different ways, from visiting DC’s struggling public schools to delighting in the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Their support for the city was surely a factor in its resurgence, drawing back empty nesters who had decamped for the suburbs when DC was named the nation’s “murder capital,” as well as attracting millennials whose presence led Forbes magazine to name it “America’s coolest city” (a moniker once nearly as unthinkable as the election of Obama or Trump).

The welcome the city of Washington gave to Obama was not matched by the Republican-led Congress with which he had to share power. From the get-go, Republicans seemed determined to regard his presidency as illegitimate, and maneuvered to undercut him at every turn, abetted by Trump leading the “birther” movement that challenged Obama’s citizenship. Somehow, Obama was able to stave off many of those efforts, sometimes with the help of the Supreme Court, which delivered decisions on Obamacare and marriage equality that should help sustain his legacy. Finding themselves largely unable to delegitimize him directly, however, the Republicans decided to do so indirectly, by attacking the legitimacy of his would-be successor, Hillary Clinton, through endless congressional hearings and throwing their (sometimes uneasy) support behind Trump, who seems Obama’s polar opposite in almost every way, as the one best poised to destroy that legacy.

Racism and misogyny account at least in part for these attacks upon Obama and Clinton, and they contributed to Trump’s election. How much so is a debate that will continue for years. Meanwhile, this most diverse of American cities has to figure out how to share space with a president who has demonstrated hostility to many of its citizens in his campaign and who appears uniquely unversed not just in basic civics, but in basic civility. Respect for the office of the presidency has been key to overcoming the sometimes tenuous relationship between presidential administrations and the city of Washington. That tradition will surely continue, even as we grapple with the personality who holds that office. For, throughout his candidacy and career, Trump has presented himself more as a personality than as a person, a brand name rather than a concerned citizen. His impending presidency threatens to empower those who would wield their own toxic personalities against all who have long sought respect for their personhood. Thus, the angst now hanging over Washington. It seems unlikely to lift anytime soon.

David Lott is a freelance book editor living in Washington, DC.

Standing for the Politics of God

Geoffrey Bowden

The temptations of the Christian and the church in the face of politics exist at two extremes: either government and political activity is ascribed too much importance and eclipses the priority of the Kingdom of God in our lives, or politics is deemed irrelevant to the spiritual existence of Christians and ignored all together. The task of finding the middle ground takes vigilance, a task in which disciples of Christ love other people by encouraging the governments of the world to seek the good of all people, while robustly proclaiming the submission of those institutions to the Lordship of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the warring Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Governments can have profound effects on the lives of people that God loves unconditionally, and that is why He ordained that they exist. And that is also why Christians cannot ignore their activity. But our witness to and often against the activity of government must always be firmly rooted in the conviction that worldly politics has but a limited role to play in this world. This is God’s world and He is ruling it through His son, Jesus Christ, who has outlined a politics of his own in the Sermon on the Mount, among other places. It is this middle ground that we must inhabit.

So what to say about President-elect Donald Trump? He was created in the image of God, and we are commanded to pray for him as leader of our government. Given what we know about him from his life as an entrepreneur and presidential candidate, Mr. Trump is profoundly sinful, willing to denigrate entire classes and races of people to enhance his own interests. He craves attention as a method of bolstering his self-image, a craving that has reached astronomical heights and appears insatiable. Mr. Trump possesses little knowledge of the details of policy, resulting in impulsive and reckless proposals intended to solidify his image as tough and commanding, anxious to wield power for spectacle. The cardinal virtues elude him, so I can only characterize him as vicious, a slave to his own desires. As he forms an administration, the church must prepare, if not already so postured, to stand as a faithful presence for the politics of God, embodied most fully in the command to love one another as Christ has loved us. This stand will at times require being quite vocal, but it must always be clear and unambiguous, aligned with God’s rule in the cross. The poor, the imprisoned, the stranger, the widowed, and the orphaned need us. We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit refuse to give us rest until we are completely resting in the justice and mercy of God for all people that we encounter.

A word about the Democratic Party and their candidate, Mrs. Clinton. America tires of their staid politics, and the Christian church should reject their economic conception of people. The neoliberalism that has characterized Democratic policy (and Republican policy, too) for decades is an affront to human beings, God’s very good creation. As long as we continue to view people as cogs in an economic machine, workers and consumers to be manipulated in the service of an economy, the economy will always be a power that the church has to fend off. At a political science conference I attended yesterday (four days after the election), a panel of committed left-leaning political science professors outlined what must happen politically for higher education if American students are going to be able to “compete globally.” Think about that for a minute. These professors were not arguing that we offer students an opportunity to experience the world and all the good things it has to offer. The claim was much more sinister: our students must understand themselves to be embroiled in a competition, a battle for their own survival, the theatre of which spans the entire planet. How daunting! But this projected life-path is foisted upon 18-22 year olds in no small measure because our politics assesses their value in strictly economic terms, by Democrats no less than Republicans. While the church must prepare to address the more immediate (and as yet potential) assaults on justice by the Trump administration, the larger and more menacing threat posed to the witness of the church is the truncated and monstrous vision of human life as economic and competitive. Political scientist and Reformed Christian Scott Waalkes beautifully suggests that our politics has taught us that we live in a world of scarcity, but the Kingdom of God is a rule of abundance. We fear what American politics offers us every four years because we consistently reinforce our commitment to a politics of scarcity and its concomitant notion of human consumers in a global economic battle. The most profound witness of the church to our present circumstances is to be a consistent and vocal presence by loving all of the people God has created in their fullness, not just as economic slaves.

I do not anticipate that Mr. Trump will lead America down the path of loving people, so our mode will be resistance. The point is not “to resist.” The point is to love. The world will reject this, so we must be prepared to suffer for our witness, not to become like those we resist. My prayer is that the church is prepared, prepared by millennia of worship and praxis, guided by the Spirit. It should not be hard. It should be our natural disposition. If it isn’t, it is time that it become so. Let us continue the long-standing tradition of moral formation, teaching each other what it means to take up one’s cross and follow the Lord. If we have failed in the task of moral formation in recent generations, the church will surely be exposed as unfaithful in the face of worldly power. But our response should be to re-constitute moral formation and rekindle moral imagination to become what God desires for us, not to yield to our own failings. God makes no peace with oppression, and He has already overcome our failings. A

Geoffrey Bowden is coordinator of the program of political science at Savannah State University.

Work Cited

The White House World: Transitions, Organizations, and Office Operations. 2003. Edited by Martha Joynt Kumar and Terry Sullivan. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

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