The 2016 Election – What Happened and What Next?

(Flickr / Nathan Congleton)

(Flickr / Nathan Congleton)

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, there is a lot of impassioned rhetoric out there. Everyone is trying to come to terms with an utterly shocking event by trying to explain what happened and where to go next.

It’s for that reason (and to honor requests from friends) that I summarize my thoughts below on Trump’s nomination as our 45th president and ask you to “consider again” some of the things you have heard. It’s my hope that this gives you a bit more context on what happened, how to react, and what to do next.

The best question to start with might be “What didn’t happen?”

If you spend any time on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll quickly learn the prevailing opinion – that Trump won because he was a racist and a sexist, and there are just too many hateful people in the country for the rational wisdom of Hillary Clinton to win over. Though Trump has made offensive comments toward many minorities and women, the exit polls don’t reflect a narrative of Trump trading in his minority votes for those of white men.

Yes, Trump’s core constituency is working-class white men. Yes, some of Trump’s supporters are openly racist (admittedly much more so than he has ever been publicly.) Yes, Clinton won the vast majority of minority voters. But the numbers don’t back up the story that this was a key factor in this election, since 2012 was really not that much different.

After all, Trump won white voters by a margin very similar to Mitt Romney. More importantly, Trump actually won a slightly higher percentage of Hispanics and African-Americans than Romney did in 2012 according to Gallup and CNN exit polls, while Hillary underperformed Obama. This would suggest that Trump’s perceived racism did not have much of an effect (or that voters really were not fired up about Hillary – more on that in a moment.) Additionally, almost 30 percent of Hispanics voted for Trump, which pushes back against the narrative you’ll see on social media, claiming that “half the nation voted for white supremacy.” (actual quote from a Facebook post)

To assume that the millions of Trump-supporting Hispanics don’t exist shows a blatant partisan blindness that can be very dangerous. For all this talk about whites voting for Trump only to assert racial superiority, the reality is that many Hispanics also support stronger immigration laws. “[A] Pulse Opinion Research survey found that 51 percent of Hispanics believe that there has been ‘too little’ done to enforce immigration laws,” according to the Washington Examiner. “What’s more, by a margin of 49 percent to 36 percent, Hispanics ‘support a policy causing illegal immigrants to return home by enforcing the law.'”

We should still guard against racism in the coming Trump administration. David French of National Review has a particularly apt perspective: “Conservative and liberal Americans can and must exercise extreme vigilance to insure that not one alt-right ‘thinker’ has a place in the Trump administration, but it’s simply wrong to attribute Trump’s win to some form of great white wave,” writes French. “Trump won because minority voters let him win.”

CNN sums it up most accurately: “While [Clinton] won the key demographic groups her campaign targeted, she underperformed President Obama across the board, even among women, according to exit poll data.” Turnout among minority groups was lower than in 2012, so despite the apocalyptic language around this election, a lot of people just didn’t think stopping Trump was worth heading to the polls.

Nor can we effectively blame Clinton’s loss on sexism. The “war on women” language reached an all-time high this year (partly fueled by Donald Trump’s obscene and disgusting comments), and yet Clinton only won 54 percent of the women’s vote (Obama won 55 percent in 2012). A friend on Facebook recently posted about her decision to vote for Gary Johnson, only to be admonished by a male commenter who was outraged: “How could you not vote for the first woman candidate?”

It is this kind of condescension that steers people wrong in post-election analysis. When we act as if all Hispanics should have voted for the pro-immigration candidate, or that all women should vote for the woman candidate, we assume a false moral superiority that we know what is in each person’s best interest and if they disagree, they must be ignorant. Certainly there are trends among race and gender lines. But 42 percent of women voted for Donald Trump despite his comments. They felt strongly enough about his views on national security, lower taxes, or defending the rights of the unborn to look past his comments about women. We may disagree with their assessment, but it doesn’t give us the right to automatically dismiss their opinions as uninformed or worse, nonexistent. We ought to view the Hispanic, female, or working class vote not as an identity vote, but as an American vote. My Facebook feed would certainly be better for it. America would too.

So what did happen on Tuesday? Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd said it best: “Let’s be frank: We all got it wrong.”

That’s been the theme of the 2016 election – the pundits, journalists (myself included), and urban establishment all assumed that Hillary would win decisively. It wasn’t completely absurd to think so, since the polls all seemed to back up that assumption. (FiveThirtyEight offers a good look into what could have gone wrong with the polls – everything from Trump voters being shy about their intentions to less likely to pick up the phone for polling calls – but we will need months to understand exactly how the estimates were so off-base.)

At heart, we have to admit that most of us didn’t understand the feelings and motivations of many Americans like Trump did. More importantly, we really overestimated Hillary Clinton’s power as a candidate.

Domenico Montanaro of NPR tweeted preliminary turnout numbers on Wednesday. Trump received roughly 2 million fewer votes than Romney, while Clinton received almost 7 million fewer votes than Obama in 2012. “You tell me what happened,” said Montanaro.

Maybe Americans, left and right, were actually just tired of the same empty promises and fake smiles. Hillary promised more of the same with a polished political image, while Trump brought energy, authority, and authenticity. Yet while Romney was crucified in 2012 for his stiffness and inability to connect with average Americans, there has been remarkably little soul-searching among the Democratic Party. Rather than trying to identify Clinton’s weaknesses that led to such a disappointing turnout, those on the left are refusing to accept the results of the election. The same people who were outraged when Trump alluded to refusing to accept election results are now blocking the highways, burning American flags, vandalizing buildings, and protesting in the streets, all while tweeting #NotMyPresident.

So what’s next?

The Democratic Party will eventually come around to recognize that identity politics is losing its effectiveness. If you call too many things “offensive,” pretty soon nothing will be. The Democrats don’t have a clear “bench” of candidates in line for 2020, so this is the perfect chance to reset and redefine what the party’s core message will be (since calling Republicans names won’t be good enough.) They will likely oppose Trump at every turn, ratchet up the hysterics, and see what happens at the midterms. It’s a big gamble. If they’re wrong, they’ve lost two years to contribute meaningfully to the debate as well as the ability to be the party of compromise.

The Republicans will need to perform some deep analysis as well. It’s clear that this year took everyone by surprise, and while Trump may succeed in accomplishing a number of important conservative policies, it’s unlikely that he’s the type of standard bearer to carry the party once he is no longer president. Reform conservatives (i.e. Arthur Brooks, John Kasich) and Tea Partiers (Ted Cruz) need to collectively find a way to align their objectives with the legitimate concerns of Trump voters so that they are involved in the process too.

It is perfectly fine to have a variance of beliefs within a party (that’s the necessary outcome in a two-party system), but Republicans need a more cohesive way of tying these factions together or bridging a new coalition. It is unlikely there will (maybe ever) be another candidate like Trump with such strong charisma and a unique following, so Republicans can’t follow the same strategy in 2024. (After Trump becomes ingrained in Washington politics, even the 2020 campaign will look much different than this year’s.)

What can we do? To start, relax. Our country will endure. From its founding, America has faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, and our system of checks and balances has prevailed.

This year is much different (it still seems weird to see Melania Trump and Michelle Obama sitting together in the White House), and there is understandably a lot of apprehension. Soon, things will feel mostly normal again. If we resist the fear-mongering, we can focus our energy on productive debate by continuing to demand facts, think before we speak, and work together toward a great country. Not “great again,” but newly great for every American.

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4 responses to “The 2016 Election – What Happened and What Next?

  1. –I just wrote my comment but it seems to have disappeared. Apologies if I duplicate myself.
    It seems that the supporters of Mr. Trump are primarily a population that has long felt invisible to the current power structures. Mr. Trump acknowledges and respects them on a feeling level. His cognitive content is irrelevant. Both political parties and the media must now rearrange themselves, as they seem to have wrongly assumed the content was important. We who try to be citizens in the best sense will have to do a LOT of work to ensure the impending transitions are positive.
    I also mull over the fact that Mr. Trump did not win the popular vote, but did win the electoral votes; and Secretary Clinton won the reverse.

  2. Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, not the electoral vote. Mr Trump won the electoral vote, not the popular vote.
    The polls were way off, as were/are the underlying assumptions re: what determined the outcome.
    My current belief -which is malleable- is that a large number of the Trump supporters have long felt unacceptably invisible to the recent power structures and found a strong sense of acknowledgment by Trump on a feeling level. His cognitive content was/is irrelevant. Both parties and the media and many of us as individuals hopefully will reach emotional level recognitions and acceptance of those who are different without hitching the recognitions to hand-outs or other dynamics that are on some level condescending.
    Am looking forward to changes on all fronts, but not looking forward to all the work coming up for well-intentioned folks along the way.

  3. Hi Dan. Read your article with interest knowing it comes from such a great guy! I think the whole issue of race & Donald Trump’s candidacy is an important one. As you probably know, I go to a church that is largely African American, and they are hurting right now. At choir rehearsal last night I heard lots of talk about holding firm, that God is in control, that they have survived the Jim Crow laws, they will survive 4 years of Trump. You indicated in your article that the Democrats need to do some soul searching about what went wrong with their candidate.
    Let me challenge you to ask the soul searching question, of all the qualified candidates available to the Republican Party, what was it that led the party to choose Trump? None of the other candidates came anywhere close to his level of offensive & hurtful comments. I had to comfort developmentally disabled clients I work with who were hurt & confused about why he would make fun of someone who looked just like them. They concluded he must be a mean man. As a woman, I am equally dismayed that the president elect of our country holds women in such little regard. African Americans well remember how he went after Obama for his birth certificate. You mention that people voted for Trump because of his views on national security, abortion, immigration. Yet all the other Republican candidates would have promoted the same views. You indicate that Trump was charismatic (true) authoritarian (also true–a troubling return to Populism) and you said lastly “authentic.” Here I would differ strongly with you. Trump’s level of dishonesty was on a scale I have never seen in a presidential candidate before. He has flip flopped on so many issues I don’t think we have any idea what he really believes. Sadly, I think he often believes his own lies. How else could a 70 year old man deny that he ever made fun a man for his handicaps when it is on video?
    So with all the qualified candidates available, the Republican nominee was Trump, and the women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, & handicapped people are now hurting because it appears that his offensive and divisive comments were what actually set him apart from other candidates, and he was the one chosen.
    I have also heard people say he was chosen because he was not a politician and would shake things up. To me that is the equivalent of saying all lawyers are corrupt, so for my next big court case I’m going to have a business man represent me because they know how to cut deals. It makes no sense. We have now given the most powerful political job in the world to an often mean, deceitful man with virtually no political experience. I think you should cut those of us who are upset about it some slack. We care about this country and expect our leader to be someone we can respect, regardless of our political views, and who would in turn respect ALL of the people he leads. The Republican Party needs to pray that Donald Trump is not the man he was during his campaign, because the Republican party’s reputation is riding on him, as is the safety and well-being of all Americans, the ones he treated with such derision most of all.

    • Wow, thanks for the great comment! Really appreciate your thoughtfulness. I’ll start by saying that I actually mostly agree with you on your assessment of the man. I am not a Trump fan and did not vote for him, and I was shocked and worried by the results on Tuesday. I would have preferred any of the other Republican candidates to Trump, and I am also repulsed by his dishonesty.

      And yet, what I’ve realized this year is that I need to be more humble about how quickly I dismiss the opinions of others. Even though I believe Trump is full of hot air, clearly he was able to capture the feeling of authenticity (even if he was not truly authentic) in a way that surprised us all. Both parties have something to learn from that (especially the Democrats, who struggled with turnout), even while they should continue to condemn his offensive comments.

      Though it may seem like Trump’s racism got him elected, I honestly don’t think the numbers back that up (as I discuss). I honestly think he is a once-in-a-lifetime (not said in a complimentary way) character with a personality that can’t accurately be captured by any policies he believes. That to me explains how he could flip-flop on so many issues without any voter backlash. A NYT reporter found that “Clinton suffered the biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters.” I don’t think the “racism story” is really accurate here, even to explain his nomination. I just think voters saw someone who was unrehearsed and really liked feeling as if they weren’t being talked down to.

      My hope is that we can find a way to include Trump’s supporters in the debate while still pushing back against populism and the violence and racism that some espouse. I don’t know how Trump will be as president, but I do have faith that Republicans and Democrats alike have an interest in stopping him from the things we most fear. And thus, I have a healthy skepticism – but not enough fear to spray-paint buildings and block the highways.

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