The results of the 2016 election came as a shock to many. Polls and statistics predicted a Hillary Clinton win heading into Tuesday, the final results. But in the end, Donald Trump secured a decisive victory when it came to electoral college votes.
So what happened? Why were all the predictions so off? Polling is, of course, an imperfect science, but almost all the political forecasters seemed certain of a Clinton presidency. And they were wrong.
“This election, while it is sort of surprising at this moment in time, needs to be contextualized,” Lara Brown, PhD, the interim director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, told Refinery29. “We have had other periods in our history that have been as politically restless, as politically polarized, and as politically tumultuous.”
Brown spoke to Refinery29 to break down what happened Tuesday and what we can learn from this topsy-turvy election.
All the predictions seemed to be favoring Clinton heading into election night. What was missing?
“One of the things that all campaigns do is they calculate win numbers. What you try to do is look back at a number of elections in the different locations, figure out what is the average vote that usually turns out, and then essentially make sure that you turn out 50%-plus-one on your side.
“In Philadelphia and in the 'Collar' counties [in Pennsylvania], Hillary Clinton actually turned out about what is the average for Democrats. The problem was, the Republicans actually did much better than their four-cycle average. They actually hit their highs. So all of a sudden, there was a really interesting reality where the number that they thought they needed were not the numbers that they actually needed to win. And this is where and why people keep saying, ‘he over-performed in the rural areas, and she underperformed.’”
Why were the polls so wrong?
“I don’t know that the polls were wrong. I think that what we actually saw was that the 5% of voters who were undecided in all of these polls, at the end of the day ended up breaking heavily for Trump. If she’s leading by three points in most polls, and there’s 5% that are undecided, if all of a sudden Trump gets 4% of those and she only gets 1%, he overtakes her. They’re essentially tied. Which is what happened.
“Obviously the popular vote total is a very different story than the electoral college, and [at] the popular vote level they are essentially tied. If you just assume that these undecided voters, who had said they were leaning Republican but weren’t necessarily leaning for Trump, realize that they went into the booths, decided to back the challenger rather than the incumbent party, [and] they tie. And given the electoral map, the complicated nature of these Rust Belt states for her campaign — he wins.”
What lessons should we be taking away from this upset?
“I would argue that this has been a long time coming.
"When you actually look at American’s frustrations with the two political parties, you look at the levels of dissatisfaction that have been there since 2005. There has been a frustration that the Republican party ignored what Americans wanted people to focus on in 2005, 2006, 2007, which was finding ways out of the war. And then you look at the polls and look at what people wanted the Democrats to focus on when Obama got into office, which was the economy. Neither parties did that. George W. Bush focused on reforming Social Security and Barack Obama focused on reforming healthcare. And the American public was like, Wait a minute. I thought you were actually going to deal with our most important priority.
“And that’s why [we have] those numbers about Washington being out of touch, politicians being corrupt…the not-caring about the fact that Trump didn’t know about politics or policy. But he did know, according to most Americans, how to bring change or manage business. Those things were more important.”
What are the next steps? This has been such a divisive election, how do we bring the country back together at this point?
“I think so much of that is going to depend on what the Republicans do.
“There has just been this incredible frustration with both parties. I remember in the primaries, one of the things that was really stunning was how much individuals and activists in both political parties felt like they had been betrayed by the establishments in Washington. So now the question going forward is whether or not Trump is going to fall in line with Republican orthodoxy and push the Republican platform and become a party leader, or whether he is going to continue to push back against this one-party myopia that prevails after these kind of wave elections, and whether he decides to continue to focus on what he said he wanted to do. Things that the Republican Party isn’t all that interested in.”
Is there anything that you think is important to make note of, looking at this upset?
“I don’t think what most Americans realize is how seriously divided this country is. Democrats don’t live near Republicans, and Republicans don’t live near Democrats. But when you actually look at the numbers, we have a country that’s about 47% on each side. And we have a very small group of people who kind of come in and out of the elections, and sometimes switch their vote.
“I do think that generally speaking, people in the ‘establishment’ really neglected how much the American people want change, and felt like they didn’t get change with Barack Obama. Or at least not the change they were hoping for.
“I once heard somebody describe Donald Trump as a lottery ticket. The likelihood is that you’re going to lose, but there was a slim hope that you might just win. And let’s put it this way: If you’re in a place where you are desperate enough to make a lottery ticket your financial strategy, you’re in a really really bad place.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.