The 2016 Election has been one of the most interesting political experiments in recent memory. And the outcome was no different. Over the last two days, many have been rejoicing, while just as many have been mourning. This was to be expected, however it was not expected that the Democrats would be the ones left mourning. The victory of the new President-elect has already sparked protests in cities around the country, from New York to California, even right here in Lexington, KY. And for the second time in five elections, and the fifth time in our history, the winner of the majority of Electoral College pledges (the Electoral College has not technically voted yet) did not win the popular vote. This Op-Ed is not going to take the side of either candidate and will not focus on the future, but instead look at how this election outcome happened, and how political scientists shouldn’t have been so surprised.
There is much common theory that surrounds political elections. The undecideds will break for the challenger, higher turnout benefits the Democrats, the gender gap in partisanship and “Rise of the Independent” are all popular ideas, but are they true? Not necessarily. There are a few key determinants in predicting elections and analyzing partisan distribution that remain constant from election cycle to election cycle, two of which will be discussed below. These are party identification and how the parties view fundamental, long-term trends. These identifications function to define and predict voter behavior, and as such, parties return to these core determinants over and over again.
The single most important determinant to identify voting preference for all voters is Party Identification and always has been. Recently, campaigns have shifted from being party-centered to candidate-centered, but that has not affected the number of people that reliably vote for a certain party. In Tuesday’s election, 90% of each party’s members, strong or weak in affiliation, voted for that party, and on average 75-80% of the electorate consistently votes for one party across elections both national and local. Some people may wonder why elections are so close if partisanship is so strong. This is because party affiliation across the country is relatively equal geographically. Most states, as we saw on Tuesday, have almost equal splits of party identification that does allow them to potentially swing, but most voters do not often, if ever, stray from their preferred party. The “rise of the independent” has been a popular topic for the last 15 years or so. Popular thought is that there are more “swing voters”, “undecided voters” and independents, and this is what makes elections close. But this is not the case. At the onset of an election, there may be a relatively high identification with a third party candidate, or with voters willing to break with their party. But as the election gets closer, a tightening of the polls is consistent, and supposed “undecided” voters will return to the party with which they lean or associate. This trend was observed on Tuesday between party identifiers and independents, when Gary Johnson won only 2.1% of the popular vote, and Jill Stein even less, at 0.4%. All of the aforementioned is to explain that candidates do not matter as much as the media and the public think they do. Initially, many members of the Republicans Party were on the #NeverTrump train, and swore they could never vote for him, and while a small number did not, an overwhelming majority of the party did, or at least stated their intentions to do so, including many who said they never would. This is true on the Democratic side as well. Most Bernie-or-Bust supporters, as well as those who liked Jill Stein, eventually abandoned their third parties and write-ins to vote for Clinton. In practice we saw this best with Gary Johnson, who in September and into October, was consistently close to double digits, but on election night received less than 5% of the votes cast, not even reaching the threshold necessary to receive public funding. This happened because, as the polls tightened on both sides, voters started to think more seriously about their votes and how they would affect the outcome, because party affiliation is extremely important, and because most voters have consistent partisan preferences, whether they are willing to admit it or not.
The other most important and most overlooked data in polls and analysis were fundamentals. Fundamentals describe the long-term trends that exist in the political climate. These include the wellbeing of the economy, beliefs about the general direction of the country and how long the current political party has been in power, to name a few. And while many of the opinion polls got the election spectacularly wrong, these fundamental polls, the ones that took candidate preference and scandal out of the equation and focused only on general trends, predicted a Republican presidency. And they were (clearly) correct. Opinion polls are inherently flawed. And many of them this election cycle asked the wrong questions, in the wrong places, to the wrong people. This trend was possibly due in part from of a phenomenon called “Social Desirability Bias”, or the unwillingness to publicly claim a candidate to support when asked by pollsters, campaign workers or any other public entity. And finally, while these fundamental polls showed the most likely trends and predicted what we saw on Tuesday night, they were largely rejected because of the utterly unique candidates (particularly Donald Trump) running for the presidency. Many “experts” and pollsters believed that this campaign was just too unique and the personalities too big, that even though all fundamental variables pointed to a Trump victory, it just wasn’t in the cards. How wrong they all were.
It is safe to say that the victory of Donald Trump has shocked the electorate in the US, including many of Trump’s supporters. Even one of Trump’s top campaign managers claimed on election night they would “need a miracle to win”. This shock to all sides happened because the actual science of political science was ignored. The values and trends of American voters are very deeply rooted, and not easily swayed. The 2016 Election was a political anomaly, predicted to cast in doubt everything political scientists and pollsters thought true about election outcomes. However, the personalities and traits of the candidates were exaggerated and overemphasized. When it came down to it, this election followed the trends of the more general political cycle, and Democrats, left dumbfounded, probably should have seen it coming from the beginning.
Larissa Caton is a second year Patterson student studying intelligence and security. She plans to move to Washington, DC and work for the US government in the Department of Defense upon graduation. Larissa has a deep interest in presidential politics and the above article is based on background knowledge and topics from a current class about campaigns and elections.