There are many myths about the 2016 election. On the left it is an article of faith that Donald Trump could not have won without illicit coordination with the Russians. On the right, there is the pervasive notion that because Trump beat the odds to win the presidency, all polling is wrong and should be disregarded. Yesterday Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight managed to blow up both of these theories in a single tweet.
The exchange began with a tweet from Ben Collins of NBC News that asked, “What did the Kremlin’s cutouts know about targeting MI and WI? How did they know it? And is there data to show they took action on it?”
Silver, the head of the FiveThirtyEight polling analysis site, responded quickly with a tweet that slammed the door on that particular aspect of Russian collusion. “The 538 model, which was based on publicly-available polling data, said the campaigns should target WI and MI,” Silver wrote. “You didn’t have to have any proprietary info to know they were important states. You just had to look at the data and not be huge dumbasses like the HRC campaign was.”
Silver followed up with a link to a FiveThirtyEight article from February 2017, “Donald Trump Had A Superior Electoral College Strategy.” The thrust of the article, subtitled “How Hillary Clinton and the media missed the boat,” was that Hillary made two key errors in the campaign. First, she focused on states where the race was close rather than states that had the potential to tip the race. In particular, the article points out that Clinton did not set foot in Wisconsin after the Democratic primary. Second, she was overconfident and limited her focus to a narrow range of states. Hillary’s main focus was on Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.
Silver didn’t explicitly address the idea that because the forecasts were wrong in 2016 that all polling is wrong, but it is implicit in his statement that the Clinton campaign was made of “huge dumbasses” who ignored polling data that showed that Hillary was in trouble. Many Republicans claim that the media gave Hillary a 99 percent chance of becoming president on election night, but FiveThirtyEight’s forecast, which is still posted, gave Donald Trump a 29 percent chance of winning. Under those circumstances, Trump was an underdog, but not prohibitively.
With respect to the two states in question, FiveThirtyEight gave Trump a 21 percent chance in Michigan and a 17 percent chance in Wisconsin. Many polls were within the margin of error in Michigan, but Wisconsin polling was further off, showing a consistent albeit single-digit lead for Hillary.
As I pointed out a few months ago, polls are snapshots rather than predictive. One good technique for examining polls is to look for trends in the big picture. The big picture of the polling average from 2016 is still available on Real Clear Politics in convenient graph form. If we look at the trend, we can see Trump plunging in the polls about Oct. 10 then starting a slow rise on Oct. 20. There is a sharp increase between Oct. 28 and Nov. 2 that brought Trump to within two points of Hillary, well within the margin of error of most polls. Going into Election Day, the national polling average had the two candidates about three points apart, a close race by any standard.
If we look at key events that occurred in the campaign, we can see exactly what caused these movements in the polling. Keeping in mind that polls are lagging indicators, we see that Trump’s decline in early October followed the release of the Access Hollywood tape on Oct. 7. The final presidential debate was on Oct. 19 and Trump’s performance seems to have helped him in the polls, but not enough to close the deal. The event that sealed the race in Trump’s favor occurred on Oct. 28, the release of FBI Director James Comey’s memo to Congress that detailed the discovery of thousands of emails that related to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. In a May 2017 article, Silver also made the case that Comey’s memo cost Hillary the election.
There are lessons for both parties in Silver’s tweets and articles. For the Democrats, candidates should not take the Rust Belt states for granted. Traditional party loyalties may not be enough to carry a state, especially in an election where everything seems to be going wrong for your candidate. There is no substitute for getting into the field and making appearances. Charisma, broad appeal outside the party, and the stamina to campaign should be factors in nominating a candidate.
For Republicans, the lesson is also that the Rust Belt states should not be taken for granted. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were all decided by about one percent of the vote after being all but ignored by the Democrat candidate. Just because they voted for Donald Trump once does not mean that they will do so again. The Clinton campaign made mistakes that will probably not be repeated by the next Democratic candidate. Even with these mistakes, however, Trump still lost the popular vote and would most likely have lost the electoral vote had it not been for James Comey. Donald Trump has the stamina to campaign, but he lacks charisma and popularity outside the GOP.
Despite claims from both sides, the 2020 election is far from a sure thing for either party. The outcome will be determined by which side better learns the lessons of the 2016 election and adapts their strategy to a changing electoral environment.