Friday 11 November 2016

Why Did We Call It Wrong?

Some didn't. No doubt they're feeling smug as others flail around in horror. But for the bulk of "us", the commentariat people spanning the academic pundits specialising in voting behaviour, the professional commentators paid for their opinion-forming opinions, and neither forgetting those weirdos who write about politics because they want to, Tuesday represented a unanimity of failure. That so few called it for Trump goes beyond bad analysis: it's a social phenomenon. How then did everyone get it wrong?

Well, for starters, we didn't. We were wrong, and yet we were right too. Not only did Hillary Clinton win the popular vote, she might surpass Trump's tally by some two million once all the ballots are counted. So yes, all the analyses were right that the GOP wouldn't out poll the Democrats - and the size of that margin could give Trump added extra legitimacy problems later on. Yet, despite knowing about the electoral college, too many of us treated the contest as if it was a simple popularity contest. The vagaries of this anti-democratic and archaic stitch-up system were rarely factored in.

The second point was polling. Most people writing about American politics, including Americans writing about politics, are removed from the action on the ground. You have to take what passes as evidence as your guide. And that, traditionally, has been opinion polling. While they were a bit all over the place, they favoured a Clinton outcome as per the final vote tally. Yet they also posted clear leads in the crucial battleground states, including Wisconsin where not a single poll put Trump on top. In Britain, the experience of the 2015 general election and Brexit should, by now, have taught us to treat polling with caution. On each occasion, they've been able to pick up movements in opinion but not the actual figures. Sucks to be them, sucks to be fooled by them.

And then there are the demographics. Asked about it in the lead up, like many others I couldn't see how Trump might win with such a coalition arrayed against him. Surely the bulk vote of America's ethnic and sexual minorities, allied to a sizeable chunk of white people would be enough to bury his chances? As we know, they weren't. The white middle class and well-to-do base of the GOP turned out in the states Trump needed them to turn out in, while the Democrat vote deflated. All the stars aligned for a Clinton win, and without anything else intervening we went with that.

Lastly, there's a strange sort of groupthink. In my bones, I felt we weren't going to win the general election, that Leave would put us on course for exiting the EU, and Trump was set to come out on top. But I ignored it, took Tony Blair's advice and had a heart transplant, substituting emotion for the cool analysis of hard numbers. This, however, was a conceit. The fear of the alternatives engendered a herd wisdom that appeared to have a close relationship to the simulated results of polling and extrapolations of demographics, but this was coincidental. In truth, commentators hostile to Trump right across the spectrum of opinion fooled themselves into think that he couldn't win because, well, he just couldn't. In the same way Britain just wouldn't leave the EU, how Labour wouldn't vote for Jeremy Corbyn (twice), how the Conservatives wouldn't be victorious in 2015. Being wedded to the established way of doing things, whether cheerleader or critic, meant projecting its assumptions onto a wider electorate. They couldn't possibly support ....

How to prevent this from happening again? Going in the opposite direction and forecasting doom and gloom is not an answer. Treating polling data more critically is the easy thing. Keeping a sociological imagination is necessary but not sufficient. One has to be alive to the play of tendencies and counter tendencies, their strength and weaknesses. But most importantly, and more difficult more difficult to accomplish is sustained self-criticism combined with the checking and rechecking of one's underlying assumptions, including acknowledging and allowing for your stakes in a issue and how that might colour your findings. It's not just fresh thinking that's needed now, but critical thinking and intellectual honesty. If that can be managed, then fewer in may be blindsided by so-called freak events in future.


Anonymous said...

Wouldn't a far simpler check on the 'rogue polls as normal' phenomenon be for polling bodies to conduct seat-by-seat/state-by-state polls, rather than trying to take the temperature of the entire nation in one go?

I mean, it would be more expensive and the interpretation of the results would be fiddlier than at present, but that seems to address the error that is leading pollsters astray. Or have I misunderstood you?

johnny conspiranoid said...

Boffy said...

I did get both the EU Referendum result and Trump's victory right, though I thought it might have been that Trump won the popular vote and lost out in the Electoral College. The reason is that I think I have understood for a long time what the "liberal elite" and large sections of the left have not wanted to accept, which is that there is a large section of the population - I estimate about 30% in the UK - that hold bigoted views (i.e. there is a big cross over in the anti-EU vote not just with anti-foreigner views, but also with hostility to feminism, and a range of modernist values).

It often doesn't stop those same people voting Labour or Tory in a General Election, or not voting at all in such elections, but it means that when you come to a specific ballot such as the EU, or when there is a limited poll such as in a by-election, this section is free to focus its anger on rejected that modernism.

Precisely because it is based on bigoted views, its not easily subject to rational argument. In conditions where there is little incentive for others to turn out and vote, this bigoted vote can predominate. That is why the political centre has collapsed, a point even Ed Miliband seems to be coming round to given his comments on Newsnight a couple of days ago.

That political centre Cameron/Benn in the EU referendum, offered nothing that the mass of people could enthuse about, whilst Corbyn's more adequate view was squeezed out and distorted. But, as I said ahead of the referendum, that core bigoted vote would win it for Leave, and indeed 37% of the population voted for Leave.

The same was true ahead of Trump's victory, which I again predicted. The Democrat establishment was keen not to have its own Corbyn (Bernie Sanders) as its candidate and rigged the selection process to that end, so as to choose their own Blair-right candidate (Clinton). Where Sanders would probably have won a landslide even whilst scaring off some centre-ground voters, Clinton could enthuse no one greatly, whilst Trump did enthuse that bigoted section of the population to come out and vote against her, as the representative of that failed political centre and everything it stands for.

The vote was down. There are lessons for the EU too. If it continues to try to hold that political centre, to impose austerity, and to use money printing to inflate the asset prices of the rich, it will fail, and the same kinds of right-wing populist forces will sweep elections across the EU too.

BCFG said...

“the professional commentators paid for their opinion-forming opinions”

Isn’t this a major part of the problem with the media. The rise of the commentariat, opinion formers etc. The news is replete with endless opinion formers commenting on the events of the day. Staggeringly these people more often than not have no qualification to talk about the subject they have been invited to pontificate upon. Literally you can have someone talking about, say, Syria who literally hasn’t spent more than a minute thinking about the subject. This is why for me unfree media should be regulated differently from the free press. I would have a rule where anyone who is invited on the news or in the newspapers to give their opinion on a subject should be a professor, this will, to use a Trump phrase, drain the swamp that is the unfree press and begin to give us a free press. Is it any wonder why someone like Trump can win an election when people are being informed by ignorant idiots!

The left should start defining what that means and propose tough regulations for those that don’t meet the standards.

For example, when Nick Ferrari is invited on a news channel to give his opinion on a topic there should be a strap line below his face which says, warning this person is not qualified to speak about the subject matter we have invited him to speak about, so take everything he says with a pinch of salt. Or for example, when Carole Malone writes for a newspaper, you heard it right Carole Malone writes for a newspaper, yes they can use the name news and at the same time employ someone like Carole Malone, no seriously this is legally allowed, anyway, when Carole Malone writes for a newspaper there should be in bold at the top of the article and replacing any headlines a warning that this person is wholly unqualified to give opinions on the subject matter we are paying her to give an opinion on.

You were and are wrong about your claims that conservatism is facing a demographic crisis. You imagine the economic realities of a global capitalist imperial system allow for a permanent centrist paradise, Boffy is a good example of this mentality. You are pure idealists. Trump is the realists in many ways, he knows capitalism cannot deal with the environmental crisis so says why bother, let’s just get on and do it, I have money to make. The centrists believe their measly and pathetic legislation is having an effect, this is the biggest delusion. Until progressives see capitalism as the problem then ultimately a progressive is just a conservative in denial, and incidentally a conservative is a liberal in denial!

MikeB said...

I called all these results correctly (as if that were any kind of compensation!). For me, the failure to predict these results is the same fault that leads us to conjure up progressive/anti-capitalist alternatives where none exist.

Magical thinking of the variety that leads to the non-sequitur "they have nothing to lose but their chains - so of course they will lead us to a post-capitalist utopia" is pervasive.

Secondly, we still overestimate the rationality of humanity. Emotional motivation often overrides conscious determination and there are plenty of circumstances where we act both in opposition to our class interest, and to our consciously expressed wishes.

Rather reluctantly, I have become more of a sociobiologist than a Marxist these days. The feeling 'in your bones' that you recognise, Phil, may be a better guide than any amount of polling data.

johnny conspiranoid said...


if these centre ground ideas are so unpopular, why are we still calling them "the centre ground"?

Boffy said...


Because the terms centre and popular are not synonymous. The centre-point of a balance may contain no weight upon, whereas the two ends of the balance may contain huge amounts of weight.

Speedy said...

For a moment Boffy, I thought you'd got it, then I realised you hand't got it at all.

For too many in the poor neighbourhoods of the west, middle-class liberals have become like their bosses at work. They tell you what you can and can’t think. They warn that you must accept their superiority and you will be in no end of trouble if you do not.

SteveH said...

The problem now is that Trump is elected, so those now protesting against his victory seem like sore losers. They have at least now have to answer if not this system of voting what do they propose to put in its place? After all you can't vote and then moan when the vote doesn't go your way! If you are protesting now and then vote again you are a hypocrite.

Some of those who say the protesters are correct were lecturing us not that long ago that Marxists had to win the battle for democracy! Now they are saying we should give democracy the 2 fingered salute.

Fine with all that but if we are now saying voting in elections is no longer a valid way forward then surely this means the end of political parties etc.

Those who claim we should have followed the US lead after Brexit and caused civil disobedience must now admit that we are in a revolutionary stage and bourgeois 'democracy' is dead.

Anonymous said...

But did the polls get it wrong? Trump bagged less votes than both Romney and McCain. Also, literally hundreds of thousand of voters where purged from the rolls in the run-up to election day (and on the day). Most of those purged where from Democratic voting demographics.

Read about the purges here:

Blissex said...

«the bulk vote of America's ethnic and sexual minorities, allied to a sizeable chunk of white people»

Not so sure about that: there was majority for Trump among the "minority" white women for examples.

But the big news of the USA election is not the percentages or even the state-based constituencies, but the absolute numbers, and in particular that 10 million people less voted for Cliton as for Obama (and 2 million less for Trump as for Romney).

It seems that in particular many darker skinned voters could not bring themselves to go to vote for a hard-right candidate who talked about "superpredators" and supported her husband's ferocious "reform" of welfare, and who advocated higher immigration of much poorer brown skinned people who competed desperately with the darker skinned natives for low wage jobs.

The problem seems to have been that both Clintons have been enthusiastic "triangulating" Reagan Republicans, and it turns out that triangulating to conservative voters with talk of "superpredator" "strapping young bucks", welfare "reform" against "welfare queens" and more wage competition for "lazy shiftless" low wage workers is not entirely compatible with tuning out to vote those minorities.

Overall however I suspect that these elections will turn out to be a big win for the neoliberal establishment: their main long term goal seems to be to discourage voting by potential voters in the bottomost 50% by income of the electorate, in the USA as well as in the UK.

Obama has been the perfect tool to prove to low income voters that they need not bother voting for "hope and change" Democrat candidates, Clinton is the confirmation of that, and odds are that low income voters will learn that "drain the swamp" Republican candidates are not worth voting for either.

Blissex said...

«if these centre ground ideas are so unpopular, why are we still calling them "the centre ground"?»
«The centre-point of a balance may contain no weight upon, whereas the two ends of the balance may contain huge amounts of weight»

R Seymour in his "Corbyn" book supports this:

«The essential fallacy of British politics is that there is a large centre ground, and that this is where elections are decided. As Nick Clegg has discovered to his cost, in a period of economic depression this area has a tendency to shrink.»

Boffy said...

The question of protests or democracy is a fallacious one. Protests simply as protests are empty gestures, which is why the SWP/StWC idea that is limited to simply build the next demonstration is a total dead end that has palpably failed, and led to demoralisation.

The question is whether, during the election campaign, socialists in the US were able to do what I had suggested, which was to be part of the Democrats campaign so as to win the ear of larger sections of workers, and to build a grass roots movement out of it.

In that context, protests against the results, which in fact showed Clinton winning up to 2 million votes more than Trump may not be simply empty gestures, but part of building that larger movement. In the end, "winning the battle of democracy" as Marx puts it, is the only route to victory for workers, and that requires building a solidly based movement capable of developing an ever more adequate programme, but that does not mean that as part of that process of building such a movement, and winning the battle of democracy, protests do not have a part to play, just as Marx argued, strikes can never provide a solution for workers problems, and yet as part of building solutions that do provide a real answer, workers are led to engage in strikes also.

BCFG said...

“The question is whether, during the election campaign, socialists in the US were able to do what I had suggested, which was to be part of the Democrats campaign so as to win the ear of larger sections of workers”

The answer is yes they were and then got royally screwed as Clinton used every dirty trick in the book to stop Sanders. And we see the same here with Corbyn. The centrists will ensure that once Corbyn steps aside never again will a leftist have any sort of control over the party.

The lesson is that unless the centrists are removed from the field of battle then the left can never progress.

The democrats are not a vehicle for getting the ear of workers but are a fundamental part of stabilising the wage slavery system. When socialists get behind the Democratic Party they are simply using their skills and energy to perpetuate the wage slavery system. If that is Marxism then Marxism is overrated.

“but that does not mean that as part of that process of building such a movement, and winning the battle of democracy, protests do not have a part to play”

As SteveH says you can’t go to vote in an election and then protest when the result goes against you. The whole point of elections is that you can lose and you know this before you vote! At least accept if you can protest and disrupt then so can your enemy. And if the vote goes against them don’t moan when they are on the street protesting.

If you didn’t vote and reject the whole system then by all means protest, but I have to ask, would you have protested if that war mongering corporate lackey Clinton had won? I doubt it! And for me that makes the protesters illegitimate.