The 2020 Election: Narrative vs Data

May 10 · 5 min read
November 8, 2016 (photo credit: me)

One would think that after the 2016 election, we as a society would finally admit that data isn’t the same as truth, not just because almost every major pre-election poll got the outcome completely wrong, but also because the failed Clinton campaign so prided itself on its data driven methods. It’s almost a cliche now to blame Robby Mook’s myopic obsession with “analytics,” or Clinton’s failure to visit Michigan, or the campaign’s over-reliance on their computer algorithm “Ada”, whose reports they apparently treated like the pronouncements of the Delphic oracle.

Yet two and a half years later, the 2020 campaign is beginning, and we’re still obsessed with polls, even though it’s unclear whether most of them have even changed much in their methodologies since 2016. Joe Biden, for example, ends up leading in some early polls by a range of 20–30, and some pundits are already declaring that the race is over and that he will inevitably be the nominee. For context, at this point in 2008, Hillary Clinton was leading Barack Obama by around 15–20%.

Context, of course, is what pundits who rely too much on polling and data seem to miss — and here I don’t just mean the context of previous presidential elections. These pundits often fail to understand the narrative contexts of particular moments in history, imagining that these polls present objective snapshots, whereas considering things such as broader historical trends is by contrast “subjective.” But a poll putting Biden ahead is maybe less important than remembering that Biden represents a very old fashioned 1990s, Clinton-style New Democrat neoliberalism, favoring low regulations, limited social welfare programs, tough-on-crime legislation, foreign interventions, and some token social policies, an ideology that narratively has been challenged and is being challenged all across the world, from Brexit in 2015 to the “yellow vest” protests this past year in France. Also, let’s remember that polls tend to over-represent older voters over younger voters, and that the polls also undervalued Bernie Sanders back in 2016 (I will always remember, for example, that glorious Michigan Primary and how FiveThirtyEight had Hilary at a 99% chance to win — by the way, isn’t it interesting that Michigan was the site of two major polling failures in 2016, one in the primaries and one in the general election? Does that maybe suggest that there’s something going on narratively in Michigan, or that Michigan might be a case study in a lager narrative trend happening everywhere in the globe, maybe something like a frustration among workers over the loss of industrial jobs and the vastly unequal gains of late capitalism — maybe?).

Perhaps it’s because I’m a fiction writer and not a “professional” political pundit (whatever that means), but I’ve always felt that narrative explanations are much more accurate ways of understanding presidential elections than relying on data, especially given that in the particular historical moment of the 2020 election, we might be witnessing a case of political realignment, with Midwestern “Rust Belt” states possibly becoming permanently Republican (unless the Democrats actually nominate a candidate who speaks to their needs).

Of course, what the fuck do I know. I’m just some guy with an internet connection and enough time on his hands to write a thousand words every few weeks prognosticating about narratives. I know this technically makes me just about as qualified to write about politics as anyone working at CNN or MSNBC (although to be fair, nowadays to be hired by MSNBC, you really need a solid background in the military industrial complex), but still, I want to be upfront about my biases, unlike the Nate Silvers of the world who still hide behind data and scream “objectivity!”. So, let me be clear (as our former Commander in Chief would put it): I am in no way an objective analyst. My interest in narratives comes from personal biases, the fact that I studied history, the fact that I write fiction. I also am a little bit biased in this election — I think Bernie Sanders is obviously the best candidate, not just because his policies and ideology represent the best way to tackle all the major problems associated with our neoliberal era, from climate change to income inequality to imperialist wars abroad, but also because he was brave enough to challenge the Clinton machine in 2016 and push issues like “Medicare for All” into the mainstream discourse.

All that said, I think my focus on a narrative approach might/perhaps/maybe actually end up being a pretty accurate assessment of the 2020 election — which is why, for the next year and a half, until November 2020 arrives with all its dismal fanfare, I’m going to write regularly about politics here on Medium (a “column” I think is what professional pundits would call it), in this largely unedited and unhinged style, full of long parenthetical phrases, tangents, and a healthy dose of irony. And even if no one reads what I write, I’m still going to write it. I learned long ago as a writer that having an “audience” is kind of old-fashioned these days — and most writing feels like screaming into the void of a Microsoft Word document anyway. I’ve also been told by people that I obsess far too much about politics, so consider this “column” my outlet for my obsessions — it’s like therapy, but public, and on the internet forever.

I’m currently reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, and it would be wrong to suggest I haven’t been inspired to write these pieces by his book. I won’t be doing nearly as many drugs as he did (coffee is the one exception) and my life is a lot more staid and cloistered than his. But he wasn’t really a professional pundit either, and didn’t even have a college education — he just had this ability to see the bigger picture unfolding in the world around him, the collapse of the ’60s counterculture that he so eloquently documented in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (“…we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.”). If I have even a fraction of his insight, then maybe what I have to write will be worth something.

And so then, what are the narratives that will define 2020? Well, to start, I think it’s silly to imagine that if Joe Biden is the nominee, he’ll end up beating Trump. 2016 was not an aberration (even though Biden himself likes to think it was), and the forces that shocked the pollsters and the data nerds and delivered Michigan and Wisconsin and with them the rest of the country into the hands of a semi-Fascist reality T.V. star demagogue billionaire pretending to care about the working class won’t be reversed by nominating a guy who’s arguably even worse of a candidate than Hillary Clinton, with a mountain of neoliberal baggage that’ll reappear gradually in the form of 1990s C-Span videos uploaded to YouTube, featuring Uncle Joe and his gleaming bald spot spouting off more New Democrat platitudes about being tough on crime and tough on young people. No, if the narrative of 2016 holds, nominating Joe Biden would be a mistake, as most intelligent political analysts have noted. There is discontent with neoliberalism, and unless the Democrats address it, 2020 will sadly be 2016 all over again.

Aatif Rashid

Written by

Writer, PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN (out March 18, 2019 from 7.13 Books)

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