Clinton is Comcast, and Other Bad Analogies I Use to Make Sense of the 2016 Election

I was shocked by the election of Donald Trump, but I understand it. I shared the sentiments of many Americans that the two candidates were terrible choices and their opponent the only nominee the other could beat. I repeated my 2012 vote for Gary Johnson in a solid Trump state, but I was marginally more anti-Trump than anti-Clinton. Yet I woke up last Tuesday morning thinking Hillary Clinton would win comfortably and that the Republican Party would have four years to get their act together and nominate a candidate with broader appeal and better ideas for promoting economic growth.

I woke up Wednesday morning with a red wine hangover and a red state map seared on the back of my retina.

The framework I had going into Tuesday was that a lot had to go right for Trump to win — had to capture all of a handful of swing states to have a chance. I thought that those states (including OH, MI, PA, NC, FL, WI) were, at best, 50–50 props between the candidates and it’s hard to win a coin flip six times in a row (1.6% actually). The coin-flip — at least a non-biased coin-flip — is the wrong analogy: the state contests are not independent events. What happened in one is actually indicative of what might happen in the other. In other words, if Trump won North Carolina he was actually more likely to win Ohio because of the ways in which North Carolina and Ohio are similar. Thus, Trump’s red states were always more of a bloc than individual contests — if there was something not being picked up by the polls, the likelihood of a Trump win was actually very strong.

What happened in the 2016 election, and what might it mean going forward?

  1. Boring candidates don’t win presidential elections, unless their opponent is considerably more boring than they are *

There’s an adage that for presidential candidates “Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line” but in 2016 that reversed — Clinton was clearly the “in line” candidate and Trump the “in love” candidate, at least for some in a high-turnout demographic. The size of the candidates’ rallies (yuuge vs. fill-a-small-gym) should have given the DNC considerable warning of the enthusiasm gap for their candidate, especially in that swing-state bloc.

Clinton was basically the Comcast of this election: been around forever, disliked by a majority of her customers/constituents, controls a major news network, and held its last meeting in Philadelphia. Voting for Clinton was like staying signed up for Comcast — begrudgingly and only for the lack of a viable alternative in your area. In places that mattered, there were no “network effects” in voting for Clinton — no enthusiasm that might make your friends and family go Clinton as well.

You might see polls going forward that begin to ask “of your 4 in-state closest friends/family members, how many do you expect will vote for candidate X”? These might pick up some reflection of the voting networks and enthusiasm-based turnout.

* Who was the last boring candidate to win the presidency? Truman? Nixon was a definite protest vote

2. What is said by the candidates matters less than to whom it is said

Let there be no doubt that Donald Trump said some crazy (yes, and awful and hateful and deplorable) things during his campaign (and, hell, during all the years preceding it) yet give the campaign credit that they said them to the one constituency that felt under-represented in the last twelve years — the white working-class. Again, we saw enthusiasm from this group that had very little for McCain or Romney in previous cycles show up and vote in the swing-state bloc. Trump underperformed Romney significantly among college-educated whites but knocked it out with non-college whites.

Again, we could say that only the content of that message appealed to that group (“dogwhistle”, “sexist”, “racist”) but I don’t dismiss that he was actively courting them. Trump’s rallies were in those battleground states and counties, the venues were loud and boisterous, the enthusiasm if often frightening was present. It’s hard to argue that Clinton tried to reach them at all; when the votes of her remaining constituencies were counted as too few, she lost.

3. The media effectively crippled any Trump counter-movement within the GOP

The above-linked articles are emblematic of something I saw consistently during the election coverage: the media did not “allow” any prominent GOP members to change their mind on Trump. If they did, or least wavered in their Trump support, we read or heard or nothing in the tone of “good job” or “thank you” or follow-ups about what in that person’s life or background might make them reject Trump. More often than not they were criticized for ever supporting Trump and, more routinely, shamed for holding traditional Republican positions. It is therefore unsurprising that so many Republicans re-endorsed Trump and supported his candidacy through his election. The media drove them back into his arms.

For most liberal media members, defeating Donald Trump was not merely enough — he had to bring down the entire Republican party with him. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, was widely derided for his “insight” that Trump was, in fact, a much stronger candidate than he was believed to be (and Clinton weaker). This was an article of his that stuck with me:

The media “sold past the close” too — not just Clinton. If the focus was on defeating Trump, then anti-Trump forces needed every ally they could muster. If the Allies in late 1944 decided to also start attacking Stalin’s forces because they needed to defeat all autocrats everywhere simultaneously, that would have been a severe strategic mistake. (In fact, Hitler made that exact mistake three years earlier)

At some point after the conventions, the opinion section of the news media was so certain that Clinton was going to win that a complacency and smugness settled in among their ranks. They almost all felt that their constituency was secure enough that it needed no new membership. New allies to defeat Trump were neither sought after nor encouraged when showing signs of joining.

4. One hundred other things, maybe fewer

  • I suspect the Black Lives Matter movement severely hurt Democrats. Trump rallies ended up being the white equivalent — “All Lives Matter” was a popular message there, but I might recognize that there were people in that group actually saying “Our Lives Matter” and that’s what they’re thinking instead of pure racism. Life’s not easy in those places and they saw a national focus on other “not-easy” places, not theirs, and Trump spoke to them. BLM has some noble aims but they likewise need allies from other forgotten constituencies.
  • Donald Trump’s support regularly rose when he was quiet on social and traditional media. He often used his media appearances to “punch down”, like attacking the Khans or the women accusing him. When his team changed his Twitter password — obviously this was how this accomplished — his relative silence allowed Clinton to talk too much and actually weaken their position. Silence was golden this election, apparently.
  • The “safe-space, trigger warning” environment of the nation’s universities has gotten entirely out of hand. I saw this personally when Vanderbilt University, my alma mater, placed an “all comers” policy on the leadership (not membership, leadership) of campus student organizations to suppress the speech of certain out-of-favor groups like Christian ministries. Universities used to be the crucible for ideas — where perspectives would collide and shape new and better ones. You need iron and carbon to bond and be folded and shaped to make steel. Schools today are trying to make steel from iron only, and its product is unsurprisingly brittle.
  • Immigration may have been the big issue in this election, but migration may be the more important story. The US Census distributes representatives and electors based on state population, and we know that state populations are changing. The last census, however, was in 2010. It’s possible that 200–300K voters have left swing states in the Rust Belt to non-swing states south and on the coasts during that time. This could explain Clinton winning the popular vote narrowly but underperforming in those key states.
  • In light of that last, I still support the existence of the Electoral College. I believe it makes a rigged election much less likely, since it would require the criminal coordination of results across multiple states as opposed to simply stuffing the ballot box in Los Angeles, for example. I would support a more frequent US Census, however, since 10 years is far too far apart in this day and age. We will not see any population-driven changes in electors until 2024! That’s insane.
  • This tweet is certainly important.

I’m not highly worried about this, but I would much rather be a truck driver with skills for in-town deliveries than going overland. And I think we radically underestimate the ability of truck drivers.