Some of the Worst Things about the Election

There are many potentially ominous consequences of Trump’s defeat of Clinton last night. Many opponents of President-elect Trump are particularly worried about the safety and inclusion of people of color, women, and religious minorities; the GOP’s legislative agenda; and the future of U.S. foreign policy. Here is a short list of three other contenders, from the perspective of political science.

Dynamic Information Effects

As Przeworski argues in “Minimalist Conception of Democracy: A Defense,” one of the key strengths of democratic elections is that they convey information. This is how strong I am. This is how strong you are. We learned this morning that the white nationalist, patriarchal vote bloc is large enough to decide an election. Heretofore, it was not clear how large that bloc was, and whether or not it could swing an election. Now it is clear that this is a winning strategy for national political office. Future candidates will be more likely to campaign in this way simply because they now know that it is a winning strategy. This his how strong I am. This is how strong you are.

Back to the Drawing Board with Polling and Aggregates

Until about 8:30 EST the smart money was not on following polls, but rather on following polling aggregates like 538, PredictWise, Votamatic, Princeton Election Consortium, and others. There will be postmortems about which one of these was best, and the instinct is to defend 538 because it only gave Clinton a 71% chance of winning vis-a-vis others in the 80 – 99% range, but if you conclude anything other than they were all fatally flawed you have not drawn the right inference. The reason why they were all fatally flawed is that they all drew on the same information: polls, sometimes augmented by a “fundamentals” model (Votamatic), sometimes with prediction markets (PredictWise). It is a clear instance of Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Here is what is more worrisome. Future aggregates for future elections by sites like 538 are going to use historical performance (i.e., prediction error today) to weight or “adjust” future polls. It is possible that some polls were more accurate than others because they had better models of turnout and voter intentions. It is also possible that all polls were just off (“correlated errors,” in the lingo), and some of these randomly happened to be less off than others. If the latter is true, then adjustments in the future will be worse than useless—they will be chasing noise. Forget polling aggregates then. The strategy now is to identify the good polls in a world in which (1) almost every one failed and (2) we don’t know why.

Ratchet Effects and the Devastating Failure of Ground Game

Ground Game,” the Clinton campaign’s mobilizational capacity, get out the vote efforts, and others methods to help get voters to the polls, was supposed to be her singular advantage over Trump. It has obviously failed. Either the Democrats’ ground game was not as strong as observers believed, or it did not matter in the context of media saturation and the other advantages that Trump voters had (shorter lines, less voter suppression, more enthusiasm, whatever).

What comes next will be efforts that counteract the kinds of advantages that ground game can bring to relatively disenfranchised voters even in the best of times. Decisions taken by state legislatures, the Congress, and a Supreme Court with new justice nominated by a president whose party holds all branches of government will further stack the deck against voters in urban areas, from poorer backgrounds, and visible minorities. These could have a ratchet effect, leading to a sharp and discontinuous decrease in the ability of mobilization to bring people to the polls who already face higher costs for voting. Such effects could be visible for a generation or more. Voting may be habit forming. So is hopelessness.