How I Predicted Trump's Victory

Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Pundits are rarely held to account for their reliability.

In this election cycle, the broad consensus was that Trump was an amusing epiphenomenon with little staying power and few prospects. By contrast, since the declaration of her candidacy, there was a pervasive assumption that Hillary Clinton would coast to victory. This cycle seemed to turn conventional wisdom on its head at every turn, but nonetheless, as Americans went to cast their ballots even the most rigorous and gutsy of poll analysts predicted less than a 30 percent chance for a Clinton loss (and even this was viewed by many as being far too generous to Trump.)

To be sure, prediction is a perilous game. But one of the biggest problems in the way we rely on predictions in our public discourse is that pundits are rarely held to account for their reliability. And even in those rare instances where someone actually issues a mea culpa for grievous errors, little seems to be learned in terms of how to approach subsequent developments.

For instance, “no one” saw it as possible that Trump would win the Republican nomination—even down to the final moments. When he did win, there was a lot of hand-wringing about humility and lessons learned—but then almost immediately the same narrative emerged again: Trump stood no chance at winning the general election. And not just he, the Republican Party was finished, perhaps for generations, as a result of his candidacy. Things look very different today, with the Democrats standing on the brink of irrelevance, while the signature accomplishments of their most charismatic and transformational leader in generations seem set to be erased.

The centerpiece of the Democrats’ (over)confidence was their supposed “electoral firewall”—a safeguard they were so sure of that they scarcely even bothered to reach out to these constituents who were supposed to serve as their last line of defense against Trump (ensuring that even in the unlikely event that they lost the popular vote, they would win the Electoral College.) How’d that turn out? Clinton is shaping up to lose the Electoral College by a larger margin than those who were defeated in 1996, 2000 or 2004.

How could this happen?” was the refrain on November 9. Here’s how:

Yes, Clinton had a ridiculous advantage in fundraising and organization. She had a consistent lead in the polls. In a normal cycle, all of this would seem to presage a victory. But we were not in a normal cycle, and this should have been obvious by how the primaries played out: on the Republican side, despite having no campaign organization to speak of, no government experience, painful ignorance about most political issues, and no sense of basic decency or decorum, Trump overcame what many viewed as the fullest and strongest bench of GOP candidates in recent history—to include energetic young voices, women and minorities, well-liked governors, etc. Across the aisle, Clinton found herself unable to secure the nomination despite her unprecedented qualifications, her well-established relationships and “ground-game,” her overt support from the party establishment, and the reality that her chief rival was a Jewish socialist with no money, operation or even name recognition to speak of at the outset of the campaign. Red flags, red flags, red flags.

By recognizing we were not in a “normal” cycle, analysts could have realized that signals which are reliable in other elections might be misleading here. This should have significantly undermined their confidence in conventional metrics, and spurred them to seek out indicators which might track the idiosyncratic dynamics of this particular cycle more reliably.

Oblivious to the Obvious