PREWRITE DO NOT PUBLISH: It happened again

Don't worry, I'm publishing this deliberately

I think that by now most people are aware that the journalism you read in the wake of something like an election outcomes was mostly written before the outcome of the election was actually known. By writing it both ways in advance, you can be quick to publish your analysis of the situation and harvest valuable clicks. The downside to writing your analysis before the events you are analyzing have actually occurred is that it’s a little challenging to be insightful and accurate.

Nonetheless, that’s how it’s done.

I’ve always thought it would be interesting to let readers see some of the prewrites that never got published. And that’s especially true because at Vox I was assigned both the Hillary Wins prewrite and the Trump Wins prewrite and the fates robbed me of my clicks. But for journalism reasons or something Vox never wanted to publish un-published rewrites. Here at Slow Boring there are no rules so I’m gonna do it.

Today’s a day off, obviously, so I thought it would be an ideal time to run one. I did a Twitter poll and people said they were interested in the Trump Wins story.

It happened again

A final week tightening in the race. A significant polling error. A gap between the national electorate and pivotal states. And once again, shocking the world, Donald Trump has locked down the electoral votes to win the presidency.

Trump’s victory is perhaps more stunning this year relative to the polls than in 2016. In the final days of campaign, Trump trailed Biden Tk to Tk, a starker deficit than when he was one-to-four points behind Hillary Clinton in most polls.


POSSIBLE HEDGE DEPENDING ON OUTCOME: His victory, and the circumstances surrounding it, raise some fundamental questions about polling, about Democratic Party electoral strategy, and about the broader legitimacy of the American political system.

What happened?

The polls blew it. Again. And even worse this time. Experts will need days if not months to sort out exactly what went wrong.

But from months of conversations with pollsters, here’s a theory. Conventional wisdom is that American politics has been polarizing along lines of educational attainment. But possession of a college degree has long looked like an easy to measure demographic variable that stands in for certain personality attributes that correlate with both educational attainment and political beliefs. One of those attributes is trust. High-trust people see the world as full of positive-sum interactions rather than zero-sum group conflict. High trust people tend to believe that prestige media outlets do their best to get the story right, that experts know what they’re talking about, and that conspiracy theories — whether about a deep state cabal seeking to bring down Donald Trump or the more outlandish Q Anon theory — are scary and repugnant.

When high-trust people read that The New England Journal of Medicine has taken the unprecedented step of endorsing Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, they conclude that qualified public health experts are incredibly alarmed about Trump’s approach.

But low-trust people, by definition, don’t put a lot of stock in “experts” or social elites.

College graduates are more likely to be high-trust people, and high-trust people are more likely to answer surveys. That’s why the 2016 polls ended up too skewed toward college graduates, and too skeptical of Trump’s odds. Pollsters tried to fix that in 2020 by weighting for educational attainment. But there are high-trust people with no college degree and there are low-trust graduates. By weighting for the thing that’s easy to measure (educational attainment) rather than the thing that matters (personality) pollsters created a false sense of security. Nobody really noticed it at the time, but state polling in the midwest was biased against Republicans in 2018 despite efforts to “fix” it after 2016 so perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised that Trump’s campaign was working better than our polls said all along.

A campaign of nonsense

And what a campaign it was.

To a remarkable extent, Trump’s approach to the 2020 race consisted of patent falsehoods. Democrats nominated the most moderate option in their field, a candidate who had explicitly disavowed banning fracking, broad-based tax cuts, Medicare for All, and defunding the police. Trump’s approach to running against him was to lie and say that Biden would ban fracking, raise middle class taxes, eliminate employer-sponsored health care, and defund the police.

  • Biden said, accurately, that Trump wanted to scrap the Affordable Care Act and the protections for patients with preexisting conditions that came with it.

  • Trump said, inaccurately, that he had a plan to protect people with preexisting medical conditions.

  • Biden said, accurately, that the Covid-19 pandemic was worsening over the course of the fall.

  • Trump said, inaccurately, that we were turning the corner.

Many Americans had perfectly cogent reasons to vote for Trump because they agreed with him about abortion or gun control or strongly believe in the importance of low taxes for heirs to multi-million dollar fortunes. But on the key contested issues of the campaign, Trump was making things up about his own policies and those of his opponents.

This was all covered widely in the media — in Vox and elsewhere — not perfectly but clearly enough that any reasonably attentive person should have been aware. Unlike in 2016 when the press was myopically focused on the email server issue, there was generally good coverage of the actual issues at stake in the election. But it simply didn’t matter to a critical margin of the electorate that lives in the alternate universe of Trump’s creation where journalism is “fake news” and Fox News is the arbiter of truth. The good news is that swathe of the electorate does not include most voters. The bad news is the views of the majority aren’t what counts.

The tyranny of maps

The Electoral College is a longstanding feature of the American political system, but for most of American history it’s rarely mattered. The only two instances of a mismatch between the popular vote and the Electoral College, in 1876 and 2000, involved very small margins of victory and disputes about other aspects of the vote-counting. That changed in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a not-small margin and lose anyway.

Hanging over the 2020 race from the beginning has been the reality that Trump’s Electoral College advantage only seemed to grow. Democratic gains in the polls were disproportionately concentrated in places like Texas and Georgia, transforming them from deep red to light pink without altering the balance of power in the pivotal states of Florida and Pennsylvania. Biden’s lead in national polling averages often hung four or even five points ahead of his lead in the Keystone State. We won’t have final numbers for the national popular vote for days or even weeks as West Coast ballots trickle it, but it seems clear that Biden has in fact won the popular vote as predicted but nevertheless fell short of actually winning the election.

The same thing, of course, has been happening in the US Senate for years. The GOP majorities that confirmed Neal Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court were all based on a minority of the voting public.

“Elections have consequences,” Mitch McConnell sneered in the wake of Barrett’s October 26 confirmation vote.

And so they do — with Trump’s re-election being just the latest example of a consequential election. What does not have consequences in the United States are the actual views of the electorate, which are instead overridden by the happenstance of maps.

Trump unchained

After his first unexpected victory, Trump was faced with an uncertain situation. He had no experience in politics or government and few connections on Capitol Hill. Many congressional Republicans had refused to endorse his presidential campaign and formally promised to act as a check on him in office.

As soon as he became a victor, that talk proved to be 90 percent hot air.

But 90 percent is not 100 percent, and Trump was also saddled with an initial wave of cabinet secretaries whose loyalty was to conservative ideas or certain institutions rather than to Trump personally. Over the course of four years in office, Trump has ridden himself of many figures — James Mattis, John Kelly, Kirstjen Nielson, Jeff Sessions — who however right-wing their views did evince political commitments that went beyond bare-bones follow-the-leader principles. Pre-election press reports have made it clear that the top agenda item for the second term will be to clean house at the FBI, CIA, DOD and other institutions that are insufficiently loyal to him.

Trump wants federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to make prosecuting and smearing his political adversaries their top priority, and in a second term he may well get his wish.

Trump has also indicated many times that he thinks the regulatory power of the federal government should be brought to bear against media companies that displease him. In his first term, that efforts perhaps bore some fruit at Facebook but not elsewhere. In a second term, efforts to enforce that rule will likely be enhanced. And since executives’ will to resist it was driven in part by a widespread belief that Trump would lose, he’ll likely find more takers for the bargain he’s proposing.

And the defeat of a candidate who staked everything on a claim to electability will prompt some reconsideration of the appropriate nature of resistance.

And the defeat of a candidate who staked everything on a claim to electability will prompt some reconsideration of the appropriate nature of resistance.

The resistance in crisis 

Trump’s inauguration was paired with the unprecedented mass demonstrations known as the Women's March — a preemptive declaration on behalf of the large majority of the public that did not vote for him that Donald Trump’s presidency was illegitimate.

And throughout 2017, mass popular resistance was a frequent force in American politics. Demonstrators surged to airports to protest the initial version of Trump’s Muslim ban, and the Affordable Care Act repeal push was countered at every turn by huge protests.

But things changed in 2018. Mass protests of Brett Kavanaugh pushed Democratic senators into confrontational tactics that they were not entirely comfortable with, and which they in retrospect saw as contributing to the defeat of some of their colleagues in the midterms. At the same time, Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats won a majority of their own.

Given a share of governing authority, Pelosi mostly did not treat Trump as illegitimate. She instead paid close attention to the political circumstances of her frontline members and their narrow reelection needs. Even when impeaching Trump, Democrats on Capitol Hill kept grassroots protest disengaged. Aware that every single map — House gerrymandering, the senate, the electoral college — was biased against them, Democrats nonetheless put their faith in a narrow brand of electoralism counting on a message centering preexisting conditions and the need to follow expert guidance on Covid-19 to carry them to victory.

Even when mass popular protest did erupt in the streets following George Floyd’s killing, Democrats kept their eyes on the prize.

In the House they wrote and passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which of course died in the senate. Democrats did not attempt to engage grassroots protestors in this fight in a serious way, and consequently there were no dramatic marches aimed at confronting and shaming Republican senators. Instead, Black Lives Matters protest largely became an intra-progressive controversy as peaceful protestors and destructive anarchists alike raged at Democratic Party mayors over police funding issues. But on both a congressional and presidential level, Democratic effort were focused squarely on the quest for 270 congressional votes and 51 senate seats despite the uphill geography.

It almost worked. But it didn’t.

And now the question becomes, do you tell America’s exhausted and frightened majority that this is just the way it is and they just need to work harder next time? Or do you tell them that the system is broken, that America ought to be governed along democratic lines of political inequality, and outline a strategy for protest and civil disobedience outside the electoral arena?