The conventional wisdom on this election is that it was a huge polling miss, in which Trump energized enraged White men to rise up en masse. It’s not that this is entirely wrong, it just misses the main things that actually happened.
First, it wasn’t all that big a polling miss. As Five Thirty Eight point out, If the democrats turn out just 2% more of their coalition, then you’re right about where the polls said they would be, and the conclusions everyone draws are completely different: Totalitarianism is repudiated, the Republicans have lost their way, decency wins.
And for another thing, it seems that, well…
Notice that this isn’t an unprecedented wave of support for Trump, as most of the reports we read claim. Really, the story here is that Hillary wasn’t able to persuade as many people to turn out for her as Obama was. She wasn’t uniquely horrible at turning people out – she got a similar vote share to Al Gore and even her husband, but the Republicans became slightly more energized through Obama’s tenure, and that slightly edged her when her numbers came back down to Gore’s level (technically, like Gore, she even won the popular vote, she just had slightly the wrong distribution of them).
Despite having access to the tools that Obama’s team developed to turn out supporters, she wasn’t successful at doing it to as high a level as he was. Why?
Well, partly she didn’t have the charisma of Obama or Trump – the ability to capture the rapt attention and excitement of people who weren’t already strongly behind them.
But it’s also hard to escape the conclusion that voters were widely disgusted with the election, because they didn’t like either candidate. As the analysts never tire of pointing out, Hillary was the most unpopular ever major party nominee – other than Trump.
Trump’s base did turn out to vote for him – at least to the level of a normal Republican candidate (I’ll have another post about why that happened), but not enough of Hillary’s potential voters were enthusiastic enough to drag themselves away from their busy lives and line up (sometimes for hours) at polling places. Even where they did vote, they generally didn’t feel enough enthusiasm to pull their friends and family along with them.
But why was she so very unpopular?
The conventional wisdom here is that it’s because she’s just somehow inherently unlikable; that the Democrats made a crazy mistake picking such a wildly unpopular candidate. But that’s not really true either. The start of the election season looked like this:
Yes, Hillary has been hated for decades by the Republican base, but not by the rest of America. It’s really only very recently that she became unpopular at all, let alone very unpopular:
So why this sudden collapse?
Yes sexism will have played at least some role (a lot of the swing states have little to no record of ever electing women to their highest offices; what is seen as assertive/ambitious in a man translates to ‘bitchy/pushy’ in women). But if a Black man was elected twice in a country with the USA’s record of racism, it shouldn’t be impossible for a white woman to win either – unfair handicaps notwithstanding.
In the opinion of this marketing academic, the more compelling explanation is: Branding.
I know, I’m biased to see the world that way, but let’s see if I can convince you. Starting with this picture:
Networks did cover the policies of presidential candidates in past elections. But this time they spent far longer discussing a faux “scandal” (one in which the candidate was completely exonerated from criminal wrongdoing) than they did on all policy areas combined (and the discussion they did do 100% omitted topics such as trade, healthcare, climate change, drugs, poverty, guns, infrastructure, or even the perennial favorite of political reporting, deficits). These are all areas where Hillary had prepared hundreds of pages Hillary had prepared hundreds of pages of carefully researched and described proposals on ways to make America better. Trump had almost none of this. But this was barely touched on in the press.
Did this emphasis really matter though?
The thing you need to understand here is that humans store information about the world as associations. Quick illustration: If I say to you “City of Light”, you immediately think of Paris, because that’s a strong association in your mind. You probably have no idea where you learned this association (i.e., you don’t know its source). It doesn’t even matter if you particularly BELIEVE this association (that Paris literally has more lights, or that it’s particularly a brighter place to visit than London or New York or Delhi), the link is still there in your mind – and as any person whose job relies on selling things knows, these links can powerfully drive your buying behaviour.
News media think their job is just to uncover and present information, and that they should leave it to the audience’s to sift the bad from the valuable. For the media, breathless reporting of the emails ‘scandal’ was kosher, because it was a legitimate story about a public figure that people would tune in to watch. Whether it added up to much, was for their audience to decide, not for themselves.
But that’s not how humans accumulate understanding. There’s a well-known thing called the sleeper effect: If a very low credibility source makes an attack on somebody, then we tend to ignore it – at first. But then, as time passes, we forget who told us the attack – how uninformed and biased they are – but we do retain the association between the target and the negative information. Given a day or two to forget the source of the information, we do start seeing the target in a correspondingly bad light.
Marketers use this all the time – they feed us a steady drip of adverts that link their products to ideas of reliability or sophistication or family fun (etc). Even if we don’t believe a single one of the ads, or really even pay much attention to them, over time we do come to just sort-of ‘know’ that this product is reliable, and that one is sophisticated, and that this one is one you can enjoy with your family. Marketers call these “brand associations”.
And that is what happened to Hillary. The constant drumbeat of coverage linking her to corruption and lying and coverups had people feeling that they just ‘know’ Hillary is dishonest (I saw this even in people I talked to here in the UK). It didn’t matter at all that this impression simply was not true: When fact checkers went through the controversial statements made by all the candidates from this year’s primaries, Clinton scored best of the entire field. But that is the power of branding.
And boy is it powerful. Take this article, for instance. It breaks down the email ‘scandal’ in enough detail to show that it was almost totally meaningless, and yet even after all of this careful and methodical debunking, it concludes (emphasis added):
The Hillary email scandal has been brewing for a long time. Like the Benghazi scandal, this one has fizzled out, and one can imagine the frustration of reporters and politicians who had been savoring a climax that just didn’t come through. The Times published three front-page stories and two more on the inside that said basically nothing that everyone didn’t already know: Yes, the Clintons are slippery, they have an unpleasant record of doing things their way, they have a problem when it comes to trustworthiness. Beyond that, there’s nothing here, folks, move along.
Why does even this reporter say they are slippery and untrustworthy, even after combing so carefully through the facts that fail to support this conclusion? Well, because, um, Bill lied about this one thing that one time, and well… everyone just knows that they are. When you think about the Clintons, slippery is the first thing that comes to mind. It’s just GOT to be true of them on some level, right? Right?
That’s branding for you.
Still not convinced? How about this?
… in eight of the ten weeks between July 11 and September 18, “email” was the word most Americans associated with the Clinton campaign coverage, according to Gallup.
The first woman to be nominated by a major party for president is defined, almost completely, by the electronic communication platform she used several years ago while serving as secretary of state. She’s defined by that and by the Republicans’ Ahab-like attempt to turn that story into a career-defining scandal.
Please note that Colin Powell isn’t defined by the private emails he used as secretary of state. (And then deleted.) Jeb Bush isn’t defined by the private email he used as governor of Florida. President George W. Bush’s administration wasn’t defined by the fact that nearly two dozen White House aides used private email accounts controlled by the Republican National Committee. And Mitt Romney wasn’t defined by the fact that his staff wiped away all the emails from the Republican’s years as Massachusetts governor.
It’s only Clinton who gets defined by emails. Because the press, reading off the GOP song sheet, says so. And because the press, alongside the GOP, has been trying to criminalize the Clintons for 20-plus years.
Issues be damned.
EDITED TO ADD: