Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election on Nov. 8 sent shock waves across the Vassar campus—students raged, sobbed and protested. On Thursday, Nov. 10, dozens of students attended a discussion entitled “Where Do We Go From Here? A Post-Election Panel,” hoping to gain an understanding of the factors that lead to Trump’s election, as well as to find out what could be done now that the seemingly impossible had come to be.
Attendees Chris Allen ’19 and Nell Compton ’20 both described themselves as “distraught” in the wake of the election results. Allen addressed the confusion of the situation, adding, “I’ve been to two Political Science lectures…about why the election played out the way it did, and I still don’t know why. I’m looking for answers.”
Co-President of Vassar’s Democracy Matters chapter Chris Clark ’18, explained that a similar panel is held by the Political Science Department and Democracy Matters after each election. He commented, “[This election’s results] should make students fight even harder and commit to politics, either as a career or just as an engaged citizen.”
Held in Rockefeller Hall, the panel included Political Science Professors Richard Born and Sidney Plotkin, as well as Vassar alum and Executive Director of Democracy Matters Joan Mandle. Democracy Matters is a national student organization that works to get private money out of politics.
Born opened the panel by talking about what he had been planning to discuss right up until Tuesday night: Hillary Clinton winning, and a 50-50 tie in the Senate that Tim Kaine would be able to break as Vice President. He had anticipated that Republicans would distance themselves from Trump and insist that his candidacy was an aberration. Republicans, he had predicted, would do well in the 2018 midterm elections, then come back in 2020 with an establishment candidate and possibly win the presidency.
However, in light of the Democratic Party’s loss, Born didn’t feel he could discuss their potential recovery. “I don’t know if there will be a recovery, at least not in the near future,” he stated. He added that he worries about factionalism between those who supported Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein and those who backed Clinton.
Mandle also addressed the Democratic defeat by explaining the quote from activist Joe Hill that she had written on the chalkboard: “(Don’t) mourn. Organize.” She explained, “I put ‘don’t’ in parenthesis because we have to mourn. This was a terrible, terrible defeat—for people who believe in equality, for people who believe in tolerance, for people who believe in science. This was a shock to all of our systems and we need to mourn together.”
Instead of his initial plan to consider what will happen now, Born opted to examine why the polls that predicted a Clinton victory had been so wrong. He stated, “2016 was the most disastrous election year in the history of election polling, which goes back to the 1830s. The only possible counterpart would be 1948, when the polls showed [incorrectly] that Harry Truman was going to be defeated by Thomas Dewey.”
Though the polls were fairly accurate in predicting the national popular vote, which Clinton is expected to win once every vote has been counted, they made serious errors in predicting the popular vote by state (which then determines the Electoral College vote), particularly in Rust Belt states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Clinton was predicted to win in all of those states, but lost them all by a very slim margin.
Mandle commented on the national popular vote, saying, “While we’re feeling depressed, and while we’re feeling afraid, we have to realize that we’re not some little 10 percent group. We are the majority in this country.”
Born posited three possibilities for the inaccuracy of the polls. Possibility one is the “shy Trump factor,” the idea that some people who voted for Trump were less willing to share that with pollsters, because it could be perceived as less socially acceptable. There is precedent for the “shy voter phenomenon” in other countries: the so-called Brexit vote in the U.K. was thought to be essentially tied right before the vote, but the results ended up being 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of leaving the European Union. A similar phenomenon also occurred in the 2015 U.K. Parliament vote and in the 2015 legislative election in Israel.
Possibility two: because the United States has historically had very low turnout rates, pollsters have to account for that by weighting less heavily the responses of those whom they deem less likely to actually vote: respondents with little or no history of voting or political engagement. Many people who ended up voting for Trump fit these categories and so their poll responses weren’t given as much attention as they should have been.
Possibility three is the influence of non-response to polls. As more and more people refuse to participate in polling, the response rate has been steadily decreasing and has now dipped below 10 percent. Because of this, those who do respond may be less representative of the electorate as a whole than if the response rate was higher.
Born concluded by saying that if the polling industry does not figure out exactly what went wrong and quickly fix it, there is a very real chance that the industry could go extinct.
Plotkin talked about the anger, resentment and rage of the white working- and middle-class that have grown in the wake of undelivered promises of economic security and prosperity. Political scientists have long been aware of this anger, but failed to anticipate its impact in this election.
Mandle also spoke about the sociocultural explanations for the election results, notably prejudice about race and gender. There are some people in this country, she said, who couldn’t tolerate having a Black president, and who could not handle the idea of a woman as his successor.
As always, there was a dramatic difference between voting patterns in cities and rural areas, leading Plotkin to ponder why that anger would find its vessel in a Manhattan billionaire. To help explain this, Plotkin discussed the theories of early 20th-century sociologist Thorstein Veblen.
In his 1923 book, “Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America,” Veblen wrote about the institution he called the “American country town.” Though most people no longer live in small rural towns, these types of communities continue to influence American sentiment and values. “The American country town taught us how to think, how to experience, how to value, how to understand our relationship to leaders and what we come to expect from those leaders,” explained Plotkin.
“The country town was an enterprise in hope, an enterprise in dreams—in other words, an enterprise in real estate–and especially in real estate speculation,” he continued. He explained that the country town is controlled by “boosters,” who were little more than con men that used inflammatory hyperbole to boost the residents’ aspirations for wealth and success. The boosters accomplished this by encouraging residents to buy land that they promised would continually rise in value.
“The real estate developer is the quintessential booster,” Plotkin summarized. “Donald Trump didn’t build buildings, he built ‘Trump Palace,’ ‘Trump Taj Mahal.’ Whatever you might think of him, Trump masterfully displayed skills and virtues that country town citizens frequently come to emulate, admire and respect.”
Mandle discussed the influence of money in congressional, state and local elections. Over 90 percent of the candidates who spent the most money won their races, she explained, while those who relied on small donors for over 50 percent of their campaign funds lost. If Democratic congressional candidates had larger campaign funds, she stressed, it would be unlikely that Republicans would have retained control of both the House and the Senate. In addition, most of the money that wins elections isn’t coming from regular people, it’s coming from hedge funds, from energy companies, from oil companies. The energy sector, she noted, spent $150 million in this election cycle.
Mandle ended on a positive note, pointing out that there is hope not just for the 2020 presidential election, but for the 2018 midterms, when Democrats have a chance to take back Congress. She spoke of the importance of encouraging fellow young people to vote—the turnout among 18-29 year olds was only 19 percent—and of mobilizing between elections and protesting the actions that Trump’s administration will take.
She commended Vassar students who campaigned and helped register voters for this election. “Some of you who work hard in these elections feel the worst, because you feel like you failed,” she reflected. “And I want to say that you didn’t fail, that doing that work was absolutely critical.”
“You can get involved in creating and adding to social movements, which aren’t going to die just because Donald Trump’s the President,” she said, “They’re going to coalesce together and fight what he does. There are real gains that we can make, but we have to do it. We cannot sit on our hands.”