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RS 173 - Brendan Nyhan on "What can we learn from the election?"

Release date: November 27th, 2016

Brendan Nyhan

Since Trump's surprising win in the 2016 presidential election, there's been a flurry of discussion about why things turned out this way. But which explanations are well-supported, and which are wrong (or simply rationalizations)? This episode features political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who talks with Julia about questions like: Were the polls and models wrong? If so, why? How surprised should we have been by Trump's win? And why didn't the markets react badly to it?

Brendan's Pick: "Hyperpartisan Facebook Pages Are Publishing False And Misleading Information At An Alarming Rate" by Craig Silverman

Podcast edited by Brent Silk


Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (16)

Your podcast is excellent, overall, and this was a particularly good episode.

What people perceive drove the election outcome is critical for the strategic game between congressional republicans and the president. There is some evidence that congressional leaders have made the same analysis as Professor Nyhan: Trump won as the Republican candidate (not as an individual) and does not have a huge block of supporters. As a result, he can be opposed without severe political repercussions. I think this is a positive scenario.

However, this is sharply against the popular media narrative (on both the left and right). I fear that a falsehood repeated enough will be taken for the truth. This is especially so where basic language habits can be a problem (notice the use of phrases like "Trump supporters" and "Trump loyalists.")
November 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua
There were a few liberals who predicted that Trump would win. One was Allan Lichtman, whose "Thirteen Keys to the Presidency" actually failed for the first time since 1984, because it predicted that Trump would win the POPULAR vote, which he didn't, but still, the premise of the model is that the election is a referendum on the incumbent administration, so evidently Lichtman figured that people were not happy with the Obama administration.
Then there was the LA Times/USC tracking poll that was ridiculed for putting Trump ahead of Clinton from the start.
It also technically failed, because it predicted that Trump would win the popular vote, but it shows Trump surging ahead of Clinton after October 24th, three days BEFORE Comey's announcement about Hillary's emails on Wiener's computer. What happened on the 24th? People saw their health insurance premiums go up?

I still don't get why the polls were wrong in key states. Are Trump voters less likely to use landline phones or take surveys than Clinton voters? All the wrong forecasts were just going by the bad polls, and Clinton thought she was winning and her strategy was working. Are exit polls any better, or do they have the same problems?

If you consider Brexit and the rise of far-right populism in Europe, it's largely a response to the refugee crisis coupled with the rise of ISIS and Islamic terrorist attacks and sexual assaults like in Cologne. Meanwhile, liberal leaders welcome more refugees, insist that terrorist attacks in the name of Islam have nothing to do with Islam, and blur the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. Sam Harris warned that if liberals don't speak honestly and stand up for liberal values, then far-right populists will fill the void, and that's what happened.
November 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMax
What was the GOP supposed to do to stop Trump, when he was leading in the polls and winning the primaries? The RNC isn't rigged with "superdelegates" like the Democratic ones in the tank for Hillary against crazy Bernie.
November 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Brendan Nyhan's post-election analysis started out like it was going somewhere, but turned into empty calories, instead of substance!

In particular, how is it that professional liberals..especially those analyzing politics, keep missing the point that lower income voters, and those doing precarious work, are focusing on issues they see affecting their livelihood and/or economic wellbeing?

Back in 1980, the Reagan Revolution was able to win over the so called "Reagan Democrats" with appeals to conservative religious and social thinking because most working class people were in the comfortable middle class and believed their jobs were permanent and secure. That's a far cry from what we have today,with the vast majority of working people struggling to make ends meet with low-paying part-time and contract work/with no union protection!

For me, the light went on when Trump held a rally for the South Carolina Primary in front of a closed textile factory, and railed against globalization and trade agreements costing American jobs. According to the talkingheads on CNN and others in the beltway pundit class, that primary was supposed to depend on who wins the white evangelical vote. And nobody could say 'Jesus" more times in a speech than Ted Cruz; and then the punditocracy was shocked and dumbfounded trying to explain why the voters went with three-time married New York billionaire who had no prior history saying much of anything about religion.

And the pundits never did get it...and neither did the Hillary Dems, who would have made Sanders their nominee if they did have any sense! Bernie got what the Clintonistas, Beltway liberals and Hollywood stars had no clue about: "the economy is not doing pretty great" according to large numbers of working people who couldn't find anything in the Clinton messaging that spoke to their needs and their concerns. So they went with Trump's vague promises to fix the economy and bring jobs back/ or maybe many of them didn't want their votes interpreted as acceptance of more-of-the-same, and saw Trump as the only way to vote against the status quo.
November 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterralph
Although this was interesting, I was really hoping for a discussion on the rationality of the electoral system, or even the presidential system itself.

Whatever the rules, and whoever wins, there are always going to be ±60 million people who voted, but did not get anything in return.
Is this fair? Is it acceptable, that more than 60 million people are not represented in the post of "president"?

In contrast, almost all other western countries have parliamentary systems of government. Parliaments are more diverse than an individual president, especially when formed through proportional representation.

So, I'm not sure if it is outside the scope of this podcast, but I wish there'd be an episode on the rationality of a singular winner, and the whole winner-takes-all mentality behind it.
November 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterran
Good comment, Ralph.

I was greatly disappointed with this episode. Scott Alexander penned an interesting (and long, but hey it IS Scott Alexander so of course it's LONG) post about the election that doesn't operate from faulty neoliberal premises. Among his interesting insights:

"Trump made gains among blacks. He made gains among Latinos. He made gains among Asians. The only major racial group where he didn’t get a gain of greater than 5% was white people. I want to repeat that: the group where Trump’s message resonated least over what we would predict from a generic Republican was the white population."

Quote source:
(FTR, I don't endorse everything Scott says in this piece.)

Data source:

It's my understanding that Trump did roughly as well as Romney in 2012 … but that Hillary did significantly worse than Obama last time around. So maybe a better point of analysis would have been "Why did Hillary lose?" instead of asking why Trump won. Similarly, maybe the question about Europe shouldn't be why the neofascist right is making gains, as much as why are working people losing faith in neoliberal institutions?

I think the answer is pretty clear. The neoliberal embrace of free trade and the global dominance of enormous corporate and banking institutions continue to produce a concentration of wealth last seen during the years just prior to the Great Depression. In Europe, the real agenda of many EU institutions become only too clear during the period when an entire country's economic prospects (those of Greece) were written off to protect banking mechanisms that benefit a small number of institutions.

Hillary's campaign promised little economic improvement to the working class as a whole. She did offer a number of important — even critical — advantages over Trump in the non-economic realm, including protecting women's right to choose and offering significantly better prospects at averting the oncoming ecological catastrophe awaiting us from global warming.

I endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election (after endorsing Sanders in the primary), and I think the possibility of things going spectacularly wrong under Trump are only too real. But I don't think the 'nibbling around the edges' analysis offered in this episode does much to enlighten people about the actual dynamics at play in our recent election.
November 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterballgame
what makes political "science" science? how do they even decide which of the many things that happen (things people do) are "political" and which aren't? seems they only really provide after the fact analysis/hypotheses and than how can we really test their validity/accuracy?
November 30, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdmf
The result is surprised me. I have never thought he could win :) Thank you for sharing! Almost 40 minutes talk will help me understand more about why so many people finally vote for him, unlike what I often saw in the newspaper.
December 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDog Breeds
It was incredibly frustrating for me to listen to this episode. Nyhan plainly ignores the economic resentment factor. If we're talking about what Trump did differently to attract less educated whites in the Rust Belt, the conversation simply is not complete without mentioning the fact that Trump appealed repeatedly to their sense that trade deals like NAFTA are bad deals.

My experience has been that when the economic resentment of rust belt voters is not racially coded it is typically about how establishment Republicans and Democrats alike are complicit in accelerating offshoring. An analysis of the explanatory power of economic resentment cannot rest solely on the economic fundamentals leading up to election day, it has to account for historic factors as well.

Julia, please consider inviting somebody with a different perspective.
December 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJosh
On the notion that the models weren't "wrong" because they assigned Trump a non-zero chance of victory: fair enough, but doesn't this bring election forecasting models outside the realm of the scientifically falsifiable? The external validity of a model is assessed using its predictions. If my "model" is a weather app on my phone, this isn't much of a problem: if I really want to know whether I should believe the forecast of a 20% chance of rain tomorrow, I can look at all the historical cases of it predicting a 20% chance of rain the next day. If in roughly 20% of those cases it rained, my model is trustworthy. But presidential elections occur once every four years. So yes, it is not fair to say that a model that predicted a 95% chance of a Clinton victory was wrong, because things with 5% chances of happening happen all the time. But then we have to concede that the accuracy of these models cannot be checked. And in that case, why should we take them seriously?
December 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBen Prytherch
Sam Harris Answers Why TRUMP Won - Nailed It
January 5, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteranon.
A suggestion rather than putting forth ideological or political opinions would be to follow the money. Following the money reveals a slow moving coup d'etat. Read the memo from Lewis Powell in the early 70's. Subsequent to that we now have; money is free speech, corporations are people, citizen's united, etc. The Telecommunications Act of 1996. Nor more fair and balanced, The repeal of Glass=Steagall. NAFTA. Look at the Social Security Administration statistics. In 2015 50% of all American workers made less than $30,000 per year. Society wanted a populist candidate. Since the DNC is bought with corporate money, The DNC could have given Bernie a fair shot, , but they went with corporate sponsored, and corporate-owned media to back Hillary. Even though he demonstrated that the DNC doesn't have to rely on corporate sponsorship. Corporate interests now own; the executive, the legislative, and soon the judiciary. The DNC got played and corrupted. Follow the money, follow the money, follow the money.....Watch the interview with Chris Hedges and Ralph Nader. When the DNC turned their back on Labor in favor of corporate donors, the sealed their fate. It's the money Lebowski!
January 16, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpxmcc
Episode 157: Richard Rorty on Politics for the Left (Part One)

Episode 157: Richard Rorty on Politics for the Left (Part Two)

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words [slur for an African-American that begins with “n”] and [slur for a Jewish person that begins with “k”] will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America
February 8, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteranon.
An excellent post by Ben Prytherch. I've had similar thoughts about boxing. Going into a fight, the experts might give one fighter a 10% chance of winning, with the other being given a 90% chance of winning, but the underdog wins. Does that mean that what happened, was that one time in ten that the underdog would win? Or does it mean that the experts got it wrong and that the real odds were about fifty to fifty, instead of ten to ninety? No way to tell. Even if there were an immediate rematch, it's not the same. The underdog might have been hungry in the first fight, but now he has a million dollar deal for the rematch, he doesn't train as hard. On the other side, in the first fight the fighter favoured to win may have been complacent, but now he's spilling blood, sweat and tears training to win the rematch. The rematch is a different fight, so doesn't tell us much about what the real odds were for the first fight. So the predictions for the first fight seem unfalsifiable.

I liked the original theme music :(
February 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUnderdog
Just admit it, Trump won because he is awesome, HUGELY AWESOME !! More seriously, Trump won because people see Trump as the ANTI-Politician. Trump speaks in a way that would embarrass most any politician, and Trump received comparatively little support from politicians. People have disgust for politicians, so they voted anti-politics.

In 2016, the USA had an economy with inflated asset values, but with lots of underemployment and low workforce participation. For this reason, the nationalist anti-globalism narrative sold well.

Julia almost seems distressed about Trump winning. That is a surprise, since we all know about Trump's extraordinary rationality.
December 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
"since we all know about Trump's extraordinary rationality." ? ? ?

Said no Sane, Rational person ever !!

"What can we learn from the Election?"

That we are slowly devolving as a society and culture and that we need Revolutionary changes in our mindset and consciousness.
August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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