5 more things I learned from the 2016 election

After posting the 19 Things We Learned from the 2016 Election, I received a bunch of helpful feedback in comments and email. Here are some of the key points that I missed or presented unclearly:

Non-presidential elections

Nadia Hassan points out that my article is “so focused on the Presidential race than it misses some key pertinent downballot stuff. Straight ticket voting soared in this election in the Senate races, though not the governor’s races,” which supports explanations based on fundamentals and polarization rather than candidate-specific stories.

The Latino vote

In the “Demography is not destiny” category, I cited exit polls that showed the Latino vote dividing 66%-28% in favor of Clinton. But exit polls have a lot of problems, as Justin Gross noted in comments and which others pointed out to me by email. Gary Segura and Matt Barreto suggest that “the national exit polls interviewed few if any Latino voters in areas where many Latinos actually live.” Trump winning based on the white vote is consistent with what Yair and I found earlier this year about the electorate being whiter than observers had thought based on exit polls, as reported in a news article, “There Are More White Voters Than People Think. That’s Good News for Trump.”

Siloed news

Andy Guess writes, conventional wisdom says news is “siloed.” But the best evidence (from passive metering data) doesn’t support the idea, and on social media, see this. We have more discussion of fake news in comments here.

Shark attacks

I ragged on Chris Achen and Larry Bartels’s claim that shark attacks swing elections. But as commenter WB points out, we shouldn’t let that distract us from Achen and Bartels’s larger point that that many voters are massively uninformed about politics, policy, and governing, which is relevant even if it’s not true, as they claimed, that voters are easily swung by irrelevant stimuli.

The Clinton campaign’s “ground game”

Someone who had led Obama’s ground game in a rural area of a midwestern state sent me this note:

I [my correspondent] returned there to informally assist Senator Clinton after it became apparent that she was having difficulty in that state (September 2016). It is from this background that I respectfully think you’re wrong about ground games being overrated (point 10). That is the wrong lesson.

You are correct that Democrats were supposed to have an amazing ground game. More hires. More offices. A field guy as campaign manager experienced in tight field wins (DCCC 2012; McAuliffe 2013). The problem is that Clinton never ran a ground game.

When I arrived in September/October, I was astounded to discover that the field staff had spent all their time on volunteer recruitment. This meant that they were only calling people who were already friendly to Clinton and asking those same people to come into the office to call more people friendly to Clinton. At no point during the campaign did the field staff ever ID voters or do persuasion (e.g. talk to a potentially non-friendly voter). That is a call center, it is not a ground game.

Part of the reason for this is that Brooklyn read an academic piece suggesting that voter contact more than 10 days out is worthless—a direct repudiation of the organizing model used by Obama in 2008 and 2012 when field contacted each voter 4 times between July and November. The result is that the Clinton campaign started asking people to turn out for Clinton only in the final week of the election when they began GOTV work. There was no preexisting relationship. Those calls for turning out might as well have come from a Hyderabad call center for all the good they did.

I hate to see people taking the wrong lesson from this campaign. Ground games are critical for Democrats to win. But non organizing-based ground games are worse than useless as they artificially inflate your expectations, demoralize volunteers (they want to talk to voters, not recruit more volunteers), and fail to turn out your base.

Thanks to everyone for your comments. One excellent thing about blogging is that we can revise what we write, in contrast to the David Brookses of the world who can never admit error.

P.S. One more thing on the ground game: Ryan Enos and Anthony Fowler estimated that the ground campaigning in 2012 increased turnout in the most targeted states by 7-8 percentage points.

7 thoughts on “5 more things I learned from the 2016 election

  1. As to ground game, anecdotes counter anecdotes: I know a number of people involved directly in voter canvassing, persuasion and turnout in 2 NE states. They did not run a “call center” but actually canvassed and worked on potential voters and unfriendly voters. My takeaway was more this: in areas where Clinton had committed backers in sufficient number, the local offices did more because they had committed backers in sufficient number to take on the challenges and that in areas where they didn’t then they may have had some numbers of people but numbers matter much more when they’re in a receptive probability space or context. That is, in areas where Clinton’s negatives were high, where she was relatively less popular or even unpopular but still the Democratic candidate, then it’s asking a bleep-load to expect local people, mostly volunteers, to overcome that, which means the relative ineffectiveness or effectiveness of a ground game might be correlated to a reasonably high extent with the candidate’s standing in that population. The idea of a ground game would, in my general belief, be highly over-stated except where it appears to work, which is my tongue-in-cheek way of saying it works when it can work. I suppose it’s possible it might work where it’s extremely well run and dedicated, but that asks the simple question: how often is that going to happen when the candidate’s standing in the population isn’t that great? (The answer, I would think, is in a democracy not very often but in a dictatorship all the time!)

  2. One of the things I noticed out of the convention was a significant lack of volunteer interest in comparison to 2012 and 2008. I reached out to others: a person who writes a blog on Iowa politics noticed it in Iowa. The Chair of the Florida Progressive Caucus noticed it in Florida. The Chair of a conservation group noticed it in New Hampshire.

    I do not think the suggestion that people were running a call center is accurate. I do not think it is accurate that people were not being contacted more than 10 days out.

    The simple truth is Obama in ’12 in Florida spent little time recruiting volunteers: they walked through the front door.

    Having worked for years in both GOTV campaigns and legal protection I am honestly unclear whether the “ground game” is a cause or an effect

    I would echo Jonathan’s point about the ground game in polarization. If you read Steve Schale’s analysis on Florida, he noted the lack of a Clinton ground game in the exubrs and subrubs where Clinton lost the state. I think those counties, which have become increasingly polarized, make it hard to establish a ground ground game.

    In Florida Clinton outperformed in the big 3 counties in the south. There would you find a very organized Clinton campaign. But in places like Pasco and Polk where the biggest swings took place, the ground game was very limited.

    Put another way – it is hard to build a ground game in a county full of Trump signs.

    Steve’s analysis of Florida.

  3. Just to add to the conversation about what political scientists got wrong or perhaps right about the 2016 election and to highlight some of the authors, scholars, and journalists not mentioned in the original Slate.com piece, I encourage interested readers to check out Julia Azari’s recent post at Vox.com: http://www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2016/12/9/13898054/2016-election-research-pundits-women
    Azari adds to many of the topics raised in the original piece and notes research done by women, who were notably absent from the political scientists initially cited in the Slate article.

    • Lilly:

      Yes, I have contacted Azari and we plan to write something together, integrating all the stuff in our posts as well as whatever other relevant material we can come up with. My knowledge of the political science literature is not so strong, so Azari’s references were helpful.

  4. The Latino exit polling question is interesting. My understanding is that the polls indicating that 18% of Latino voters supported Trump are designed to figure out how many Latino voters supported Trump–nationally–and are therefore more accurate in answering that question…BUT the exit polling that all the media coverage cites on Election Day is designed *to predict the outcome of the election* and polls only strategic bellwether districts. And it was that poll that estimated Trump’s Latino support at 29%.

    So, here’s the thing. It is easily possible that the 29% figure is wrong in the districts polled. But it is also possible that what this discrepancy means is that *Latinos in battleground districts whose votes affected the outcome were more likely to support Trump than were Latinos in safe (blue or red) districts whose vote had no such effect.* I think that’s worth exploring…

  5. “Brooklyn read an academic piece suggesting that voter contact more than 10 days out is worthless”

    On my god. I can relate to this so much. I volunteered for Clinton on a regular basis to call other volunteers to see if they would come in to volunteer. On an average shift, I would sign up 1 person for another shift. Then I realized my entire shift was being used up to get another identical shift, and that person was probably doing the same thing, and so on. We were all just calling each other!

    But what was the academic piece? I really want to see it now.

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