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19 things we learned from the 2016 election

So. A year ago I wrote a Slate article and a blog post (with follow-up here), “19 Things We Learned from the 2016 Election.”

Then Julia Azari wrote “Women Also Know Stuff about the 2016 election,” pointing out that I’d missed a lot of work that was relevant to these questions. Azari wrote:

I’m sure that Gelman’s exclusive focus on work written by men was unintentional. But plenty of women are doing research that is relevant to the points he raises — and some of it even offered insights that turned out to be correct, prescient, and very valuable for explaining what happened in November.

And she was right. I teach in the political science department but I’m not so clued-in about the political science literature.

So Azari and I got together and wrote a joint article which just appeared in the journal Statistics and Public Policy. SPP is a journal published by the American Statistical Association. We probably could’ve published this article in a political science journal but the review process at SPP seemed like it would be simpler.

Here’s the issue of the journal, which contains our article, four discussions, and our rejoinder:

The journal’s html formatting of the articles is pretty ugly so I strongly recommend you click on the pdf buttons at the links to get everything in readable format.

I thank our editors at Slate and Statistics, Politics, and Policy, the five discussants for their thoughtful contributions and especially Julia Azari (whom I’ve never met!) for collaborating on this article.

And here are the 19 things:

1. The party didn’t decide.
2. The ground game was overrated.
3. Overconfident pundits get attention.
4. That trick of forecasting elections using voter predictions rather than voter intentions? Doesn’t work.
5. Survey nonresponse bias is a thing.
6. News is siloed.
7. A working-class pundit is something to be.
8. Beware of stories that explain too much.
9. The election outcome was consistent with “the fundamentals.”
10. Polarization is real.
11. Demography is not destiny.
12. Public opinion does not follow elite opinion.
13. There is an authoritarian dimension of politics.
14. Swings are national.
15. The election wasn’t decided by shark attacks.
16. Red state blue state is over.
17. Third parties are still treading water.
18. Goldman Sachs rules the world.
19. The Electoral College was a ticking time bomb.

Our article concludes:

The 2016 elections have given the paradox of voters who do not follow their party leaders on key issues but remain strongly partisan and predictable in their general-election voting. On one hand this seems inherently unstable—for how long can partisan loyalty be sustained by little more than opposition to the other side—but the combination of winner-take-all elections and (until recently) political gridlock also can make it a hard pattern to break.


  1. Terry says:


    Any idea why you focused only on work written by men?

    • Andrew says:


      I don’t have a great answer to that, but I think that some of it is that I’m not so plugged in to the poli sci literature, so a lot of what came to mind is what was written by pundits or media personalities, who are perhaps more disproportionately male than are political science researchers. It worked out well that I had a collaborator who knows the literature better than I do.

  2. OtherBarry says:

    Any idea why you focused only on work written by the people who in the last election voted for Hillary Clinton?
    Any idea why you focused only on work written by the people who are white or Asian?
    Any idea why you focused only on work written by the people who live in the US?

  3. Chappaqua says:

    …ahhh, a ‘Top-19 List’ — very pop-culture packaging for political science

    Is it a prioritized list?

    What’s the #1 Reason Hillary is not now in the White House?

    • Andrew says:


      – It’s not a top 19 list; it’s just 19 things I thought of. They’re organized in thematic rather than priority order.

      – It’s a list of things we learned, not a list of reasons why Clinton did not become president. I don’t really think it makes sense to talk about the #1 reason for the election outcome, as a lot of things were happening at once. Just for example, you could say that one reason Clinton did ok in the popular vote, but did not win by a lot, is that the economy was going ok but not great. So, you could say that the not-great economy was one reason, maybe the #1 reason, that Clinton did not win the election—or you could say that the not-poor economy was one reason, maybe the #1 reason, that Clinton came so close. Etc.

    • David18 says:

      Hilary, the Democratic Party, and the media elite forgot the successful formula of FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ — they forgot the working class. Instead of taking the time to understand the working class they resorted to ad-hominems (e.g. racist, “deplorable”). Since the Democrats forgot the working class, they had nowhere to go but to vote for Trump.

      Read Thomas Frank, a Midwesterner, in The Guardian, for more details.

  4. L.J Zigerell says:

    The joint article mentions a lack of gender solidarity as a vote driver for either candidate and how consistent the election was with fundamentals models, which is suggestive, but I’m curious about the omission of an explicit “thing learned” about sexism in the electorate, given that this was the first U.S. presidential election with a female major party nominee. Why not note whether 2016 presidential election results were consistent with political science research about the effects of candidate gender?

    • Andrew says:


      I haven’t looked at any survey data directly relating to voters and the sex of the candidate, but we did do some analysis of pre-election polls and found some interesting patterns in the gender gap. We completed this work too late to be included in the above-linked article; it should be on Arxiv soon. Beyond this, sure, there’s lots more to look at here. I’d like to think of our article as a starting point, not a stopping point.

  5. Bill Jefferys says:

    #19 is not just past tense. It will remain so until it is gotten rid of, one way or another. The most likely (I don’t say it’s likely, just that it’s the most likely of what’s available) is this one:

  6. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    I found this very interesting reading. Thanks Heaps for this.

  7. Chappaqua says:

    “I don’t really think it makes sense to talk about the #1 reason for the election outcome, as a lot of things were happening at once…”

    So if there are multiple factors influencing an election outcome, which is always the case, political scientists are not interested in which factors were most significant … especially for the most important election in the world ??

    • Andrew says:


      I just don’t think the question “which factors were most significant” is answerable. I don’t think it makes any sense. I don’t mind saying that some factors are more important than others, but I don’t think it makes sense to talk about the #1 reason.

      But that’s just my take. If you or anyone else wants to write a paper talking about the #1 reason for the election outcome, go for it. Just cos this is not a question that I see how to answer, it shouldn’t stop you and others from taking a crack at it.

      • Terry says:

        In a close race, ALL factors are “the reason”. Change any individual factor, and the results change. When a basketball team wins by one point, every basket the winning team made and every basket the losing team didn’t make decided the game.

  8. I am very glad that I am now able to refer to the paper “19 Things We Learned from the 2016 Election” at when people are arguing that it is inproper to use the sentence “Yup.” in the main text of a peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal.

  9. David18 says:

    This is a lot of overintellectualizing.

    The Democrats lost the election far more than President Trump won it.

    The election was a surprise because the media, which in past times, might have given some warning signs in the past, have become part of the coastal, sheltered elite. One of the few in the media who published articles and even a book just before the election, Thomas Frank (book: “Listen, Liberal” early 2016), had to write for the Guardian, since American media weren’t interested in the truth telling of this Midwesterner who warned the Democrats about ignoring the working class. Frank’s “Listen, Liberal” became one of six books recommended by the NYTimes to read to understand how Trump won. Yet, even now, Frank is not writing for any major US publication.

    FDR, Truman, JFK and LBJ provided the formula of success for Dems winning President elections. Chief among that was caring about the working class. Since the role model of these presidents was ignored by the Democrats, Trump was able to win them over and win the election.

    The Democratic elites media elites totally ignored the suffering of the working class, preferring to use ad-hominums (eg, racist, “deplorable”, …) than to take the time to understand the suffering of the working class.

    It is important for the Democrats to not overintellectualize their defeat, to not blame Russians, Comey, ….. The only blame goes to a party that forgot its roots — the messages of FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ.

    • Andrew says:


      You mention JFK, who won 50.1% of the two-party vote in 1960. Hillary Clinton won 51.1% of the two-party vote in 2016. These things happen—a close election can go either way—I’m just reminding you of this to suggest that your view of “the formula of success” is a bit simplistic.

      • David18 says:


        The metric for winning elections is the electoral college for which Kennedy had a resounding victory over Nixon 303 – 219 winning 58% to 42% of the electoral college that was won by either candidate. This despite the fact that as a Catholic, Kennedy not only suffered from the prejudices against Catholics at the time but that some people said he might be ruled by The Vatican.

        Trump won swing state Florida. But he also won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania all states with a substantial working class with 46 electoral college votes were won by Trump. Hilary would have won had she won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

        Therefore, I stand by my “simplistic” heuristic. The Democrats lost because they failed to follow the wisdom of FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ.

        • Kyle says:

          I liked Thomas Frank’s book, but however much I would like to see FDR reincarnate run for president, I have to agree with Andrew. I don’t think your heuristic can explain the presidential elections of 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, and it misses how the New Democrats displaced New Deal Democrats in the first place. Voters, as far as I can tell from reading, were tired of the “establishment” Democrats of the time who followed the “wisdom of FDR”. You also had the Southern Strategy and the civil rights backlash, which may have also helped create division between the labor caucus and the New Democrats, which helped precipitate NAFTA and PNTR with China, despite the harmful effect on labor. The electorate does seem ripe for a return to New Deal or “Better Deal” politics now. Democrats should be able to make a strong case for consumer protections not least in healthcare with price transparency, with universal health coverage, universal child care, and tuition-free community/vocational college being pro-worker and pro-entrepreneurship. I’m hopeful for politics in 2018 and beyond.

          • David18 says:

            1968 was won by a Republican after Democratic incumbent Johnson decided not to run. 1972 the incumbent was reelected. 1980, Jimmy Carter lost to Reagan because Carter was not a good President. 1984 was reelection of the incumbent.

            Candidate Trump complained vociferously when Carrier said they were exporting American jobs to Mexico. He also complained vociferously when Disney of Florida abused the H1-B Visa program by replacing 250 American tech workers with cheaper Indian imports. In both cases, Clinton, who candidate Sanders repeatedly complained had taken over $500,000 for 3 talks to Goldman Sachs, was silent. Clinton let Trump represent workers.

            If instead of resorting to ad-hominem attacks against Trump and his supporters (“half are deplorables”), Clinton had simply complained about importing labor and exporting labor with resultant American job loss, she probably would have won. Instead she was silent in these two cases.

            The election of Trump is a symptom of the Democrats forgetting the American worker and letting Trump represent them instead.

            This intellectualizing with studies as to why Trump won, the intellectualizing of NYTimes columnist Thomas Edsall about why the Democrats lost, the blaming of Russians, Comey, hacking of emails, Facebook, all obfuscates the reason for the Democratic defeat.

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