Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Interview from the Archive: Charlie Cook explains how Hillary's Midwestern firewall came tumbling down

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 22, 2017.

This is the second of five articles spanning my discussion with Charlie Cook. The first part is available. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
"Like I've said before .... polls are only good for strippers and cross-country skiers," Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly two days before last year’s presidential election.
While I have criticized her more than a fair bit during years gone by, it is undeniable that she turned out to be a sage among pundits.
When Palin made her remark, virtually all national opinion surveys – save two highly important yet conspicuously underreported ones – indicated an impending win for Hillary Clinton. Reuters predicted she was set to win 247 electoral votes outright and favored to seize so many more that her chance of victory hovered at 90 percent.
At the Princeton Election Consortium, Dr. Sam Wang – a neuroscientist and prolific author – declared that Clinton enjoyed a 99 percent probability of winning. The platinum-grade forecaster Moody's Analytics also claimed she would triumph in the Electoral College.

United Press International, in conjunction with the polling group CVoter, reported that her Electoral College lead over Trump was substantial: 259 to 209.
After the race was called, Clinton barely eked out 232 votes. Her vaunted 'firewall' of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin crumbled into ash. Only Minnesota and New Hampshire stood -- and not by any means tall. Clinton struggled to win either, despite the former having gone to every Democratic nominee since Richard Nixon's 1972 earth-slide over George McGovern.
Just a few hours earlier, Clinton fans were jubilant over her seemingly assured victory. By the morning after, perhaps more tears were shed than at any other time in twenty-first century America.
Like nearly all other professional election watchers, Charlie Cook believed that Clinton would defeat Trump. He went so far as to declare their contest finished during mid-October. Despite the – to quote an infamous Chicago Tribune headline – "Dewey Defeats Truman" quality of said statement, it is an aberration from the norm. Cook has enjoyed a long, prosperous, and stable career of election forecasting. 
As his must-read publication, the Cook Political Report, explains, he "is considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on American politics and U.S. elections. In 2010, Charlie was a co-recipient of the American Political Science Association's prestigious Carey McWilliams award to honor "a major journalistic contribution to our understanding of politics." In the spring semester of 2013, Charlie served as a Resident Fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
"Charlie founded the Cook Political Report in 1984 and became a columnist for Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, in 1986. In 1998 he moved his column to National Journal. Charlie has served as a political analyst or election night analyst for CBS, CNN and NBC News and has been a frequent political analyst for all three major broadcast news networks and has appeared on Meet the Press and This Week."
Cook recently spoke with me about many issues relative to electioneering in modern America. Some of our conversation is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: More than any other reason, why did polling not prove an effective guide to predicting an outcome for the 2016 presidential election, unlike in previous races?

Charlie Cook (continued from last week): In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Clinton had somewhat robust campaign organizations, but these states were not perceived by the Clinton campaign or by the media for that matter, to be among the most competitive, so they received less in terms of resources by the Clinton campaign and coverage by the media than at least a half dozen other states that were thought to be closer.  

One of my fellow editors at the Cook Political Report, David Wasserman figured out that effectively the Presidency came down to three counties, one each in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  Take out all of the votes in suburban Detroit county of Macomb County, Clinton would have won Michigan.  Remove the results from York County, basically the city of York, Pennsylvania and environs, the Keystone State would have gone to Clinton not Trump.  If you take out the votes in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, Trump would have lost that state.   None of this is to take away from Trump’s victory, but the results in these three states were razor thin.

Then there is the question of whether the polls were far off at all.  Most polling cut off during the week before the election, some were taken in previous weeks.  If one subscribes to the view that the election changed a good bit in the final ten days, when Trump largely behaved on Twitter and in his campaign speeches, and Clinton’s emails and the FBI’s various pronouncements dominated the media coverage, then polls may not have been far off at all, they simply measured snapshots in time, when those polls were taken.  

We had noticed through the campaign that when the spotlight centered on Trump, his numbers dropped, when they were focused on Clinton, her numbers dropped.  Remember that you had the two most unpopular nominees in American political history.  If the election was to be a referendum on either one of them, that candidate would lose.  Arguably the election had been focused more on Trump than Clinton through most of the campaign, with Clinton ahead, but in the end, the spotlight shifted more to Clinton, and she lost.

Another important factor is that there was an appreciable gap between the motivation and intensity of support between Clinton and Trump voters.  While nominees had enormous negative ratings in the polls, there was more ambivalence among Clinton supporters, Democrats and liberals than there was among Trump backers, Republicans and conservatives.  More people were begrudgingly supporting Clinton while many Trump supporters were incensed over being called “deplorables” and highly motivated to vote.  

It isn’t hard to find someone who was prepared to unenthusiastically vote for Clinton but may have decided instead to pick up a bagel or donut on the way to work or grab a gallon of milk or stop by the dry cleaner on the way home.  After all, she seemed comfortably ahead, didn’t seem to need their vote and they didn’t much like her anyway.  After the Billy Bush tape came out and the second Presidential debate, there seemed little danger, in their minds, to Trump winning.   Conversely, many Trump voters would have turned out anyway, even if they knew he was going to lose by ten points.  They hated her that much.

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