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It Isn’t Messaging or Policy: 11 Reasons Why Donald Trump Became President

This blog focuses on America’s foreign policy and military issues, with slight detours into terrorism, intelligence, gun violence, civil rights, and the overall safety of the world today.

In short, we don’t think explaining/debating/writing about election results falls under that purview.

Which isn’t to say we don’t have thoughts. Clearly some explanation is needed to explain how Donald Trump got elected to determine how we can best respond to that election. As the saying goes, you can’t know where you’re going/how to win elections, if you don’t know where you’ve been/why you lost. And though I, Eric C, am just bursting to write an entire book on what happened--and Lord knows people will--we’ll try to limit this to just one post. Mainly, we just don’t agree with most of the explanations and narratives put forward so far.

But first, let’s debunk two common misconceptions:

Misconception #1: X Factor Caused Hillary Clinton to Lose.

Notice we didn’t name the factor. That’s because, as is the case with almost every major event in history, no one thing causes one other thing. A whole bunch of them do. Was it Russia? Was it Comey? Was it Clinton’s campaign? Yes. And no. Actually, it was all of them. And more.

You may remember our analysis of the Iraq war. We listed a range of factors and provided our back of the envelope estimate for how much they caused us to lose that war. We’ll take the same approach for this election. Though we should mention, the “percentages” are in no way scientific.

Misconception #2: A Majority of Americans Supported Donald Trump.

I originally wrote the headline for this section as “Hillary Clinton lost the election” but deleted it because, well, she did lose the electoral college, and Michael C doesn’t like me getting too partisan on the blog. But of all the other things that can be said about the election, this is the most important:

The Democratic candidate for President received nearly three million more votes than the Republican.

Even more important: Democrats received six million more votes for their Senators. And how many votes cost Hillary the Electoral college? About 80,000 in a nation of over 300 million. So almost nothing. (0.02% in other words.) What about the enthusiasm gap? More people showed up to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration than attended it. And it spawned counter-protests across the country, including our very conservative home town of San Clemente, CA.

These facts may surprise you, because a ton of commentators, from the far left to the middle, have claimed the election proves that Democrats are out of touch with Americans. And Republicans and conservatives have used the results to claim they have a legislative mandate. We’ve seen pundits we love make this claim, even if they later they point out that people always overreact to elections. Probably the best example would be Glenn Greenwald, who’s alternately blamed drone strikes, NSA wiretapping, the Iraq War, Democrats support for Wall Street and more for the election result, even though some of those claims are clearly absurd.   

Repeat this mantra, Democrats: don’t act like losers when you didn’t lose.

So, with those misperceptions out of the way, let’s breakdown why Hillary isn’t President, starting chronologically. (To be clear, the last two causes are the most important, so if you don’t read the whole thing, skip to the bottom.)

1. Pessimism: 5%

2. Media Biases: 5%

As we wrote about in our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016”, it’s been incredibly dispiriting to watch as America falls into an almost nation-wide despair over the last couple of years, disillusioned by police shootings of unarmed citizens, riots in response to police shootings, shootings of police officers, a vanishingly small number of terrorist attacks, economic inequality, the rise of ISIS and, finally, the election of an uninformed possible demagogue.

In reality, the world is as safe as it has ever been, which is why we’ve written over 20 posts arguing this point, and plan to write a whole bunch more. We’ll say it again for impact: these are the safest most prosperous times in human history. Ever. That includes the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

Sense a disconnect?

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Democrats, at every turn, fail to trumpet their victories. Left-wingers always complain about Democrats. The “mainstream media”, regardless of who is President, assumes an adversarial stance versus the party in power, focusing on the President. And conservatives? They’re mostly happy if they’re in power.

But relentless media negativity is only one of many ways the media actually favors conservatives:

- Mainstream media coverage tended to favor Donald Trump, mainly by trying to report “evenly” (in terms of time) on both candidates. This led to a false equivalency of both sides, with outlets like the New York Times (but not The Washington Post) running “investigations” on the Clinton Foundation without spending time on similar investigations into the Trump Foundation.

- Or you could point out the false equivalency every time someone said “Washington is broken” or “Nothing gets done!” without pointing out that Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, broke it. And it worked. 

- Another problem is that the media tends to close around the same daily topics. Thus, the media narrative focused Clinton’s emails, while never settling on one Trump issue, save groping.

- And the right-wing has an entire media apparatus, from Fox News to talk radio to Breitbart, dedicated to their cause, while most “left-wing” outlets (like NPR, PBS and the New York Times) still want to cover things fairly and follow ethical journalistic practices. Just look at the debate over the “Trump Dossier” compared to what conservatives promote on Alex Jones’ Infowars or Breitbart. Many far-left organizations (like The Intercept, Democracy Now! or Jacobin) are as critical of moderates as they are of conservatives.

Overall, these media biases, especially the overwhelmingly pessimistic coverage of the world today, led to an enthusiasm gap among Democrats that probably more than accounts for the missing 80,000 votes Hillary Clinton needed to win the Electoral College.

3. Systemic Republican Electoral Advantages: 20%

Republicans, due to a variety of factors, have a competitive edge electorally in America:

Geography: Voters in low population states have more representation in electing Presidents and Senators than high population states. The Senate looks almost like a national redistricting effort by the Founding Fathers, cramming a lot of Democrats into a few large states like California, New York and Illinois.

Redistricting: Republicans have a near insurmountable advantage in the House of Representatives because of gerrymandered districts.

Citizens United: Since the Supreme Court’s decision, Republicans have a big money edge over Democrats, especially down ballot.

The Media: See above section.

Voting Rights: Republicans have systematically restricted voting by closing polling places and creating ID requirements since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. The exact effects are uncertain, but it’s a problem that’s only getting worse.

To sum up, Republicans have a systematic advantage in our country's elections, hence why Democrats can win more votes for both the President and the Senate and still not hold office. As Nate Silver described it, Republicans are working to “preserve minority rule in this country”. What’s the catch? These advantages mean that the governing bodies of America no longer actually represent the views and opinions of a majority of Americans. That’s not good for the country long-term. 

4. Hillary Clinton’s Campaigning: 5%

5. A Bitter DNC Primary: 5%

6. Third Party Candidates: 3%

Critics on the far left are right about one thing: by consolidating around Hillary Clinton before the primaries began, Democrats failed to both adequately vet her weaknesses and nominated a sub-par campaigner. Hillary Clinton, in her own words, said, “I’m not a natural campaigner.” And her campaign failed to focus on the Rust Belt states.

This also showed up in an overall enthusiasm gap which, again, we blame on liberals and the media. Need proof of an enthusiasm gap? Just compare the size of Hillary’s crowds during the campaign to, say, the size of crowds at protests after the election.

Many Bernie Sanders supporters, cravenly inspired by Hillary’s loss, immediately said their guy would have won, though I doubt it, and I’m also a self-described socialist. But the ugly primary fight led a lot of Bernie Sander’s supporters to become (justifiably) disaffected with the system, especially after the release of hacked DNC emails. (More on this below.) Some Bernie supporters spent the entire DNC convention booing her. Then, some of Bernie Sander’s disaffected voters (understandably but regrettably) voted for third party candidates.

These factors weren’t huge (all told we only give them about 13%) but in an election of 80,000 votes, they matter.

7. Racism/Immigration: 1%

8. Economic Inequality: 1%

Since the election, the main topic of debate among pundits has been whether racism or rising economic inequality caused Trump’s victory. With apologies to easy media narratives, I doubt either issue swayed the election.

I think blaming economic inequality for the election overstates its impact. Put another way: if Democrats/America were more socialist, would that have stopped Trump? I doubt it. Last month, I got super annoyed listening to Fareed Zakaria GPS because Fareed made that exact point I’d been wanting to write. Namely, populist, right-wing, white nationalist movements have been popping up around the world, regardless of economic inequality or expanded social welfare programs:

“Supporters of Trump and other populist movements often point to economics as the key to their success — the slow recovery, wage stagnation, the erosion of manufacturing jobs, rising inequality. These are clearly powerful contributing factors. But it is striking that we see right-wing populism in Sweden, which is doing well economically; in Germany, where manufacturing remains robust; and in France, where workers have many protections. Here in the United States, exit polls showed that the majority of voters who were most concerned about the economy cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

"The one common factor present everywhere, however, is immigration. In fact, one statistical analysis of European Union countries found that more immigrants invariably means more populists. According to the study, if you extrapolate from current trends, “as the percentage of immigrants approaches approximately 22 percent, the percentage of right-wing populist voters exceeds 50 percent.” Hostility to immigration has been a core theme of every one of these populist parties."

Michael C disagrees. He thinks rising income inequality dampened enthusiasm among Democrats, a theme that runs through almost every section in this post. On this point, I think he may be right about one thing: Democrats have seemed ineffectual on combating rising inequality...mainly because Republicans have stopped them at every turn, by opposing any form of tax increases, Wall Street reforms, worker’s rights and government spending. And now that Trump has taken office, this trend continues, debunking the entire argument.

What about race? Some of Trump’s supporters certainly are racist. A certain segment of Americans, energized by the election of the first black President, then catalyzed by terror attacks, immigration and police shootings, were motivated by race. But do I think these people would have voted for Hillary under any circumstance? No. Republicans could have run Marco Rubio, and the other factors I’ve described (like media coverage, the electoral college, Wikileaks/Comey) still would have played a bigger role.

Overall, I doubt either racism or economic inequality swayed the election. At least not as much as the next two factors...

9. FBI Director James Comey’s Letter to Congress: 15%

10. Wikileaks Release of Hacked Emails: 15%

Hillary had a seven point lead in the election going into October. By election day, the polls had basically evened up to within 2% of the final popular vote total. This is pretty good as far as polling errors go. And it means you can pretty accurately assess which news stories damaged Clinton’s poll numbers.

FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented step of writing a letter to Congress in the weeks before the election, hinting at another possible investigation into a Hillary email server, clearly tipped the election to Trump. Wikileak’s release of the DNC emails got Bernie’s supporters upset at her and the release of another batch of Podesta emails in October kept negative headlines in the news. All three fed into a steady narrative about Clinton’s untrustworthiness.

Before Democrats start a debate about how to radically transform the party in response to the election, recognize that these two events did more damage than anything else, except the next factor. Again, Hillary got a majority of votes for President. And she only lost the election by about 80,000 votes.

11. The Electoral College: 25%

When critics say Democrats are blaming everyone but themselves for the loss, ask this, “If the election were determined by popular vote, where would Trump have gotten 3 million more votes?” Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump. Almost every other explanation falls short when you look at it this way.

Some people rebut this by saying, “Well, those are the rules everyone agreed to.” True, but the next logical question is: do you agree with this system? If you do, well, sorry, you’re wrong. The Electoral College is an anachronistic, anti-democratic holdover from the past and it needs to be abolished immediately. It’s archaic, propped up by a love of tradition or a desire to maintain the power of low population, less diverse states, as Bill O’Reilly quite inelegantly pointed out on his show.

In Closing, Democrats Needs to Fix the Systemic Problems in our Electoral System

To summarize the takeaway from this exercise, anytime you hear anyone (left, right or center; pundit, politician, analyst, reporter or civilian) argue that Democrats need to change their message or, God forbid, their policies remember this:

The Democratic message already appeals to a majority of Americans.

Looking at why Hillary Clinton isn’t president or why Democrats don’t control the Senate, it isn’t because of the Democrats “message” or policy priorities. The majority of Americans agree with those. Instead, systemic electoral disadvantages favor Republicans over Democrats. They favor rural voters over urban voters, white voters over minorities. Outside of Clinton’s weakness as a campaigner or Democratic pessimism, almost every reason the Democrats lost is out of their control.

Instead of changing their message to fit an electoral system that favors Republicans, Democrats need to prioritize fixing the electoral system to enact their policies, starting with redistricting efforts, reforming campaign finance laws, stopping voter suppression, investigating the FBI and Russian meddling in the election, and ending the electoral college. In terms of strategy, they need to open the Democratic primary to all candidates, learn to celebrate their victories, stop fighting with each other, and pressure the media to report fairly.

We plan to do our part, as we’ll discuss on Monday.