For those of us not working on a dissertation in political science, it will take a while to discern what happened on Nov. 8. This is said more as an intellectually curious, “Wow, what happened?” fashion rather than an apoplectic “Oh my God, what happened?” exhortation.
And while the election of Donald Trump to the presidency will fascinate PhD. candidates for generations to come, we have little interest in doing that much work. Instead, we’ll take the easy route and go straight to an expert to glean a little insight.
So, what happened? “Trump won,” Jim Moore said.
OK, OK, we knew that. But a bit of time on the phone with Moore provided some pearls of wisdom, as it always does. Moore, you see, has a PhD. in political science from Northwestern University and is director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. More important, he’s always thoughtful, engaging, entertaining, and more than willing to talk when some dumbfounded reporter calls him out of the blue.
So I asked Moore about the common narrative that Trump won, in part, because voters were seeking a Washington, D.C., outsider to, as Trump succinctly put it, “drain the swamp.” There is nothing trendy about that trend among voters. President Obama was largely a D.C. outsider, having served in the U.S. Senate for a scant 46 months before he was elected president for the first time; George W. Bush was a D.C. outsider, having been a governor; same with Bill Clinton, and same with Ronald Reagan. Among the past seven people elected to the presidency, only George H.W. Bush could be deemed a D.C. insider — and he was riding Reagan’s coattails into the Oval Office.
“In the presidential election, the issues barely move the needle,” Moore said. “It comes down to personalities and ‘Who do I want to have a beer with?’ ”
Death knell for Democrats?
There’s a lot of truth in that, even if it does not speak well about Americans’ ability to select an effective president. But despite that quadrennial truism, Moore was struck by something unusual surrounding this year’s election.
“I think the thing that made it different for me is the split at the top; people really, really believed in their candidate or they really believed the other one was unacceptable,” he said. “People truly internalized this election in a way we haven’t seen since maybe the Kennedy years, or in ’64 when you had Goldwater supporters who were crushed.”
Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson saw Democrats retain the presidency and both chambers of Congress and was viewed by some as a death knell for the Republican Party. But four years later, Republicans won the presidency, and conditions were in place for the rise of Reagan not long after that. In other words, while many are readying a funeral pyre for Democrats this time around, the party is not as disheveled as it might seem.
“What’s unusual to me is in these battleground states it was really, really, really close,” Moore said. “A half-point here or there and we would have a President Clinton.” Trump won Michigan by about one-quarter of a percentage point; he won Pennsylvania and Florida by about 1 percentage point each. And while Clinton supporters like to point out that she won the national popular vote, Trump was correct when he wrote on Twitter: “If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are salving their wounds by suggesting that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump, clinging to polls conducted during the primaries. But Moore said: “He wasn’t tested in the primary. The numbers showing he would have won the general election, those weren’t true numbers.”
As the polls demonstrated right up to Election Day, there were a lot of numbers that were not true. And that will leave a lot of people wondering what happened for many years to come.