Understanding Trump’s triumph: Q&A with Eitan Hersh

The Yale political scientist discusses why voters who previously supported President Obama voted for Donald Trump, the "reality show" nature of modern politics, and why the Democrats and Republicans should revert to the old way of choosing their candidates.
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Donald Trump’s victory in Tuesday’s presidential election contradicted the majority of public opinion polls and the prevailing narrative among political pundits and prognosticators that identified Hillary Clinton as the clear favorite to win the presidency.

Yale political scientist Eitan Hersh focuses his teaching and research on American politics. He studies civic participation and the relationship between election rules, strategies, and voter behavior. 

Hersh, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and a resident faculty fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, offered his perspective on the election in a discussion with YaleNews. An edited version of the conversation follows.

How did Donald Trump manage to win?

Two things happened: One is that the public pollsters, and the internal pollsters, misconstrued what they thought the electorate was feeling. Polling is not as easy as it seems. Secondly the Clinton campaign didn’t do what it needed to do. It didn’t focus on the right states. It didn’t turn out its voters in the numbers it needed to compensate for the enthusiasm of the Trump supporters.

The Clinton campaign shouldn’t have pursued a broader strategy than it needed to win. She didn’t visit Wisconsin at all. They totally misperceived that it was a safe state even though Trump was very active in the Midwest.

I think all of Clinton’s troubles were there from the very beginning. She’s seen as a technocrat, and she doesn’t inspire people the way that President Obama inspires people. She didn’t get people excited enough and her campaign was overconfident.

Clinton’s campaign was much more organized than Trump’s with far more local campaign offices throughout the country. What does Trump’s victory say about the importance of a strong “ground game” in presidential campaigns?

It’s very hard to know. First of all, I think the Trump campaign probably did more canvassing than the media’s narrative made it seem. It’s possible that the Clinton campaign just wasn’t doing a very good job. It’s possible that they didn’t have enough volunteers; enough committed folks. The Democratic coalition — African Americans, Latinos, young voters — is made of people who support the party but often don’t vote at very high rates. They need a push. I think the ground game is still very important, but what I would guess happened is that they didn’t have the kind of volunteer support and enthusiasm that the Obama campaign benefitted from.  This was evident from the beginning. In 2012, I had students asking to be excused from class because they were out working for the Obama campaign. I didn’t have any of that this year. The students who supported Clinton weren’t committed in the same way.

What explains Trump’s success in reaching new voters, including people who had previously voted for President Obama?

Eitan Hersh

I think that the prevailing narrative is that Trump capitalized on the deep-seated anger at the state of affairs from lower-income, lower-skilled, lower-educated white voters. You can imagine how somebody who just wants “change, change, change” can vote for Obama following the Bush years and then vote for Trump.

An alternative narrative that I think is also compelling is that people in both parties totally misperceive the stakes of politics and treat it more like a game. (I recently wrote about this in the Boston Globe and it will be subject of my next book.)  It’s possible that there is a feeling of discontent that led people to vote for Trump, but there is also a sense of “let’s tinker with the system” because it’s gratifying to tinker in the same way that pursuing a hobby is gratifying — as though there are no real stakes involved. 

Politics for too many people has entered this reality show mode of enjoyment. I think the right story isn’t only about anger, but about people failing to embrace a view of politics as something that can affect policy in life-and-death ways and failing to embrace voting as a detached civic duty intended to promote what is best for the country. Too many people make their decisions based on what feels most gratifying without giving things much thought.  

And I should say, this isn’t just a knock on Trump voters. Elite Democrats and Republicans themselves profoundly misperceived the stakes in public policy and elections in recent years. They have failed to engage with the issues facing ordinary people in the mass public.

There appeared to be an undercurrent of racial resentment and misogyny to Trump’s campaign. Did those forces contribute to his success?

 I think racism is definitely there, but when you see all these people who voted for Obama and now voted for Trump, it is clear that it’s not the whole story. The country is changing rapidly in terms of the share of adults who are non-white, and there is certainly evidence of racism among Trump’s strongest base of supporters. We’ve also, by the way, seen a lot of overt anti Semitism tied to the media and the financial elites. But I don’t think this, or racism, or sexism explain 50% of the country. It would be a mistake to attribute Trump’s success just to this narrative alone.

What can be done to persuade people to take politics more seriously and not approach it as if it were a hobby or a game?

I believe there are three things that should happen: First, particularly on the left, Democrats have for years shied away from focusing on state politics and policy at the state level in favor of seeking federal solutions for domestic problems. A lot of the Democratic Party’s domestic agenda from health care to environmental regulation to criminal justice reform to education and anti-poverty measures all have plenty of room to develop as state specific policies. I think the Democrats need to embrace the fact that they can’t be fighting with senators from Mississippi any more to try to achieve national healthcare or national this and national that. Instead, they should focus on improving policy in the states where they are in control. Basically, they need to change their views on federalism.

Secondly, I think the parties need to be more elitist. Neither of the parties’ nominees should have ever been nominated.  Clinton should not have been the Democratic nominee; Trump should not have been the Republican nominee. We’ve only had 40 years of primaries and caucuses determining nominees. Before that, we had a system of party delegates choosing nominees, and I think we should return to some version of that system. Everyday Democrats and Republicans in the electorate can vote on electing delegates to state conventions, but we need to restore the power of the parties to choose their nominees.

Third, I think Democrats especially need to figure out how to win these Trump voters. You can’t dismiss half of the country as deplorable and win elections. The Democrats — and the Republicans too — need to figure out how to translate popular will into a workable agenda that speaks to people.

Wasn’t Hillary Clinton popular among the Democratic elite?

Somewhat. If you look at all of her attributes before the start of the primaries, she had extremely high negatives and lots of clear vulnerabilities. I don’t think the elites had much choice once she decided to run and was popular among a large segment of primary voters. The elites don’t have much control over the process. They end up following the lead of the voters because they don’t want to be in the bad graces of their activists, but I wonder if there was a smoke-filled room of Democratic Party elites, whether they would have chosen Hillary Clinton. I think they would have chosen Vice President Biden. Clinton had too many obvious vulnerabilities going into this.

Were you surprised that Trump was able to turn reliably blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin red on the electoral map?

It’s a big surprise that he was able to win those states, but, in some sense, it wasn’t so surprising because he was targeting disaffected, white, blue-collar voters — that’s his base. It’s a surprise that he was able to effectively mobilize them to vote and it’s a surprise that the Clinton campaign didn’t do a better job reaching white voters who have voted Democratic in the past, but also African American voters in these states and other core supporters. Democrats more or less took Michigan and Wisconsin for granted. Maybe a stronger ground game and more visits to those states would have helped her.

The debates, in which Clinton was perceived to have outperformed Trump, didn’t seem to have much impact on the outcome of the vote. Are the debates meaningless in terms of persuading large groups of people to vote one way or the other?

I think in some ways that’s right. It’s hard to know whether the debates are meaningless or whether Trump is just a unique kind of character who can drive voters differently than conventional candidates. Obviously, most people don’t have the capacity to garner earned media like Trump did. Other candidates would love that kind of attention if they could pull it off. But the standard vetting process we have for candidates, including the debates, did not seem to affect his ability to win.

I think Democrats did things that were gratifying for them but weren’t necessarily effective at communicating policy or connecting with everyday voters. Likewise, I believe that if Trump goes ahead and implements what he articulated as his priorities, then many of his voters will turn against him because I don’t really think that they have thought this through. I don’t think they’ve fully considered what will happen if Obamacare is repealed; if we enter trade wars; if we have a completely destabilized world order. I think his voters will turn against him because I don’t think this was a thoughtful move. It was an emotional move and one in which the voters misperceived the stakes. 

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