Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Election 2016

Back in June, I gave Trump a coldhearted 55% chance of winning the 2016 US election. You don't have to believe me, since I recorded it in my file, and never on, where it belongs. My assessment was mostly based on anecdotal observations that recent, related polls have been terribly wrong. Brexit and then Trump's surprise Republican nomination both came as a complete surprise to experts from all sides.

But, despite my dire predictions, it somehow didn't feel that I could be right on the eve of the election. When the final result was revealed, I was just as disturbed as everyone else. In retrospect, I attribute my "successful" prediction mostly to luck combined with my apparently contrarian tendencies, rather than to skill. Nearly a week after the announcement of President Trump, I'm still processing the verdict. Two big questions loom: 1) Why did he win?, and 2) Why didn't we see it coming?

Who voted for him?

Trump's electoral base was quite diverse. Working class whites were only a small part of his base. I was surprised to learn that 37% of 18-29 year olds, and 29% of hispanics voted for him, and that the average Trump voter had an annual income of $71K.

Single issue voters. Many people value only one issue, or weigh a single issue so heavily that others pale in comparison. Fundamentalist Christians may really want a pro-life president. If they care enough about that issue, they would be willing to deal with a Buffoon, and forgive all the hate, racism and bigotry in the world.

People with nothing to lose. I suppose that the economic situation many people are facing are worse than priveledged people like me can fully appreciate. If you are low on Maslow's heirarchy, liberal values tend to fall by the wayside. When offered a chance to burn it down and start fresh, people with nothing are willing to oblige.

Tired of walking on eggshells. The left won the culture war. In many environments: at work, in universities, etc, expressing a dissenting opinion puts you in dire straits. Loud and self-righteous activists have a trained ear, and will be incredibly quick to label you a racist or a bigot for merely entertaining certain notions, or bringing up controversial questions despite no intended harm.

This atmosphere leads to reduced viewport diversity. Without the ability to have an honest, civil conversation about difficult topics, people have fewer opportunities to change their minds, and become deeper and deeper entrenched in their current beliefs.

Genuine xenophobes. Certainly some of Trump's electoral base are actually racist immigrant haters. It's very hard to imagine a racist voting for Hilary. But I continue to believe that the visibility of this small group is magnified by media bias. Turns out it's really interesting to read about crazed people on the fringe.

But as a side note, a group's support of a candidate doesn't imply that all or most of the candidate's supporters are members of the that group. And this statement holds even for deplorables: when the candidate is Trump and the group is the KKK.

Why did he win?

Attention economy. Goebbels supposedly said "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself." Despite his purported hatred of the media, I think Trump was really helped by it. The amount of free publicity Trump's shenanigans received even from the most liberal publications like NYTimes is staggering (and any publicity is good publicity).

Terrible alternatives. It's hard to get excited about a candidate because they won't burn the country down. Many people simply could not in good conscience support Clinton because of legimiate grievances. Yet Trump is clearly a complete Buffoon. And principled voters found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, hence the low turnout.

Complacency due to expected outcomes. In the weeks leading up to the election, many papers prominently featured polls leaning heavily in favor of Clinton. The NYT ran an election forecast on their front page which depicted the race being closest in July, giving Clinton a 30% lead over Trump. The day before the election, Clinton had a whopping 70% lead. Why would you go out and vote if you know that it's going to be Clinton anyway?

Why didn't we see it coming?

Experts and laymen love to tell you what will happen in the the next five years. Yet with Trump and Brexit, we have collectively been unable to predict what will happen the next day. Given this sad observation, whatever model we are using is clearly broken. We must look inward, critically questioning many deeply held assumptions about the world, or be prepared for a lot more surprises.

Polling is broken. A lot of predictions rely on polls. 538 was based mainly on aggregating existing poll data. Nate Silver's theory was that by including enough polling companies, inacuraccies in each poll would be ironed out. Unfortunately, if all of the polls are systematically skewed, this approach is screwed. And I think it is! Most polling is done by phone, which is quite different from a secret ballot. Imagine you are a disenfranchised voter and a pollster from Gallup calls you, you would naturally tell them to go fuck themselves.

Filter bubbles distort reality. On election day, my twitter feed proudly announced that "I'm With Her". The day after, when Trump won, people mourned, observed that it was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, ushered in the antichrist and took to the streets yelling "Not My President!". Yet of half the voting population (not my twitter feed though) celebrated a 'uuuuuge victory.

Parting thoughts

The world is shrinking, and this is not always a good thing. Long ago, you would be born into a village, hang out with the butcher and the baker and be forced, by virtue of your birth, to listen to the candlestick maker's racist ramblings. Affordable air travel allowed us to self-organize according to professions, beliefs, and lifestyles. Social networks are hypersonic airplanes for the mind. Did someone tweet something you didn't quite like? Relief is just one unfollow away. And so we end up in an increasingly polarized world, a bimodal distribution with increasing peak separation.

I am deeply concerned about the political future of the US. Now is the time for supposedly open minded liberals like me to prove it. This means not running away to Canada, but accepting the democratically elected president. It means turning inward and trying to understand why the world behaves so differently from our internal model, and starting by fixing the model. I recommend Righteous Mind by Jon Haidt as a relevant starting point.

Without conversation, there is no hope.