Reminders When Interpreting the Election Results

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Daniel Laurison is an assistant professor of sociology at Swarthmore.

Dear students and colleagues, I can’t say I fully understand why Donald Trump is going to be our next President, but I have some suggestions about how we should understand this election.

I personally worked for a Clinton victory, and I am deeply upset by this result. I am also worried for my own queer family, but even more for people of color, immigrants, and Muslims, especially those who have far fewer resources and live in much less supportive communities.  But the thing I keep coming back to is that, although Donald Trump won the election, the kind of Trump supporters who are responsible for the rash of violence and hatred that appears to be sweeping the country right now are not anywhere near a majority or even half the country.

The news tends to talk about only those who voted.  But turnout in this election is estimated at 57% of the voter-eligible population, which means that of the adult citizens over 18 in this country (who don’t live in Puerto Rico and haven’t been disenfranchised due to a felony conviction), about 27% voted for Clinton, 26% for Trump, 3.6% for someone else, and 43% stayed home. Put another way, fewer people voted for Trump than voted for Romney in 2012 or McCain in 2008.

Beyond that, the thing I think it’s most important to remember is that even though all those people voted for Trump, they weren’t all answering the same questions, let alone the same question you or I might have been answering. Most people don’t think about voting or politics the way I and people like me do.

Most people I know, when they voted, were answering questions like
– Who is most qualified?
– Who is most likely to work for some of the policies I believe in?
– Who comes closest to sharing my values and beliefs?
– Who do I want to have to fight when I’m fighting for an end to police violence, an end to wars, an end to economic and racial injustice, to stop climate change? 
– Do I think racism, bullying, Islamophobia, sexual assault and misogyny are OK?

Please don’t assume that most people who voted differently from you were answering those same questions.

Some people who voted Trump (and many who voted for Clinton or other candidates, too) were answering really different kinds of questions: 
– Do I think we need a change in this country?
– Who makes me feel like national politics can include people like me?
– Am I better or worse off than I was a few years ago?
– Am I a Republican? 
– Who are people around me voting for?

Some Trump voters, of course, were deliberately and consciously voting for the racist misogynist (etc etc) bully, and/or, to paraphrase Arlie Hochschild ’62 in her new book, were voting their belief that “other people” have unfairly cut them in the line for a nice life in this country.  But not all of them.

A few other things to keep in mind when thinking about this election:

  1. Groups are not people—watch out for the ecological fallacy.  That’s the tendency to impute to individual members of a group the characteristics of the whole.  When you look at the election map, you see Pennsylvania in red. We in Pennsylvania know that our state was actually very close, and something like 48% of voters in PA voted for Clinton (it should be purple, and will be when this year’s purple maps come out). If you hear about the voting patterns of groups you don’t know or aren’t part of, try to remember that those groups are (almost) all mixed. A few examples:
    1. “Whites without a college degree supported Trump” – it looks like about 67% of those who voted did, which means 33% didn’t, and don’t forget that doesn’t account for the substantial numbers who didn’t vote at all.  
    2. “The rust belt shifted to Trump” – we know that many states that were “blue” last time are “red” this time; we don’t know (yet) whether that’s due to individuals who voted Obama last time voting Trump this time, or different people turning out vs staying home; it’s probably some of both.
  2. Beware single-factor explanations, and be especially reluctant to place blame (or give credit) for the result to just one group.  Just because if one thing had been different (and everything else had remained the same) the outcome would be different, does NOT mean that that factor is the cause of the result.  For example, in a few states that Clinton lost, the Jill Stein vote was larger than the Trump-Clinton difference. Sure, if each and every one of those Stein voters had voted Clinton instead, Clinton would have won more states. But Clinton also would have won if turnout among committed Democrats in a few states had been a few points higher, or if a few more white women had voted for Clinton instead of Trump, or if any number of other shifts of just a few percentage points had come to fruition. People will jump to their favorite explanation; especially this early after the election, it’s pretty easy to find a data point to back up most single-factor assertions.  
  3. Always look for comparisons to understand the numbers you’re seeing. It is less informative to know that 42% of female voters voted for Trump,than to know that that’s only a 2% decrease in support for the Republican compared to 2012.  The NYT election poll breakdown is helpful here in this respect.

In 2004 when George W. Bush was re-elected, I remember thinking “this isn’t my country” and joking about seceding or moving. I genuinely think Trump is scarier and his support harder to make sense of, but this time I know this is indeed my country, flawed and racist and awful as parts of it are, and I’m not even joking about moving. I will keep working to move this country and our world towards the kind of world I want to live in and to leave to my children.

Note: Monday afternoon in Science Center 101, Dean Shá Duncan Smith and Professors Edwin Mayorga, Daniel Laurison, and John Blanchar (possibly with additional faculty and deans, TBA) will hold a class/panel, open to all students, staff and faculty, tentatively titled “Is America Coming Apart? Understanding the 2016 Election.”  Each of us will share our take on why Donald Trump was elected, based on our research and experience, and then we will open the floor to questions and discussion. 

Featured image courtesy of The Associated Press.

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