Beware the Post-Election Narratives

We have a tendency to want everything to fit into neat-and-tidy narratives. But reality rarely works that way, especially in the case of unexpected events.

Thus, while fascinated by the many factors that appear to have affected the result of the 2016 presidential race, I’m also trying to resist the need to have an easy explanation. Depending on the person, casting the result as wholly good or wholly disastrous may be comforting, but doing so simply does not reflect the complex composure of those people, equally created after the image of God as you and me, who actually voted in this country. As Nate Silver pointed out at FiveThirtyEight yesterday, if only 1 in 100 Trump voters chose Clinton instead, the narratives we’d be hearing this week and in the months to come would be very different, even though the actual margin of victory for her would be nearly as close.


In his best-selling book The Black Swan, probabilist Nassim Nicholas Taleb warns against the need for easy narratives to explain the unexpected. Given how unexpected the result of this Tuesday’s election was, it is worth taking some time to review what Taleb calls “the narrative fallacy.”

According to Taleb,

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Yesterday, I reviewed New York Times exit polling data to try to look at what we actually know about who voted for president-elect Donald Trump or Sec. Hillary Clinton. The results, as I noted, were often surprising.

The reason they are surprising is precisely because of what Taleb gets at here: we have a tendency to want everything to fit into neat-and-tidy narratives. But reality rarely works that way, especially in the case of unexpected events. Donald Trump’s win was a Black Swan event to many.

By nearly every poll, Hillary Clinton was the favorite to win (and, of course, it appears she did win the popular vote). The most cautious index I saw was FiveThirtyEight, where to their credit they stressed the probabilistic nature of their forecast. They basically put the odds at 2-to-1 in favor of Clinton, and they even said that her chances were not as good as President Obama’s reelection in 2012. Even so, they too have been reeling at the inaccuracy of, again, basically every poll.

So Trump won. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility (obviously now), but it was certainly unexpected to most, even some of those who gave him a better chance than others. How did it happen?

Ah! There’s the catch! “How did it happen?” is the question everyone wants to have the answer to, no matter if they voted for the winner or one of his opponents. I have seen explanations that run the gamut of apocalyptic to miraculous and many in-between.

Economic Class?

Was it due to economic class division that favored Trump? Partly, but as I noted yesterday, Clinton still won low income voters, according to the NYT exit polls (we will get better data in the days and weeks ahead). People generally qualify this as “white working class” support for Trump. Again, there is definitely something to that, but other indicators clearly mattered too.


Was it due to issues of race, from policing to immigration to white identity politics? The vocal alt-right support for Trump was well (too well?) covered by mainstream media. His restrictionist immigration policy was the flagship of his campaign. He declared himself the “law and order” candidate. Certainly that was all part of his win. People who listed immigration as their top issue voted in large part for Trump, for example. But according to the data Trump also won a greater share of black, Latino, and Asian American voters than did Romney in 2012. This explanation would satisfy many, but it can’t be the whole story. (One problem is clearly that people assume black, Latino, and Asian Americans are all homogeneous groups. But Cuban and Vietnamese Americans, for example, have long voted majority Republican.)

Bernie Sanders?

Was it due to Clinton failing to connect with Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters? There is something to this too. Independent voting was especially high among lower age groups, who favored Sanders in the Democratic primary. (Although, being a member of that group I would stress that not all of them voted in the Democratic primary or even then supported Sanders.) News of DNC support for Clinton during the primaries broke during the presidential debates as well, seeming to confirm the claim of many Sanders supporters that the DNC, beyond their super-delegate system, had its hand on the scale. But one would still expect a much higher turnout for Green party candidate Dr. Jill Stein, for example, if that brand of politics was really a sine qua non for those voters. Maybe they only cared about one or two issues in the end (such as opposition to international trade), and Clinton didn’t offer them as much as Trump. Maybe, but we really don’t know.


Was it due to the Clinton camp failing to reach out to the concerns of disaffected, #NeverTrump conservatives? That was probably a missed opportunity, but either they weren’t as #NeverTrump as they claimed or they weren’t as large a voting block as some imagined. Even in Utah, where independent social conservative Evan McMullin was on the ballot and had seen some strong polling numbers, Trump still won the state handily with 47% of the vote. McMullin, who had been polling above Hillary Clinton, came in third with only 20% in his home state among a voting demographic that looked a lot like him (white, Mormon, socially conservative).

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