Eight Things We Learned in This Election
Friday, November 11th, 2016
The unique and fascinating 2016 presidential election will be reviewed, analyzed and dissected for years. In the short term, here are eight things we learned from the American people's perspective as the campaign progressed.
1. Everything About This Election Was Negative
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the two most negatively evaluated candidates in Gallup's history. Our probing of how strongly Americans felt in their opinions of the candidates shows that the emotion was much more on the negative side of the ledger than the positive. Even groups at the far ends of the partisan/ideological spectrum -- liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans -- had favorable views of Clinton and Trump, respectively, that were not strongly held, but views of the opposition candidate that overwhelmingly were strongly unfavorable.
Americans' views of the negative tone of this campaign were the highest in Gallup's history. Interestingly, satisfaction with the way Trump ran his campaign was the lowest we have ever measured, while Clinton's was the third lowest.
A summer question conducted as part of Gallup's World Poll showed a 10-percentage-point drop in Americans' confidence in the "honesty of elections," which probably was based partly on their views of the way elections are financed and the connection between big money and the campaigns.
Americans' enthusiasm about voting on the eve of the election was the lowest we have measured over the past four elections. That goes along with preliminary official data showing that turnout this year was the lowest since 2000.
All of these indicators underscore the skeptical, cynical and critical approach Americans took to the whole election process this year, and -- in my opinion -- are indicative of the suspicions many Americans have for all aspects of the political process in today's United States. The irony here is that Trump was able to rise to victory in the political process because he was critical of that self-same process.
2. Trump's Perceived Lack of Qualifications Worked to His Advantage
Voters seemed to be willing to accept Trump's lack of experience and "presidential" qualities -- most likely because they assumed that someone from the outside was needed to disrupt business as usual in Washington, and throughout the country. Gallup data clearly showed that relatively few voters thought Trump had the personality and leadership qualities a president should have, significantly less than thought the same about Clinton. And, as noted previously, the majority of Americans viewed Trump unfavorably. According to an ABC News analysis of exit polls, even 23% of those who voted for Trump said he wasn't qualified to be president and 20% who voted for him viewed him unfavorably. These people apparently voted for him because they viewed him as being able to bring about major change -- and his lack of traditional qualifications may have, in some voters' minds, been a positive rather than a negative.
3. Trump Figured Out How to Dominate the Public's Consciousness
Gallup tracking showed that Trump for most of the summer and fall managed to edge out Clinton in Americans' day-by-day recall of having read, seen or heard something about the two candidates. Near the end of the campaign, Americans began to report hearing more about Clinton -- but unfortunately for her, this was most likely based primarily on awareness of FBI Director James Comey's announcement about reviewing Clinton associate Huma Abedin's personal emails.
Trump's mastery of the news cycle, based in large part on his decision to issue a continuous stream of what would usually be considered outrageous or politically incorrect assertions and accusations, fit with a strategy that emphasized being in the news more than what that news was about.
4. Americans' Recall of What They Had Read, Seen or Heard About Clinton for the Last Four Months Was Dominated by Emails
Emails became the bane of Clinton's existence in this campaign, and were by far the dominant thing Americans recalled reading, seeing or hearing about her in most weeks throughout the summer and fall. Fittingly, Comey's announcement that he was reviewing Abedin's emails a week before the election fit exactly into the pre-existing perceptions of Clinton's negative association with this electronic form of communication.
Both Clinton and Trump had low ratings on honesty and trustworthiness, but Clinton's image of dishonesty almost certainly hurt her more than Trump's did him.
5. Trump Takes Advantage of Americans' Loss of Faith in the Federal Government
Trump will now be chief executive officer of an entity -- the federal government -- that the average American highly distrusts and highly dislikes. This is, in my opinion, one of the central issues of our time. Trump was able to use these perceptions to his advantage in his campaign, calling in recent days for "draining the swamp" of Washington, D.C. Trump now will find himself in charge of that swamp, and he will be confronted with the same "change the course of a battleship" challenge that many chief executives face. As most who inherit responsibility learn, it's easier to propose massive change in a big organization than to actually bring about that change.
6. Trump Emphasized Big-Picture Theme for the Country as a Whole
I think this is a real key to the election. Clinton's campaign tended to view the U.S. as a collection of individual population groups, all of whom were aggrieved and had problems and concerns that needed individual governmental attention. These included women, LGBT people, the disabled, racial minorities, immigrants, working mothers and children. This approach emphasizes that these groups are being harmed by the system and must fight back.
Trump focused on the big picture of the country -- "Make America Great Again." This is more of what sociologists call a functionalist approach to society -- a look at the system as a whole. The functionalist approach is more positive and is one that -- perhaps for many reasons -- apparently resonated with Trump's voters.
7. Winner of the Popular Vote Lost This Election, Opening Door to Renewed Calls for Dumping Electoral College
Clinton won the popular vote over Trump, and if recent elections are a guide, Clinton's popular-vote margin over Trump will increase as votes continue to be counted over the next week. Although this election has seen less short-term controversy over the Electoral College system than the 2000 election, the popular-vote winner -- then and now -- lost because of the state-by-state nature of electoral votes.
The American public has favored getting rid of the Electoral College system every time Gallup has asked about it, for decades. As Gallup contributor Lance Tarrance explained in his review of the Electoral College system, that's a tall order, mainly because of the difficult hurdles the Founding Fathers put into place to change the Constitution (and because some people perceive that there are benefits to the current system). But this arcane system of electing a president may once again become a major focus in the months ahead.
8. Media Continued to Take a Hit in This Election
Americans' trust in the mass media has reached new lows in recent years, fueled particularly by Republicans' low levels of confidence that the news is being reported fully, accurately and fairly. It is thus not surprising to find that a majority of Americans thought the media in this election were biased toward Clinton. These perceptions were aided by Trump's continual criticism of the media as being biased against him, exemplified by his supporters' derogatory chants against CNN at recent rallies.
Election forecasters almost unanimously predicted that Clinton would win this election, almost certainly reinforcing Trump supporters' conviction that the media and establishment are rigged against Trump and his fellow travelers. Trump, of course, addressed this by figuring out how to reach the public directly through his frequent use of Twitter -- a modern-day variant of President Franklin Roosevelt's attempt to speak directly to the public through his use of "fireside chats" on the radio. Whether Trump will deem it appropriate to continue to tweet out messages late at night once he reaches the White House remains to be seen. It would not be surprising to see Trump develop some new ways of communicating with the public that allow him to bypass traditional press conferences and public statements.