The Trump Victory Counterfactual

(Sigh) I feared I’d be posting some counterfactuals regarding the results of the 2016 presidential election.  And, as if on cue, Nate Silver has just obliged by providing a fascinating claim:

He writes in this new post:

"So here’s another question. What would have happened if just 1 out of every 100 voters shifted from Trump to Clinton? That would have produced a net shift of 2 percentage points in Clinton’s direction. And instead of the map you see above, we’d have wound up with this result in the Electoral College instead:

"Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida flip back to Clinton, giving her a total of 307 electoral votes. And she’d have won the popular vote by 3 to 4 percentage points, right where the final national polls had the race and in line with Obama’s margin of victory in 2012. If this had happened, the interpretation of the outcome would have been very different — something like this, I’d imagine:

- Republicans simply can’t appeal to enough voters to have a credible chance at the Electoral College. While states like Ohio and Iowa might be slipping away from Democrats, they’ll be more than made up for by the shift of Arizona, North Carolina and Florida into the blue column as demographic changes take hold. Democrats are the coalition of the ascendant

- The United States was more than ready for the first woman president. And they elected her immediately after the first African-American president. With further victories for liberals over the past several years on issues ranging from gay rights to the minimum wage, the arc of progress is unmistakable.

- American political institutions are fairly robust. When a candidate like Trump undermines political norms and violates standards of decency, he’s punished by the voters.

"In light of Trump’s narrow victory, these arguments sound extremely unconvincing. But they’re exactly what we would have been hearing if just 1 out of 100 voters had switched from Trump to Clinton. So consider that there might be at least partial truth in some of these points."

"Likewise, if Clinton had just that small, additional fraction of the vote, people would be smugly dismissing the arguments in the first set of bullet points — even though they, too, would have been just 2 percentage points away from seeming incredibly prescient."

(Earlier in the article Silver presented the following four bullet points:

- The Democrats’ supposed “blue wall” — always a dubious proposition — has crumbled. Indeed, with Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats may have to rebuild their party from the ground up.

- But the Republican Party is also forever changed. The GOP has learned that there’s a bigger market for populism, and a far smaller one for movement conservatism, than many of us imagined. The Party of Reagan has been supplanted by the Party of Trump.

- The divide between cultural “elites” in urban coastal cities and the rest of the country is greater than ever. Clinton improved on President Obama’s performance in portions of the country, such as California, Atlanta and the island of Manhattan. But whereas Obama won Iowa by 10 percentage points in 2008, Clinton lost it by 10 points.

- America hasn’t put its demons — including racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny — behind it. White people still make up the vast majority of the electorate, particularly when considering their share of the Electoral College, and their votes usually determine the winner).

“Interpretation of the polling would also have been very different. If Clinton had done just 2 points better, pollsters would have called the popular-vote margin almost on the nose and correctly identified the winner in all states but North Carolina.”

Silver’s counterfactual underscore how precarious the conclusions are that we draw from contingent events.  While they may seem perfectly obvious in retrospect – indeed, while they often seem predetermined or foreordained – they are anything but. 

Perhaps this can provide some motivation for all of us to realize how important our participation is in the political process.