Hatch Foundation Washington Update: Trump lost, but Trumpism won . . . How the pollsters botched it again

One of the best political  e-newsletters that help readers keep up to speed on politics and public policy is the Washington Update produced by The Orrin G. Hatch Foundation and Executive Director Matt Sandgren.

The special edition recapping the 2020 election newsletter provides excellent insights on how Trump lost, but Trumpism won, how the progressive agenda lost, how Biden’s “boring” politics won, and how the pollsters got it wrong again.

Subscribe by sending a message to [email protected]. Here are some excerpts:

Counterintuitive as it may sound, here’s one way to think about the mixed results of the 2020 election: Trump may have lost, but Trumpism won.

By the latest counts, the President fell short in many of the same battleground states he won in 2016. But congressional candidates running on the Trump agenda outperformed expectations.

Case in point: Republican Senators Thom Tillis, Susan Collins, and Joni Ernst.

National polls had all three candidates trailing on election day, yet all three won. And they didn’t win by running away from the President’s agenda but by embracing some of his signature policies, from increasing security at the southern border to combating China on its unfair trade practices.

Another example: Georgia. President Trump lost the state by a narrow margin, but Senators Perdue and Loeffler-both Republicans-are favored to win in the January runoff election. It’s worth noting that both candidates tied themselves closely to Trump throughout the general campaign as a way to turn out voters.

So what’s going on? How is it that Republican House and Senate candidates across the country won riding on the coattails of a candidate who appears to have lost? When a party’s presidential nominee falls short, doesn’t that normally have negative implications for candidates down the ballot?

Normally, yes. But 2020 was anything but a normal election year-and Donald Trump was anything but a normal candidate.

Dissecting Donald Trump: One of Trump’s greatest strengths was his appeal to working-class Americans-a group that has traditionally voted Democrat. One of his greatest weaknesses, however, was his support among suburban voters, a reliably Republican bloc that has been turned away in large numbers by Trump’s tweets and rhetoric.

In the latest election, it looks as if many suburban voters didn’t vote for Trump at the top of the ticket but voted Republican the rest of the way down. Down-ballot Republicans, meanwhile, were buoyed by the new coalition of working-class voters Trump has brought into the party-and this was just enough to put them over the edge in key House and Senate races.

So here’s the irony: it might be because of Trump (and his abrasive style) that Republicans lose the White House-but it also might be because of Trump (and his appeal to working-class voters) that Republicans will likely keep the Senate while making significant gains in the House.

Looking ahead to future elections, Republican Party leaders have their work cut out for them. Their task is to bridge the suburban-rural divide with a platform that appeals just as much to soccer moms as it does to the blue-collar voters Trump brought into the party.

The big question: Is it even possible to bridge this divide? And is there a future for Trumpism without Trump? A number of rising stars in the Republican Party think the answer is yes-and they’re all vying to be the party’s next leader. Keep an eye on Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Marco Rubio in particular.

Biden’s ‘Boring’ politics:

Biden’s foresight: From the day he announced his campaign, President-elect Joe Biden faced near-constant pressure from his left flank to adopt policies that were out of step with the American mainstream, such as Medicare for All. Endorsing these policies would have boosted Biden’s support in the Democratic Primary, but it would have doomed him in the general campaign. Biden intuited this when few others did.

Staying on brand: For adopting more moderate positions, Biden was often criticized by members of his own party for being an “uninspiring,” “bland,” or “boring” candidate. But Biden didn’t budge, and in key cases, he even pushed back against fringe ideas such as the “Defund the Police” movement by underscoring the need for reform, including mental health and drug abuse treatment projects.

In the end, it was Biden’s “boringness” that is likely to get him over the finish line. In one of the most abnormal years in American history, he knew that Americans wanted normalcy and predictability. And so, he stuck to a more traditional Democratic platform throughout, despite enormous pressure from the most progressive elements of his party to do otherwise.

Progressive agenda loses:

Big hopes: Heading into November, Democrats had every expectation that they would win both the White House and the Senate, paving the way for them to enact the most ambitious progressive agenda in a generation. According to the polls, this election would be a massive rebuke of the Republican platform.

Until it wasn’t.

Despite all forecasts, Republicans are poised to keep the Senate. If Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler win their runoff elections in Georgia (which is likely), then Republicans would have a 52-seat majority and a guaranteed check on a Biden White House and a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

What this means for progressives is nothing good. Their hopes of abolishing the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, passing statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, and enacting a Green New Deal? All gone. Democrats thought they would be running the tables in Washington next year. Instead, they’ll be asking Republicans to come to the table to hash out deals on stimulus spending, police reform, infrastructure, and more.

The big question: If Democrats control the White House but Republicans control the Senate, would anything get done in the next couple years?

In this scenario, there are two possibilities:

  1.  Due to divided government and rising polarization, the gridlock in Washington would be worse than ever, and nothing would get done outside of the bare necessities: confirming Biden’s cabinet, keeping the government funded, and maintaining a robust COVID response.

Or maybe-just maybe-the Senate and the White House would find a way to work together on infrastructure, criminal justice, and possibly immigration reform. After all, Joe Biden has deep ties to the Senate, having served there for 36 years. He and Mitch McConnell are former colleagues who both represent the Senate’s “old school.” Would that increase the chances the two of them could strike a deal on any number of initiatives?

The ‘experts’ lose again:

Catch me up: If 2016 called into question the credibility of public polling, then 2020 all but destroyed it. After the debacle of 2016, pollsters had four years to adjust their methodologies to reach the ever-elusive “shy Trump voter”-and somehow, they did even worse the second time around.

Heading into this election, the RealClearPolitics Average-which takes the mean of all major national polls-showed Biden up 7.2 points over Trump. Biden ended up winning the popular vote but by only about half that margin. The race, both nationally and in key battleground states, was far closer than almost every national poll predicted. And in an overwhelming majority of cases, the polls were flat-out wrong.

But that’s not all: The polls didn’t just blow it in the presidential race; in House and Senate races across the country, they proved to be even more wildly inaccurate.

Exhibit A: Maine.

Newspapers were already writing the political epitaph for embattled Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in the leadup to election day. A Republican representing a blue state, Collins was thought to be the most vulnerable incumbent in the Senate. A Quinnipiac University Poll, for example, had her trailing Sara Gideon by as much as 12 points. But in the end, Collins ended up winning the state by nearly 9 points.

So what went wrong? A number of things:

  1.  Selection bias: One of the central problems with polling today is that the people most likely to respond are those who follow politics religiously as opposed to the average voter. This brings out the most passionate partisans on both sides, but more so on the Left than on the Right.

Why? Because conservatives are five times less likely than progressives to participate in polls. This disparity means that pollsters have to work five times as hard to track down conservatives to get a truly representative sample of public opinion.

  1.  Social-desirability bias: Instead of telling the truth, have you ever told someone what you know they want to hear just to put on a good face? Most of us call this going along to get along-but in the polling industry, they call it social-desirability bias, and it’s one of the biggest obstacles in reaching shy Republican voters.

What this looks like: To avoid judgment, respondents will often tell pollsters they are voting for Democratic candidates even if they have no intention of doing so. The inability to factor in social-desirability bias is just one reason why polls are often skewed for Democrats.

The big picture: The inability of pollsters to reach conservatives is a symptom of a much larger problem: cancel culture and the chilling of free speech. There’s a reason the shy Trump voter exists in the first place. Millions of Americans refuse to express their true opinions, not only around pollsters but around friends and family as well.

Why? Because they fear the public, social, and even professional consequences of doing so. Pollsters can tweak their methodology all they want-but until we, as a society, can restore a climate of free speech and healthy debate, it will be nearly impossible to gauge people’s honest opinions.

  1.  Time: It can take up to 25 minutes to answer a polling survey over the phone, and many people simply don’t have the time. According to Pew, 36 percent of Americans would answer polling surveys in 1997; today, that number has dropped to just 6 percent.

One way to get around this is making polls shorter and more efficient by either shortening the amount of questions asked or conducting polls over text or email.

Expert’s take: Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group was one of the only pollsters to correctly predict the 2016 outcome. And in 2020, he was one of the few to predict Trump’s surprise upsets in key battleground states such as Florida. He explains what pollsters get right and what they get wrong in this exclusive interview with Rich Lowry of National Review.

Go deeper:

The failure of pollsters in the 2020 election only deepens the mistrust many Americans feel toward the expert class. To learn more about the growing trust deficit and what’s driving it, read Orrin Hatch’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.