I was in the Trump bubble
I immersed myself in writing about Trump and became convinced that America would see that he was unqualified for the presidency.
When I think about what I got wrong about the 2016 election the best place to start is with what I got right — and how it ended up warping my thinking.
During the Democratic primaries I thought that Hillary Clinton could not lose because she had such a decisive advantage over Bernie Sanders among black and Hispanic voters. That turned out to be correct, and I believed that it would carry over to the general election and doom Trump’s chances.
During the Republican primaries I concluded early on that Donald’s Trump vulgarity, his unambiguous racism, and his anti-establishment rhetoric would smooth the path to him getting the Republican nomination. At the same time, however, I believed that the awful attributes that allowed Trump to win the Republican nomination would make it impossible for a majority of Americans to support him. I believed that they would see him for who he is — racist, nativist, sexist, and unqualified to hold the nation’s highest office.
Indeed, one of the ironies about my error in judgment is that when it came to Trump, I was in a bubble. I don’t mean the liberal, elite bubble that we’ve heard a lot about since Election Day. I mean, instead, the Trump bubble. I immersed myself in writing about Trump. I went to his rallies. I talked to his supporters. I religiously followed his every statement on Twitter. I wrote dozens and dozens of articles about him. The more I did this, the more I became convinced that no right-minded American could support a candidate so monstrously unqualified for the presidency. I became convinced that his supporters were fringy extremists who stood outside the political mainstream. While I understood that many Republicans would support Trump simply because he had an “R” next to his name, I also talked to many who said they couldn’t imagine voting for Trump under any circumstances. As I wrote on election night, I believed that Americans were better than this, and I was wrong. That’s a criticism of them, but it’s more a criticism of me for not taking more seriously the level of antipathy toward Clinton and the willingness of many white Americans to compartmentalize Trump’s awfulness.
But there was also the fact that virtually every pre-election poll confirmed this view. In Wisconsin, which Clinton lost, no poll showed her losing the state. In Pennsylvania, there were only two polls that showed Trump ahead and they both came in the last week of the campaign — and were put out by Republican pollsters. Polling from Michigan and North Carolina told the same story. Beyond that, there were lots of polls showing Trump faring badly among college educated women. From looking at every available piece of data, it seemed unimaginable that he could win. But confirmation bias is a heck of a thing, and the more I became convinced of my theory of the race, the more I shut out contrary information and glommed on to that evidence which confirmed what I already believed. If this election has taught me anything, it is to imagine the unimaginable in politics and to more rigorously question my assumptions.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.