Was the Election Result a Fluke? And Other Contentious Questions

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Why you should care

Because the hand-wringing reveals deeper truths in American politics.

The election’s over, but Kellyanne Conway hasn’t retired her campaign battle armor.

On Wednesday, the president-elect’s campaign manager seemed to pounce on a high school girl who asked how Conway squared her support for Donald J. Trump with his past lewd comments. “For you to use sexual assault to try to make news here, I think, is unfortunate,” she told the 17-year-old at the American Democracy Conference, hosted by the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato.

Well, the exchange did make some news, with pro- and anti-Trump camps interpreting it through different lenses. But beyond that, participants found plenty to debate about the campaign and election. After Conway’s keynote, panelists, including OZY Editor-in-Chief Carlos Watson, the Atlantic’s Molly Ball and Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, sparred over whether Trump’s win was a fluke, the role of the evangelical vote and whether the media screwed up.

Was Trump’s Win a Fluke?

Conway said some pre-election polls were correct, but erred by assuming independents would side with Hillary Clinton. She believed the campaign’s late attacks on Obamacare, amid reports of rising rates, pushed them over the edge. The fact that Clinton couldn’t get above 47% to 48% support in battleground states was her “47% problem,” Conway said. “Where do we go from here? I think both parties are veering dangerously close to being the party of the elites.”

But while Conway took her victory lap, OZY’s Watson argued hers was a classic case of history written by the victors. “Can I pick a fight today, or is it too early?” he asked. He compared Trump’s victory to the classic 2008 Super Bowl, in which the New York Giants upset the undefeated New England Patriots on a wild fourth-and-long helmet catch from a receiver who would go on to never catch another ball in the NFL again. “That’s how improbable it is that anybody would lose an election by 2 million-plus votes but miraculously squeak out three critical states by 100,000 votes,” Watson said. “All of this revisionist history about X, Y and Z — that’s all it is to me.”


THE FUTURE OF THE OBAMA COALITION?

In the election postmortem, many decried Clinton’s inability to win over the “Obama coalition,” those minority voters who turned out in record numbers to elect the first Black POTUS. Conway suggested her internal polls showed that coalition breaking, and that the Clinton camp must have seen it too, because they put Michelle and Barack Obama on a final-stretch campaign-trail blitz. But Emory’s Abramowitz pushed back. The results were “very, very similar,” he claimed, even if Clinton did win a slightly smaller percentage of African-American and Latino voters.

The difference, perhaps: turnout. Which means Democrats may need to nominate more of a “scrapper,” suggested Watson, comparing Clinton’s campaign to those made by Mitt Romney and Al Gore in the past. “There was not a meaningful magic in any of those candidacies.”

SHOTS FIRED AT EVANGELICALS

“It is fascinating that we would elect someone who is so, to use a young-person term, basic,” said Angela Rye, a liberal CNN political commentator. But she reserved the harshest of criticisms for the white evangelicals that exit polls showed backed Trump by a large majority: “Evangelicals voted for Trump because evangelicals do not believe a woman can lead a house, a church and definitely not the nation.” The generalization received applause from the crowd and wasn’t disputed by any members of the panel, which did not include an evangelical woman.

A MEDIA MEA CULPA — AND THE FIGHT AGAINST FAKE NEWS

When asked whether outsize media coverage aided Trump, the Atlantic’s Ball argued that news outlets painted an accurate portrait of Trump and his positions. “We in the media should not view ourselves as at war with Donald Trump, even if he sees himself as at war with us,” Ball said. Abramowitz said too much coverage of Clinton was negative, and there wasn’t enough substantive policy discussion. Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie said this election had reverted America to a pre-New Deal politics, and that included “a more partisan press”: “If Americans buy into this idea that there is no actor speaking with the truth, then the ability to deliberate our problems falls apart,” Bouie reflected.

On one point, almost everyone agreed: Traditional media will struggle to beat fake news sites that dominate social media. “All we can do is report what’s true; we can’t control what people decide to believe,” Ball said. “I don’t think traditional media can,” Bouie added. “The fundamental problem is people believe what they want to believe,” said Abramowitz. The lone dissenting voice was Watson, who called himself an optimist. “I’ve got a lot more hope and faith in Americans, and if we continue to do our job … two-thirds or three-quarters of the people will hear us.”

OZYWildcard

Square pegs. Round holes.