“An Inaugural in More Ways Than One:  Uncertain Outcomes and History-Setting Precedents of the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016”

Cynthia L. Miller, M.B.A., Managing Director, Braun Research, Inc. Princeton, New Jersey cmiller@braunresearch.com

November 30, 2016

 “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”
 
Thomas Jefferson 1820

“It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.”
– 
Alexander Hamilton

“The Mode of Electing the President,”
the Federalist Papers, #68, 1788

On April 30, 1789, General George Washington stood on the second-floor balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, the venue of the then-capital city of the relatively newly-formed United States Washington was instrumental in helping to effect.    General Washington took the Oath of Office that mild, pleasant day in 1789 to become the nation’s first President of the United States.

Washington received a unanimous 69 electoral votes to propel him into office, and, even as the nation expanded geographically and demographically, his next term landed him comfortably in the White House with a unanimous 132 electoral votes.

Yet, despite all of his popularity, his road to the White House was paved with uncertainty, doubt and wave after wave of friction while the American Colonies found their place in the world via war and additional conflict that resulted from the war.  Yet this former soldier who all but shunned the office initially, seemed to find a way in which to marshal the fractious, disparate, and somewhat previously-functioning autonomous American States into a relatively coherent whole.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, inherited as the second and third President of the United States, but the paths set before each of them, the paths they would use to guide them toward effective leadership, were even rockier.  Adams assumed his office on March 4, 1797, taking his Oath in Philadelphia (then, the U.S. capital city) in Congress Hall.  Adams was not as popular as Washington and knew it.  Then, Jefferson, because of the way in which the U.S. Constitution was written at the time, essentially had to ‘run’ against another nemesis, Aaron Burr, who was, technically, planned to be Jefferson’s running mate.  Jefferson tied Burr at 73 electoral votes each until the House of Representatives broke the stalemate by ultimately electing Jefferson as President of the United States after thirty-six ballots were cast!  Burr, coming full circle, found his place as Vice President that year.   And Jefferson took his first of his two Oaths of Office on March 4, 1801, in the Senate chamber of the as-yet-unfinished Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Presidential Oaths of Office have, subsequently, been administered 67 times, and the race for this office has not become easier since Washington’s era. It has become increasingly challenging to run and win, and, if anything, while Washington and even Jefferson once dismissed the idea of holding the highest office in the land, and, although they harbored particular arguments that might have prevented each from doing so, in our current century, in 2016, we see multiple variables, stacked upon and within each other like a Rubik’s® Cube all but encouraging a candidate not to run – or, better yet, to press on with even more strength, fortitude and courage.

The 2016 Presidential election, the 58th quadrennial, although nowhere near the type of uneven landscape spiriting Washington into the White House, has experienced a 21st-century version of what could be perceived as a war with many battles – a battle of wits, words, and endurance. In the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, we heard the news that Donald Trump, a Republican, was elected President of the United States. And, later that morning, we heard the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, make her concession speech to her supporters.

As it happened, after the most historic and tumultuous pre-election phase and General Election we have ever had, all 50 States have now been ‘called,’ with Michigan’s results having been called just this past November 28th. Hillary Clinton, has won the popular vote by inching out Donald Trump, 48% v. 47%, respectively; however, the Presidency belongs to Donald Trump who, because of Alexander Hamilton’s Electoral College System, has won a majority of the N=538 electoral votes needed to secure this office – Donald Trump has received 306 electoral votes, with 232 going to Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump, by many accounts, was not expected to win.  His candidacy, all things considered, appeared to surprise the public, the media, pollsters, and the international community, at every turn – from the time he came down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy to the moment he gave his acceptance speech on November 9th.  Hillary Clinton, long experienced in politics, having been First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, was the generally-expected candidate to win…by the public, the media, pollsters, and the international community.

After the election, across the Internet, across the country, and around the world, the question on everyone’s mind and discussed at length was, ‘how did he do it?’  How did businessman Donald Trump, having never having held political office, become President-Elect Donald Trump, pulling off an upset victory over a candidate whose supporters had fully expected to hear her victory speech on November 9th?  How did the polls, with outcomes and analysis so many followed appear to ‘get it wrong?’ Or how might the polls actually have been right?

We have been conducting political polling for decades, and, through it all, we aim to furnish each study with the best, most reliable, most applicable sample – whether likely voters, registered voters, RDD, or something else.  We write our questionnaires to be free of biases, and, for example, in phone surveys, we brief interviewers extensively to maintain a consistent level of professionalism, courtesy, and lack of bias in administering these surveys. Surveys can try to account for each possible scenario relevant to the populace and geography at that point in time, and we endeavor for any modelling (including any weighting to reflect the Census, for example), to result in what we think will be the likely reality.

Yet, all of the above aside, this year, with most signs and polls pointing to a Clinton victory, the extra step embedded in our process – the Electoral College – and the results we saw coming in on election night, proved many wrong.

Experts and others continue to speculate as to what went wrong (or right), and we might never have the precise reason why.  It is, as noted, a host of factors, factors that, perhaps, were considered but not reflected in polls and results measured:  were new voters (those not in the system with past voting history) part of the analysis?  And, while there was much talk about how African-Americans and Hispanics might sway votes in this state or that one or for one candidate or another, a great deal of focus, post-election, was on the middle-class White male vote and how that might have made ‘all the difference.’ Still other experts mentioned Donald Trump’s appeal to the rural voters.  In Pennsylvania, in the Lancaster County area, for instance, those on country roads saw billboard appeals to the Amish community to send their respective mail-in votes in before Election Day.

Some might wonder whether polls underestimated the degree of discontent in the country or the extent of the effect of investigations into candidate lives in terms of questionnaire content, modelling, sampling, study design and analysis. Likewise, others might say that a new paradigm that accounts for a heightened, collective shift in national and/or state ire was overlooked and must now be a standard in individual models. Some might contend that we ought to add a question to surveys that asks respondents ‘for whom do you intend for your electoral votes to be cast?’  Still others might say nothing is amiss and that polls should be considered within the margin of error…so there is that.  Purely.  Simply.  And, assuming the polls were correct barometers of public opinion at the time in field, perhaps, it was the fact that more voters than anticipated came out to support their personally-preferred candidate.

Were some just uncomfortable revealing their own intended choice for President in a survey – and, specifically, to a stranger within a telephone survey?  Perhaps, too, the latent impact and significance of battleground states were interpreted as an expected and more manageable flame from kindling rather than what became a composite of hardwood erupting into a blazing fire.

And, then, there is the phenomenon of momentum.  It seemed that, despite the news, despite any setbacks plaguing either candidate this election season, Donald Trump surfaced even stronger.  Prior to the election, some polls were showing and commenting on the effect of the undecided voters.  Could they have changed their minds just prior to making their singular section for President in the voting booth that day?  Could some of them just have ignored the rhetoric and make the choice for President based on the most key issues they feel are the ones on which the next President needs to focus?  Emphasis has, of late, been placed on national security. Then, there is the requirement of filling a seat in the Supreme Court.  While rhetoric might have clouded the day for some, the way forward for the country seemed to be, in the end, the order of the day for voters.  And, back to the Electoral College, while a national poll might reveal one thing, with its modelling, analysis and predictions, each of the fifty states can almost be considered its own country – separate voters with distinct needs, various expectations, and differing opinions.  Each of these states, its pre-election polls and anything we do from this point forward, should be studied at length to try to determine how we learn from history.

We might not have been wrong, and we might not have been right, but one thing is certain…after George Washington took his first Oath of Office almost 228 years ago…after the Brexit vote in June to extricate the United Kingdom from the EU after 43 years; after the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years; after French ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy has just been defeated in the recent French primary election…in this era of surprises, via Alexander Hamilton’s Electoral College, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court will swear in the 45th President, Donald J. Trump, into office on January 20, 2017, and history will, again, be made.

 


 

Sources:

 

Doolittle, Amos.  Federal Hall, New York City, site of George Washington’s first inauguration, April 30, 1789. c. 1790, engraving, United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division, Washington, D.C.,

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_inauguration_of_George_Washington.  Accessed November 18, 2016.

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http://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/president.  Accessed November 21, 2016.

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http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/11/07/super-pac-hoping-amish-voters-will-make-election-day-gop-barn-raiser.html.  Accessed November 21, 2016.

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Peale, Rembrandt.  Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jeffersonc. 1800, oil on canvas, White House, Washington, D.C.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson.  Accessed November 18, 2016.

Struyk, Ryan. “Michigan Certifies Donald Trump as Winner of State’s Presidential Race.”  ABC.  ABC News.  November 28, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/michigan-certifies-donald-trump-winner-states-presidential-race/story?id=43826807. Accessed November 30, 2016.

Stuart, Gilbert.  Portrait of George Washington (1732–99).  c. 1797, oil on canvas, Clark Art Institute, Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington.  Accessed November 18, 2016.

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