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Pundit Audit 2016: Everything I got wrong in the year of Trump

In “$pringfield,” the 10th episode of the perfect fifth season of “The Simpsons” — I swear I’m going somewhere with this — Marge Simpson surprises the audience and herself by becoming addicted to slot machines. She’s pulled out of her stupor when she sees how gambling has damaged her family, but as she and Homer leave the casino, her husband cannot resist hectoring her.

“For the first time in our marriage I can finally look down my nose at you,” Homer says. “You have a gambling problem!”

“That’s true,” Marge says. “Will you forgive me?”

“Oh, sure!” Homer says. “Remember when I got caught stealing all those watches from Sears? Well, that’s nothing, because you have a gambling problem! And remember when I let that escaped lunatic in the house ’cause he was dressed like Santa Claus? Well, you have a gambling problem!”

For many, perhaps most, of America’s political journalists, the 2016 election was our “gambling problem,” and our critics are Homer Simpson. Perhaps we got most of the campaign’s stories right, and perhaps we — like the Bush family, like the Republican Party’s most cynical strategists — correctly diagnosed that Donald Trump spent much of the campaign flailing. But few of us thought he would win, and he did. For the vast majority of Americans who say they distrust the media, this was a gift that will never stop giving.

Since 2010, I have ended the year by auditing my predictions and punditry and admitting what I got wrong. So: I thought Trump would make a strong run for the GOP nomination, but until he won the South Carolina primary, I thought he might come up short. (After that primary I didn’t doubt it.) I thought Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, based on two unchanging factors: 1. As recently as early 2014, most Americans said they liked her, and 2. She was running against Trump, who to this day is viewed unfavorably by most voters.

Unlike the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, whose own pundit audit is worth reading, I never doubted the polls. They suggested that Trump would win the Republican nomination (correct) and that he would lose the presidency (much less correct). Having watched some of my peers beclown themselves by asking if big, late-game crowds for Mitt Romney meant that he would beat President Obama, I shrugged at how Trump’s crowds were always bigger than Clinton’s. After all, until June, I was watching Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pack tens of thousands of people into basketball arenas, and then win 4 million fewer votes than Clinton across the Democratic primaries. I also doubted that “shy Trump” voters existed — i.e., voters who would not admit to pollsters that they backed Trump — because support for Trump was so ostentatious.

Anyway, I was wrong. What else was I wrong about?

Feb. 26: Marco Rubio will probably win the Florida primary.

This one jumped out at me in the audit, because after the New Hampshire primary I was pretty skeptical of the idea that everything was coming up Rubio. When this tweet was composed, I didn’t appreciate how much of Florida was casting early votes for the primary (which was coming 20 days later). And while I had conversations with the senator’s team — not known for pessimism — I didn’t realize just how little the Rubio brand had come to mean in Florida. Obviously he built it back up when he decided to stay in the Senate, and I never really doubted that his play-it-safe campaign would overcome the play-it-even-safer efforts of his Democratic rival, Rep. Patrick Murphy.

Aug. 26: Democrats are not blowing the 2016 Senate races.

This is a tough one. In 2016, for the second time this century, Democrats gained seats in Congress and won the popular vote for president but did not win control of either branch of government. And yet, even during Clinton’s rough August, I was giving Republicans too little credit for their defense game. That led me to quibble with a front page New York Times story, by the excellent Jennifer Steinhauer, which asked whether a Democratic Party structurally weakened during the Obama era was going to blow key races.

Tellingly, I pointed out that the national Democratic Party had gotten the candidates it wanted — that “the Democratic establishment pitched a perfect game.” It had indeed recruited candidates in every tough race, and just like Republicans in 2014, it seemed to be putting more states into play. Having seen Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto close up the primary for retiring Sen. Harry M. Reid’s seat, I felt good in arguing that she was better than the D.C. line on her, which was that she was a mediocre politician who would pale next to talented Republican Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.).

But I hadn’t seen former senator Russ Feingold on the trail in Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania Democrat Katie McGinty on the trail in her state. Both enjoyed polling that had them winning their races. Both lost — McGinty by less than two points, Feingold by less than four, both running behind Clinton. The lesson: See more campaigns in person and stay in better communication with the strategists. (Though even a losing campaign can spin you on how it will pull it out.)

Sep. 9: The “deplorables” gaffe was strategically good for Clinton.

I don’t think Clinton lost the election because of her quickly retracted remark that “half” of Trump’s supporters amounted to a “basket of deplorables.” In fact, I’m sure she didn’t. By the end of the third debate, after six weeks when voters could process that gaffe, she was clearly in position to win the presidency. You can’t tell me the late-deciding voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who made up Clinton’s winning margin paused by their coffee makers on Nov. 8 and thought, You know what? I suddenly am wracked with anger at how Clinton said many Trump supporters believe awful things.

My mistake, rather, was in believing that Clinton’s campaign knew what it was doing with its strategy of uniting Democrats with “reasonable” Republicans in a “love Trumps hate” campaign. To many commentators on the left, it was always obvious that Clinton should have been trying to hold on to white working-class Democrats who were wavering because of economic issues, instead of bidding for moderate Republicans wavering because Trump was their party’s nominee. They were right.

Oct. 2: The Trump tax return story might connect with voters.

No laziness here — I was in northwest Ohio when the New York Times broke that story, and the voters I talked to mostly cared about it. But I was not talking to the right voters, and I was stricken with amnesia about one of 2016’s lessons — Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and people would still vote for him.

Nov. 8: Trump seems to be losing this thing, huh?

Being too un-athletic and easily distracted to obsess over sports, I have long prided myself on knowing how to call elections. As late as 8 p.m. on election night, I looked at some traditional bellwether counties, like Florida’s Hillsborough County, and said confidently that Clinton was getting the numbers she needed to win. Spoiler: She was not.

So, as far as I can tell, those were my major clangers (if you see a clanger missing, please email me about it, or call the ClangerWatch hotline*). Having flogged myself for 1,000 words, and read lots of old stories, I’m mostly happy with what I wrote this year. There wasn’t much sloppy punditry. When I poked around a state to assess how the ground game was working, I found kinks for Clinton in Michigan (which she lost), resilient suburban Republicans in Pennsylvania (which she also lost), Latino turnout surging in Texas (which shrunk the Clinton-Trump margin), an outgunned Trump operation in Colorado (which he lost), and grumpy millennials tuning out in Ohio (which he won). Two weeks before the Wisconsin primary, I explained why Trump would likely lose but why it didn’t mean much for his chances at the nomination. Indeed, Wisconsin was the last primary he lost.

But going over my old tweets, I discovered something disturbing — I was the least wrong about the election when I was rolling my eyes. I perpetually derided stories about how this or that development would finally sink Trump or force him from the race; it’s not that I refused to cover #NeverTrumpers, just that I always assumed that partisanship would Trump principle.

The bias of all political journalism is not left-wing or right-wing. The bias is toward conflict. For that reason, I always thought that the voices of Trump’s critics were amplified beyond their electoral relevance.

I was wrong anyway, but to be fair, it wasn’t just journalists who flubbed this. Two days before the election, I was helping to write a story that would run when the polls closed — about the future of the GOP. I called Republican members of Congress for a mixture of on- and off-the-record talks. Each time, I began by saying I’d ask two sets of questions — one that assumed a Trump win and one that assumed a Clinton win. I’ll never forget the first response I got to that question from a Republican senator.

“Why would you even ask about a Trump win?”

In retrospect, like Marge Simpson, it seems we both had a gambling problem.

*This does not exist, and I have resisted my temptation to pretend you can reach it at Phil Bump’s cellphone.

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