In late September, I ran into Newt Gingrich and, out of curiosity, I asked him how he thought the election would turn out. “There’ll be a surge for Trump at the end,” he said. “There’s only so far that Hillary can go; too many people don’t like her.” I dismissed this as spin, forgetting that for all his erratic nature Gingrich is a bit of a visionary.
Until it happened in 1994, no one outside his small circle believed that he could turn the House of Representatives—in Democratic hands for forty years—into a Republican bastion; hardly anyone took seriously the idea that Gingrich, the rowdy back-bencher, could become speaker. How deeply he believed what he told me about Trump’s chances, I didn’t and still don’t know, but I think my reaction suggests how a great many people thought about this election, up until Tuesday evening: no way it could happen. So it wouldn’t.
People looking for “the reason” Clinton failed in her long-planned effort to become the nation’s first female president are looking for the wrong thing. Elections are complicated and a lot of factors come into play, some barely or not at all discernable. Clinton lost her historic race for a combination of reasons, some almost accidental—falling not many votes short in a given state; the unexpected intervention of the FBI, driven by a collection of agents with longstanding hatred of the Clintons.
The polls are taking a beating now and there’ll be studies of what went wrong till kingdom come. Toward the end of the campaign, the one poll that had Trump ahead—USC/Los Angeles TimesDaybreak tracking poll, which showed him in front at various times when no one else did, and in the end predicted he would win—was widely dismissed as an “outlier,” since it didn’t conform to the other polls, and what almost everyone else believed. The difference between its methodology and that of the others is that it tried to gauge the respondents’ commitment to the candidate and the certainty that they’d vote. A McClatchy/ Marist poll of likely voters taken on November 1–3 was close to the mark, finding that Clinton led Trump by only one point in a four-way race and by two points when just the two were matched. That on election day Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight also had the race closer than others did led many to assume he was getting it wrong.
But in much of the astonished comment about the outcome, Trump’s victory became inflated beyond what it actually was: this wasn’t the Reagan sweep of 1980. His victory was nowhere near the size of Reagan’s and it had little effect on down-ballot candidates. Clinton won the popular vote but not by an overwhelming number—by the latest count she won 400,000 more votes than Trump, who got fewer votes than either Mitt Romney or John McCain.