What Went Wrong?

megaphone or bullhorn with red not allowed sign or symbol - vectorLast week our class enjoyed had a particularly stimulating discussion over the election results and what affected the outcome. Before reading on, you should know that this is not a politically charged post.  In the words of Evelyn Hall, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This post is not a political commentary; it is merely a psychological observation. I left our class uncomfortable with an unhealthy psychology that has permeated the minds of many voters this cycle (on both sides). While at times it may seem as though my critique will fall upon Hilary Clinton’s supporters, know that I myself voted for Clinton. Furthermore, I believe these psychological tendencies and factual assumptions were likely just as present in supporters of the Republican candidate.

IMG_9104.jpgThere are two questions, seemingly exactly the same: “What went wrong?” they both read. It is after all a fair question to ask. There is the statistical question of what went wrong. Factually speaking, our election outcome defied the standardly accepted odds. Betting odds only a week before placed an 85% chance of a Clinton Victory. On the eve of the election those odds stood at 75% Clinton | 25% Trump. Almost instantaneously, those odds flipped: 25% Clinton | 75% Trump. Consider Brexit this summer; at the last moments before initial reports indicated the contrary, Vegas odds placed the chance of a “stay” vote at above 90% only to be proven wrong hours later. Clearly there has emerged some kind of polling error or sociological error in which we are unable to accurately predict these outcomes. To explore this statistical error is a perfectly healthy discussion. In terms of prediction, something did go severely wrong.
On the other hand, there is the question “What went wrong?” Now, this question might img_9103appear on the page before you as a carbon copy of the question I raised only a few lines ago. Rest assured however, that this is an entirely different question. Unlike it’s twin sibling, this question is not a quizzical inquiry into statistical error. No! This question is one based in political entitlement: a predetermined notion that (for both parties) not only should my candidate win, but my candidate is the only one that can possibly win – anything else would defy the laws of what is supposed to happen in our universe. Perhaps this election was so partisan and housed such extreme deviations in rhetoric that supporters believed it was no less than a given right that their candidate must win. For Republicans, there was the notion that it was their turn, and for Democrats winning elections and supreme court cases had become the norm – anything less than a sweeping victory would be unimaginable.

It is entirely possible that the filter bubble perpetuated these beliefs. Wether on accident or by our own volition, we surround ourselves with like minded individuals. Our social media platforms cater our newsfeed to our interests and the interests of our friends. We live in small circles that tend to involve people of similar backgrounds and education. It’s only natural that as our experiences shape our opinions, our peers undergoing comparable journeys might have similar opinions. The positive feedback in which our opinions are confirmed by their widespread acceptance in our personal communities contributed to the notion that those opinions may be ‘correct.’

south park.jpgAired in the days after the election, South Park’s recent episode featured election viewers in a community center morning the loss of their candidate. One onlooker states, “This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen.” This fictional voter did not only support his candidate, he did not believe that any other outcome was even a possibility. Perhaps we all lost sight of the fact that with an 85% chance of one outcome there remains a 15% chance of an alternate outcome. South Park’s writers noticeably transferred and altered some scenes from their “Clinton Victory” script. It is not so unimaginable that the South Park writers might failed to prepare an alternate script in the event of a Trump Victory.

In class we spoke about the media “kicking themselves” after the election. In the wake of what-have-we-donean ‘unfavorable outcome’ for many news outlets, it suddenly became clear that perhaps their participation in sensational news and even false news stories was inappropriate. Suddenly bloggers, news anchors, and anyone with access to the Internet looked for whom to blame – as if their candidate losing an election could only have occurred if something were to be systematically wrong with the election. Please understand, that it is okay and expected to be upset or surprised with an election outcome. For a moment, I myself was in disbelief. We can voice our opinions and share messages of hope. The real issue lies in the fact that in this election, supporters on both sides did not enter the voting booth to vote for a candidate. Voters exited the booth believing that because they had simply voted for THE president, and no other outcome could be valid.

It is not unlikely that this psychological phenomenon contributed to polling inaccuracies. In an environment in which binary opinions were considered ‘true or false,’ the sharing of opinions and who shares opinions may become distorted. Supporters of both candidates cast not only political judgments but moral judgments upon the other party’s supporters. Political parties were divided by a valley so wide and cavernous that an opposing opinion was considered categorically and unequivocally ‘wrong.’


  1. skuchma215 · ·

    Great post! You make a very good point about the filter bubble that is present in social media. I personally found it hard to believe that Trump won, but I had been reading news and viewing polls that told me Hillary’s chances of losing were slim. I think the disbelief that Trump was elected is present in both Hillary and Trump supporters though, but this is just based off a personal anecdote. My uncle in Pennsylvania is a Trump supporter and he couldn’t believe that Trump won (maybe this has to do with the fact that all his social media friends and followers are liberal). Also I think the South Park writers definitely thought Hillary would win since the half the episode focused on Bill Clinton as the “first gentlemen”.

  2. Interesting insight on the election! I shared that sense of shock when watching the results come in. Reflecting on the past year, I saw maybe 2-3 pro-Trump posts on Facebook, which really enforces the idea of the filter bubble/echo chamber that we live in. Trump supporters who I’ve talked to expressed similar opinions to @skuchma215 ‘s uncle. This makes me think that maybe the assumption that Hillary would win was so strong on the left that people didn’t bother to vote, enabling the Trump win. Regardless, both sides of the aisle and all US citizens can definitely learn a lesson about self-gratifying information versus discourse from this election.

  3. wfbagleyiii · ·

    I like your approach. The filter bubble proves to be a strong player, and the echo chambers we find ourselves in undoubtedly led to some serious surprise. With that said, I think this begs the question: what does the media do? Major outlets have lost the confidence of readers, viewers, etc. and have to gain that back. Facebook and Google seem to be taking steps forward in that process by ensuring fake news stories are no longer present on their sites, but that isn’t going to solve the larger problem. And it concerns me that we have an administration that rode a wave of fury toward the press in their electoral victory. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious (and like a broken record), I have worked as a spokesperson for a very senior Senator on Capitol Hill and can assure you the press corps is filled with really smart, good reporters who do their jobs very well. That said, the echo chamber still exists, and needs to go away. Faith, somehow, needs to be restored in our press, but I just don’t see how that’s possible right now.

  4. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I love your inclusion of this quote in this post. I could not agree more, I feel that if you believe in something and have a different view then I do that is fine, as long as you are respectfully using your freedom of speech. I just feel where we have swayed is that we have become violent in our voice over the past few weeks with the election etc. I feel and agree with you that the media totally put up a bubble that blindsided many.

  5. Nice job articulating the two faces of that same question. I particularly enjoyed your anecdote about the statistical odds changing before and during election day. A lot of people threw shade at the news outlets for the variance in their polls throughout the evening, and I think it was well founded. I was comparing FiveThirtyEight to some of the large newspapers, and it was much more balanced watching the model that only took changes into account after a state had officially been called for one candidate or the other (as opposed to whatever the papers were doing).

    I commented in class, and wanted to reiterate, that I’m still shocked that people were so dismissive of the idea that this election could go the way of Brexit…when there were many similar drivers behind both. I think that we failed ourselves by not seriously considering this possibility. And yes, maybe we were somewhat misled by media outlets, but I think we share some of the blame in what went wrong (x2). We certainly gave the media permission (and really even encouraged them) to propagate the sensational news of this election cycle. We certainly share complicity there, and ought to be kicking ourselves. I’d be interested to see if the Clinton team ever weighs in on what they should’ve done better in order to seal the deal with this election.

  6. mikeknoll98 · ·

    Really great post! This election posed all sorts of problems for the American public and our news outlets. I enjoyed your insight into their after thoughts and your points about using our freedom of speech appropriately. And there is no doubt our media will have to work hard to pick themselves back up after this mess of an election and I think we as the public need to evaluate what we did to enhance this too.

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