As the votes came in on November 8, almost everyone in the country got caught by surprise. No one, not even Nate Silver (he the famed poll tabulator of fivethirtyeight.com fame), gave Donald Trump more than a long-shot’s chance of winning the presidential election. To be specific, on the morning of Election Day, Silver posted Trump’s chances at less than 3 in 10, and he was the most optimistic prognosticator of all the poll calculators. (The New York Times previously respected estimate had Trump at less than 10 to 1 to win, or to put a percentage on it, at approximately 9% against Clinton’s 91%.)
And so it is fair to say that no one saw the election of Trump as a realistic plausibility. Reports from inside his campaign indicate that not even The Donald himself thought he was going to win. Team Trump felt it would take a minor miracle, kind of like drawing to an inside straight with three of the four possible cards already face up on the table.
And yet, starting at around 9:00 in the east, the signs started to show a possible upset in the making, and by 11:00, the tables had turned. Trump had won Ohio, Florida and North Carolina and was leading in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Sometime after 2:00, Clinton gave up, placed the dreaded phone call to her rival and conceded.
So, what happened? How did the long-shot who, according to “reliable insiders,” would announce the start of a new TV network shortly after the election, instead set out to pick a cabinet and take the oath of office on January 20, 2017?
The easy answer to that question is to point to James Comey, the FBI Director who shot an arrow into the heart of the Hillary Clinton campaign when he inappropriately announced just eleven days before the election that new material had come to the bureau’s attention on a lap top computer owned by Anthony Weiner that contained emails that may have originated from then Secretary of State Clinton’s private server. Suddenly, a flailing campaign (Clinton was six or seven points ahead of Trump on an average of all polls at the time) had new life, and Trump ran with the most negative interpretation of Comey’s announcement as he could devise from that day until the election was in the can. He even continued his claim that Clinton was as good as convicted after Comey recanted his original message two days before the election.
On election morning, Clinton’s lead was down to two-and-a-half or three points, a drop of about four in that eleven day period. And, while those polls were off, they really weren’t off by that much. When all of the votes are finally counted, she will have won the popular count by somewhere between one-and-a-half to two percentage points (her margin will be well over two million by then). So, it’s safe to say that this election will be the most out of whack in the nation’s history when comparing Electoral College votes and popular votes. In other words, it will be the most incongruous election under the Electoral College method of selecting the nation’s president.
But the Comey effect worked just enough in the blue-wall states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, and those three states gave Trump the EC edge. He will take office with a mandate of his own making, not one that the voters provided to him. But falsehoods, like claiming an electoral mandate, have never bothered Donald J. Trump. In fact, going back to the start of his campaign some eighteen months ago, a case can be made that falsehoods (otherwise called “lies”) are the reason he got to the point of being the Republican nominee.
He started by declaring that he would build a wall and have Mexico pay for it (don’t hold your breath on that one) to keep the rapists and criminals who swarm into America from destroying the country. He then claimed Muslims had been dancing with joy while the Twin Towers were falling on 9/11 (the TV shots he claimed prove the point don’t exist). And, of course, even before he declared his candidacy, he had pushed the birther charge against President Obama for five years, never acknowledging its falsity (even when he blandly announced Obama was born in the United States while blaming Hillary Clinton for starting the false charge).
The man is a pathological liar, and he was widely so perceived until he began to turn that charge against his Republican rivals. “You are such a liar!” he shouted at Ted Cruz at one point when Cruz meekly pointed out that Trump had been lying. It was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but most Republican primary voters bought it.
Or, more likely, they just preferred Trump’s campaign persona over those of his sixteen opponents. And it’s easy to see why. If you study Trump’s campaign issues, they come right out of the combination of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News (Hannity and friends), and Breitbart and the alt-right. His neo-populist pitch is really a veiled return to racist sentiments. “Make America great again” is a euphemism for “make America white again.” It appeals to the less educated, minimally employed, struggling descendants of European immigrants who think America was great when assembly-line jobs were plentiful and minority rights were fringe issues.
And so, one by one, his Republican rivals bit the dust, as the media gave Trump hours and hours of free coverage, with his rambling diatribes proving to be good entertainment. Rarely was he challenged in the press coverage, and almost never by the “journalists” who populate cable TV. And so he built a following (from three percent in the first poll to party nominee a year later).
From there the path got more difficult, as responsible reporters and editorial writers started to call him on his lies and his bigotry. And he was on his way to losing when Comey did his thing. History will make much more of that “October surprise” than most commentators are now. The “Comey effect” is likely to become an iconic reference to how an election was turned upside down, of how, in a nutshell, a demagogue became the President of the United States.