by Bob Cesca
For several months now, I’ve been repeating a mantra that I picked up from the old “Don & Mike” radio show where I worked as an intern and production assistant way back in the early 1990s. “Don’t get happy” is intended as a warning against becoming complacent in the face of success. It functions nicely in both radio and real life, and, not least of all, the current election.
It’s not just a random maxim, nor have I carelessly shoehorned it into my narrative about the election. Democrats need reminding. They need a kick in the ass or else they stay home. Typically, Democrats need to be reminded that getting happy and believing that their candidate will easily win is a recipe for disaster.
How do I know this for sure? We need only rewind to the Michigan primary earlier in the year when Bernie Sanders defied the polls and won the state’s delegates. Hillary was favored to win the state, of course, but, more importantly, leading up to the big day there was much discussion on the left about how she held an insurmountable lead overall. Consequently, more than a few Democrats either stayed home or they voted in the Republican primary in order to flummox Donald Trump in his fight against Ted Cruz. I mean, she was poised to walk away with the primary anyway, so why not?
Likewise, it’s quite possible — indeed, almost certain — that if Hillary holds a greater than, say, a five point lead nationally going into November 8, Democratic turnout will be lower than if the national polls showed a tight or tied contest. In fact, even if it’s really close, Dem turnout could be lower simply because the conventional wisdom online and off is that she’s going to win in a blowout.
Michael McDonald, a political scientist at University of Florida told Reuters,“Turnout is correlated with levels of competition — the higher the competition, the higher the turnout.”
As of right now, the competition is heavily lopsided in Hillary’s favor — with several caveats, which we’ll discuss in a second. Again, the bigger her lead is, the fewer Dems will turn out. As of this writing, Nate Silver’s “Now-cast” puts Hillary’s chances of winning at 85.3 percent, just a few points lower than her high water mark in early August. According to Silver’s model, if the election were held today, she’d walk away with 331 electoral votes, which is pretty damn close to a landslide, nabbing red Arizona along with nearly all of Obama’s 2008 states.
But don’t get happy.
The polls also show Hillary winning only by a scant three points in Florida; she’s up by less than three points in North Carolina; she’s up by a narrow one point in Ohio; she’s up by just over three points in Nevada; and, unfortunately, Iowa has slipped back into Trump’s nub-like hands. Dammit. The really bad news is that Trump is gaining in many of these battleground states — not declining as he ought to be.
That’s a big fucking deal. Trump’s chances nationally have risen by five points, according to FiveThirtyEight, in just 14 days. While his odds of winning haven’t climbed higher than 15 percent since October 5, just before the second debate, he’s still improving in spite of the fact that his campaign is in complete disarray. Hilariously so. Let’s do the list: he only has two or three regular surrogates, one of them has gone full Cuckoo’s Nest (Giuliani); he’s wasting time in Washington, DC this week, a massive Democratic hub, for the opening of his stupid hotel; more women continue to emerge, accusing him of sexual assault; he’s way behind on money; and his rallies have devolved into more screeching and whining than ever before.
And yet he’s improving. Slightly, but still improving. This tells us that some voters who were leaning Hillary are now leaning Trump. It also tells us that some undecided Republicans are “coming home” to Trump. Again, we return to our friendly neighborhood wizard, Nate Silver:
Democrats have nothing to worry about, right? Nope, we wouldn’t say that, either. The race could easily tighten further. And our forecast gives Trump better odds than most other models because it accounts for the possibility of a systemic polling error, a greater risk than people may assume.
I don’t know about you, but that paragraph scared the living piss out of me.
In addition, you might recall the quadrennial phenomenon known as the Bradley Effect. There’s a possibility that Trump and/or Hillary supporters aren’t telling pollsters who they’re voting for. It’s possible that it’ll be a wash, with both sides canceling out the other, but it’s also fair to suggest that there are more people who are embarrassed to say they’re voting for Trump than Hillary, given the ongoing negative Trump stories in the news. This means there could be more Trump voters than are confessing to it. Then again, there also could be countless unknown Hillary voters who are afraid to admit to pollsters or their pro-Trump spouses that they’re going with her.
Anecdotally, I’m also seeing a lot of Democrats online already engaging in schadenfreude and happy-dances even though we’re two long weeks out. The best analogy I can come up with to explain what’s happening is the phenomenon of “senior slump.” High school seniors, with college acceptance letters in hand and with graduation a foregone conclusion, tend to slack off during their final semester. I know I did. It’s all napping and partying once college is locked down for twelfth graders. Similarly, Democrats have been observing Trump’s slow-motion disintegration and Hillary’s record-high polling margins and they’re getting happy. They’re slumping. And it’s not good.
Sure, there are dozens of variables at play here. Early voting appears to be benefiting Hillary, given how voters began casting their ballots while Trump was at his very worst — while the Alicia Machado and Access Hollywood scandals, along with Trump’s coked up debate performances (“No puppet! No puppet!”). It’s conceivable that Hillary’s early votes will compensate for any possibly lagging turnout on Election Day itself.
Nevertheless, we’ve been surprised many times before. I’m old enough to remember 2004 when exit polls were showing a John Kerry landslide. They turned out to be premature and poorly reported, but they existed anyway. Democrats got happy, turnout was driven down and Bush won. Perhaps it was the exit polls, or perhaps it was just Bush’s year. Either way, do the Dems really want to leave such things to chance? They shouldn’t. Fact: Republicans always have a better shot at winning whenever turnout is low, hence the reason they keep picking up seats in the midterms — Democrats tend to stay home unless there’s a rock star to chase. Shameful.
The upshot is that the election isn’t over. Trump is gaining and stranger things have happened in American elections. And, so far, this election has been anything but normal, or predictable.
So for heaven’s sake, don’t get happy. Vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does.
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