Robby Thurston (left) and Tamika Morris, volunteers for the rival Trump and Biden campaigns, wave signs in St. Petersburg, Fla., a state where pollsters incorrectly predicted a close victory for Joe Biden. (Zack Wittman / The Washington Post)

Robby Thurston (left) and Tamika Morris, volunteers for the rival Trump and Biden campaigns, wave signs in St. Petersburg, Fla., a state where pollsters incorrectly predicted a close victory for Joe Biden. (Zack Wittman / The Washington Post)

Comment: Here’s what we know: The pollsters and media blew it

Despite forecasts of covid dominating the decision, the election came down to red and blue tribalism.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

By early morning Wednesday, there was a lot that millions of anxious Americans didn’t know.

Mainly, they didn’t know who the president-elect is. That, in itself, wasn’t unexpected, nor is it terrible.

But after consuming hours of news on Tuesday night, and observing the election results thus far, there are a few things that we can be certain of.

• That we should never again put as much stock in public opinion polls, and those who interpret them, as we’ve grown accustomed to doing. Polling seems to be irrevocably broken, or at least our understanding of how seriously to take it is.

The supposedly commanding lead that Joe Biden carried for weeks didn’t last very long into Tuesday evening. This was a lead, remember, that many predicted could result in a landslide Biden victory, help turn the Senate blue, and bring the Democrats amazing victories in red states like Ohio and Florida.

It didn’t take long for that dream to dissipate into a much more typical process of divvying up the states into red and blue, with a lot of unknowns added in. But none of it amounted to the clear repudiation of Trump that a lot of the polling caused us to think was coming. (As for the New York Times “needle” that projected results for Georgia, North Carolina and Florida? Just as in 2016, the way the graphic twitched and swerved throughout the evening once again was capable of provoking a heart attack or, depending on your politics, nausea.)

• The news media, in general, has not done a good job of covering the Latino vote. “One day after this election is over I am going to write a piece about how Latino is a contrived ethnic category that artificially lumps white Cubans with Black Puerto Ricans and Indigenous Guatemalans …” tweeted Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times.

A better, more nuanced understanding might have eased the surprise over how critical portions of Florida voted; particularly the strong support for President Trump in the area around Miami. One exception was an Atlantic article by Christian Paz, “What Liberals Don’t Understand About Pro-Trump Latinos,” that unpacked the president’s grasp of “their unique worldview, one rooted in deeply held beliefs about individualism, economic opportunity, and traditional social values.”

• Trump has been extremely well-served by encouraging hatred of the media. The endless mainstream political coverage and commentary about how his bungling of a deadly pandemic had changed everything and there would be a huge political price to pay? Apparently that missed the mark.

Instead, it came down, mostly, to tribal red-or-blue politics. It came down to a president who is exceedingly good at assigning damaging labels to his political opponents, at misdirection and yes, at lies. (His opponents are “radical leftists,” for example, or in the case of Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris, “a monster.”) And, of course, Fox News remained the president’s not-so-secret weapon, hammering home his message, serving as his constant guru, muse and megaphone. On Tuesday morning, Fox & Friends touted an “exclusive” interview with Trump; free air time, in other words, as he’s been getting on a daily basis.

• Despite the predictions of how very different 2020 would be — how unlike 2016 — it all seemed terribly familiar on Tuesday night. “We’re looking at static results,” compared to 2016, said a deflated-looking Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, just before 10 p.m.

In 2016, the shocking change away from Democrat-as-sure-bet seemed fresher and in some ways, easier to understand: Hillary Clinton, after all, was a “flawed candidate,” everyone was quick to say. And former FBI director James Comey’s late announcement that reinvigorated the scandal over her email practices was a killer, of course.

This cycle was supposed to be different. Biden, after all, is an unobjectionable white male; unexciting, perhaps, but thoroughly decent. There has been no October surprise to trip him up. He chose a Black woman as his running mate, which should have helped with some voters, and probably did, but probably backfired with others.

But, remarkably, none of that seemed to matter very much. When CBS News correspondent John Dickerson interviewed voters for last Sunday’s “60 Minutes” program, one swing-state Trump loyalist — a white woman — told him that she simply didn’t believe the negative or damaging things about the president that he brought up.

No, that’s just the media spinning fake news, she said.

And that is one of Trump’s great accomplishments: Turning huge swaths of the country against nuanced fact and toward the comforting simplicity of tribe.

Again, this is not over. There may yet be a President Biden and a Vice President Harris. There’s a lot we still don’t know.

But at least one thing is sure. This didn’t go the way we expected it to.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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