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.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

toon
Editorial cartoons for Monday, Feb. 6

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Herald columnist Julie Muhlstein received this card, by mail at her Everett home, from the Texas-based neo-Nazi organization Patriot Front.  The mail came in June, a month after Muhlstein wrote about the group's fliers being posted at Everett Community College and in her neighborhood.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)





(Dan Bates / The Herald)
Editorial: Treat violent extremism as the disease it is

The state Attorney General urges a commission to study a public health response to domestic terrorism.

Comment: End of covid emergency will carry costs for nearly all

Along with an end to free tests, the disease and its expenses will be treated like any other malady.

Comment: Wealth taxes carry too many drawbacks to help states

They discourage savings and investment and it’s difficult to set up a fair system of what they tax.

Comment: Biden’s stock market record pretty close to Trump’s

At similar points in their presidencies, most market measures show little difference between the two men.

Comment: Memphis officials can learn from Minneapolis’ mistakes

After the murder of George Floyd, there were promises of reform, but a lack of specifics stymied the effort.

Comment: Hounding justices’ spouses out of work step too far

Questioning the chief justice’s work as a legal recruiter serves no purpose toward the court’s ethics.

Photo Courtesy The Boeing Co.
On September 30, 1968, the first 747-100 rolled out of Boeing's Everett factory.
Editorial: What Boeing workers built beyond the 747

More than 50 years of building jets leaves an economic and cultural legacy for the city and county.

Marysville School District Superintendent Zac Robbins, who took his role as head of the district last year, speaks during an event kicking off a pro-levy campaign heading into a February election on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, at the Marysville Historical Society Museum in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Voters have role in providing strong schools

A third levy failure for Marysville schools would cause even deeper cuts to what students are owed.

Most Read