538 predicts Hillary has a 65% chance of winning the election to Trump’s 35%. New York Times says it’s more like 84% Hillary and 16% Trump. Both sites agree both candidates will get somewhere between 40% and 50% of the popular vote, and that Hillary seems to lead Trump by 3%. The smart money is on Hillary, but at this point either major candidate could win.
Lots of things can happen tomorrow. Maybe it rains in Philadelphia, that city’s racially diverse and left-leaning voters stay home, and Pennsylvania goes for Trump, winning him the election. Maybe there’s a really good get-out-the-vote campaign among Hispanics, and Florida ends up being Trump 48 Hillary 52 instead of the projected Trump 52 Hillary 48. Maybe the Department of Agriculture announces that Hillary is under investigation for bringing exotic weevil species into the US, and the population turns against her en masse.
And someone is going to confuse this kind of stuff with deep insight into the state of the country.
In June 2016, Jon Wiener of The Nation wrote Relax, Donald Trump Can’t Win, about how the media is incentivized to make races look competitive but an understanding of political fundamentals proved that there was no way for Trump to actually make it.
On the other hand, a few days ago Scott Adams reiterated his long-standing prediction of a 98% chance Trump wins in a landslide.
I’m worried that one of these two things will happen on Wednesday:
Either Hillary wins, and everybody agrees that Jon Wiener and various other people like him were right, that the fundamentals made a Trump win impossible, that Trump was a random clown who never had a chance anyway, that the people who warned us to beware of Trump were crying wolf, that this proves that nationalism is a spent force in politics, et cetera.
Or Trump wins, and everybody agrees that Scott Adams was a genius, that Wiener was an idiot, that Trump is a brilliant “master persuader”, that this proves that the 21st century will be a century of renewed nationalist power, that the white working class is sexist, that elites need to realize the precariousness of their position within a democratic system, or whatever.
Imagine that the deciding factor really is a rainstorm in Philadelphia. There was a rainstorm in Philly, therefore nationalism is one of the great motivating forces in human affairs? It was a clear sunny day in Philly, therefore nationalism doesn’t matter anymore? The difference between nationalism being all-powerful and irrelevant is whether there was a cold front over the mid-Atlantic region?
But with a race this close, any deciding factor is going to be about as random as a rainstorm over Philadelphia. Maybe the pollsters made some kind of big mistake and missed shy Trump voters, and the vote goes Trump 47% Hillary 45% instead of the predicted Hillary 47% Trump 45%. So what? The difference between a proof of nationalism’s vigor versus proof its impotence is which candidate gets 47% vs. 45%? Really?
If a Trump victory tomorrow would convince you that X is true, I suggest that you believe X is true regardless of whether or not Trump wins, because Trump’s victory almost certainly will depend more on noise than on X. If a Hillary victory tomorrow would convince you that Y is true, I suggest that you believe Y is true regardless of whether or not Hillary wins, for the same reason. If there’s some Z that you will believe only if Trump wins but not if Hillary wins, then I suggest you seriously reconsider what thought process has led you to decide that you will flip your views on politics and society depending on whether or not there’s a rainstorm or a 2% polling error or whatever.
Instead, I suggest people precommit to their views on politics and society now. We live in a country and a world where Hillary can be at about 47% and Trump at about 45%. This is pretty much all you need to know. It suggests that a lot of people are willing to support a nationalist candidate, and a lot of other people really hate that candidate. It suggests that political fundamentals are totally compatible with a situation where either Trump or Hillary could win based on noise in the electoral process.
(unless the polls are totally wrong and one candidate somehow wins in a 20 percentage point landslide or something)
It also suggests that both Wiener and Adams were wrong to be so confident in their respective predictions. If either one is right, it will be mostly by luck. Wiener tells us to “relax” because Trump can never win, and maybe Trump doesn’t win, but the fact is that even if Trump loses we were one Hillary gaffe away from the opposite result and shouldn’t have relaxed at all. Adams says there’s been a 98% chance of a Trump win since last year, but the polls make it look a lot like Trump only has a chance at all because of the total coincidence of Hillary getting hit by a new FBI investigation two weeks before Election Day.
I already count both Wiener and Adams as having been proven wrong regardless of what happens tomorrow. Any further praise or condemnation launched at one or the other after the election is just interpreting noise, or at least a signal so subtle that it might as well be.
If both Wiener’s extreme pro-Hillary prediction and Adams’ extreme pro-Trump prediction are bad, what would a good prediction look like? In January of this year, I predicted that, conditional on Trump winning the Republican primary, he would have a 20% chance of winning the election. Well, Trump won the Republican primary. And today, the day before the election, the prediction markets give Trump’s chance of winning as 17.9%.
If Trump wins anyway, I’ll have egg on my face and it’ll look bad when I grade my prediction accuracy next year. But I don’t think I would fundamentally update the way I think about America or the way I make predictions. No prediction can account for every rainstorm. I think I got the fundamentals right, and if I end up losing on noise I can at least take solace in knowing that is soon to be the least of our problems.
[EDIT: I agree the election results can obviously change the future! Maybe if Trump wins he’ll enact nationalistic policy that will make people more nationalist. But the results shouldn’t change our interpretation of existing trends.]