A tearful lesson of 2016: Polls don’t matter if people don’t vote

Greg Nash

Ask a well-placed Democrat about Joe Biden’s likelihood of victory in 19 days and you will notice a glimmer of hope tempered by a post-traumatic wince from 2016. Here is my story:

That election night, at about 7 p.m., I strode onstage for a speech at the New York Times, and committed one of the worst punditry blunders of my career. With absolute certitude and no room for error, I proclaimed to an audience of several hundred that Hilary Clinton would be elected president within hours. My co-panelist, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), agreed but, as I recall, smartly qualified his forecast with the added words, “I believe.” 

Me? I didn’t simply believe, I knew. I mean, didn’t everybody? Didn’t you? The election was over. Done. In the bag. It had been drilled into us in the newspapers, on television, in most national polling and in those glittering fundraising bubbles on the Upper West Side and Beverly Hills.

An hour later I arrived at the Javits Center in Manhattan to celebrate with the soon-to-be-Madam-President-elect. I had flashy VIP credentials around my neck and a mini-entourage in tow. We descended a long escalator to the press center, where a multitude of reporters were already polishing their “Clinton Wins” stories. Just as I stepped off the escalator, a friend from a national newspaper approached and asked, “What’s going wrong in southern Florida?”

I had just campaigned for Clinton in southern Florida, so I thought I had a certain expertise about its voting trends. So important was my surrogacy that I was assigned to whip up mostly Jewish retirees in sprawling condo developments with none other than “Bowzer” from the doo-wop group Sha Na Na. (Sha Na Na, by the way, was big in the ’70s — and we were assigned to get-out-the-vote for people in their 80s.) Still, we were well-received and Clinton’s message resonated. (Well, maybe Bowser’s reprise of “Get a Job” resonated more, but there was no reason to doubt a crushing Clinton victory.)

So, when the reporter who stood at the bottom of that Javits Center escalator informed me that the numbers were neck-and-neck in southern Florida, I pushed back with the almost unanimous wisdom of pollsters, pundits, analysts, forecasters and many Las Vegas betters: “She’s going to be president. It’s over.”

Turns out that long downward escalator was a fitting metaphor for the rest of the evening.

I headed to the VIP suite. Usually, people at VIP suites cast their eyes over each other’s shoulders in search of an even more important VIP. Actual eye contact during a conversation is fleeting. But, that night, I noticed everyone was fixed with furrowed brows on a large television screen that showed disappointing early results. Two hours later, the VIPs left our cushy suite, resembling the characters in “Night of the Living Dead.”

If 2016 taught Democrats anything, it was to suspend hubris, remain cautious — and brace ourselves. We should not be caught up in recent headlines such as “Trump’s 2020 polls prove Democrats need to start planning for a Biden White House,” “The Biden blowout scenario” and “Trump’s Struggles Ripple Across the Sun Belt, Endangering G.O.P. Stronghold.” They remind me of the inevitable baseball headlines every spring: “Mets Pitching Rotation Will Dominate.”  

Based on 2016, I’m reading the more sobering analyses of this election, including this week’s Economist: “The race for the White House is a little closer than it looks.” The magazine argues that “differential partisan non-response” (when people whose candidates are doing poorly do not answer a pollster’s calls) shaves points from the Biden lead: According to the Economist, “Whereas the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight.com … give Mr. Biden a lead of nearly 11 percentage points nationwide, our model puts him nine points ahead. Still, even after giving the president a relative boost in the averages, our election model assigns Mr. Trump only a one-in-ten-chance of winning the election.”

Democrats should like those odds. But 2016 — and, for that matter, 2000 — proved to them that odd things happen. Which means they should spend less time planning for victory than making a plan to vote. 

In the event that complacency or the search for perfection or some other irrationality keeps them home and Donald Trump is reelected, I will go to sleep that night to the Sha Na Na version of  “Tears on my Pillow” — “Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart, caused by you, you.” 

Take it away, Bowser. 

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.


Tags 2016 presidential election 2020 presidential election Donald Trump Hakeem Jeffries Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Polling Steve Israel vote

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