Leave voter on BBC: “I’m shocked & worried. I voted Leave but didn’t think my vote would count – I never thought it would actually happen.”
— Laura Topham (@LauraTopham) June 24, 2016
I guess there’s no better morning to write this, is there?
When I write about elections, I almost invariably get U.S. voters telling me that, sure, they agree with what I have to say, but they don’t live in a swing state1. Why do they tell me this? They say this when they’re justifying to themselves and trying to justify to me voting for an outcome they don’t want.
- Sure, our presidential election is between a highly effective politician with some bad decisions under her belt and an ignorant, impulsive fascist, but I don’t live in a swing state.
- Sure, women, people of color, sexual minorities, immigrants, etc. are in deep trouble if this election goes the wrong way, but I don’t live in a swing state.
- Sure, the ascendance of the far right wing in Europe is an international crisis we need to not contribute to, but I don’t live in a swing state.
You get the idea.
What I usually tell people is that I lived in Minnesota in 1980, which means I understand like few do that there is no such thing as a state that isn’t a swing state.2 Look at that electoral college map. Look at those “safe” Democratic states. Look at blue Minnesota and understand that our current Democratic governor is the first since the early 1990s. Look at Georgia, part of that Republican South.
Strangely enough, that feeling that certain states are always and forever going to vote a particular way has roots in this election. This was the election that led huge chunks of the Democratic Party to give up hope on a progressive agenda. It’s a trend that didn’t start with this election, and calling Carter’s resounding defeat a referendum on progressivism is quite a stretch. Still, it happened. It’s hard to look at election results like this without feeling they must mean doom for something. Progressivism it was.
So I tell people there’s no such thing as a state that isn’t a swing state because it’s true. Elections go to the people who turn out and cast their vote. Elections go to the people who change their vote because they think the world can change.
I tell people there’s no such thing as a state that isn’t a swing state because one election influences the next. Progressives didn’t believe they could win in Reagan’s America. That meant they didn’t run. The Republicans in my “safe” Democratic city don’t bother to put real, competent candidates on the ballot. Sometimes they don’t run any candidate in a city race. They would if the vote were closer.3
Now I can also tell people that we’re terrible at evaluating what a swing state is in any given election. Unfortunately for the UK, I’ll be pointing to their vote yesterday to leave the European Union. Why?
In a sense, the E.U. referendum joins a pretty long list of election forecasting errors. But this one was a bit different: It was not a cataclysmic polling failure.
The polls consistently indicated that there was a very real chance that Britain would vote to leave. Polling averages even showed “Leave” with a lead for most of the last month; over all, 17 of the 35 surveys conducted in June showed the Leave side with the edge, while just 15 showed Remain ahead.
Yet at the same time, betting markets indicated that Remain was a clear favorite. The arguments for making Remain a favorite were understandable, but in retrospect, some look more like wishful thinking than a fair-minded assessment of the data:
There were polls saying the UK would vote to leave the EU. That wasn’t what prognosticators said, though. Then there were late, even election-day polls saying people had voted to stay. These were close enough that social desirability bias should be a concern in an election many people said was about racism, but they were reported straight.
Belief far too often won out over data in what the public was told. As you can see from the tweet at the top of this post, that means people felt safe to vote for the outcome they didn’t want.
We can see that happening here and now, as well. Trump was never supposed to become the Republican nominee. It wasn’t just early polling that pundits have ignored. At nearly every step through the primary path, Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio was supposed to pull out some miracle. It didn’t happen. There are still people telling us with breathless certainty that a Republican Party in disarray will do something to guarantee that Trump isn’t their candidate.
Some people believe them, even though there’s no solid information to base that on. People want to believe that, because the alternative is unthinkable to them.
The problem with the unthinkably bad outcome is that it sometimes happens anyway. We have to think about it to stop it, and we don’t. We won’t. We find ways to tell ourselves that our actions don’t matter instead. We say our votes don’t count. We say the outcome is predetermined despite a history and a present that tell us otherwise.
Sometimes that means saying, “…but I don’t live in a swing state.” This election in particular–these stakes, these risks–I’m not letting that slide. This is a lesson we have to learn. Don’t be one of those voters who chooses an outcome they don’t want and wakes up to a world like this.
- Or a safe district or a party town, but I’ll stick with one level of political election for simplicity here. ↩
- I should have looked at the results, because I wasn’t old enough to vote at the time and remembered the results as being slightly more dramatic than they were. ↩
- No, parties really don’t look at “protest votes”. Sorry about that. It’s pragmatism, though. You’ve seen all the progressive people this election yelling about how they’ll never ever ever vote for the corrupt Democrats? They mean it. The party knows that. You have to be a winnable demographic to shift the agenda of a political party. ↩