We blew it, fellow members of the media. I won’t assign blame equally or to anyone individually, but let me admit for myself that on Tuesday morning, I did not think that Donald Trump would win the White House.
I could blame the pre-election polls for my assumption that Hillary Clinton would win and that the Democrats would probably take back the Senate as well. If 538, the Upshot and the RealClearPolitics averages agreed, it must be true, right? Um, no.
The media can blame the polls for getting it wrong, but we must also blame ourselves for too often allowing polls to become the story, instead of insisting that polls can only ever be a piece of the story. For one thing, polls can be wrong. (See 2016.) Also, even accurate polls are by definition a snapshot of the past, not predictive of the future. Finally, and most importantly, polls don’t decide elections, people decide elections. If you’re listening more to polls than to the people they’re supposed to represent, you’re doing it wrong.
I will never forget watching Donald Trump stand in front of 6,000 people in a rodeo hall in Pendleton, South Carolina, during the GOP primary. Standing in a black cashmere overcoat in front of two enormous John Deere tractors, the New York billionaire somehow made that crowd of farmers, teachers, students and retirees understand that he was on their side. By the end of his 90-minute performance, they were on his side, too.
Would Trump’s remarkable show that night be part of a broader trend? Could he sustain it past the primaries? Would he win the White House? The polls had one answer, but voters had another. Believing we know the outcome before Election Day is a mistake I won’t make again.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.