“Who’s going to win?” I am now asked all the time, by friends and family members, by people I speak to professionally: “What’s going to happen?”
I don’t know, I tell them. I don’t know. I tell them what I hope will happen, what I guess might happen, but this isn’t sufficient: they want me to know, so that they can know. They look so disappointed when I tell them that I don’t have a clue. I must not be good at my job; I must not know the right people; if I did, I would have the secret numbers, I would have been offered passes to the special screening of The Future.
It’s not that I haven’t experienced, or expressed, this yearning for certainty myself. I remember asking the wife of a pollster to whom I was introduced on the weekend before the 2012 election, with a kind of ravenous, terrified desperation, “What’s going to happen?” I remember asking members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign that same question, with the same scared hunger, the weekend before the 2016 election.
The drive to be sure of what comes next is human, takes a million forms, especially in uncertain times. Spoiler warnings be damned; in life, we want to be told how a perilous narrative will end, who we should be rooting for, or if we should prepare in advance to experience defeat, lest we be crushed simultaneously by disappointment and shock. What we crave most, of course, is the assurance that everything will turn out okay, along with precise instructions about how to avert disaster: this is why some of us consult horoscopes that tell us not to sign contracts during Mercury retrograde, and others consult betting markets, in the hope that the consensus of a broad group might point us to how to most wisely place money on a future that has yet to unfold.
So it is with the American electorate’s reliance, in full flower once again, on pundits and pollsters and their cottage industry of political assurance. This is a frightening time, and I have rarely witnessed (and to some degree, felt) a rawer or more urgent desire to be told that there is a way out of it, as well as who the people are who can lead us there. After the 2016 presidential result, which came as an astonishing thunderbolt to so many, no one wants to be surprised again, and rather than coming to grips with the most grisly possibilities — that yes, Trump may well win again — and the most unsettling realities — that everything from gerrymandering to the electoral college to the enormous impact Republicans have already had on the federal judiciary makes that more probable — many prefer a less bone-chilling reckoning. And so they turn to people who seem to know, whom they accept as experts and who are all too willing to sell themselves as such, to tell a different, surer version.
But the irony, of course, is that the shock of 2016 stemmed in part from a reliance on those very same people. Part of the realization of 2016 is this: no one, in fact, knows anything about what’s to come. Perhaps we, and they, know about what happened in the past, yes. And what the numbers tell us about some angle of what’s happening now. But that is not the same thing as actually being able to tell with any authority what is about to happen next.
In recent weeks, some writers have done a thorough fisking of the notion of “electability” — that slippery measure of prognosticated appeal assigned to certain candidates. Electability is determined by members of the political press, by political consultants, by donors, and by high-ranking politicians themselves. These measures are sometimes based on polls, sometimes on history and gut feelings. But they’re also, often, incomprehensibly divorced from measurable facts. What does it mean, a piece by New York Times reporters Astead Herndon and Lisa Lerer asked, that a number of the women candidates running for president are widely thought of as “unelectable” when in fact, four of them — Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar — “have never lost an election in their political careers?”
Most often, when electability is bandied about as if it’s some kind of measurable fact, it feels a little like phrenology: a purported science that is actually a tool to reinforce bias.
The liberal writer Rebecca Solnit went beyond electability to examine related appraisals of “likability” and “relatability,” and how the authorities who tend to evaluate and measure these traits publicly are still disproportionately white men. Whether under newspaper bylines or as high-ranking party leaders or just as the loudest people at the dinner table, the men Solnit has heard making proclamations about political charisma, she observed, “speak as if these were objective qualities, and if their own particular take on them was truth or fact rather than taste, and as if what white men like is what everyone likes.” She went on, “it’s a form of self-confidence that verges on lunacy, because one of the definitions of that condition is the inability to distinguish between subjective feelings and objective realities.”
I feel perhaps more forgiving than Solnit of the self-assured lunatics, because I imagine them to be scared. Perhaps not scared in the way that non-white, non-men are scared in this period, or have been scared throughout their lives. Rather, I imagine their fear to stem from the understanding that their historically firm grip on predictive power has been steadily slipping, right alongside their exclusive grip on social, sexual, political, and economic power.
Because it’s not like people being really wrong about political outcomes was invented in 2016, when everyone with institutional power — from Saturday Night Live to the New York Times to Donald Trump himself — was convinced that Trump would never win the presidency. Nor has it since been confined to that one spectacularly bad call.
Perhaps ironically, for about the same amount of time that we’ve been over-relying on poll-analysts and Nate Silver and Times needles to help us divine the future, what we should have been figuring out was that no one with power has had the faintest idea what was going to happen next.
In 2008, many political forecasters thought Barack Obama was great — Chris Matthews of MSNBC famously spoke of how his oratory gave him “shivers up the leg” — but spent months proclaiming that he didn’t really have a chance against Hillary Clinton, whom many of them claimed would be the “inevitable” Democratic nominee. (This is perhaps too self-evident a point, but literally everyone who ever called Hillary Clinton inevitable had no idea what they were talking about.)
Obama was well behind Clinton in polls throughout all of 2007, and polled behind both Clinton and John Edwards in Iowa for most of that year. Black voters, dubious about Obama’s ability to win — in part because they themselves knew the history, saw the polls — were more likely to support Clinton. It wasn’t until the weeks before the Iowa caucuses that polls showed Obama ahead, and even then, not by the margin by which he would eventually win the caucus: 37 percent, to Edwards’s 29.7 and Clinton’s 29.4.
Doubts about Obama’s chances — grounded as they were in polling and in the real, true history of the United States’ systemic and virulent racism, and the fact that no black man was “electable” insofar as we had never elected a non-white president — were totally valid, from a historical perspective. But not, as it turned out, from a predictive one.
There was no talking the wise men out of a now over-corrected self-assuredness though: in the days following his Iowa victory, polls showed Obama surging ten points ahead in New Hampshire and pundits predicted that Clinton would soon be knocked out entirely. But a surprise showing of women at the polls made Clinton the startling victor, kicking off a contentious, close primary battle that would last till summer.
Both of the surprise results — Iowa and New Hampshire — involved voters behaving unexpectedly in response to candidates who were not like many who had ever preceded them. Obama was the first black candidate ever to win the Iowa caucus; Clinton was the first woman to win a fully contested primary in the history of the country. Everything about how voters acted over the course of the primary came as a surprise: from white Iowans lining up behind the young, uplifting orator over the known-quantity liberal white guy and the well-known woman; to women showing up for Clinton either out of weepy solidarity (as the press believed) or livid fury over the eager way the press was predicting her demise (as I believed); to black voters and party elders, even those with strong ties and loyalty to the Clintons, dramatically changing allegiance midway through the primary, ensuring an Obama victory.
None of these were reactions that those in the press, those who’d covered elections over decades, could have predicted by looking backward, because none of these dynamics had ever been in play before. Another example: I’d been told all my life that young people don’t come out to vote, because they had in fact failed to do so on behalf of George McGovern in 1972. But they did for Obama — making a critical difference during primaries and in the general election.
It’s not that history cannot inform a reading of the present moment, especially the movements of marginalized and threatened populations. Those seeking to understand a contemporary Republican Party in the post-Obama, McConnell-Trump-led era, for example, have found rich context in the history of Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction politics; those watching the formation of resistance networks will learn a lot by reading of women-led labor and social movements from other eras. But when it comes to interpreting our electoral past, as it has been traditionally interpreted by political journalists, consultants, party operatives and politicians themselves, as a guide to current strategy; there’s simply nothing solid there.
Look at New York congressman Joe Crowley, a powerful and experienced man, fourth-ranking Democrat in Congress, who was sure he knew, based on his 14 years without a primary opponent, that he didn’t need to show up to debate his 2018 primary opponent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Prior to her victory, Ocasio-Cortez had been covered in Vogue, at the Cut, in the left-leaning the Intercept, but not with seriousness by the New York Times, her hometown newspaper, which published a story about her after her win that quoted her observation “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office” by noting “they certainly weren’t supposed to win” and calling her victory a “stunning upset.”
As someone who covers women in politics, I was told repeatedly during the races of so many historic women last year that none of them were supposed to win. Those who were sure of the long odds weren’t just cable pundits; they were also advocates for more women in politics, worried, based on everything we knew historically about how women have a harder time fundraising and beating incumbents, that many of the women candidates would lose and an authoritative narrative about women’s inability to win would be cemented. Up until days before the election, I was told that Lauren Underwood, the black nurse and health-care reform advocate who beat six white men in the primary for her majority white Illinois House district, was destined to lose to four-term Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren. The conviction wasn’t baseless: up until four days before the election, 538’s model had Hultgren with a 61 percent chance of winning the district, Underwood at 39 percent.
Underwood won by four points in what the Chicago Tribune called a “stunning upset.”
The conviction that many of the first-time candidates — candidates with no precedent — were going to lose was so strong that it carried over into how we were told the story of so many of them winning. I spent a good deal of Election Night in a fetal position, believing the people on television who were telling me, as James Carville did early in the night, “it’s not going to be a wave election.” Needles were flapping from side to side all over the internet; 538 showed Democrats with an 80 percent chance of taking the house, then careened all the way over to a better chance for Republicans to win it, then back again. I went to bed confused: these emerging results were so at odds with what those who were supposed to explain things were saying that none of it made sense, until a few days later when the smoke cleared. On this night that started with the assurance that there would be no blue wave, Democrats — many of them historic firsts: young, female, gay, Muslim, Native American, progressive — picked up 40 seats, more than in any election since Watergate.
There is no crime — not a news crime, not an analysis crime — in guessing wrong. But there is an irresponsibility in presenting guesses, even educated guesses, as definite knowledge of the future. The error is in behaving as though there is a class of people — journalists, or Democratic consultants, or pollsters, or party elders — who have some particular, some special and correct prognostic ability, people who know how things are going to turn out, and that a general public should listen to them and act accordingly.
It’s that last part that begins to get really sticky. Because the true error in perpetuating the fantasy that someone knows what’s going to happen is that that fantasy contributes to determining what’s going to happen.
“Who’s your candidate?” I recently asked my brother. We talk a lot about the 2020 field, but I had yet to just ask him outright who he was thinking he might support. He sighed heavily. “I’ll vote for a block of cheese,” he replied. Yeah, I know, obviously, I told him. But who do you want. He sighed again. “It doesn’t matter who I want.” No, it does, I insisted, pressing him, until finally he said, “Look, who I want can’t win, so my best hope is that President Pete or Biden will steal all her ideas and enact them.”
But why not work to try to make sure that she enacts her ideas, I asked him. “What’s the point? So I can get my heart broken? It’s easier to make peace with the inevitable future.” There’s that word again. And no one should trust it ever again with regard to American politics.
As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve heard from people whose natural inclinations are support for Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Kirsten Gillibrand, who are nonetheless lining up behind Joe Biden or Mayor Pete or, still, though he’s down in the polls, behind Beto O’Rourke, because people they understand to have authority — whether pundits or pollsters or their uncle at the dinner table or their own lived memories of Joe Biden having been on a winning presidential ticket, or of other ambitious young white men who have become president, or of a woman losing in 2016, and of women never having been president before — have left them with the intractable conviction that only certain kinds of candidates are the kind that can win.
But that conviction that someone can win becomes self-perpetuating. You are told they can win, so you give them more money, which makes them more likely to win than the candidate you might prefer to win, but who your reluctance to stump for or even speak out in favor of — because they will inevitably lose — decreases their chances of winning and increases the perception that no one supports them. It’s all a ceaseless cycle, the presentation of certain candidates as presidential and electable, and the presentation of others as worryingly unlikable long shots, reinforcing models that may have applied in the past, but do not have to apply in the future, except insofar as everyone is telling us that they probably will apply and thereby justifying their disproportionate and credulous coverage of candidates who match familiar assumptions.
Among the things we don’t know, despite everyone’s eagerness to overread polls and fundraising numbers: how or whether another new, rising generation of voters — the ones who are leading climate and gun activism — will vote when they have the chance. We don’t know how the millions of undecided voters will feel when they actually hear what the huge field of candidates have to say, during debates that have not yet started. We don’t know whether having long shots in the race will make them work harder for every vote — as Ocasio-Cortez did in the Bronx — while the shoo-ins take their purported electability for granted, or whether these dynamics might alter results. Is it possible for America to dramatically expand its electorate, as it did to elect Barack Obama, as happened recently in Georgia when Stacey Abrams (who many in her party were sure would not be able to grow the electorate in the way she went on to do) ran for governor: by running new kinds of candidates on new kinds of ideas and with new strategic approaches, thus rendering polling and historical precedent moot?
The fact is, new kinds of candidates contribute to changing realities. “The United States was said not to be ready to elect a Catholic to the Presidency when Al Smith ran in the 1920s,” Shirley Chisholm wrote in The Good Fight in 1973, looking back at her own historic presidential candidacy the year before. “But Smith’s nomination may have helped pave the way for the successful campaign John F. Kennedy waged in 1960. Who can tell?” What Chisholm was saying — as she herself openly expressed her lack of surety about what the future held — was that she hoped her own candidacy would mean that what was once authoritatively impossible might someday become possible. “Now there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male,” she wrote.
“I think so much comes down to which voices are dominating in our culture,” the pollster Tresa Undem told me. “Who are the pundits, who are the pollsters writing the polling questions, through whose eyes are we perceiving what’s happening, who is making the key decisions about what is covered, what is asked, etc.”
Undem, who specializes in polling on gender and abortion, picked her specialty, she said, precisely “because I was shocked about how little we know.” As a crucial political issue, abortion had been acknowledged as central for decades; partisan understanding of the issue had shaped partisan strategy — leading Republican candidates to coalesce around opposing it, and Democrats to quail at the thought of aggressively defending it or making it central to campaigns. Yet, Undem pointed out, “our sense of public opinion came from a few very surface, one-dimensional questions. Who wrote those questions? What survey questions would a 63-year-old white male pollster ask? What survey questions might a 30-year-old Black woman ask? I guarantee you that they would be radically different.” Undem’s 2018 comprehensive survey on abortion was subtitled, “What We Don’t Know About Public Opinion About Abortion … Because We’ve Never Asked.”
The drive, says Undem, is not simply to know; it’s to point to a new reality, hugely relevant to our current politics: the fact that right now, we don’t know. Anything. For sure. Noting the speed at which the conversation around gender — harassment, assault, women in politics, the things she polls on — has been altered during and by the events of the past few years, Undem said, “Everything has and is changing. To pretend you can predict the future in the current environment is foolish and antiquated … Almost everything I thought I knew is now irrelevant.”
But that kind of admission is hard for a lot of people — powerful people, used to being credited with oracular authority. It is frankly terrifying to admit you don’t know.
And even more terrifying to reckon with the fact that no one else does either.
So where does that leave voters, the ones who are reading the papers and watching TV and deciding who to support and who to canvas for and which bumper stickers to affix to their car and whether they’ll look like rubes for picking an unelectable candidate?
It leaves them — all of us — to grapple with the impossibility of our own passivity, if we actually care what’s going to happen next. Because what the conviction that someone out there knows the end — like J.K. Rowling at a café in Edinburgh, or a representative of Price-Waterhouse, backstage with the envelope tucked in his pocket — relieves us of is the responsibility to act as if the ending is up to us. Which it is.
That’s hard. It would be so much easier to abdicate that responsibility, just let the Masters of the Universe tell us what is going to happen and act accordingly. It is simpler not to care, not to take risks on candidates and platforms, on women and leftists we have been told over and over again are long shots the American people don’t want, never mind that Americans just elected record numbers of them, never mind that progressive policies are getting cheered in unlikely quarters.
If the future were in fact undetermined, then we would have to act to avert disaster: would have to spend days and nights knocking doors and going to rallies and being activists and fighting with friends and family members. Would have to give money and hope and energy to the ideas and people we are told are long shots. We would have to recall that not doing those things is what landed us here in the first place, not just in 2016, but over decades of complacent adherence to the narratives crafted for us by people who never really knew what the future held, but who led us to believe that they did and for a long time made it so.
As soon as we admit that the “narrative” is yet unwritten, and that what makes someone “electable” is doing the work of electing them, and that none of us knows what’s ahead, we will all be more scared.
And here’s the only thing I know for sure: that is exactly what we should be.