By Tannishtha Pramanick
Heading into this year’s election, it seemed as though the results were already clear; Hillary Clinton, with her more establishment-friendly rhetoric, was going to sail into a sweet victory for the Democratic Party, and clinch her rightful role as the nation’s first female president. Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeightsaid so. The Huffington Post said so. Even Dailykos and The New York Timessaid so. When the Canadian International Council of Toronto, well in advance of election night, announced that they were hosting an event roughly two days after at Aird & Berlis to discuss the results of the election night, it was thought that we were going to get a fairly jovial, if not lengthy and highly informative primer on the demographic shifts in America which would bring a woman, a Democrat, and a (relative) liberal to power.
And yet, as anyone who made it through election night now knows, this prediction was simply never meant to be. Donald Trump, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, is now the president-elect of the United States, and Hillary Clinton, for lack of a better term, is the loser of this race. Trump’s rhetoric, branded as sexist, racist, Islamophobic, and at times highly divisive, was often seen as the number one reason as to why he would not win. It seemed as though all the people who could be offended by his words numbered a group sizable enough to make a Republican victory highly unlikely. But somehow, somewhere, there was a cohort large enough and influential enough to do just that, and for the entire duration of election season, they managed to evade any and all attempts at polling and predicting the race accurately.
Indeed, as the audience settled into their seats at the large, airy meeting room in the Bay St. office of the law firm, one could perceive a kind of mild surprise both amongst the spectators, and speakers of the night. Trump’s ‘surprise’ victory was the elephant in the room, and this became apparent as the event formally commenced. Featured panelists Clive Veroni, author of Spin, which was shortlisted for the National Business Book Award, and founder of marketing firm Leap Consulting, and Andrew Lundy, current Vice-President of The Canadian Press and former Director of Globalnews.ca, took the stage and treated us to an explanation, if not a riveting narrative, regarding how the polling process could fail to capture the sentiments of the American electorate so massively.
The explanations, it seem, lay not in mis-reading the electorate’s feelings, but in misunderstanding the nature of polling altogether. Indeed, the numbers often reported by way of polls in the media are ‘probabilities of scenarios occurring’ and not the actual ‘chance that a specific outcome is likely to occur,’ explained Lundy. As such, it is not polling that is altogether useless, but how poll results are interpreted, which is often the problem. However, Lundy had more to add, saying that the misinterpretation of polls only compounded a bigger issue; that of how polling methodologies fail to capture often less visible voters. Seeing as Trump was publicly much maligned in the media, Lundy felt that Trump voters may have been more ‘silent’ in an effort to avoid the stigma attached to supporting his controversial platform.
Veroni, coming from a more marketing-oriented background, also advised the audience to not underestimate the effects of changing media-consumption patterns on the mentality of the electorate as well. Prior to the advent of social media and big data algorithms controlling how we come across our news, voters’ opinions were often organized in a kind of ‘bell curve,’ with most people’s views converging to a sort of moderate perspective. Now, with the rapid rise of smart algorithms feeding voters content tailored to their tastes, members of the US electorate were subject to their own personal ‘echo chambers’ of information, where their views were constantly reinforced by similarly framed content, and seldom challenged. As such, the electorate’s views are no longer as moderate, and instead follow the pattern of an ‘inverse bell curve,’ with people converging to extremes in their perspectives.
From how the night unfolded, one thing quickly became clear; media outlets, those long-time shapers of public perception, are out of touch with the new reality of how voters consume and curate their news. Most outlets’ coverage, catering to the middle-ground of voters, left out those on the ends of Veroni’s ‘inverse bell curve.’ By doing so, they failed to account for entire swathes of the voter population — the very part of the population who voted for a candidate like Trump and effectively got him the presidency. Just why and how these media outlets remain so slow to adapt to the changes in voters’ media consumption habits remain murky at best. However, one thing is clearly becoming apparent, especially as the night in the office at Aird & Berlis drew to a close; the era of the moderate voter, and the coverage tailored to their tastes, is rapidly becoming obsolete, if not altogether mis-represenative of the new political reality.