Picking Up Pieces After the Election

Bert Bennett, the political godfather to both Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt, used to say of elections, “When you win, everything you did was right. When you lose, everything you did was wrong.” 

In other words, don’t jump to conclusions about why you won or lost. 

Much instant analysis of the 2020 election follows barking-dog logic: “My dog barked in the dark this morning, and the sun came up. Therefore, my dog caused the sun to come up.”

Often, people jump to conclusions that reflect their personal opinions, biases and preferences.

Take Democrats who were disappointed because the landslide they anticipated never landed. Liberal Democrats conclude: we weren’t liberal enough. Moderate Democrats say: we were too liberal.

Democrats also formed up their traditional post-election circular firing squad:

“The NC Democratic Party needs a complete overhaul.”

“Every pollster should be fired.”

Bert Bennett

There was even criticism of Governor Roy Cooper for not pulling Joe Biden and Cal Cunningham to victory in North Carolina.

He might just as well have tried to part the Pamlico Sound.

Instead of prematurely drawing sweeping conclusions, we should focus on asking the right questions. Here are four suggestions.

Why did Donald Trump – again – surprise the experts?

Like it or not, understand it or not, Trump is the greatest voter-turnout machine in politics.

For both parties.

Trump – and Trumpism – aren’t going away. Grasping his appeal would help a lot in grasping this election.   

Race surely is part of it. But not all of it. Some reports say he picked up surprising levels of support from Black and Latino men.

Is it his swaggering strongman style? Is it that, as one man said, “he doesn’t talk like a politician; he talks like me”?

Does he channel the anger and anxiety many Americans feel in a changing world, along with rejection of a political class that hasn’t adequately addressed their concerns?

A couple of years back, a Republican strategist explained it simply: “He’s fighting the people they hate.”

Why were polls so far off?

First of all, were they that far off? They got a lot right, like Joe Biden and Roy Cooper winning. And polls come with something called “margin of error” for a reason.

In races so close and an electorate so evenly divided, a shift of 2-4 points makes all the difference. The hardest thing to model in polls is turnout. Trump made a mess of turnout models.

Pollster Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native, warned a group of Democrats last spring about the perils of polling during the Covid-19 crisis. “It’s unclear whether polls are working like they should,” he said. In normal times, poll calls are made from centralized call centers. Quality control is high. Today, callers work from home. There’s not as much oversight.

Hickman added that many polls now are made by automated calls, which legally can call only land lines, not cell phones. Some polls are done online, but only 50-60 percent of Americans are regularly online.

He added this week that there may have been a bigger issue: “a significant group of white men not revealing a Trump preference when they perceived the interviewer to be Black and/or female.”

How do you campaign in a pandemic?

A Democratic legislator noted that the party’s candidates and campaign workers did far less door-knocking and in-person campaigning across the state this year. They thought it would be hypocritical to campaign that way when Governor Cooper was calling on people to wear masks and practice social-distancing.

Republicans apparently did more house-to-house canvassing than Democrats. Trump’s 10 rallies in North Carolina, plus more by surrogates, were valuable organizing tools. The legislator said that, especially in rural areas, evangelical churches were voter-turnout hubs for Republicans.

What would Bert do?

Bert Bennett was good at politics because he didn’t make decisions based on emotion or the excitement plan. He was a hard-eyed, bottom-line businessman. He wanted facts, not theories and guesses.

We all could use a dose of Bert now.

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