‘What Just Happened?’: CU Boulder political experts explain unpredicted 2016 election results

On Thursday, March 2, students, faculty and community members heard from four perspectives on a panel named for the question many academics struggle to answer: “The 2016 Election: What Just Happened?”

On the Old Main Chapel stage, E. Scott Adler, director of the American Politics Research Lab and professor at CU Boulder, introduced the presentations by recalling how “bewildered” he felt election night as the results came in, defying national polls. According to FiveThirtyEight just before election day, Hillary Clinton had a 71.4 percent chance of winning.

Jennifer Wolak, associate professor of political sciences at CU Boulder, began by framing public ideology as a “thermostatic model,” meaning that when policy shifts too far to the left or right, the electorate tends to respond by pushing back in the opposite direction. “Changes in ideology precede policy direction,” Wolak said while presenting statistics of past presidential elections.

She described a back and forth trend between electing Democratic and Republican candidates into the oval office. The 2016 election results exemplified this trend: after eight years of Barack Obama’s liberal administration, the country elected Donald Trump, who brought a conservative agenda. This policy discrepancy has manifested with the current president passing executive orders undoing policies enacted by his predecessor.

Seth Masket, a political science professor from the University of Denver, presented his analysis of economic feedback influencing the electorate’s alternating support between political parties. He said that if the economy is doing poorly, the public will turn on the party in power.

Coming from a feminist perspective, Jennifer Lawless, government professor from American University, could not believe that a candidate who displayed explicit sexism won the presidency. It made her question if feminism died in the 2016 election.

According to her own research, although the public supports improving women’s issues, only about a quarter of Americans self-identify as feminists. She noted that the general feeling towards the women’s movement is “lukewarm,” which led her to conclude that the electorate was more willing to accept sexism than she anticipated. Simply put, the public did not view misogyny or disrespectful treatment of women as a disqualifying factor in the presidential race, Lawless opined.

Anand Sokhey, associate professor of political science at CU Boulder, contributed to the discussion with a religious perspective, specifically that of white evangelicals. He questioned why 81 percent of white evangelicals cast their vote for Trump, despite his involvement with gambling, multiple marriages and divorces and disregard for religious values.

Sokhey contended that this trend could be explained by a shift from “values” to “nostalgia” voters in the context of culture. He said that the white evangelical turn out was not so much about religious identity, but about a loss of white, conservative American culture, which Trump’s campaign supported.

The insight provided by these perspectives generated many questions from the audience. When asked about the media’s influence in the election results, Wolak pointed out that there used to be a common discourse in media coverage, but now we have more specialized choices when it comes to our information consumption. In addition, she said that we live in such homogeneous communities where people’s views are seldom challenged and routinely affirmed.

Adler wrapped up the discussion by thanking his colleagues and reminding the audience that the American Politics Research Lab plans to host similar events in the future.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sarah Farley at sarah.farley@colorado.edu.

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