Three days before the national elections, the racehorse California Chrome, undefeated in 2016, went off at even odds in the Breeders’ Cup and was beaten at the wire. Handicappers didn’t search their souls over that one, but they would the following Tuesday when Hillary Clinton, an even heavier favorite, wasn’t elected president.
Pundits and pollsters didn’t see many ways for Donald Trump to win the election, so they figured Clinton had a 70 percent or better shot of winding up on top. But just as in poker, inside straights get drawn to because, once in a while, a big pot is won that way, everything that had to break Trump’s way did, and today he’s our president-elect. That’s true even though he got fewer votes overall that Mitt Romney did in 2012, and trails Clinton in the national popular vote. (It’ll be interesting to see, once all the numbers are in, if the total congressional vote also tilts Democratic, as it did in 2012.)
Nobody ever said our democracy was perfect. One—perhaps the only—reason to feel hopeful about anything just now is that everyone seems to agree on this point. Rallies against our new president-elect erupted Wednesday evening outside Chicago’s Trump Tower and across the country. That made it official: America’s divided into two camps, and each camp thinks democracy doesn’t work and it’s time to hit the bricks and take back the country—from each other, which is the single wrinkle in this common vision.
Today, the question the pundits and pollsters are asking themselves is How could we have been so blind? It’s a reasonable question, but it overstates the role of rationality in human affairs. I was in Grant Park in 2008 when Barack Obama won; it was an astonishingly festive moment, and Obama, eight years later, is as popular as he’s ever been. Yet America—including some of the very same voters who elected him—just chose as his successor the anti-Obama. Suddenly I find myself thinking of Grant Park ’08 in a new light, as a magic moment, like the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo.
Ultimately, the minds of human beings are just as hard to penetrate as the minds of horses. As some wise Facebook users commented once the election results were in, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Remember, you humiliated pundits and pollsters, that the most precise tracking methods you can ever devise, methods that confidently predict election results with 90 percent accuracy, will still get it wrong every 40 years. So flagellate yourselves if you must, but go home for dinner.