It is widely believed that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election because she neglected the Rust Belt. She devoted too many resources to states like Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona, the story goes, and not enough to states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Democrats watched in dismay as Clinton lost those latter three states by a combined total of fewer than 78,000 votes, out of nearly 14 million cast there. The 46 electoral votes those states represented tilted the electoral college from Clinton to Trump. Scores of analysts have wondered how the Clinton campaign could make such a strategic mistake.
But what if all those analysts are thinking about it in the wrong way?
What if the Clinton campaign didn’t make a strategic mistake in the Rust Belt, given what they knew at the time? And what if, because Democrats can’t shake their mistaken beliefs about what went wrong in 2016, they are hurting their chances in 2020 by squandering resources in Rust Belt states that would be better spent elsewhere? Could this be a desperate but wrongheaded attempt to avoid a repeat of the previous election?
What if, because Democrats can’t shake their mistaken beliefs about what went wrong in 2016, they are hurting their chances in 2020 by squandering resources in Rust Belt states that would be better spent elsewhere?
We know now that the polls got the Rust Belt wrong in 2016, undersampling Trump-leaning demographics. The prevailing narrative is that Clinton made a mistake in neglecting that demographic and that’s why she lost. But she wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t Clinton who neglected white, non–college educated voters. The polls did that.
If Clinton’s strategic decisions were based on a hidden polling error, is it fair to pin the mistake on her and her campaign? But it wasn’t just the campaign that missed it; everyone else did too. How many analysts and pundits publicly cautioned Democrats about ignoring the Rust Belt, that there might be a polling error? It’s fewer than you might think you remember.
You may not believe me when I say that the obvious mistakes Clinton made weren’t so obvious at the time. A simple Google search reveals that although there are reams of articles written after November 8, 2016, about Clinton’s egregious neglect of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, there were no big critiques of her strategy or of the validity of polling data prior to Election Day. If anything, it was just the opposite—pieces wondering why in the world Donald Trump was in Pennsylvania.
The point here is not to come to Hillary Clinton’s defense. I’m sure she can do that just fine herself. But understanding what happened—why Clinton actually lost—matters because it impacts the choices Democrats are making in this election.
Are Democrats succumbing to the “last disaster bias,” a cognitive error where we overallocate resources to prevent the last big failure that happened?
If 2016’s mistake was due to inaccurate polls, then pollsters should address that error. (The error, indeed, seems to have been fixed.) But if you think the mistake was not spending enough time and money in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, then the conclusion you’re likely to draw is that Democrats should spend a lot more time and money in those three states this time around, no matter what the polls say.
But doing that would be succumbing to the “last disaster bias,” a cognitive error where we overallocate resources to prevent the last big failure that happened. If you’ve ever wondered why you have to take your shoes off to go through airport security, look no further than the last disaster bias. In 2001, Richard Reid tried to take down a plane by lighting his shoes on fire, igniting the explosives hidden in them, earning him the nickname “the shoe bomber.” The result of that failed attempt is that, twenty years later, we are still putting our Chucks in a bin to be X-rayed.
There is ample evidence that that’s exactly what is happening this time around. All you have to do is look at what the Democrats have been spending this time around. In Michigan, as of October 13, Biden and his allies have spent $98.6 million. Ohio and Georgia together carry 36 electoral college votes compared to Michigan’s 16 electoral votes. And yet Biden and his allies have allocated a combined total of just $12.4 million to those two states, just one-eighth of the resources they have allocated to Michigan alone. That spending pattern is a 180 degree shift from the 2016, when Clinton spent $52.4 million in Ohio and only $3.3 million in Michigan, and lost both.
One wonders if the Biden campaign has been chasing the ghosts of 2016 just because they’re terrified of repeating Hillary Clinton’s mistakes, even when those mistakes weren’t really mistakes at all but just evidence of hindsight bias.
These differences in resource allocation are hard to explain without invoking the last disaster bias. The difference can’t be explained by what the polls say or how many electoral votes are in play. If that were so, it would stand to reason that the Democrats would be spending significantly more in Ohio and Georgia, both states that are polling as toss-ups and are big electoral prizes. In contrast, Biden is polling over eight points ahead in Michigan, a lead that is well outside the margin of error and has been steady since last spring.
Campaign spending decisions are complex, and it may well be that Biden has internal polling that is showing something quite different than the public polling we laypeople get to see. But however the Biden campaign has determined to spend their time and resources, one wonders if they’ve been chasing the ghosts of 2016 just because they’re terrified of repeating Hillary Clinton’s mistakes, even when those mistakes weren’t really mistakes at all but just evidence of hindsight bias.