I was right in July, but oh, so wrong in November.
In July, I wrote an amazingly intelligent column explaining how Donald Trump, then dismissed as an erratic underdog, could win the presidential election. Voters were hungry for change, I wrote, and “when it comes to change, Trump can fairly claim to own the brand.”
“As long as that’s true, Trump — for all his gargantuan flaws — has a real chance to win,” I argued.
If only I had quit there. Alas, I didn’t. By November, after hearing Trump brag on tape about grabbing women by the crotch, I figured the campaign was effectively over. The only remaining questions, I wrote unwisely, were how big Hillary Clinton’s victory would be and whether Democrats would win the Senate, too.
Where did I go wrong?
Like most pundits, I put too much faith in the polls. The surveys forecast the nationwide vote pretty well, but state-by-state polls were off, and in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, that made the difference.
If we’d simply failed to predict that Trump would win, that would have been one thing. Our true sin, though, was in failing to remind our readers that our instruments of measurement are fallible. We forgot to be humble.
The only correct forecast, it turns out, was “too close to call.” But for those of us in the business of delivering crisp opinions twice a week, that’s not a very satisfying conclusion.
Not much of an excuse.
That said, some of the post-election media flagellation has been over the top.
We’ve been scolded for not taking Trump seriously. That was true in 2015, but it wasn’t true this year. We not only took him seriously; we took him literally. Now we’re told that was a mistake too.
We’ve been scolded (mostly by Clinton aides) for taking Clinton’s email problem too seriously. Sorry, but when a presidential candidate is under investigation by the FBI, the media are going to take it seriously. The Clintonites’ real beef, a legitimate one, is with FBI Director James Comey.
We’ve been scolded for ignoring white voters in the Rust Belt who were angry and desperate for change. That’s nonsense; there was plenty of reporting on what Trump voters wanted.
“What Trump’s supporters hear from their champion is a message of unbridled optimism — a promise that he can repair the economy, bring jobs back and Make America Great Again,” I wrote in March. We heard what they were saying; we simply underestimated their numbers.
The challenge for pollsters now is determining why their surveys underestimated the Trump vote in the swing states. Their big fear is that anti-establishment voters are refusing to respond to surveys more often than other people, a phenomenon known as “differential non-response.” It’s hard to detect and hard to measure, so it’s hard to correct.
The challenge for the media is even more important: to earn our audiences’ trust back by doing our jobs better.
That begins with more reporting and less predicting. We’re pretty good at digging up facts and bringing them to light. We’re not as good at forecasting what voters — or presidents-elect — will do in the future. That’s OK.
We need to keep verifying facts, no matter what critics say. It’s tempting to moan about “fake news” and conclude that fact-checking has lost its value. But the flood of fabricated and false information being fed to citizens is a reason to redouble the search for truth, not to slack off.
We should try to stop chasing shiny objects and focus on the most important issues. Trump promised voters that he’d grow jobs, improve health care, drain the swamp and “be president for all Americans.” How’s he doing?
Here’s what I wrote on election night: “An optimist might argue that Trump won’t govern the way he campaigned: that he’ll surround himself with seasoned advisers, embrace more traditional positions and satisfy himself with half-measures. But Trump’s record offers little reassurance on that score. … It’s going to be a very rough ride.”
I still don’t think Trump has the experience or temperament to make a good president. But I’m going to try to take a lesson in humility from the past year. I’m going to keep an open mind about our new president, look for signs of wisdom and virtue in his administration, and give him credit if I find it.
After all, I’ve been wrong before.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.