Two Movies, One Screen

The outcome of the 2020 election is obvious.

President Trump has never led in the polls.  What’s more, the deficit he faces is far larger than the one he faced in 2016.  The quiet signs of trouble in key districts that plagued Hillary Clinton aren’t present this time around.  Trump trails in every swing state, sometimes by double digits.  Democrats (or, perhaps more accurately, Trump’s antics) have even made states like Georgia and Texas competitive, and Dems may turn parts of the South blue again for the first time in more than a generation.  Voters will also see Biden as a way to end the chaos that swirls around Trump at all times, and which manifests as the social unrest caused by right-wing agitators in cities across the country.  On top of all of that, Dems have been wildly out-raising and out-spending Republicans, reflecting the desire the country has to vote Trump and company out of office.

Tomorrow night should be a quick, decisive victory for Joe Biden.  Despite concerns around vote-counting that takes days or weeks, none of that will be necessary as Biden amasses more than 270 electors by midnight on November 3rd, and Democrats ride a blue wave to full federal control of Congress and the White House.

The outcome of the 2020 election is obvious.

Pollsters haven’t learned their lesson from 2016, and they don’t account for factors that point to overperformance by Trump.  What’s more, Trump voters are exceptionally “shy.”  Many of them don’t want to trigger insults and harassment from shrill, hectoring progressives by revealing their support for the president.  Some of them intentionally mislead pollsters to undermine media trust even beyond its current all-time low.  And, while rally size isn’t a pure indicator of electoral success, the pervasive contrast in voter enthusiasm between Trump voters and Biden voters highlights a Biden vulnerability.  Moderate and independent voters who otherwise may have been disposed to vote for Biden will vote for Trump due to fears and worry around the widespread vandalism and unrest that marked progressive protests around the country.  On top of all of that, Trump has quietly been shifting voter registration toward Republicans over the past four years—especially in key states. Pollsters haven’t properly accounted for this shift or the shy voter factor, and Trump will stun “experts” again on election night.

In short, Trump will secure close-if-decisive victories in most swing states.  So much so, in fact, that he may not even need Pennsylvania.  Despite concerns around vote-counting that takes days or weeks, none of that will be necessary as Trump amasses more than 270 electors by midnight on November 3rd, and Republicans retain control of the Senate for at least two more years, and the White House for four.

I have been reading and hearing both of these narratives since the summer.

They are mutually exclusive.

In his book Win Bigly, Scott Adams describes a phenomenon he calls “two movies, one screen.”  The idea is that two people (or two groups of people) are observing the same data, but processing the information so differently that they reach entirely different conclusions about reality.

We now find ourselves living in a two-movies-one-screen world.  Everything is not only contentious, but contentious in such a way that one group’s reality cannot coexist with the other’s.

The ultimate culprit is no mystery.  Social media has rewired our minds.  We filter out information we don’t like, and double-down on sources that confirm our preexisting beliefs.

I deliberately try to avoid that scenario.  It’s easier for me, as I don’t have a vested interest in the president one way or the other (I didn’t vote for him, but I certainly don’t hate him, either).  As such, I follow a range of commentators and analysts, getting a wide variety of perspectives in the process.

The side-effect of this approach, though, is that I see social-media posts—sometimes consecutively—that present these two competing versions of reality.  One side is absolutely convinced that we’ll look back on this election and say, “Oh, of course Biden won. It was all so obvious.  Just look at the polls.”  The other side points to credible, countervailing indicators (as well as the example of 2016) and says that another Trump victory is just as obvious.

I don’t know what’s going to happen.  Spoiler: Nobody really does.  With that said, I do strongly suspect all of the following things are true, based on what I’ve seen, heard, and read over the past six months:

1. Trump will win Ohio (despite it being a “toss-up”) and Florida (despite Biden being “up” by 8-11 points as of last week, and 7 points today).

2. Democratic dreams of flipping Texas are foolish. Trump wins there, too.

3. Models based on early voting in 2016 or prior years are suspect, because COVID-19 makes 2020 a once-in-a-lifetime outlier in this regard—and that’s on top of the “Trump factor.”

4. There are a lot of shy Trump voters. Are there enough?  Different question.  I don’t know.

5. Massive rallies are a decent indicator of voter enthusiasm, but not necessarily the outcome.  Big rallies certainly aren’t a bad thing, and they can create a perception about a candidate that helps drive votes, but the fact that Trump is getting huge crowds while most of Biden’s rallies have been, uh, subdued isn’t a necessarily strong indicator of what happens tomorrow.

6. If Biden wins, and Trump contests the results or doesn’t concede, the dominant media narrative will be about Trump being a danger to democracy.

7. If Trump wins, and Biden contests the results or doesn’t concede, the dominant media narrative will be about Republican voter suppression.  This will be true even if turnout is up (which it will be) and the total votes cast set a record (quite possible).

8. If Biden wins convincingly, then we’ll look back on 2016 as a huge aberration.  

9. If Trump wins, then modern polling will need at least a soft reset before 2024.

That last point might be the most intriguing.  Frank Luntz has said that his industry is “done” if Trump somehow defies the polls a second time.

What he means to say is that “my industry would be ‘done’ in a world in which political operatives and pollsters were capable of deep self-reflection whose conclusions may imperil their ability to earn a living.”

We don’t live in that world, which brings me to my final point:

10. If Trump wins, pollsters will spend the next four years explaining to all of us how, aaaaaaactually, they were right all along!

We saw that with Nate Silver and company in the wake of 2016.  This time would be far more embarrassing.  From 538 to The Economist to the New York Times, all of the major, mainstream outlets that make such predictions have said flatly that Trump’s chances of winning are minimal—in some cases, as little as three percent.

The Economist’s prediction, as of 11/1/20

If Trump does prevail, these same outlets will instantly pivot to “We told you there was a chance Trump would win!  Of course we know what we’re doing!” ad infinitum.

Meanwhile, all of the people who told you that they were terrified about what would happen if Trump lost, both in terms of Trump’s “refusal” to accept the results and the “violence” his supporters would cause, will abruptly change course.  They’ll share in (or perhaps even cheer for) the “justified” outrage and despair of left-leaning protesters (and rioters) who are sure to take to the streets again if Trump wins.

Likewise, die-hard Trump supporters who have been pushing for election laws to be enforced strictly will cry foul if Biden wins, especially if it turns out that Trump voters’ ballots have been thrown out because of strict adherence to those same laws.

In a two-movies-one-screen world, whichever side loses will have a hard time accepting that the results were fair and just.  It remains to be seen whether that means a call to abolish the Electoral College, claims about illegal activity and voter fraud, or something much worse.

What is already clear is that Trump, Biden, their supporters and fellow partisans (e.g. Nancy Pelosi), and the media have already laid the groundwork for their side to assume that any defeat they suffer is proof of cheating.

We’ve been here before.  Instead of two or three years of investigations about Russia and “hacking,” we’ll be treated to two or three years of investigations about ballot harvesting, USPS-related controversies, and irregularities at polling places—the end result of which will be inconsequential. 

Again watching different movies on the same screen, the losing side will believe that the proof is irrefutable that the winners cheated, while the winning side will post memes celebrating the tears of their opponents.

Around and around we go.

Of all of the polling and data to come out over the past few months, the most alarming has been the sharp, upward trend in Americans who believe violence against their political opponents is justified to at least some extent.

This is another byproduct of two movies, one screen: if you see your fellow Americans as people who may disagree with you, but who are nonetheless worthy of basic respect, then it’s incredibly difficult to reach the conclusion that violence against them is ever justifiable.

On the other hand, if you view your opponents as evil people who deny indisputable reality itself, then using force to drag them into your version of incontrovertible reality seems not only sane, but necessary and proper.

Put more succinctly, there will be a critical mass of folks on either side who will absolutely not accept the results of the election, no matter how objectively clear it is that their side simply lost.  The key difference will be that one outcome will see the media fan the flames, and the other outcome will see them scoff at such claims.

What do I think will happen?  My best guess is that Donald Trump will be re-elected in competitive, but decisive fashion.  I think he will get predictably trounced in states like California, but will win nearly all of the close ones.  I also think that he’ll receive the highest level of black support of any Republican candidate in the past four decades (to be clear, this will still be a low number overall, but substantially higher than any recent GOP nominee).  I have the final map looking like this:

This map has Trump ultimately losing Pennsylvania, but winning most of the rest of the Midwest, as well as Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio.  It’s also possible he wins Pennsylvania but loses one or two of the others (not Florida or Ohio), which would still give him a second term.  I think the GOP holds on to the Senate after all, and the House obviously remains in Democratic hands.

Of course, I also thought that Hillary Clinton was surely going to win in 2016 . . . right up until the day of the election.  That’s when I spoke to my mom on the phone, and she mentioned that, when she had gone to vote, there was a busload of rest-home residents who had shown up en masse at her polling place.

Maybe we’ll see something similar this time around.  Or, maybe we already have, in the form of massive early turnout.  And maybe this prediction simply reflects my own underlying pro-Republican bias.  But, with COVID making early voting such a difficult read, and a lot of the other factors I referenced above in place, I think Trump will overperform expectations significantly, pollsters will be left reeling, and many election-night media commentators will beclown themselves in spectacular fashion.

No matter what happens, how about we at least agree that the people who vote differently than we do aren’t all monsters or imbeciles, and that the world won’t end if the people for whom we vote don’t win?

A silly wish, I know.  Perhaps even laughable.

But what you have to remember is that the movie I’m watching . . . is a comedy.

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1 Response to Two Movies, One Screen

  1. Pingback: The Worst Possible Outcome (OR: The Baby Hitler Hypothetical) | The Axis of Ego

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