Last month, political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA came to the Russell Library to give a presentation on their statistical analysis of the 2016 election. Vavreck and Sides come from a school of thought that believes election results are largely predetermined—that they can be predicted with great accuracy simply by plugging economic conditions and whether the incumbent is on the ballot into a formula.
The writing partners nailed it in 2012. This year, with no incumbent on the ballot and an economy that’s growing but slowly, their model predicted a tossup. Other similar models said the same, or gave Donald Trump a slight edge by virtue of being from the opposite party as the sitting president.
At the time, though, Hillary Clinton was up about 5 or 6 points in the polls, and Sides and Vavreck didn’t believe their own model. As they explained, Trump had virtually no campaign infrastructure, such as field offices; was being badly out-fundraised by Clinton; and was making the mistake of doubling down on a shrinking sector of the electorate (white people) at the expense of offending the growing minority population. Sides even said he couldn’t envision anything happening to change the dynamics of the race enough for Trump to win—and this was before the “Access Hollywood” tape leaked.
They should have stuck with the models, which recently-retired UGA political science professor Paul Gurian acknowledges are usually accurate, even though he’s from the school of thought that campaigns matter. Gurian walked the audience through the election during a presentation at the Athens library last week sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
“This is the most unusual campaign I can remember,” Gurian said in what must be an early contender for understatement of the century. “This one broke the norms and expectations of political scientists and other experts.”
Generally, in primaries, to start there are one or two frontrunners with high name recognition and a bunch of longshots, Gurian said. The frontrunner will stumble and a challenger will emerge from the pack, but ultimately the frontrunner will prevail with more money and better organization. That’s what happened in the Democratic primary this year—but not on the Republican side.
There was no frontrunner on the GOP side this year, because 2012 nominee Mitt Romney opted not to run. He and another well-funded candidate, Jeb Bush, would’ve cleared the field, Gurian said. Instead, the media latched onto Trump because he was already well known as a celebrity businessman and reality TV star. Trump received more coverage than all the other candidates combined—the equivalent to $3 billion in advertising, Gurian said. He stayed in the news by making controversial statements and bullying his opponents, who were unprepared to respond because they were used to obeying President Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans.”
The GOP establishment’s No. 1 choice, Bush, faltered in the debates, and the No. 2 choice, Sen. Marco Rubio, also suffered a gaffe just before the New Hampshire vote. By the time the establishment—elected officials, party fixtures and big donors—overcame their distaste for Sen. Ted Cruz and united behind him, Trump had already all but clinched the nomination.
The Republican convention was “not good,” Gurian said—few major figures spoke, and Trump’s speech was largely negative—but he got a four-point bump in the polls, essentially pulling into a tie. Clinton, though, jumped eight points after the Democratic convention, netting a four-point lead. That lead dwindled soon after, though, as a case of pneumonia brought negative attention and the Wikileaks scandal broke.
“Clinton had a very effective first debate, or to put it more precisely, Trump had a terrible first debate,” Gurian said. She appeared calm, experienced and knowledgeable, and got under Trump’s skin. But by that point, 90 percent of voters had made up their minds.
On Oct. 7, the “Access Hollywood” tape featuring Trump bragging about sexual assault broke. “That hurt Trump, but it didn’t hurt him that much,” Gurian said. “Almost everyone had made up their minds by then.”
The third debate was a draw, according to Gurian, except for Trump saying he might not accept the results of the election. That was a big deal among pundits, but maybe not voters. “I don’t think most people noticed or cared that much,” he said. “Compared to other things Trump said, it seemed like small potatoes.”
Then FBI Director James Comey announced he was re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s emails, and the polls tightened again. “Rationally, if you look at it, there really wasn’t any news there—‘We might have something that may be related,’” Gurian said. “But it fed into the narrative: ‘You see, she is guilty of something.’ By the time Comey said ‘never mind,’ everyone had either already voted or made up their mind.”
On Election Day, Clinton was up about 3 percent in the polls, and every projection gave her at least 272 electoral votes—enough to win. Although Clinton wound up losing the election, except for Midwestern states, the polls were accurate, Gurian said. She won the popular vote by 1 percent, so the national polls were two points off, which is about average. “But you don’t notice it unless it flips the results,” he said.
High turnout among rural, uneducated whites helped Trump. “They got themselves to the polls,” Gurian said. “They were really motivated.” But turnout among African Americans and Latinos who usually vote Democratic was down.
In the wake of the loss, Gurian said he expects the Democratic Party to move to the left, toward Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “That’s what millennials want, and there are now more millennials in the voting population than baby boomers,” he said.
As for the Trump administration, Gurian predicted that the new president will often find himself at odds with the GOP-controlled Congress, and that rifts within the Republican Party—the religious, fiscally conservative, libertarian and tea party wings—will worsen. “Governing under those conditions… I think is going to be extremely difficult,” Gurian said.
Yonah Traffic: Last year, a proposal for a medical office building at 1292 Prince Ave. (in Normaltown where Allen’s and Foxz used to be) angered Yonah Avenue residents because the plans called for drivers to exit the building’s parking deck onto their narrow residential street. At the time, the state Department of Transportation, which controls that stretch of Prince, said vehicles couldn’t exit onto Prince because the sight lines were obstructed by cars parked on the street. Now, a solution has surfaced: removing six parking spaces from Prince, allowing cars to both enter and exit there. In return, the developer, John Barrett, has offered public parking in the deck.
“If things go as planned, it should divert a lot of that traffic onto Prince Avenue,” Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link said at the Nov. 15 agenda-setting meeting. She praised the revised plans, which include a smaller footprint and space for a restaurant in the development, as well as room for a new mid-block crosswalk and a bus stop. But “there are still a few questions that have to be answered,” she said, such as whether the commitment to provide public parking would continue under a new owner if the building is ever sold. The commission will vote on the plan Tuesday, Dec. 6.
More Development News: A Birmingham developer is eying a small tract on Oconee Street near The Mark for a mixed-use development that would include about 80 apartments with 160–175 bedrooms, the Athens Banner-Herald reported last week, quoting real estate agent Jay Boswell. The project is in the downtown historic district, and it won approval from the ACC Historic Preservation Commission Nov. 16.
Meanwhile, Karl Barnett and Todd Burton are moving forward with plans for the old cotton mill on Pulaski Street. Those plans include renovating and adding onto the mill, which will become retail, office and restaurant space, as well as two new buildings on the property with ground-floor commercial space and two stories of apartments (a total of 21 units) above.
HIV Grant: Local nonprofit Advantage Behavioral Health Systems recently received a $1.4 million federal grant to start a substance abuse treatment program for African-American women who have or are at risk of contracting HIV. Advantage and its partners—Live Forward (formerly AIDS Athens), the Athens Nurses Clinic and the Ryan White Specialty Care Clinic—have identified 200 potential clients who are not receiving services. During the three-year grant period, Advantage expects to provide HIV and hepatitis B and C testing, education and outreach for 2,250 people and substance abuse treatment for 96.
Advantage also recently held a summit focused on youth mental health issues, and will be opening a $400,000 “clubhouse” called Remix in Bogart next month to provide help for kids with mental health disorders in collaboration with the UGA Environmental Science Department and Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
Entrepreneur Grants: Nedza’s Waffles—a pop-up started by a UGA student previously profiled on our Grub Notes blog—won a $5,000 grant from UGA, the local tech incubator Four Athens and a corporate partner last week. Forty-five teams applied for the Idea Accelerator Grant. Finalists included Downtown Canvas, a peer-to-peer art marketplace; VitaBink, a medicinal delivery system for infants; and Reservoir, a soil-moisture monitoring system. Applications for the spring 2017 grant are at fourathens.com/accelerator.
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