I found myself getting unreasonably anxious during the presidential debate on Tuesday night — not because of either of the candidates, but because of the people I was watching the debate with (both in real life, at the MEL office, and online). They laughed at Donald Trump’s comments about “the cyber” and cracked jokes about his sniffles and fact-checked his statements in real-time — as if facts are somehow pertinent in this election. The consensus was that Trump made an ass of himself, while Clinton presented herself as the only sensible choice for president, even if just by default.
Their reaction didn’t surprise me. I work for a decidedly progressive publication — in a liberal field in a liberal coastal city in a blue state — and I tend to congregate with like-minded progressives. For them, Clinton won the debate handily, and she’ll win again in November.
And in a sensible world, that would probably be true. Yet even as I watched him sniffling, interrupting and outright lying, I couldn’t help but think, Trump might actually win this thing. And if that does indeed happen — if Trump pulls off the most unfathomable win in presidential history — then it will be due in no small part to progressive voters consistently dismissing his chances.
The media initially dismissed the Trump campaign, only to become party to its success. The Huffington Post thought it’d be cute to publish stories about Trump in its entertainment section, and broadcasters eagerly awaited Trump’s next inflammatory soundbite. “Initially, I dismissed him as a nativist clown,” Mark Leibovich wrote of Trump in a New York Times Magazine story last September. “And I was, of course, way too incredibly serious and high-minded to ever sully myself by getting so close to Donald Trump.”
But Trump was not going anywhere, Leibovich’s story concluded. By December, The Huffington Post had decided it was no longer entertained. Anderson Cooper couldn’t believe he had to deal with such a petulant jackass when he spoke with Trump at a Republican town hall this March.
The Republican Party dismissed Trump, too, at first, only to have Trump effectively hijack the party and take the nomination by force. Republican leaders spent the primary season plotting Trump’s downfall. But they failed to rally behind one candidate, allowing Trump to surge in polls and secure the nomination to their chagrin. Many lifelong Republicans have since refused to support Trump in the general election, yet Trump continues to poll within scant percentage points of Hillary.
Trump has defied expectations at every stage of the election process, so it’s hard to believe even egregious debate gaffes will suddenly alter his trajectory. If stupid comments were enough to derail his campaign, his campaign would have ended last summer, as so many people expected.
In fact, dismissing Trump has only seemed to embolden his base and increase his chances of winning. Trump appeals to a certain set of white male voters who feel disillusioned and forgotten by the rest of America, so any indication liberals don’t take him seriously only reaffirms their belief that Trump is, indeed, the only candidate who represents their interests.
David Frum, a self-identified Trump-hating Republican, spent the first part of this year trying to understand Trump’s appeal to conservative voters, and synthesized their thoughts in this piece for The Atlantic: “You think Donald Trump is screwing up because he keeps saying things that you find offensive or off-the-wall. But he’s not talking to you. You’re not his audience, you never were, and you never will be.”
What some voters consider bullying, Trump supporters see as toughness, Frum continues. When Trump exhibits a troubling lack of qualifications, Trump supporters view it as a welcome break from establishment politics. Where you see misogyny, they see someone standing up for the beleaguered white man.
So don’t think that your Facebook and Twitter feeds being full of pro-Hillary messages means she will automatically win in November. Social media isn’t representative of the general populace — it skews left. And odds are your social media feeds are customized per your pre-existing beliefs, which, if you’re liberal, means they’re even more left than average.
Don’t assume Hillary will coast to victory just because her poll numbers improved after the first debate. Trump has repeatedly outperformed projections. Stats wunderkind Nate Silver — a man who’s made a career of accurately predicting election outcomes — routinely underestimated Trump’s chances throughout the Republican primaries, a miscalculation for which Silver has since had to publicly eat crow. (FiveThirtyEight now places Trump’s odds of winning the presidential at 36.7 percent, for whatever that’s worth.)
Don’t believe you have nothing to contribute because you live in surefire blue states like Illinois, California or Massachusetts and your vote doesn’t amount to much. You can stump in neighboring swing states Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire. You can call your grandparents in Florida and try to convince them that, at the very least, Clinton is the lesser of two evils. One economist suggests bribing your 18-year-old niece in Ohio to vote Clinton (of note: that’s illegal).
And if you’re a young voter, don’t presume your peers will keep Trump out of the White House. Young voters are flocking to third-party candidates at levels not seen since Ross Perot ran in 1992 — support that, presumably, would have otherwise gone to Clinton. If you’re from a historically red or blue state and attending college in a battleground state, register to vote in your college town (this strategy is actually legal).
Maybe American voters will come to their senses in November, Trump will lose in a landslide and I’ll look back embarrassed at how worried I was. I’m comfortable with that scenario. What I’m not comfortable with is blithely assuming a Clinton victory and allowing complacency to creep in. Because everyone who has dismissed Trump so far has ended up looking foolish, and, in a small way, contributing to his success.