it ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. it's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
The Divided States of America
After the election, understanding our differences can help us find common ground
We spent the last year asking who will win the presidential election, and likely spent this morning wondering how we got it all so wrong.
Countless pundits and journalists made predictions based on debate coverage and scandalous news stories, but it seemed to me over the last year that most of those were at best a little shaky (I mean who even answers a land line and responds to a person asking which candidate for which they plan to cast a vote), and at worst were incorrectly using “data” to back up an existing agenda. This is what leaves us all shocked by the results – they weren’t what the experts told us would happen.
But this isn’t just a problem for the political ring. It seems to be a problem that comes along any time there’s the combination of data and agendas.
It’s something I see even as a strategist at an ad agency, tasked with helping advertisers understand the average person. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I walk into a conference room and hear “data” used to support personal or professional agendas about everything from how average people live, to what they believe, are even aware of, or care about.
This is inherently driven by the fact that, if you dig enough, data (whether in politics or advertising) can offer the answers you want to hear.
So a couple of years ago I got fed up with this reality, and created a research series called Understanding Average, with the primary goal to remove agendas from data (including my own). I wanted to stop using data to simply provide answers, and start using it to ask the right questions in the first place.
I started by looking at 1,100 Average Americans – I looked at where and how they live, what they think about trends and food and media and brands and yes, even politics.
As I was combing through the results, I started to see a big divide. In fact, I discovered there’s no such thing as the Average American because the United States is made up of two very different Average Americans. First the group I call Top 10 Average: the 32% of people living within the counties of top 10 media markets by population (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Houston), and the second group called, Middle Average: the 68% of people living outside those areas. In hindsight it looks very much like the election results maps we saw last night – pockets of blue counties in densely populated cities, and a vast tapestry of red counties making up all the places in between.
This divide between two Average Americans shows that we aren’t really a United States after all – in opinions, priorities, or even lifestyle. And this can really help explain what happened last night, and what will continue to happen in politics, especially as campaigns and elections feed upon our differences and inspire arguments rather understanding and progress.
So despite being a little fed up with data and predictions at the moment, I wondered if I might be able to use my agenda-less research as a way to learn a little more and help us all better understand what happened.
So goal one – let’s learn a little more.
What can party affiliations and top issues teach us about our next president? Well 75% Top 10 Average (left on infographic below) is Democrat or Democrat leaning, and 54% Middle Average (right on infographic below) is a Republican or Republican leaning.
And these results are consistent with Pew results that show 48% US population leaning towards the Democrat party, and just 39% leaning towards the Republican Party. Which means that we are in a country with a majority voters identifying as Democrats.
Now for goal two – help us better understand what happened.
It was easy for us all to assume, since most people vote along party lines, that our next president would be a Democrat. But this year, more than any other, election results had less to do with a party and more to do with perception.
It all boiled down to the issues that people care about, and despite having a divided nation of two different Average Americans, we’re less divided in these areas than pundits and debates and news coverage made us feel.
Because whether Democrat or a Republican, when asked about the number one issue facing America today, both Top 10 Average and Middle Average agreed: it’s the government itself, followed by the economy.
Which means we’re actually united on the issues. The biggest issue on Americans’ minds is the economy, and the last group they trusted to fix it was the current politicians in power.
This is why credentials seemed to matter less this time around. It’s why so many Trump supporters love that he’s a Washington outsider, and why Clinton’s years of public service did little to sway opinions (and in fact were used against her in debates and ads).
This is why Trump’s alleged corporate and tax corruption had less impact on voters than Clinton’s emails. Because in the private sector, you’re innocent unless proven guilty, while Clinton’s political service was proof enough of corruption.
This is also why a lack of Republican endorsements didn’t really hurt Trump with his base, and why the Clinton endorsements did little to change minds.
This year, more than any other time, a proven track record in Washington hurt, rather than helped, the candidates’ seeking the highest office in our country.
These things led me to believe back in March that the smart money was on Donald J. Trump in this election. Not necessarily because voters agree with him, but because they disagree with the way things have been.
And in the future of politics, I think we’re in for a shakeup in the way lifetime politicians and incumbents market themselves, and in for more success from unexpected outsiders.
But no matter how you’re feeling about the election results, remember that half of the voters felt unheard before last night, and the other half may be feeling that way now. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all come together with this shared understanding?