NEW YORK – All of the polls were wrong.
This astonishing fact struck Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign on Tuesday night like a tsunami, forecast with just hours’ notice, as critical swing state districts began reporting trouble for the former secretary of state.
It was not just the national polls that predicted a comfortable margin of victory for the Democratic nominee.
Months of surveys conducted by independent polling firms using a variety of methods showed her comfortably leading in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – so-called Rust Belt states that ultimately handed Donald Trump the American presidency.
Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate with historically low favorability ratings from the very start of the race.
But she was – as best as the polls could tell – better liked than her Republican competitor. And it is something of a testament to Clinton’s strength that she still won the popular vote by more than 200,000 votes.
Where her campaign went wrong was in its voter modeling – its statistics- based understanding of how many voters would turn out to the polls, and where. Public and internal polls alike were, in other words, surveying the wrong people and inaccurately predicting the proportion of the ultimate electorate that each demographic would be.
This is the Clinton campaign’s technical explanation for one of the greatest upsets in US political history.
But the reaction from the gut is far simpler: that it misjudged the level of anger and disgust that white working- class voters felt toward Washington and those representing it.
The campaign underestimated just how loud the primal scream would be of disaffected Americans in the industrial Midwest, sick and tired of a political establishment oriented toward a globalizing world. These voters want the US to turn inward, and Clinton – regardless of her actions throughout the campaign – was anathema to their cause.
They instead went for what Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon characterized on Wednesday as a “populist message,” a nationalist charge interpreted by many of his supporters on the far right as a rare political opportunity to preserve white America.
“Make America Great Again” and “America First,” slogans which Trump came up with himself, captured the mood.
Even Trump’s campaign aides acknowledge that they were surprised by Tuesday night’s results and by the groundswell that surged their candidate to victory. Yet they knew from his unlikely rise through the Republican primaries that a movement, an undercurrent of discontent, existed beneath his successes.
Trump saw this at his rallies, which, as he often pointed out, were consistently packed with voters eager to “drain the swamp” that is Washington.
Who and what that swamp consists of will be determined in the months and years ahead.
The former first lady and senator from New York fought back tears when thanking her supporters – especially the women who backed her – for allowing her to be their champion.
“I have spent my entire adult life fighting for what I believe in. I’ve had successes and I’ve had setbacks – sometimes, really painful ones,” she said. “This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
Starting out her concession speech, she did something unusual for a consummate politician: She apologized, as if to admit fault.
“I’m sorry that we did not win this election for the values we share and the vision we hold for our country,” she said.
What Clinton has to apologize for – and where she, as a candidate, let her legions of supporters down – will be a subject of debate for years to come.
Half of the electorate feels gutted after her loss, and much of that part of the electorate is scared.
But it is difficult to blame the Clinton campaign for failing to predict a tsunami. No one saw Trump coming.