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From polling to policies: W&M government professors discuss 2016 election

  • Election discussion:
    Election discussion:  (Left to right) John Gilmour, Jaime Settle, Christine Nemacheck, Lenneal Henderson, Ron Rapoport, Chris Howard and John McGlennon were among the nine government faculty members to participate in the panel discussion.  Photo by Erin Zagursky
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The election of Donald Trump Nov. 8 raised myriad questions among social scientists and others about the factors that led to his win and the future implications of his presidency.

On Nov. 17, faculty from the William & Mary Department of Government addressed some of those questions as part of a panel discussion in Washington Hall attended by students, faculty and community members. The wide-ranging conversation touched on topics from the Electoral College and voter behavior to potential policy changes and the role of race in the election. It was one of several events over the past two weeks organized by W&M departments, programs and other organizations to explore the election and its current and potential effects.

The panel discussion was co-hosted by the government department along with the College Republicans and W&M Young Democrats and moderated by Paul Manna, department chair and Isabelle and Jerome E. Hyman Distinguished University Professor of Government.

“In the wake of the recent election, it is particularly important for our community to draw together in open and inclusive dialogue,” said Dean of Arts & Sciences Kate Conley. “This is exactly what I found at the Department of Government discussion Thursday night on the ‘2016 Elections: Perspectives of American Politics Faculty.’ I was particularly impressed by the fact that the discussion had bipartisan co-sponsorship by the W&M Young Democrats and College Republicans, a co-sponsorship that was reflected in the collaborative spirit in the room and by the lively questions and answers provided.

“The discussion was a true conversation between students, faculty and visitors. This generous, open and dynamic conversation made me proud to be at William & Mary.”


Several of the panelists discussed the inaccuracy of national polls, although Ron Rapoport, John Marshall Professor of Government, noted that the level of error was not much higher than in 2012 — it was the consistency of error that was greater, he said.

Still, one theory as to why the polls were off centers on the idea of “shy Trump voters” — people who allegedly didn’t want to tell pollsters that they were voting for Trump, said Rapoport. However, if that were true, one would have expected to see Trump out-perform the polls — something he did, but overwhelmingly in red states.

“And we wouldn’t expect people to be shy if they live around a bunch of other Trump supporters,” said Jaime Settle, assistant professor of government.

Instead, what might help explain the inaccuracy of the polls, Rapoport asserted, is a possible connection between people who distrust the government and those unwilling to take surveys.

“People who distrust institutions to this degree are far less likely to do surveys,” he said, “so if it is the case that people who are less trusting are both more likely to support Trump … and also less likely to do surveys, by virtue of that, you are ending up with people in your sample who are more trusting than the population and therefore more supportive of Clinton.”


Though there’s a popular notion that voter turnout was low, Settle said that when all of the numbers are in, she expects the data to show that the level was about the same as the last election. And while people who always vote may have still turned up at the polls, a lack of enthusiasm for the candidates may have diminished their efforts to recruit others, said Government Professor John McGlennon.

“You still were going to vote, but you might have been less likely to go knock on doors or take four friends with you to the polls or to make sure you call all of your family members,” he said.

Although voter turnout may have remained about the same, the political parties saw a reshuffling of their voter bases, said McGlennon, citing significant changes especially in “Rust Belt” states where people who once consistently voted for Democrats both at the national and state levels opted for Republicans.

“It’s important for the two parties to understand and to try to delve more fully into the question of whether they can expect those blue-collar voters to continue to support Republicans in future elections or whether they will return to their Democratic roots,” McGlennon said.

Social scientists who have looked as causal factors for how people voted have determined that economic anxiety and racial animus were top issues for Trump supporters, especially among late-breaking voters, said Larry Evans, Newton Family Professor of Government. But when analyzing those issues together to control for each other and other factors, “race tends to wash out the effects of economic anxiety,” he said.

“This is a situation where you have a bunch of people who look like me, who I probably went to high school with … who looked out at the country that’s been led over the past eight years by an African-American that is in transition to a majority-minority country, and they’re uncomfortable with that,” Evans said. “This, at its heart, drove a lot of that shift, and I think we just need to say that up front.”


Proposed changes to certain policies and regulations that Trump discussed during his campaign will likely occur, but they may not happen as quickly or to the extent that he discussed previously, according to several of the panelists.

For instance, the fact that American healthcare is a public/private hybrid means that changes to Affordable Care Act may have unintended consequences that Trump will have to consider, said Chris Howard, Harriman Professor of Government and Public Policy.

“Parts of the Affordable Care Act are highly related, so if you, as is being discussed, want to revoke the individual mandate but to keep the provisions there that prevent the insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing coverage, a lot of insurance companies are going to get really uncomfortable,” Howard said, “because if that combination goes forward, then the people who are sickest and need help are going to come forward looking for insurance. The healthy folks without compulsion will hang back. Insurance will get priced higher, and we’ll have even more expensive policies than we do today.”

Lowering the tax rates for higher-income individuals and businesses may also have ripple effects.

“I’m old enough that my basic reaction is: I’ve seen this movie before. I’ve seen it twice,” said Howard, referring to similar efforts in 1981 and 2001-03. “We tried this approach to the economy; it doesn’t have any durable, positive effect on economic growth or wages. It makes some people more wealthy. It makes the deficit much, much bigger.”

In addressing immigration, Trump may use an executive order to do away with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

“However, the people who are covered by this are not the people Trump has said he really wants to get out of the country,” said John Gilmour, Paul R. Verkuil Distinguished Professor of Government and Public Policy, referencing a 60 Minutes interview in which Trump said he wanted to deport convicted felons. “That’s not the Dreamers. So it will take a lot of money and time to deport the people he says he wants to support, so he may remove the deferred action but not the people.

Other elections and federal appointments

Although the presidential election has taken center stage in the country, the recent state and local elections are worth paying attention to, as well, said Lenneal Henderson, visiting instructor of government.

“It’s noteworthy to point out that, yes, we have 31 Republican governors and a majority of state legislatures will be Republican, but the majority of the local officials elected this time around were Democrats, which is very interesting,” Henderson noted.

In addition, 127 new officials are people of color, he added.

“That’s important as well because what we’re really talking about is what the crop is going to look like going forward to the midterm elections in the next four years, keeping mind that Barack Obama ran for the presidency in his first term as a U.S. senator,” said Henderson.

A different crop of people will now be unlikely to advance with Trump in charge of making about 100 appointments in the federal judiciary, according to Christine Nemacheck, Wilson & Martha Claiborne Stephens Associate Professor.

“A lot of the folks that Trump would consider for appointment would come from the lower federal courts, and of course, those have been staffed by the Obama administration for the last eight years, so it’s not as clear who these folks would be,” said Nemacheck. “Also, it presents an opportunity for the folks in the Trump camp and particularly the alt-right camp to endorse candidates and get candidates considered who are quite nontraditional simply by the fact that there aren’t going to be as many traditional Republican candidates available. That could have huge repercussions.”

As for the open seat on the Supreme Court, Obama could make a recess appointment for Merrick Garland, whom he nominated in March for the position. However, Nemacheck thinks that’s unlikely because of Obama’s expressed desire to create a smooth transition for Trump as well as Garland’s efforts to remain apolitical.

While Trump is expected to make other appointments in the federal government, people tend to overestimate the importance of some those positions and underestimate the influence of civil servants, who are not political appointees and have a great deal of autonomy, said Manna.

“One thing that will be interesting going forward will be to see will be to the degree which the bureaucracy itself reacts in ways that might be counter to the preferences of President Trump,” Manna said.

“He’s going to learn in a hurry that the U.S. government is not a corporation with a boss at the top that can dictate everything.”