With the announcement that the Democratic National Convention is coming to Milwaukee mid-July 2020, we will have the opportunity to try to talk about voter suppression in the state of Wisconsin while pundits will try to beat into the ground the talking point that Democrats lost the 2016 election simply because Hillary Clinton didn’t make another campaign stop in Wisconsin. While we have identified that voter suppression laws prevented tens of thousands from voting in Milwaukee, we need to push back on the idea that a simple campaign event decides a state.
As it is, we know Russian operatives worked to sow chaos in American discourse during 2016, with the aim of getting Trump elected. We know that Russian code was introduced to U.S. voting machines, courtesy of Reality Winner’s sacrifice. But we need to study what happened on Election Night 2016, when states that hadn’t gone Republican in 20 years improbably went red by the same small margin of votes.
Exit polls used to be more widespread and relied upon, until they were blamed for unreliability during the Bush years, when their results didn’t jibe with the desired outcome. Now they are not publicized on Election Day as much, and are used more as a post-mortem to dissect voters’ concerns.
While we know that the election of 2016 was run with massive interference, we still don’t know how secure the votes themselves were. After all, at least 20 states faced Russian hacks into their voter rolls, some of the attacks being successful.
Even Republicans that saw the 2016 election night exit polls saw Trump losing, before the official surprise count was released. Here are excerpts from a GQ article by Ben Schreckinger confirming that the exit polls showed a big win for Democrats, yet again:
Frank Luntz, Republican messaging guru (unaffiliated with the Trump campaign): I was given access to the Fox News exit poll at three minutes after five. The numbers had Hillary Clinton winning Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—states that Trump eventually won. And it wasn't even close. It looked like she was going to win big.
Chris Wallace, Fox News Sunday anchor: The first big moment was about 5:15, 5:30, when all of the top people at Fox News—the executives, the anchors, the researchers—we all went into this huge conference room and they presented the first wave of exit polls.
Bret Baier, Fox News chief political anchor: We were asking questions about different elements of the exit polls to our decision team, and it was clear that they were saying, "You know, this is not definitive, but it really looks like Clinton will pull it out by about 11 P.M. Eastern time."
Frank Luntz: At 5:01, all the narratives were written: Hillary Clinton was elected president. It's supposed to be a really closely guarded secret. Probably a hundred people were aware, because they prepare their graphics, they prepare all their material. I have a photograph [of a graphic]: "Fox News declares Hillary Clinton elected president."
[The Trump campaign] saw the numbers, and they knew what I knew, which is that up to this point the exit polling had never been this wrong, so the assumption was that she was going to win.
Chris Wallace: I spoke to President-elect Trump in an interview I did with him in December, a month later, and he said that going into election night, and after his people had read the exit polls, they thought he was going to lose, too. He thought he was going to lose. That was just the accepted wisdom.