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Why everyone underestimated the 'stealth Trump vote'

Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listen at a rally at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on the final day of campaigning November 7, 2016.
Dominick Reuter | AFP | Getty Images
Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listen at a rally at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on the final day of campaigning November 7, 2016.

It was clear more than a few days before Election Day that Donald Trump would need almost all the polls to be wrong to win the presidency. Sure enough, they were wrong and it's not a mystery why. The so-called "stealth Trump vote" was real and big enough to prove all those experts who said it didn't exist wrong. And the two reasons it existed should serve as serious lessons to not just the pollsters and the pundits, but to the rest of us as well.

They certainly conducted enough polls. The problem was that too many people felt afraid to answer them honestly. For all the focus on how nasty and offensive Trump was, there was a stronger and steadier stream of nastiness from editorials in major papers, posts on social media, and conversations in office break rooms and classrooms that bashed Trump, sometimes even equating him to Hitler. That took its toll on a lot of Trump supporters who responded by either saying they were voting for another candidate or they decided not to say anything at all.

That's not something to just brush off. Americans aren't the most combative people, but it's rare for a significant amount of us to become too cowed to express an opinion on something as simple as whom we're going to vote for. We can all point fingers at a number of suspects, but a lot of us share the blame for making the level of public discourse so nasty. There are a lot of people waking up after this election fearing a Trump presidency, but it's clear millions of Americans have been living for months in fear of even saying they intended to vote for him. That's altogether too much fear to go around.

But it's not just about fear. A big reason why many of the voters who swung this election to Trump were missed by the pollsters is the same reason the politicians and economists missed them: They were ignored. The non-college educated hourly wage earning Americans who still make up the plurality of this country just don't get mentioned in too many campaign speeches.

You don't see lots of news reports about them and their struggles on cable news. And worse, many of them are preemptively brushed off as unintelligent racists not worthy of respect. And since they've been ignored and betrayed by the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties for so long, it's not surprising that so many of them have abandoned the political process for more than a generation.

After that much time, disaffected people like that become almost impossible for pollsters to find. And they clearly failed to find enough of them this time to accurately predict the election. The so-called "deplorables" were also the "ignorables," and that skewed the pre-election data. Maybe the rest of us will stop ignoring and prejudging them so much now.

The "stealth Trump vote" wasn't just a statistical accident. It was born out of a callousness and dismissive nature that's becoming more and more common in American society. And the proper response to it isn't more anger or withdrawal. It should be introspection and more humility. A movement of American voters strong enough to elect a first-time candidate with no government experience to the White House should never have been so missed and misconstrued as it was. Americans shouldn't be so blinded ever again.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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