An Interview with Harry Enten

Harry Enten poses for his fans.

Harry Enten poses for his fans.

The Dartmouth Review sat down with Harry Enten ‘11 on the occasion of his vist to Dartmouth.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Can you tell us about your time at Dartmouth and what issues you were interested in then?

Harry Enten (HE): I started here in 2007. I was always interested in elections, so I took a lot of Government courses. I wasn’t involved in student politics too much. I was class treasurer. I helped run student elections my senior year. I was also involved with the College Democrats. I was probably the only person in the College Dems who, in my senior year, voted for the Republican candidate for the House of Representatives. I voted for Charlie Bass. I mean, it’s just one of those strange things. People in my field have always tried to pin me as left or right wing, but at least during my time here, I was a registered independent. I was certainly involved with politics and government stuff.

TDR: Did you have any favorite professors?

HE: There’s so many you can list. I think a few people who were really involved were Bob Norman over in mathematical and social sciences, Karen Gocsik over in the writing department (who I think is now at UC San Diego,) and Joseph Bafumi. From an academic angle, I enjoyed my time here.

TDR: Speaking of your time here, what are your impressions of the Dartmouth Review?

HE: I think that there are two impressions that I have of the Dartmouth Review. There’s the impression that I had while I was here and there’s the longer-lasting impression. People think of the Dartmouth Review in the eighties as this very radical paper. That was not necessarily my impression while I was here. I thought of it as the conservative alternative to the more liberal ideology that permeates Dartmouth. That was always to me the funniest thing. People always said Dartmouth was so conservative, and I said, “What? Compared to Brown?” The campus itself is a fairly liberal campus, at least politically speaking. When Milo Yiannopoulos was here, even if people disagreed with his viewpoint, he was treated with the understanding that we need free speech and that it’s important to hear each other out and disagree with each other if need be. I think for the most part Dartmouth is probably the least radical Ivy out there. It’s liberal but it’s not radically liberal. It’s a place where I think viewpoints are respected. At least I hope they are.

TDR: How do you think the College could better use polling to improve student life?

HE: I know that there’s been some movement to have a Dartmouth polling site to poll students and I think that is so important. This is not high school anymore. This is college. This is where boys develop into men and girls develop into women. This is where children develop into adults. I just think that it’s very important that you have student input. Exactly how that’s done I think is up to each individual institution and what they see themselves as. One issue to me that was so funny when I was here was the issue of dining hall dollars. When I was here, people liked the á la carte system, and then they [introduced meal swipes.] I thought that was such a ridiculous move. I don’t think a lot of students necessarily wanted that. Polling can be used in that situation to help us know for sure whether or not that’s something that most people want.

TDR: A number of different people have characterized you as preferring numbers over ideas. There are many issues in American politics where people don’t take numbers into account when making decisions. How do you impose a numerical structure on those issues?

HE: I think sometimes it’s very difficult. People come to their opinions, and we have research that shows that if we show them that numbers doesn’t necessarily back their ideas, they actually become more entrenched in their ideas despite what the numbers show. I’m not necessarily sure that numbers can convince people whether they’re right or wrong. What I’m interested in is numbers over ideas. What gets me up in the morning isn’t what so-and-so thinks about such-and-such. I don’t want to have a policy debate. I’m interested in applying numbers and saying, “Okay, which do people agree with more? Which idea holds more sway with the American people?” and not necessarily which idea holds more sway over me.

TDR: What is 538 considering on a long-term basis? Are you looking to expand into other areas?

HE: Obviously we have sports. We have culture. We have science. We have politics. We have a lot of different areas. What you are hopefully going to see over the next few months is more investigative pieces and more policy-oriented pieces. Not necessarily policy with a capital P, but just trying to apply our craft to policy so people can get a better understanding of it. Right now, with Trump, there are so many people that think everything Trump does is outrageous. Let’s take a step back. Let’s understand what the actual implications of this are. How out of the norm is this, if it is out of the norm at all? I think that’s so important because there are some things Donald Trump has done that are certainly unusual and not normal, but there are some things that he has done that are perfectly normal that people are just looking to get upset about. I think that we can hopefully use our techniques to sort those out.

TDR: And have you guys already started to do that?

HE: We’re starting. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be with that. Part of the problem with the Trump administration is that he makes news everyday. It’s sometimes difficult to take a step back and get a larger view.

TDR: You use the “Jewish echoes” and the hashtag “#RenegadeJew” on your Twitter. What does being Jewish mean to you and what does it mean in your field?

HE: Those were started by Rosenberg, who is a writer with Tablet: good guy, really respect him. He took the lead on that. Am I a religious guy? Not necessarily sure you can say that. Some things shake people in different ways. That being said, I’ll never run from who I am. Various groups have persecuted the Jewish people through the ages. I think during this election cycle, there was a small, select group of people who decided to make that an issue again. I don’t think that will ever not be an issue. I just wanted to take a stand because I think my last name does not really make it clear as to what my background is. I wanted to make sure I was clear about what I was and who I was. Judaism means different things to different people. To me, it is who I am, and I wanted to make sure that people understood that.

TDR: You’ve done a few articles on American-Jewish political views and a few articles on the American-Israeli relationship. In doing that research, was there anything that surprised you?

HE: I don’t know if there’s anything that surprised me so much. People tend to think of voters as blocks. Jewish voters are overwhelmingly Democrats. Among Jews, there are many diverse viewpoints. We know that if someone goes to synagogue once a week, he is far more likely to be Republican. Something that I’m going to look at in the next few years is how specifically Orthodox Jews differ from Reform Jews, especially as Orthodox Jews rise as a proportion of the Jewish population. You see these very different viewpoints in the Jewish community. In terms of Israeli relations, one of the unfortunate things that has occurred (if you’re a fan of Israel) is that we are starting to form a real partisan regarding the way in which Republicans and Democrats view Israeli-U.S relations. One of the reasons Israel has always been able to maintain a strong tie with the U.S. is that it’s been a bipartisan issue. That may be starting to change, and both sides of the aisle need to be keeping an eye out for that. Depending on your political viewpoint, it could be a good thing or a bad thing, but we will begin to see a change over the next decade.

TDR: One area you spoke about yesterday was elections in Europe.  Have taken an interest in analyzing foreign polls?

HE: We haven’t done a ton of that, and obviously foreign elections can sometimes be a very different game, but I think that we’ll certainly have pieces on it.  I don’t think you’re going to see any forecasts on it, but I think it’s very important to keep an eye out on these French and German elections that will be coming up in terms of understanding what is really a world movement with this populist nationalism.  So far the nationalists have been on a pretty good roll lately, whether it be with the referendum down in South America and Colombia, the United States, or Brexit. I’m very interested to see whether or not they can continue on that roll or whether they get stopped in their tracks.

TDR: They got stopped in Austria….

HE: Yes, they did get stopped in Austria, but I think that was an example where the nationalists were too far to the right (granted, the Green Party candidate was also pretty far to the left.)  But you also got the one-on-one that you were looking for. I think you had a lot of people see these things and say, “I can’t believe that this is going to possibly happen,” and I think that the first election, which was so close, made people believe, “Oh my God, this could actually happen.” I think it helped drive people to the polls and made sure that they came out and voted. 

TDR: Opinion journalism often seeks to define itself as non-partisan, but there are often claims that this is not so.

HE: I think everyone has a viewpoint.  The question is, is it possible to keep that viewpoint and truly be non-partisan.  I’m not sure it is, I’m not sure it isn’t, and I think that we all know for the most part that the media in this country is more liberal than it is conservative.  I think, still, facts are facts, and I think it’s very important to report all facts, and to report on what is a lie and what isn’t a lie.  I think some people do that better than others, I think Jake Tapper is someone who does that tremendously well.  I think a lot of people do it well, and I think other people don’t do it nearly as well.  But I think it’s up to each individual reporter which way they want to view things, and it’s up to the audience which way they want to view said reporter.

TDR: Has Donald Trump changed the relationship?

HE: I think he absolutely has changed the relationship. Donald Trump obviously is very antagonistic towards the media but also loves the media, and more than that — it’s a love-hate relationship, they feed off of each other.  But more than that, Donald Trump has made people who would otherwise seem non-partisan perhaps seem a little bit more partisan, which is so interesting to me.  Because if we’re being honest with ourselves, Donald Trump, at least according to the fact-checkers, tells more untruth than other people do, and so I think it becomes very difficult for someone to be seen as non-partisan if that’s something they’re calling him out on all the time.  I don’t think that there’s anything partisan about saying that that guy is telling an untruth and that no one seems to care.  But I think it’s very hard to maintain that sort of level, that straight face when you have someone who’s doing that all the time.

TDR: Have you guys started looking at re-election prospects for Trump?

HE: Look, well we can talk about it.  I don’t think we necessarily know anything.  I mean I’m all up for talking about it but he’s got a long way to go.  We’ve spoken about Democrats who could potentially run.  If you’re looking you can see Kirsten Gillibrand voting down every single nominee.  I think that that’s probably a sign that she might be running, and I think that it’s probably foolish to ignore that fact.

TDR: So how do you approach covering President Trump?

HE: You just try and stay with what you know, and obviously there’s going to be some snark from time to time.  When Trump says, “these so-called judges,” you have to call a spade a spade, that’s not something that people normally do, and it can be dangerous.  But at the same time I think it’s very important to recognize the numbers say what they say, and you have to say what they say.  As long as you do that, I think that you can do a pretty good job.  You stick to the numbers, you stick to what you think is probably going to happen, and if you can do that, then you can do a good job.  I think it’s a much more difficult job to stay neutral when you’re reporting on policy, which is part of the reason I’m sometimes hesitant to do so.  I think that’s where bias can come out.

TDR: The Republicans used a strategy of obstructing Congress throughout the Obama administration, and that worked well. Now it seems that the Democrats in the opposition are taking that same approach.  Do you think that they have the same ability to be successful in that approach or do you think that it will not work as well for them?

HE: I don’t know if it’s going to work less well for them, but can I tell you that I think it’s just part of a larger trend of more and more political polarization, and at the end of the day, it’s that small middle of the electorate that’s either going to side with one side or side with the other. I’m not certain it’s going to be successful, but I think in a large part it will be successful or unsuccessful depending on whether people think that things are improving in this country.  If they think things aren’t improving, they’re going to vote out the White House party.  If they think things are successful, they’re going to keep that party in.  I think that if your idea is to keep the country from moving too far to the right, then that could very well work.  I don’t think that the American public is going to penalize them, because they didn’t penalize the Republicans, and I see no reason that they’ll penalize the Democrats either.

TDR: One reason would be that Republicans tend to believe that the government is not always the solution, and so obstructing it works in their favor, whereas Democrats tend to want the government to function.

HE: Could be, but I think Democrats at this point want to stop everything that Trump is doing, it’s a funny time in politics at this point.

TDR: What kind of impact do you think that the third party candidates had on the 2016 elections?  Do you think that they shifted the results at all?

HE: No, I don’t think that.  I think that Donald Trump was going to win that election. Now the only question is if Evan Mullen had been in the ballot in a few more states, could that have shifted it?   Maybe.  But I think that’s a real hypothetical, I think it’s foolish to blame the third parties for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in this election.   I think the fact of the matter was that in the states that were necessary, Trump simply got more votes than she did, and that was simply going to occur more times than not, given everything else we know.  Perhaps if some things had shifted or some things had changed, maybe the results would have changed, but I don’t think third parties were responsible for Clinton’s defeat.

TDR: A cursory Google search of your names reveals that you’ve developed a budding cult of personality. Can you comment on that?

HE: I am who I am, and I’ve got to be me.   That’s all I can say, and I’ve got no problem being me, and if you don’t like me for me, then you don’t like me.  And that’s the truth.