What Happened? Doing the Math on Election 2016.

Bill Scher

Just in time for the Electoral College set to cast their ballots on Monday, all 50 states have finally certified their popular vote totals.

Hillary Clinton: 65,844,610 (48.2%)
Donald Trump: 62,979,636 (46.1%)
Others: 7,756,035 (5.7%)

Now we have the hard numbers to do a thorough assessment of what really happened in our nation’s 58th presidential election. Not by only looking at the percent share of the vote, but also by comparing the raw vote totals from four years ago.

The following relies on the Cook Political Report Popular Vote Tracker, the United States Election Project and data from the Federal Election Commission.

Turnout Slightly Larger In 2016 Than 2012, But Not So In Every State

Those who believed that the historically low favorable ratings of the two major candidates would drive down turnout were wrong. 136,628,459 Americans casted a vote for president 2016, compared to 129,085,410 in 2012, and increase of 5.8 percent.

But that fact alone overstates the turnout increase, because the number of eligible voters increased as well, from 222,474,111 to 231,556,622, an increase of 4.08 percent.

So the turnout percentage in 2016, 59.0%, was only slightly higher than 2012’s level of 58.0%.

However, there were notable states where turnout declined relative to the 4.08 percent baseline:

Iowa: -1%
Michigan: +1.4%
Minnesota: +0.3%
Ohio: -1.5%
Wisconsin: -3%
Virginia: +3.3%

And still more swing states had declines in major party turnout, relative to the baseline, meaning that the overall turnout increase in those states was due to higher profile third-party options:

Colorado: +1.3%
Maine: -0.04%
New Hampshire: -0.7%
North Carolina: +2.3%

Historically Weak Mandate

Donald Trump is only the fifth person to become president having lost the popular vote, and only the third to lose by more than a percentage point.

The other two presidents to lose the popular vote by more were John Quincy Adams in 1824 and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. 1824 was a four-way race in which no one initially won an Electoral College majority; Adams prevailed in the House when the fourth-place finisher urged his supporters to back Adams over Andrew Jackson. The 1876 election features accusations of fraud by both parties, and questioning the legitimacy of the one-vote Electoral College margin. The dispute was eventually settled by an ad-hoc congressional commission, in part by the Republican Hayes agreed to a Democratic demand to withdraw the remaining military presence from the South, ending the Reconstruction Era.

Supporters of the losing candidate were embittered. Hayes had pledged in the campaign to serve one term, so his opponents couldn’t get another crack at him. But Adams lost a rematch to Jackson in 1828. (George W. Bush is the only popular vote loser to win re-election.)

Trump’s Electoral College margin is also relatively weak, the 11th smallest in history. Three of his state wins were by less than a percentage point (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) and another three were between one and four points (Arizona, Florida and North Carolina.)

This is an extraordinarily tenuous victory that will be hard to replicate without a solid job performance.

Both Clinton and Trump Performed Worse Than Obama and Romney, Nationally

Obviously, Trump outperformed 2012 Republican nominee in the Electoral College. And you may have heard, falsely, that Clinton got the most votes ever (the raw vote record remains Obama ’08 at 69,498,516) or did as well as Obama ’12, which is closer to the truth. But not quite.

In 2012, Obama won 65,915,795 votes, and Romney won 60,933,504 votes.

In 2016, Clinton won just 71,185 fewer votes than Obama, almost the same. And Trump won 2,046,132 more votes than Romney.

But remember, the 2016 pool of eligible voters increased by 4.08 percent from 2012. For Clinton or Trump to truly do as well or better than their predecessors, they would have needed to beat a 4.08 percent increase. Neither did.

Clinton had a slight drop of 0.11 percent from Obama’s level. Trump’s increase of 3.36 percent didn’t quite keep pace with the growth of the eligible population.

Both Clinton and Trump Had Regions Where They Performed Better Than Obama and Romney

Many have already observed that Trump scored big in the Rust Belt, and in white, rural areas dominated by voters without college educations. The final numbers largely bear this out, but with some notable wrinkles.

Trump flipped six states from blue to red. In five of those six states, Trump’s raw vote increase over Romney was above the 4.08 percent baseline:

Trump Raw Vote Compared To Romney ’12

Florida: +10.9%
Iowa: +9.6%
Michigan: +7.8%
Ohio: +6.8%
Pennsylvania: +10.8%

However, in Wisconsin, Trump was well below the baseline, a raw vote drop of 0.19%.

In three of the flipped states where Trump made gains, Hillary decline was steeper than Trump’s surge.

Clinton Raw Vote Compared To Obama ’12

Iowa: -20.5%
Michigan -11.5%
Ohio: -15.3%

The other three states have their own anomalies.

In Pennsylvania, Clinton’s bleed was milder, a 2.13% decline from 2012. She held on to the lion’s share of the Obama vote (and actually outperformed Obama in a key Philly suburb) but was overwhelmed by what one Clinton aide dubbed a “rural surge.”

In Wisconsin, where Trump lost the Republican primary and didn’t improve on Romney’s performance, Clinton tanked, a 14.71% percent drop from Obama ’12.

In Florida, a state far more diverse with far fewer white non-college voters than the other states that flipped, Clinton did considerably better than Obama ’12, a 6.3% gain. Trump’s improvement was just stronger.

But or the most part, in the newly painted red swing states, Clinton lost more than Trump gained. In the 5 northern blue-to-red states, Trump added 701,842 votes to the Republican column, from four years ago, while Clinton shed 1,200,433.

With Trump’s increase smaller than Clinton’s decline, you could conclude that Trump’s gains largely came from Obama ’12 votes, and Clinton’s larger-sized losses coming from still more Democrats voting third-party or staying home. But the polling firm YouGov said last month that Trump’s Rust Belt gains mostly came from new voters. The New York Times’ David Leonhardt reported on its findings: “For every one voter nationwide who reported having voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, at least five people voted for Trump after not having voted four years ago.”

And yet, as noted above, the turnout in most of the five northern blue-to-red states was down, lower than 2012 levels for Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin, and lower than the 4.08 percent baseline in Michigan. If Trump attracted lots of new voters, despite slightly weaker turnout, that means Clinton suffered considerable abandonment by disgruntled Rust Belt Democrats.

But Clinton — the popular vote winner — was not abandoned by everyone in America. There are three red states where, even though they didn’t turn blue, Clinton improved on Obama’s performance, and Trump trailed Romney, relative to the 4.08 percent baseline.

Arizona: Clinton +13.3% | Trump +1.5%
Georgia: Clinton +5.8% | Trump +0.5%
Texas: Clinton 17.2% | Trump +2.5%

These three states had overall turnout increases — 12% in Arizona and Texas, 5% in Georgia — suggesting genuine enthusiasm (or sheer panic). The relatively narrow winning margin in Arizona (3.5%) and Georgia (5.2%) puts them squarely in the swing state category.

And Texas is not that far behind; Clinton lost Iowa by a larger margin (9.4%) than Texas (9.0%). If you think that a party can’t make up 9 points in one election cycle, just look at Michigan. Obama won it by 9.5% in 2012, Trump won it by 0.2% this year.

Third-Party Vote Did Not Affect The Outcome

While the size of the third-party vote was larger than the national popular vote margin, and larger than the margin in nearly every swing state (in the swing states, Trump only broke 50 percent in Ohio and Iowa), there’s no evidence that the third-party constituency leaned toward Clinton or Trump.

The exit poll asked participants who they would vote for in a two-person race. And five percent said they simply would not vote, nearly the exact percentage of people who voted third-party, 5.7 percent.

These are people who are not interested in the two major parties. More showed up to vote than usual — helping to buoy overall turnout levels — because Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein received more media attention than usual. But no one should assume these are voters that can be easily wooed to vote Democratic in the future.

Was The Problem Racism Or Economics?

Does this data help resolve the debate brewing among Democrats over why Clinton lost and what that means for the future of the Democratic Party? Not easily.

The debate has created two camps. One group argues that Democrats need to win back lost white working class voters, and that will require a stiff dose of economic populism that Clinton couldn’t administer.

The other contends that too many white working class voters embrace positions anathema the Democratic multicultural coalition — deporting undocumented immigrants, opposing Black Lives Matter, rejecting climate science — making them exceedingly difficult to win back. They believe some of the razor-thin swing states could be won back with stronger people of color and youth turnout. Moreover, the future of the party lies in the more diverse South: North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and the big one, Texas.

There’s no question economics played a role. FiveThirtyEight’s Jed Kolko dissected the Trump vote shortly after the election:

Counties with weaker job growth since 2012, for example, were more likely to support Trump; the same is true for places with lower average earnings among full-time workers …

…Trump beat Clinton in counties where more jobs are at risk because of technology or globalization. Specifically, counties with the most “routine” jobs — those in manufacturing, sales, clerical work and related occupations that are easier to automate or send offshore — were far more likely to vote for Trump … [And] the swing toward Trump [compared to 2012] was much stronger in counties with a higher share of routine jobs; the swing toward Trump was also stronger where unemployment was higher, job growth was slower and earnings were lower.

There is also no question race played a role. Political scientist Michael Tesler explained at The Washington Post:

Support for Trump [in YouGov/Economist polling] was more tightly linked to racial resentment than support for John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, respectively — even after controlling for party and ideology … perceptions that whites are currently treated unfairly relative to minorities appeared to be an unusually strong predictor of support for Donald Trump in the general election …

[And] among the exact same 825 white Americans who were first surveyed by RAND in 2012 for their American Life Panel (ALP) and then again for the Presidential Election Panel Survey (PEPS) … both racial resentment and ethnocentrism — rating whites more favorably than other racial and ethnic minorities — were more closely linked to support for Donald Trump in 2016 than support for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Why would race be a bigger issue now than when Obama run for president? We have anecdotal evidence — such as in these interviews with Trump voters by ProPublica, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine — to suggest that there is white backlash to Black Lives Matter movement, which Clinton embraced, that drove some white former Obama voters to Trump.

There’s also the Obamacare factor. Vox talked to Kentucky Obamacare enrollees who voted for Trump and found:

Many expressed frustration that Obamacare plans cost way too much, that premiums and deductibles had spiraled out of control. And part of their anger was wrapped up in the idea that other people were getting even better, even cheaper benefits — and those other people did not deserve the help.

And “other people” often means nonwhite people. As an earlier Eduardo Porter post-election dispatch, citing Michael Tesler, explained:

Drawing from the 2012 American National Election Study, Professor Tesler found that only one-fifth of the most “racially resentful” whites (measured by their responses to questions about the causes of racial inequality and discrimination) supported health insurance provided by the government, compared with half of the least racially resentful.

Much of the opposition is set off directly by President Obama’s race, Professor Tesler says. In similar surveys from 1988 to 2008, before Mr. Obama became president, support for government health insurance among racially resentful whites was considerably higher.

Opposition is also fueled by the sense that blacks would gain more; 56 percent of respondents to a poll in 2010 commissioned by Stanford and The Associated Press said the Affordable Care Act would “probably cause most black Americans to get better health care than they get today.” Only 45 percent said the same thing about whites.

Clinton’s “Stronger Together” strategy sought to boost people of color turnout, presuming that many white working-class voters were out of reach for her. But while she talked bluntly about confronting systemic racism, she was still unable to replicate Obama’s stratospheric percentages with people of color voters. She was wounded by Trump’s “voter suppression” social media strategy designed to poison her reputation among African-Americans and youth voters. She ended up suffering declines among both white working-class and people of color voters — ticking down 4 points with African-American voters and 5 points with Latinos in the national exit poll.

Disentangling the economics from the racism is difficult. It may be that a strong economic populist platform and message would neutralize Trump-style attacks on immigrants and Black Lives Matter, and build a broader, deeper, multiracial coalition. It also may be that Trump’s bigotry was integral in forging a cultural bond resistant to fact-checks, 10-point policy papers and multiracial coalition building.

And because Clinton had weaknesses with both whites and nonwhites, resulting in sizable drops in Democratic swing state turnout, and because the vote margins were so small, in theory either a boost with white working-class or with people of color (and youth) voters could resolve the problem.

Plus there’s the geographic unknown. Will the Democratic gains in increasingly diverse Arizona, Georgia and Texas continue in subsequent elections? Or is the white vote in those states so conservative that Democrats will again hit a wall? Of course, many thought there was a Rust Belt “blue wall” until last month.

Nevertheless, Trump’s win was paper-thin. His mandate is non-existent. His numbers haven’t improved in what typically is a post-election honeymoon. His national standing remains tenuous and may never stabilize. Clinton’s defeat is more the result of Democratic losses than Republican gains.

One thing is certain. The votes are out there. Democrats have four years to go get them.

 

The above was edited on December 20, 2016 to reflect updated vote totals.

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