The historic and unexpected nature of the election results on November 8th obviously begs for an explanation. However, the dominant narrative advanced by many political pundits, both in America and abroad, is completely wrong. The simple fact is that Donald Trump didn’t win the election, Hilary Clinton lost it. Yet what should be an obvious point has been lost in media hand-wringing about being “out of touch” and “not understanding their country.” One can find examples of this sentiment in The Washington Post, The New York Times and even on Fox News (although with a strong touch of exceptionalism). This narrative is not limited to the media though as many Trump partisans also believe that the “out of touch” media don’t understand “real” America. Take but a few examples from Twitter the day following the election:
But if we look at the results we can see that such a narrative doesn’t hold up. There simply wasn’t a surge of white “Trump Democrats” abandoning a Democratic Party that supposedly held them in contempt for a GOP candidate who understood the plight of white America. Rather, Democrats stayed home while the GOP vote remained relatively consistent. Simply put, Hilary Clinton didn’t – or couldn’t, more on that later – get her supporters to the polls, so they stayed home. The didn’t vote for Trump, they just didn’t vote.
The most important point to make is that Trump and the GOP did not mobolize large sections of the American electorate to win. Rather, in terms of sheer number of votes (not percentage) Trump’s 59.2 million votes is the lowest GOP vote total since Geroge W. Bush in 2000.
Furthermore, of the roughly 231 million eligilbe voters over 108 million didn’t vote. Despite a similar size pool of eligable voters as 2012 and 2008, 2016 voter turnout of 50% is the lowest since 2000 and the absolute number of votes cast is less than for both those elections. We can draw a few basic conclusions from these numbers. First is that Trump didn’t capitalize on his promise to bring new voters out to the polls and second, his overall appeal to the American electorate was even more limited than a candidate like Mitt Romney.
A more detailed look at the numbers further undermines the idea of a white backlash against the elitist Democrats. A good place to start to start digging deeper into election analysis is the New York Times 2016 Election edit poll data. The first and most obvious point from these polls is that Trump won 58% of the white vote, a mere 1% increase from what Romney won in 2012. The biggest changes were actually in the African-American and Hispanic vote, where Trump increased the GOP’s share by 7% and 8% respectivly. However, these numbers are percentages of the total vote, not absolute numbers. Thus, the seeming surge in Trump support among minority communities can be easily explained by the GOP successfully mobilizing their limited number of supporters among African Americans and Hispanics while the Democrats failed to do so.
It is often suprising to first time election workers/volunteers how little election campaigns revolve around ideas. The number of undecided voters in elections very low, in the case of 2016 roughly 5% of the electorate. So the goal isn’t to change anyone’s minds but rather it is to identify your supporters and ensure that, come hell or high water, they vote. This is where the fabled “ground game” comes into play. Since 2012 the RNC commited themselves to ensuring that they had the capacity to wage a successful ground game regardless of who won the nomination. After Romney’s defeat the party recognized that their message had limited appeal and demographics were working against them. So, in order to compete they needed to have an exceptionally efficient vote. Thus, once the RNC reluctantly lined up behind Trump, their machine went into operation. While pundits were right to point out that Trump had no political machine so to speak of, it didn’t matter. He was able to piggy back on a pre-existing infrastructure designed to win elections. In this respect the 2014 mid-term elections should have served as a warning to Democrats as to what happens when their vote doesn’t materialize. But instead of taking it as a warning sign, the DNC simply assumed that the allure of a presidential election would bring out supporters.
Even watching CNN’s coverage of the election reinforced this idea that it was voter turnout that decided the election. Given the nature of how returns are reported, most Republican freindly counties in states like Michegan and Wisconsin reported first. However, the Democrats were not overtly concerned as they repeatedly stated – correctly – that the returns from Milwaukee and Madison in WI plus Detroit, MI had not come in yet. Similar to the process in Virginia, where rural counties reported first and gave Trump a lead that was subsequently wiped out whent the votes from Washington, DC suburbs were reported, the DNC and CNN anchors expected a surge of votes from these urban areas would swing the two states blue. Yet when the results finally did come in at around 12:45am the surge was more like a ripple. The expected Democratic vote failed to materialize.
So lets dispense with the “out of touch” narrative. It is very easy to understand why Trump won. It wasn’t that a large number of white people were secret Trump supporters who flipped their vote in the secrecy of the voting booth. It wasn’t even that the polls were wrong, if everyone voted the polls would have been right. Instead, we (society, media, academics) need to understand why the DNC vote collapsed. However, such a discussion would lead the media to having to seriously consider the effect of voter suppression laws on minority turnout and that inevitably leads to a discussion about institutional racism that America is not comfortable having. So instead of having the hard conversation that is necccessary, most pundits seem happy to opine about how they “just don’t understand working class America.” Such a narrative is not only misleading, it is harmful and it allows anti-democratic practices to flourish while discouraging the DNC from attacking the racism of the GOP.