A closer look at Hillary Clinton’s performance in five key states

In a previous post, I proposed a “three-election weighted relative Democratic margin” (3W-RDM) for each state and the District of Columbia (DC). The “RDM” is the arithmetic difference between each state’s voting margin (% Democratic – % Republican[1]) and the national margin in a given presidential election. I calculated every state’s average RDM over successive three-election cycles, starting with 1984-1992, using a 1-2-3 weighting scheme, to yield seven 3W-RDM for each state.

(Unless otherwise noted, all presidential election data are from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections).

In theory, if you add an actual or hypothesized national Democratic margin for a given presidential election to a state’s most recent 3W-RDM, you can “predict” that state’s Democratic margin in that election. I did this for the 2016 presidential election, summing each state’s 2004-12 3W-RDM and the 2.1 percentage points by which Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Republican Donald Trump.

Clinton lost five states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa—she was projected to win under this analysis. These states, plus Florida, were the ones she lost that Democrat Barack Obama had won four years earlier.

I want to look more closely at the results in these five states.

But first, just bear with me as I present some national vote totals.

Table 1: Voting Totals and Percentages in the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Elections

  2012 2016 2016-2012
# Votes % Vote # Votes % Vote # Votes % Change
Democrat 65,918,507 51.0% 65,853,625 48.0% -64,882 -0.1%
Republican 60,934,407 47.1% 62,985,106 45.9% 2,050,699 +3.4%
Libertarian 1,275,923 1.0% 4,489,233 3.3% 3,213,310 +251.8%
Green 469,015 0.4% 1,457,222 1.1% 988,207 +210.7%
Other 639,790 0.5% 2,315,043 1.7% 1,675,253 +261.8%
TOTAL 129,237,642 100% 137,100,229 100% 7,862,587 +6.1%

From 2012 to 2016, according to Table 1, the national Democratic margin dropped 1.8 percentage points, even as the total vote cast for president increased by nearly 7.9 million votes. For all the talk that Clinton did not turn out the Obama vote, she only won 64,882 fewer votes than Obama had in 2012; in fact, only Obama, in 2008 and 2012, ever won more votes for president than Clinton did in 2016.

Trump, by contrast, received just over 2 million more votes in 2016 than Republican Mitt Romney had in 2012, about one quarter of the vote increase from 2012 to 2016; just over half of the remaining increase was the result of Libertarian Gary Johnson receiving 3.2 million more votes in 2016 than he had in 2012.

If every state’s margin had dropped an identical 1.8 percentage points, the only state Obama won in 2012 that Clinton would have lost in 2016 would have been Florida. In reality, the Democratic margin dropped by more than that in 34 states (of 39 total where the Democratic margin dropped); it dropped more than five percentage points in 24 states and more than 10 percentage points in eight states.

Across the five states in question, the average drop in Democratic margin was 10.0 percentage points, ranging from 6.1 percentage points in Pennsylvania to 15.2 percentage points in Iowa.

Obama beat Romney by a little over 1.2 million votes across these five states, but Clinton lost these five states by just over 670,000 votes (all but about 79,000 from Ohio and Iowa). This marginal difference of just over 1.9 million votes is 90% of the net change in the Democratic margin in the presidential vote from 2012 to 2016.

So…what did happen in these five states?

Democrats generally win statewide elections by building up huge vote margins in a handful of urban and/or college-town counties while holding down the margin in the rest of the state.

Thus, when Obama won Pennsylvania in 2012, he won five southeastern counties (Philadelphia and its suburban ring: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery) by about 615,000 votes and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) by about 90,000 votes—for a total margin of about 706,000 votes. While Obama LOST the other 61 Pennsylvania counties by about 400,000 votes, he still won the state by over 300,000 votes overall.

The pattern is similar in Ohio (three northeastern counties—Cayuhoga [Cleveland], Summit, Lorain; Franklin [Columbus]; Hamilton [Cincinnati]), Michigan (Wayne [Detroit], Oakland; Washtenaw [Ann Arbor]; Ingham [Lansing]), Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Dane [Madison], Rock [Janesville[2]], and Iowa (Polk [Des Moines], Johnson [Iowa City], Linn [Cedar Rapids]).

Figure 1: Change in Absolute Democratic Vote Margin, 2012-16


Figure 2: Change in Percentage Democratic Margin, 2012-16


As you can see from Figures 1 and 2, Clinton won the core Democratic counties of each of these five states by about the same margin, in terms of both absolute vote and percentage of the vote, as Obama had four years earlier, She even improved on Obama’s margin in the Pennsylvania’s six core Democratic counties by 61,395 votes!

However, it was in the remaining 61-96 counties that Democratic support absolutely collapsed in these five states between 2012 and 2016, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Changes in Voting Patterns in Non-“Core”-Democratic Counties, 2012-16

State Number non-D counties Change in absolute vote margin Change in percentage point vote margin
PA 61 -417,765 -11.2
OH 83 -565,766 -16.1
MI 79 -382,890 -12.5
WI 69 -223,606 -10.6
IA 96 -224,958 -19.7
Average 78 -362,997 -14.0

These are predominantly white rural counties. And while I have no county-level data on education level (yet), there is strong evidence that the fundamental change between 2012 and 2016 voting was among white voters with (10 percentage points more Democratic, according to Table 3) and without (14 percentage points less Democratic) college degrees.

Table 3: Changes from 2012 to 2016 in Presidential Voting Margins Among White Voters With and Without College Degrees

State 2016 2012
White College White Non-College White College White Non-College
Margin % voters Margin % voters Margin % voters Margin % voters
U.S. +4 R 37% +39 R 34% +14 R 36% +25 R 36%
PA +0 D 41% +32 R 40% n/a n/a n/a n/a
OH +25 R 37% +30 R 43% n/a n/a n/a n/a
MI +8 R 33% +31 R 42% n/a n/a n/a n/a
WI +12 D 39% +25 R 47% n/a n/a n/a n/a
IA +5 R 40% +20 R 50% n/a n/a n/a n/a

National voting margins were obtained here and state-level voting (not available for these subgroups in 2012) margins were obtained here.

All five of these states had electorates with a higher share of white voters overall—and white voters without college degrees—than the national electorate. It would not be a stretch to say that the percentage of the electorate who were white voters without college degrees was higher still in the non-core-Democratic counties in these five states.

And thus it did not matter that the margins among white voters without a college degree were actually more Democratic in these five states than nationally, because this solidly Republican group formed the largest voting bloc in four of these five states. Pennsylvania, basically evenly split between white voters with and without college degrees, also had the largest gap between these two groups: while Clinton broke even among whites with a college degree, she lost whites without a college degree by 32 percentage points, a 32 percentage point gap!

It is unfortunate that we do not have exit polling on the white college/non-college breakdown at the state level in 2012 for comparison, so we can see how these two groups changed both in terms of their relative proportion of the electorate and their propensity to vote Republican. The best we can do is assume they followed a similar pattern as the nation as a whole—roughly equal shares of the electorate but a strong pro-Democratic shift for white voters with a college degree and the opposite shift for white voters without a college degree.

Until next time…

[1] Of the total vote cast.

[2] Hometown of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan


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