Degree or not degree? That is (still) the Democrats question.

Democrat Hillary Clinton, despite winning a 2.1 percentage popular vote margin over Republican Donald Trump, lost the presidency in 2016 because she lost the combined 46 electoral votes (EV) from three states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Clinton lost these states by a combined 77,744 votes, and an average of 0.57 percentage points, based on data from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

In an earlier post, I observed that she lost these three states because, while she essentially held her own in the core Democratic counties of these states, she dramatically underperformed Democrat Barack Obama’s 2012 performance in the rest of these states. In a follow-up post, I found that two variables, state percentage white and state percentage of persons over age 25 with a college degree, account for three-quarters of the variation in state 2016 Democratic presidential margin. It is thus becomes apparent that a primary driver of Trump’s narrow victories in these three states was his overwhelming support among white voters without a college degree, heavily concentrated in the vast majority of counties outside the Democratic base counties.

Still, very smart people like pollster Cornell Belcher continue to argue that Clinton was actually doomed by Clinton’s failure to turn out the Obama coalition of younger voters, minority voters and women.

Here is an excerpt from his argument:

Donald Trump is a president who did not win a plurality of the public. In fact, one of my reports was leaked to the New York Times, saying that millennials were rejecting the binary choice of the lesser of two evils.

When you look at the exit data, you have 8 or 9 percent of younger African-Americans voting third-party. You have 6 or 7 percent of younger Latinos voting third-party. Hillary is almost off Barack Obama’s winning margins by the same percentage of our young people voting third party. So that’s how Trump squeaked in. 

Again, Trump didn’t expand the Republican tent. He didn’t bring in all these millions upon millions of new Republican voters. This was about Democrats losing, more so than Trump remaking the electorate and winning in some sort of profound and new way. (Quoted here)

Belcher is correct that younger voters of ALL races were twice as likely as older voters to vote third party/no answer in 2016, although he overstates the percentages. According to 2016 CNN exit polling data, 10% of white voters aged 18-29 voted third party/no answer, compared to 6% each of black and Latino voters in this age range. Overall, 9% of voters aged 18-29 voted third party/no answer.

Here is the flaw in his argument, however. Voters aged 18-29 of ALL races only comprised 19% of the national electorate in 2016, averaging 18% in the three states that doomed Clinton. So, while up to 9% of these voters cast a third-party ballot, these votes account for less than 2% of all votes cast (0.19*0.09=0.017)…not enough to account for the average decline in the Democratic margin in these three states of 7.8 percentage points.

The counter-argument, of course, is that the margins were so close in these three states that simply holding the youngest voters to, say, 5% third-party would have allowed Clinton to eke out the narrowest of victories in these states.

But when elections are that close, you could argue that ANY demographic group was responsible.

I thus think the best approach is to examine changes from 2012 to 2016 in the number of votes cast for each candidate by members of specified demographic groups in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

One way to do this is to, first, multiply each group’s percentage of the electorate by the number of votes cast for president in that state, then multiply these totals by the percentage voting for the Democrat, the Republican and Others to get the number of votes cast for each candidate by members of these groups. Exit polling data for 2012 were obtained here.

For example, 6,166,710 presidential votes were cast in Pennsylvania in 2016. An estimated 48% of these voters had a college degree, which translates to 2,960,021 voters. Of these voters, 52% reported voting for Clinton, which translates to 1,539,211 voters. The corresponding number voting for Obama in 2012 is 1,270,841, meaning that an estimated 268,370 more college-educated Pennsylvanians supported the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 than in 2012.

There are problems with this estimation method. State exit polls, with roughly 3,000-vote samples, have a margin of error of approximately 1.7% for “share of the electorate” percentages and larger margins of error for candidate percentages within each group. Also, because these percentages are sample-based, exit-poll-based state-wide candidate percentages differ slightly from actual percentages[1], meaning that summing estimated candidate votes across groups that comprise the entire population (e.g., men and women) gives you state-wide candidate totals slightly different than the actual totals.

In other words, the two sets of “change in vote total” figures reported in Tables 1-3 should be taken with a pinch of salt (or with a margin of error between 2% and 7%). Even with that, however, these data allow for a relativistic comparison of election-to-election changes in voting behavior by group.

Table 1: Presidential Votes in Pennsylvania, 2012 to 2016, Overall and by Group, Estimated from Actual Votes Cast and Exit Polling

Group 2016 Electorate Change from 2012 Change in Total Votes, 2012-16 Net Change in Democratic Votes, 2012-16*
Overall 6,166,710 +7.1% +411,090 -538,756
 
Women 53% +1% +250,767 -34,782
Men 47% -1% +160,323 -474,096
 
White 81% +3% +505,652 -280,706
Non-White 19% -3% -94,562 -222,088
Black 10% -3% -131,560 -125,475
Latino/a 6% 0% +24,665 -29,601
 
White Women 43% +3% +349,437 +71,124
White Men 38% 0% +156,214 -362,436
Non-White Women 10% -2% -98,670 -122,876
Non-White Men 9% -1% +4,109 -111,660
 
18-29 16% -3% -91,477 -244,244
30-44 24% -1% +56,522 -54,165
45-64 38% -1% +114,975 -146,089
65+ 21% +4% +331,970 -20,267
 
College 48% 0% +197,323 +339,417
Non-College 52% 0% +213,767 -739,678

* Change in Democratic votes minus sum of changes in Republican votes and changes in Other votes

Table 2: Presidential Votes in Wisconsin, 2012 to 2016, Overall and by Group, Estimated from Actual Votes Cast and Exit Polling

Group 2016 Electorate Change from 2012 Change in Total Votes, 2012-16 Net Change in Democratic Votes, 2012-16*
Overall 2,976,150 -3.0% -92,284 -384,614
 
Women 51% 0% -47,605 -128,016
Men 49% 0% -45,219 -201,451
 
White 86% 0% -79,364 -303,964
Non-White 14% 0% -12,920 -60,723
Black 7% 0% -6,460 -14,018
Latino/a 4% 0% -3,691 -8,324
 
White Women 45% +1% -10,843 -107,792
White Men 42% -1% -69,444 -163,887
Non-White Women 6% 0% -5,537 -498
Non-White Men 7% 0% -6,460 -57,713
 
18-29 17% -4% -138,426 -159,231
30-44 23% -3% -113,278 +52,496
45-64 41% +4% +70,020 -239,668
65+ 20% +4% +89,400 -3,576
 
College 45% +3% +50,525 +56,602
Non-College 55% -3% -142,809 -362,970

* Change in Democratic votes minus sum of changes in Republican votes and changes in Other votes

Table 3: Presidential Votes in Michigan, 2012 to 2016, Overall and by Group, Estimated from Actual Votes Cast and Exit Polling

Group 2016 Electorate Change from 2012 Change in Total Votes, 2012-16 Net Change in Democratic Votes, 2012-16*
Overall 4,824,542 +1.7% +79,226 -670,686
 
Women 52% +1% +88,651 -188,290
Men 48% -1% -9,425 -416,840
 
White 75% -2% -35,487 -574,687
Non-White 25% +2% +114,713 -94,411
Black 15% -1% -35,569 -75,433
Latino/a 5% +2% +98,868 +6,407
 
White Women 40% +1% +79,144 -159,134
White Men 36% -2% -66,385 -404,891
Non-White Women 12% 0% +9,507 -29,156
Non-White Men 12% +1% +56,960 -11,949
 
18-29 21% +2% +111,544 -92,577
30-44 21% -2% -78,269 -252,549
45-64 39% -2% -64,008 -264,700
65+ 19% +2% +109,959 -22,732
 
College 42% -4% -156,538 -43,657
Non-College 58% +4% +235,764 -587,320

* Change in Democratic votes minus sum of changes in Republican votes and changes in Other votes

For context, Clinton lost Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes (-0.72%), Wisconsin by  22,748 votes (-0.76%) and Michigan by 10,704 votes  (-0.22%).

The Pennsylvania and Michigan electorates were larger in 2016 than in 2012, while the Wisconsin electorate was smaller. Overall, the Democratic presidential margin in these states dropped between 384,000 and 671,000 votes.

The composition of the electorates, though, changed very little between 2012 and 2016 in these three states. In Pennsylvania, the 2016 electorate had more white voters, white women, and voters aged 65 and older, and fewer black voters and voters aged 18-29. In Wisconsin, the 2016 electorate had more voters aged 45 and older and voters with a college degree, and fewer voters aged 18-44 and voters without a college degree. In Michigan, the 2016 electorate had fewer voters with a college degree. The one consistency across all three states was a 2-4 percentage point increase in the share of voters aged 65 and older.

However, the voting behavior of demographic groups did change from 2012 to 2016, often dramatically. In all three states, the steepest declines in Democratic vote margin were among white men, all white voters, all men, and, especially, voters without a college degree; there were less steep, but still substantial, declines among voters aged 45-64 (and among voters aged 18-29 in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and among voters aged 30-44 in Michigan). Put another way, while the average decline in state-wide Democratic vote margin was 531,352, the average decline in Democratic margin only among voters without a college degree was even higher: 563,323!

At the same time, the average decline in the Democratic vote margin among non-white men was 60,441 and among voters aged 18-29 was 163,351, meaning that the average decline in the Democratic vote margin among non-white men aged 18-29—the demographic Belcher claims was primarily responsible for Clinton’s defeat—was well below 60,000 votes, probably closer to 15-20,000 votes. Ms. Clinton’s average margin of defeat in these states was about 25,915 votes, so even if non-white men aged 18-29 had voted in the same numbers and in the same percentage Democratic as they had in 2012, she still would have lost these three states.

Why? Because Clinton absolutely cratered among white middle-aged men with no college degree. Had the decline in Democratic vote margin just among voters without a college degree been as little as 10% lower, she would have eked out victories in these three states and won the 2016 presidential election.

Still, the news was not all bad for Democrats in these three states.  Voters with a college degree became dramatically more Democratic in Pennsylvania and somewhat more Democratic in Wisconsin; on average, there was a 31,971 vote increase in the Democratic margin among these voters. Voters aged 65 and older essentially held steady, averaging 15,525 votes less Democratic, while becoming a larger share of the population. White women in Pennsylvania, voters aged 30-44 in Wisconsin and Latino/a voters in Michigan also drifted toward the Democrats in these three states.

So Belcher has a valid point: the margins in these three states were narrow enough that even a small improvement among the Obama coalition—higher turnout and/or higher Democratic margin—would flip these states blue.

But to truly return to majority status, as I keep demonstrating, Democrats face a choice: try to improve with white voters without a college degree (which would help in states like Iowa, Ohio and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina) or continue to attract white voters with a college degree (which would help in states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona).

Until next time.

[1] Exit-poll-based values (averaging values derived from different sets of groups): Clinton 48.0%, Trump 48.6% (actual margins: 47.5%, 48.2%, respectively) in Pennsylvania; Clinton 46.7%, Trump 48.4% (46.5%, 47.2%) in Wisconsin; and Clinton 47.3%, Trump 47.1% (47.0%, 47.2%) in Michigan.

2 thoughts on “Degree or not degree? That is (still) the Democrats question.

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