The 2016 U.S. presidential election viewed through one statistic

The 2016 United States (U.S.) presidential election is one of those elections (1948, 1960, 1968 and 2000 also come to mind) people will be re-hashing as long as the U.S. continues to HAVE presidential elections. I have already shared data-driven thoughts on the 2016 U.S. presidential election here, here, here, here, here and here.

Grounding my thoughts about this election is the following sequence of data points (drawn from Dave Leip’s invaluable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections):

  • Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won 2,868,518 more votes OVERALL than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (48.0% vs. 45.9%).
  • Trump won the election because he won more Electoral College votes (EV; 306 to 232[1])
  • Trump won more EV because he won narrow victories in three states:
    • Pennsylvania (20 EV): 44,292 votes, or 0.72%
    • Wisconsin (10 EV): 22,748, or 0.76%
    • Michigan (16 EV): 10,794, or 0.22%
  • Trump won because of just 77,744 votes in three closely-fought states, or 0.057% of the 137,125,484 votes cast in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

I want to shout these numbers whenever political pundits or elected officials and their allies fret about “how Democrats can ever win back voters in 2018 or 2020.”

To all those folks I say, Chill! The 2016 U.S. presidential election was VERY close, not to mention that Democrats also netted two U.S. Senate seats and six U.S. House of Representatives seats that year.

And while it is absolutely true that, relative to the extraordinarily Democratic years of 2006 and 2008, Democrats have been losing ground badly at the state level (with 2017 election results suggesting a slow-moving reversal), that is not the focus of this post.

Instead, I want to focus on the single statistic that strikes me as the key to understanding the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

**********

First, however, just bear with me while I briefly address “electoral legitimacy” arguments made about that election.

These basically fall into two groups:

  1. Russian cyberattacks amplified through American social and traditional media
  2. Voter suppression efforts

The goal of the Russian cyberattacks (including, but not limited to, hacking Democratic National Committee e-mails and releasing them through WikiLeaks; purchasing thousands of ads on social media platforms; coordinating “trolling” on those same social media platforms by Russian nationals) appears to have been to sow discord in the American electorate; punish 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; and, PERHAPS, promote the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (with or without “collusion” on their part).

That such meddling did occur is widely accepted, even if the efficacy of that meddling is debatable.

But the next question to be asked is this: as a result of this interference, how many voters who would otherwise have voted for Clinton did not vote for her, regardless of whether they voted for somebody else or simply did not cast a presidential vote at all?

This counterfactual may not be possible to assess given the voting data at our disposal and the multitude of reasons we choose one candidate over another.

Well, besides simple partisanship that is (data source found by clicking on election year):

Table 1: Percentage of Self-Identified Partisans Who Voted For Presidential Candidate of Their Party, 2000-2016

Election % Democrats

voting Democratic

% Republicans voting Republican Margin among Independents
2016 89%

(36% of electorate)

88%

(33%)

+4% Republican

(31%)

2012 92%

(38%)

93%

(32%)

+5% Republican

(29%)

2008 89%

(39%)

90%

(32%)

+8% Democratic

(29%)

2004 89%

(37%)

93%

(37%)

+1% Democratic

(26%)

2000 87%

(39%)

91%

(35%)

+2% Republican

(26%)

Mean 89%

(38%)

91%

(34%)

Margin=4%

(28%)

In the previous five presidential elections, 87-92% of self-identified Democrats voted for the Democratic nominee, and 88-93% of self-identified Republicans voted for the Republican nominee. Self-identified Independents (whose share of the electorate seems to be increasing over time), most of whom usually cast their ballots for the same party over time, divided their votes fairly evenly between the Democratic and Republican nominees (while also being more likely to choose a third-party option[2]) over these same elections.

American politics is highly polarized, and the vast majority of voters simply vote for the nominee with the same party identification as them, so the pool of voters who would have been swayed by Russian interference was already very small.

Again, that is not to say the meddling did not occur, that it was not an attack on our sovereign democracy, and that no votes were changed from “Clinton” to either “not Clinton” or a non-vote. I just think there is a far less “conspiratorial” way to understand the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

As for voter suppression efforts like restrictive voter ID laws, fewer polling places and shorter/no early voting periods, there is some evidence that this occurred in states highly relevant to the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Yes, I wrote “North Carolina.”

While the “path of least resistance” for Clinton would have been to flip just under 78,000 votes in three “Rust Belt” states, an alternate path would have been to flip just 285,826 votes (0.21%) in two southeastern states: Florida (Clinton -112,911, or 1.2%) and North Carolina (Clinton –172,915, or 3.6%). Or to flip 157,203 votes (0.11%) in Florida and Pennsylvania…you get the idea.

But, even IF Wisconsin and North Carolina had voted for Clinton if voter suppression had not existed (a difficult counterfactual to prove), that would only have garnered Clinton 25 additional EV, increasing her total to 257, 13 shy of the 270 required for victory. She would still have needed to win one of Michigan, Pennsylvania or Florida, states where there have been no claims of voter suppression of which I am aware.

The point is, while Russian interference and voter suppression certainly happened, demonstrating that they prevented enough votes for Clinton in the right combination of states to deny her an Electoral College victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is extremely difficult. The simple fact that each was attempted is pernicious enough.

**********

What makes the 2016 U.S. presidential election stand out from the pack is how disliked both major party nominees were.

totalfavunfavehorizontalAccording to the exit polls, Clinton was viewed favorably by 43%, and unfavorably by 55%, of the 2016 presidential electorate; the corresponding values for Trump were 38% and 60%, respectively. These line up nicely with the RealClearPolitics (RCP) averages going into Election Day (November 8, 2016): Clinton 42%/54%, Trump 38%/58%.[3].

On average, 95% of those with a favorable view of a candidate voted FOR that candidate. Among voters with an unfavorable view of Clinton, 81% voted for Trump, and among voters with an unfavorable view of Trump, 77% voted for Clinton.

Here is the kicker, however:

An unusually high 18%[4] of the electorate had an unfavorable view of both Clinton AND Trump. This pivotal portion of the electorate gave 47% of their votes to Trump, 30% to Clinton and 23% to neither candidate.

That’s right, Trump won by 17% percentage points nationwide among voters who disliked BOTH major-party candidates.

And the support for Trump among this portion of the electorate was much stronger in the six states Clinton lost by less than four percentage points (total EV=99):

Table 2: Favorability Ratings for Clinton and Trump in Six Key States, 2016

State EV Trump Margin Clinton Trump Both Unfavorable Margin among

Both Unfavorable

MI 16 +0.2% 42/56 39/59 20% Trump +21%
PA 20 +0.7% 42/57 42/56 17% Trump +25%
WI 10 +0.8% 42/56 35/64 22% Trump +37%
FL 27 +1.2% 45/53 41/57 14% Trump +37%
AZ 11 +3.5% 41/57 41/57 18% Trump +17%
NC 15 +3.6% 43/56 41/58 16% Trump +36%
Mean 16 +1.7% 43/56 40/59 18% Trump +29%

On average, 18% of the voters in these six states had an unfavorable view of both Clinton and Trump, with Clinton earning 27% of their votes (3 percentage points lower than nationwide) and Trump earning 56% of their votes (9 percentage points higher than nationwide). Third-party candidates did worse (18%), on average, than nationwide (23%) with this group in these six states; the exception is Arizona (29%), neighbor to the west of 2016 Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s home state of New Mexico[5].

In fact, Trump received an astonishing 60% of the “pox on both your houses” votes in Wisconsin, 61% in Florida and 62% in North Carolina.

I can find no historical data to which to compare these numbers, so I do not know what a typical vote distribution among this segment of the electorate is. Still, it is important to keep in mind that the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place after eight years with one party (Democrats) occupying the White House and no incumbent running. Voters often look to change White House control in these elections: prior to 2016, of the six such elections starting with 1960, the party not occupying the White House had won five of them (1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2008). The exception was 1988, when Republican nominee George H. W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by 6.8 percentage points and 315 EV.

These elections also tend to be very close, with the party not occupying the White House winning the two-party vote by an average of just 0.3 percentage points and 22 EV (excluding 1988, these values are 1.9 percentage points and 90 EV)[6].

According to the RCP average, voters on Election Day 2016 felt the country was going in the wrong direction by a margin of 61-31%. Combine this with an eight-year/no-incumbent election and Clinton (or any Democratic presidential nominee) should always have been seen as a slight underdog. The historic unpopularity of Trump (net -21 percentage points) may have led observers to conclude that this election would be different, but they did not take into account Clinton’s only-marginally-better favorability rating (-13 percentage points).

Still, it is worth considering two alternate scenarios in the six states listed in Table 2:

  1. The voters disliking both Clinton and Trump give the same support to “other” candidates, but split the two-party votes EVENLY between Clinton and Trump.
  2. The distribution of the “pox on both houses” vote in these six states matches the nation (30% Clinton, 47% Trump, 23% Other)

Table 3 lists how each state would have voted under both scenarios, with the state winner in bold italics.

Table 3: Statewide Vote Distributions in Six States, 2016, Under Three Methods of Splitting Votes of Clinton-Trump Disapprovers

State Actual 2016 results 2-party vote split even Votes split 30-47-23
Clinton Trump Clinton Trump Clinton Trump
MI 47.0% 47.2% 49.1% 45.1% 47.2% 46.6%
PA 47.5% 48.2% 49.6% 46.0% 47.3% 46.6%
WI 46.5% 47.2% 50.5% 43.1% 48.0% 44.4%
FL 47.4% 48.6% 50.0% 46.0% 48.2% 46.6%
AZ 44.6% 48.1% 46.1% 46.5% 45.1% 48.6%
NC 46.2% 49.8% 49.1% 46.9% 46.8% 47.4%

Under both scenarios, Clinton would not only have won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (giving her 278 EV, 8 more than necessary), she also would have won Florida’s 27 EV, for a total of 305 EV. North Carolina’s 15 EV would also have gone to Clinton if the voters who disapproved of her and Trump had split their two-party votes evenly. Arizona, because of its relatively high 7.3% of the vote for neither Clinton nor Trump, would still have gone to Trump under both scenarios.

In other words, the 2016 U.S. presidential was an eight-year/non-incumbent election featuring two historically unpopular candidates. Neither major party candidate had a net positive favorable rating, resulting in an unusually high 18% of the electorate disliking both. Given that this was a change election (net -31% felt country on wrong track), it is not surprising in retrospect that this key bloc of voters chose the Republican nominee (the nominee of the party not occupying the White House), propelling him to the White House.

Still, had the Democratic presidential nominee been viewed even a little more favorably, she might easily have won four additional states with a combined 73 EV, thus winning the White House.

And here is where, if one were to squint hard enough, one could construct an argument that looked something like this:

There is evidence from the RCP averages that Clinton’s net favorability—which was roughly even in June 2015, just as the 2016 U.S. presidential election was beginning—steadily worsened after that, landing at 13 percentage points unfavorable by November 2016. Trump’s net unfavorability, meanwhile, hardly changed over this same period. This could be seen as evidence that Russian interference had the effect of slowly increasing her net unfavorability, to the point where voters nearly disapproved equally of both candidates (then opted for the nominee of the party not occupying the White House).

While this is…plausible, there is one profound flaw (other than the simple fact of NOT explaining why voters who disapproved of both Clinton and Trump then voted heavily for Trump). On January 23, 2013, Clinton was viewed favorably by 63% of American voters and unfavorably by 28%, for a net favorability of 35 percentage points. She had just stepped down from her perch as a popular Secretary of State and was publicly undecided about her future in electoral politics. Still, from that day forward, her net favorability declined steadily and inexorably to nearly even in the spring and summer of 2015.

That is, Clinton was becoming more unpopular long before ANY Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Moreover, her net unfavorability actually hit its nadir (18% net unfavorable) in late May 2016. After that, while the percentage disapproving of Clinton changed little, the percentage approving of her steadily increased.

To me, the bottom line is this:

Democrats are best served understanding that 2016 was a change election featuring two historically unpopular major party nominees. Under those circumstances, an unpopular nominee of the party not occupying the White House is almost certain to beat an unpopular nominee of the party occupying the White House. Period.

Focusing on Russian interference and/or voter suppression as the “causes” of Clinton’s defeat is a wild goose chase. Both are antithetical to a well-functioning, mature democracy and need to be investigated and prevented to the maximum extent, but they also distract from the fact that 46% of the American electorate were predisposed to accept Trump’s message.

Democrats should also realize that Clinton actually defied recent presidential election history by winning the popular vote by just over two percentage points, and that there are strong reasons for optimism in 2018 and 2020 given their growing strength with white college-educated voters, especially women.

In other words, Chill!

Until next time…

[1] Technically, 304-227, as seven Electors voted for other candidates.

[2] In 2016, for example, 12% of self-identified Independents voted for a non-major-party candidate, as opposed to just  3% of self-identified Democrats and 4% of self-identified Republicans.

[3] Given that nearly every poll included in the final RCP averages was of “likely voters,” pollsters did a very good job modeling the actual electorate. This is also indirect evidence that voter suppression did not, in fact, keep an electorally-significant number of Democratic voters from the polls: the projected electorate looked like the actual electorate.

[4] I base this assertion on 1) the fact that voting preferences of voters with an unfavorable view of both major-party candidates had not been assessed prior to 2016 and 2) the historic unpopularity of Clinton and Trump.

[5] Excluding Arizona yields a Clinton 27%, Trump 58%, Other 16% split among the 18% of voters disliking both Clinton and Trump

[6] The fact that Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points is even more remarkable in this context, while her 77 EV vote loss was about in line with expectations (22-90 EV loss).

2 thoughts on “The 2016 U.S. presidential election viewed through one statistic

  1. This is an excellent conclusion that will be unpopular with you more Democrat Party-inclined readers perhaps:

    Focusing on Russian interference and/or voter suppression as the “causes” of Clinton’s defeat is a wild goose chase. Both are antithetical to a well-functioning, mature democracy and need to be investigated and prevented to the maximum extent, but they also distract from the fact that 46% of the American electorate were predisposed to accept Trump’s message.

    It is fine for Mueller to go about his business as special prosecutor, but the level of distraction that the media and other influential people and organizations are vulnerable to is distressing. Mueller will investigate and reveal his findings in the due course of time. We need to get on with things in the interim.

    P.S. Good luck with the book! You are a writer, I read. Of fiction or non-fiction?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      My point is that Democrats and their non-governmental allies should focus first and foremost on what they would DO if given back the reins of power; elections have consequences.

      In other words, let’s focus more on what they (OK, we) are FOR, rather than what we are against (“Trump bad” will get you only so far–plus I think it is already understood that Democratic committee chairs will use their full oversight powers on this Administration).

      I used to envy the GOP for their ability to present a simple (albeit simplistic) agenda, one that could fit on the back of a 3×5 card: lower taxes, smaller government, strong national defense, America as beacon of democracy, “traditional values.” These are not my beliefs (other the beacon of democracy piece), mind you, but they do form a coherent conservative philosophy.

      Democrats need a similar easily digestible platform, perhaps subsumed under the rubric of “government that works for everyone.” Maybe something like: health care/education/food are universal rights, higher wages and better benefits (through stronger unions. but that is my own bias), strength through diversity, criminal justice fairness, America leads by example, economic AND military security.

      I have been rereading the GOP’s 1994 Contract With America, and I think the Democrats should consider using that as a model for 2018. Trump’s veto is irrelevant…Democrats need a set of bills they are prepared to pass within the first six months of 2019, then force Trump (or Pence, or whoever is president then) to sign or veto.

      I have only officially been calling myself a “writer” since July (please see my “Writers Write” post is you are interested). My blog posts give you the flavor of my non-fiction style. The book I am writing (correction, “book I need to get back to writing”) is tentatively entititled Interrogating Memory: How a Love of Film Noir Led Me to Investigate My Own Identity. The things I have learned… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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