Doctor, validate thyself!

I recently wrote about my long-term fascination with American electoral geography, the way voting patterns are distributed across states, Congressional districts, counties and other areal units.

Pursuing this interest as an undergraduate political science major, I began to explore state-level presidential voting data. During my junior year, I created a large chart that ranked how states had voted in a series of recent presidential elections, from most to least Democratic, concluding with the 1984 presidential election (then the most recent one).

And I noticed that while Ronald Reagan, the incumbent Republican president, had absolutely walloped Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984, winning the popular vote by 18.2 percentage points (58.8-40.6%) and the Electoral College vote 525-13 (Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota [49.7-49.5%] and the District of Columbia [DC]), there were a few states Mondale lost by a much smaller margin than 18.2 percentage points: Massachusetts (-2.8 percentage points), Rhode Island (-3.6), Maryland (-5.5), Iowa (-7.4), Pennsylvania (-7.4), New York (-8.0) and Wisconsin (-9.2).

As usual, all presidential data are from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Consider Pennsylvania, the state in which I was born. While the nation was voting for Reagan by 18.2 percentage points, Pennsylvania was voting for Reagan by “only” 7.4 percentage points (53.3-46.0%), a difference of 10.8 percentage points.

That is, Pennsylvania in 1984 was 10.8 percentage points MORE Democratic than the nation as a whole. Had Mondale lost by “only” 10 percentage points, he would (theoretically) have won Pennsylvania 25 electoral votes (EV), as well as those of Iowa (8), Maryland (10), Rhode Island (4) and Massachusetts (13)—an additional 60 EV.

And had Mondale lost by “only” 7.7 percentage points—as Democrat Michael Dukakis would to Republican George H. W. Bush in 1988—he would also have theoretically won the combined 53 EV of New York (36), Wisconsin (11) and West Virginia (6), boosting his total to 126 EV (better, but still 144 EV shy of the 270 needed to win the White House).

Still, that is close to the 112 EV Dukakis won in 1988.[1] As the purple-inked states on this beautiful hand-drawn map[2] show, Dukakis lost seven states (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Vermont, Missouri, New Mexico) totaling 125 EV by smaller margins (2.1-5.0 percentage points; mean=3.3) than he did nationally. Had Dukakis lost the election by just 2.7 points, he would theoretically have won 237 EV, only 33 shy of the necessary 270.

1988 Presidential map

The conclusion I drew (no pun intended) was that the “relative partisan margin” of a state—how much more or less Democratic it was than the nation as a whole in a given election—was a useful way to think about electoral geography. Of course, other elections in the state (governor, United States Senate, United States House) are of interest as well, as Paul T. David observed in his Party Strength in the United States, 1872-1970; at one point, I even examined the partisan composition of state legislatures.

Good times.

Two decades later, despite having walked away from a doctoral program in political science, I was still interested in these questions, and I began to collect state-level presidential data again.

My primary goal was to get a sense of how EV’s would be distributed between the parties in the next presidential election (either 2008 or 2012) given a series of hypothetical national popular votes (e.g., Democrat wins nationally by 3 percentage points), essentially updating the exercises with 1984 and 1988 presidential election data I summarized earlier. I was particularly interested in whether the Democratic or the Republican presidential nominee would win more EV if the national vote were divided evenly between the two-major parties.

Having gathered these data, I set about constructing a measure of the relative partisanship of a state, intending to combine data from multiple elections to smooth out any idiosyncratic results.

For example, Democratic presidential nominees won Michigan by an average of 7.4 percentage points from 1992 through 2004, making the state an average 4.3 percentage points more Democratic than the nation. Democrat Barack Obama then won the Wolverine State by 16.4 percentage points in 2008 (9.2 percentage points better than he did nationally). In 2012 and 2016, meanwhile, the average margin in Michigan (with Republican Donald Trump winning by 0.2 percentage points in 2016) dropped to just 4.6 percentage points (only 1.6 percentage points more Democratic than the nation). A reasonable explanation (though not a conclusive one) for the Democratic spike in 2008 is the disproportionate impact of the 2007-08 recession on the automobile industry in Michigan, as voters took out their frustrations with term-limited President George W. Bush on 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

The questions then became

  1. How many years do I use?
  2. How, if at all, do I “weight” these elections?

My initial instinct was to use five years of data, with a weighting scheme of 1-2-3-4-5, meaning the least recent of the relative Democratic margins (D%-R% of total state vote minus D%-R% of total national vote) would be weighted 1/15 while the most recent one would be weighted 5/15, or 1/3.

This became my first “weighted relative Democratic margin” (W-RDM).

However, as I was also interested in assessing changes in relative state-level partisanship over time, using five elections meant that, prior to 2016, I only had four W-RDM values for a state—giving me only three election-to-election changes in W-RDM to examine[3].

I finally settled on three years in what I call my 3W-RDM[4] in order to minimize the fact that presidential and vice-presidential nominees tend to fare better, relative to their overall performance, in their home states. It is rare for one person to be on at least three consecutive presidential tickets (only two, George H W Bush, 1984-1992 and Gore, 1992-2000, of 21 total unique presidential and vice-presidential nominees, 1984-2012).

And that is the measure I have utilized in a series of posts (here, here, here; I do not specifically use 3W-RDM here, but the logic is the same).

As an example, here is how Nevada voted for president in 2004, 2008 and 2012:

             Year                State D% – R%                      National D% – R%              RDM

             2004                           -2.4                                               -2.5                         D+0.1

             2008                           12.5                                               7.3                         D+5.2

             2012                           6.7                                                 3.9                         D+2.8

The weighted average of the RDM values is (0.1 + 2*5.2 + 3*2.8)/6 = D+3.2. This was Nevada’s 3W-RDM prior to the 2016 election, so one would have expected that year’s Democratic nominee to do 3.2 percentage points better in Nevada than nationwide.

The 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, won the national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points. So, my best estimate (based upon Nevada’s recent voting history) was that Clinton would win Nevada by 5.3 percentage points (2.1+3.2). This estimate was too optimistic, however, as she won Nevada by 2.4 percentage points, 2.9 percentage points lower than expected.

**********

Just bear with me while I briefly describe two other highly reputable approaches to calculating the relative partisan margin of a state (or other areal unit).

The Cook Political Report, the “independent, non-partisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns for the US House of Representatives, US Senate, Governors and President as well as American political trends” has been essential reading for any serious student of American politics since its founding in 1984 by Charlie Cook, formerly “a staffer on Capitol Hill, a campaign consultant, a pollster, and a staff member for a political action committee.”

In 1997, Cook began to calculate the Partisan Voting Index (PVI) as a way to measure “how each [state or Congressional] district performs at the presidential level compared to the nation as a whole.”

The Cook PVI is simply the difference (state minus nation) between two averages:

  1. The average Democratic share of the state-level two-party vote in the previous two presidential elections
  2. The average Democratic share of the national two-party vote in the previous two presidential elections.

In 2008, Obama and McCain won 52.9% and 45.6%, of the national popular vote, respectively, splitting 98.5% of the total vote. Looking only at this two-party vote, Obama received 52.9/98.5 = 53.7% and McCain received 45.6/98.5=46.3%, meaning Obama beat McCain nationally by 7.4 percentage points in the two-party vote.

A similar calculation for 2012 (Obama 51.0%, Republican Mitt Romney 47.1%) shows that Obama beat Romney nationally in the two-party vote by 3.9 percentage points.

The average of 7.4 and 3.9 is 5.7.

In Nevada, meanwhile, overall Obama beat McCain 55.1-42.6%, and he beat Romney 52.4-45.7%; in the two-party vote, Obama won by margins of 12.8 (56.4-43.6%) and 6.8 (53.4-46.6%) percentage points.

The average of 12.8 and 6.8 is 9.8.

Subtracting 5.7 from 9.8 gives you 4.1, meaning that the PVI for Nevada going into 2016 was D+4.1, only a little more Democratic (D+3.2) than the 3W-RDM suggested.

The other approach is the “partisan lean” calculated by the data journalism website fivethirtyeight.com, a favorite of this blog.

It is even more straightforward than Cook PVI:

(RDM 2nd-most recent presidential + 3*RDM most recent presidential election)/4

Using Nevada again, we have already seen that in 2008 and 2012, Nevada voted 5.2 and 2.8 percentage points more Democratic than the nation; the 538 partisan lean (PL) formula gives you (5.2 +3*2.8)/4 = (5.2+8.4)/4=13.6/4=3.4.

Thus, Nevada’s 538 PL going into 2016 was D+3.4, broadly similar to the Cook PVI of D+4.1 and the 3W-RDM of D+3.2, and the projected Nevada vote based on the 538 PL was D+5.5.

**********

In this post, I assessed the validity of one of my baseball player performance metrics—the Index of Offensive Ability—by comparing it to two other commonly-used statistics, OPS+ and WAR. Here is how I described validity in that post:

Validity is the extent to which an index/measure/score actually measures what it is designed to measure, or “underlying construct”. While now considered a unitary concept, historically, there were three broad approaches to “assessing” validity: content, construct and criterion.

 Content validity is the extent to which an index/measure/score includes the appropriate set of components (not too many, not too few) to capture the underlying construct (say, a state’s partisan “lean”). Construct validity is how strongly your index/measure/score relates to other indices/measures/scores of the same underlying construct, including a priori expectations of what values should be (sometimes called face validity). Criterion validity considers how well outcomes “predicted” by the index/measure/score align with the actual outcomes.

As you have probably guessed by now, I will spend the rest of this post comparing my 3W-RDM to the Cook PVI and the 538 PL.

But first, I offer a mea culpa.

Before my “Democratic blue wall thesis” post in February 2017, I had used the 3W-RDM (which did not even have a name until then) only for my own edification and amusement. That, however, does not excuse me for not even attempting to validate this measure until now. Moreover, I should not have started writing data-driven posts using the 3W-RDM—implicitly asserting its validity without empirical evidence—until I had performed that validation.

I now present that empirical validation evidence.

Content validity: All three measures not only use presidential election voting data, but they also compare state and national margins in some way. This makes sense because presidential elections feature one party nominee advocating (theoretically) the same platform in every state. By comparison, other statewide elections (governor, Senate) feature candidates who share a party label yet may have very different policy stances. While this may be less true now for Senate races, which are becoming more nationalized, there is still a vast difference between Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and between Republican governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Thus, despite differences in number of elections utilized, weighting and margin calculation, all three measures arguably have high content validity.

Construct validity. A correlation coefficient (“r”) is a number between -1.00 and +1.00 indicating how two variables co-relate to each other in a linear way[5]. If every time one variable increases, the other variable increases, that would be r= +1.00, and if every time one variable increases, the other variable decreases, that would be r=-1.00. R=0.00 means there is no linear association between the two variables.

I calculated the projected presidential election margin (D% total vote – R% total vote) in each state (plus DC) in every presidential election from 1996 through 2016 by adding each state’s partisan lean score before that election to the actual national popular vote margin. In other words, I repeated the example of Nevada (projected 2016 presidential vote: Cook PVI=D+6.2, 538 PL=D+5.5, 3W-RDM=D+5.2) for all 306 state-level presidential election margins.

Here are the average correlations (PVI vs. PL, PVI vs. 3W-RDM, PL vs. 3W-RDM) between the three sets of projected margins in each election year:

1996    +0.995

2000    +0.994

2004    +0.997

2008    +0.998

2012    +0.997

2016    +0.999

Clearly, each partisan lean measure is nearly identically capturing the underlying partisan distribution of states from most to least Democratic, indicating that each measure has very high construct validity.

Criterion validity. Building upon the analysis of construct validity, the simplest way to assess criterion validity is to compare the projected presidential election margin in each state in each year to the actual margins.

Table 1 does this for each state in 2016. A negative difference means the state voted less Democratic than expected, and a positive difference means the state voted more Democratic than expected. States are sorted from most “less Democratic” to most “more Democratic.”

Table 1: Differences Between Projected and Actual State-Level Presidential Vote Margin (Democratic % – Republican %), 2016

State Cook PVI 538 PL 3W-RDM Mean
West Virginia -17.8% -15.8% -20.0% -17.8%
North Dakota -17.6% -16.2% -16.6% -16.8%
Iowa -13.7% -13.5% -13.5% -13.6%
South Dakota -12.7% -11.6% -12.5% -12.3%
Maine -10.2% -10.2% -10.1% -10.2%
Missouri -10.1% -8.8% -10.7% -9.9%
Indiana -10.8% -9.0% -9.0% -9.6%
Michigan -9.8% -8.8% -9.1% -9.3%
Rhode Island -9.1% -9.4% -9.1% -9.2%
Ohio -8.4% -8.8% -8.9% -8.7%
Montana -8.4% -6.8% -7.4% -7.5%
Wisconsin -7.8% -6.8% -7.1% -7.2%
Hawaii -9.0% -8.6% -3.9% -7.1%
Kentucky -6.5% -6.1% -7.9% -6.9%
Vermont -7.2% -6.9% -5.2% -6.4%
Delaware -7.2% -6.3% -5.8% -6.4%
Wyoming -5.0% -5.0% -6.7% -5.6%
Tennessee -4.5% -4.3% -6.6% -5.1%
Pennsylvania -5.1% -4.7% -5.4% -5.1%
Minnesota -4.1% -4.2% -4.5% -4.3%
New Hampshire -3.8% -3.6% -4.0% -3.8%
Nevada -3.8% -3.1% -2.8% -3.3%
Alabama -2.0% -3.1% -3.3% -2.8%
Mississippi -1.8% -3.3% -2.6% -2.5%
Connecticut -2.9% -2.3% -2.4% -2.5%
Arkansas -1.0% -1.6% -5.0% -2.5%
Nebraska -2.8% -2.4% -1.8% -2.3%
New York -1.8% -2.7% -1.8% -2.1%
South Carolina -0.9% -1.6% -1.4% -1.3%
Oklahoma -0.4% -0.8% -2.1% -1.1%
New Mexico -1.2% -0.6% 0.1% -0.5%
Illinois -0.9% 0.6% 0.2% 0.0%
Florida 0.5% 0.1% 0.1% 0.2%
New Jersey 0.7% -0.6% 0.7% 0.3%
Oregon -0.1% 0.4% 0.6% 0.3%
Louisiana 2.1% 0.5% -0.6% 0.7%
North Carolina 0.8% 0.4% 1.2% 0.8%
Idaho 1.2% 0.9% 0.7% 1.0%
Colorado 1.2% 1.3% 1.9% 1.4%
Kansas 1.8% 2.1% 1.4% 1.8%
Washington 2.9% 3.0% 3.3% 3.1%
Maryland 3.7% 3.1% 4.6% 3.8%
Virginia 3.7% 3.5% 4.5% 3.9%
DC 4.3% 5.2% 4.8% 4.8%
Georgia 5.1% 4.7% 5.1% 5.0%
Massachusetts 5.8% 6.0% 4.7% 5.5%
Alaska 7.2% 3.8% 5.6% 5.5%
Arizona 9.0% 8.0% 7.4% 8.1%
Texas 8.5% 8.4% 8.5% 8.5%
California 9.4% 9.3% 10.6% 9.8%
Utah 24.8% 27.6% 24.8% 25.7%
Mean -2.3% -2.1% -2.3% -2.2%

On average, the measures overestimated Clinton’s performance by a relatively low 2.2 percentage points, with no meaningful difference across measures. Five states—West Virginia, North Dakota, Iowa, South Dakota and Maine—were at least 10 percentage points less Democratic than projected using all three measures; Clinton still won Maine, but by “only” 3.0 percentage points. Four states—Utah, California, Texas and Arizona—were at least seven percentage points more Democratic than projected using all three measures; Clinton won only California of this group, though there are signs that Texas and, especially, Arizona are becoming more Democratic. The massive disparity in Utah  results from the presence of unaffiliated presidential candidate Evan McMullin, a Utah native, on the ballot; his 21.3% of the vote cut deeply into Trump’s vote, so the latter “only” won the state by 17.9 percentage points.

 As Table 2 shows, the performance of these measures—using the average of the actual difference in margins—was the worst since 2000, when they also overestimated Democratic performance by an average of 2.2 percentage points. On average, across all six presidential elections, these measures overestimated Democratic performance by just 0.9 percentage points, a solid performance.

Table 2: Average Difference Between Projected and Actual State-Level Presidential Vote Margin (Democratic % – Republican %), 1996-2016

Year Cook PVI 538 PL 3W-RDM Mean
1996 -0.7% -1.0% -0.9% -0.9%
2000 -2.0% -2.2% -2.5% -2.2%
2004 0.1% 0.4% -0.3% 0.1%
2008 0.7% 0.5% 0.4% 0.5%
2012 -0.7% -0.8% -0.6% -0.7%
2016 -2.3% -2.1% -2.3% -2.2%
Mean -0.8% -0.9% -1.0% -0.9%

These values can be deceptive, however. Consider the performance of the 3W-RDM in 2016. It overestimated Clinton’s margin in Montana by 7.4 percentage points, and it underestimated her margin in Arizona by an identical 7.4 percentage points. In both states the difference was 7.4 percentage points, but averaging the two (0.0 percentage points) would suggest that the 3W-RDM was spot on.

In fact, the three measures missed the actual presidential election margin by at least five percentage points in 26 states.

Table 3 resolves this problem by displaying the average absolute value of the difference between the projected and actual presidential election margins.

Table 3: Average of Absolute Value of Differences Between Projected and Actual State-Level Presidential Vote Margin (Democratic % – Republican %), 1996-2016

Year Cook PVI 538 PL 3W-RDM Mean
1996 5.4% 5.1% 5.6% 5.4%
2000 5.5% 5.9% 6.8% 6.1%
2004 3.9% 3.6% 4.2% 3.9%
2008 6.3% 5.7% 6.2% 6.1%
2012 3.3% 3.2% 3.5% 3.3%
2016 5.9% 5.6% 5.9% 5.8%
Mean 5.0% 4.8% 5.4% 5.1%

On average, the projected and actual presidential election margins differed by 5.1 percentage points in either direction. The 3W-RDM, which differed by an average of 5.4 percentage points, fared slightly worse than the Cook PVI and 538 PL. The best years for these measures were two re-election years, 2004 (3.9 percentage points) and 2012 (3.3), and the worst years were the open seat elections of 2000, 2008 (both 6.1) and 2016 (5.8). The overall worst performance was the 3W-RDM in 2000 (6.8), while the overall best performance was the 538 PL in 2012 (3.2).

I performed identical analyses to those summarized in Tables 2 and 3 using two alternate versions of the 3W-RDM, one which used a 1-3-5 weighting scheme and one which weighted all three years equally. The results were nearly identical to those shown here (though the non-weighted 3W-RDM tended to perform worse on the absolute value differences), suggesting that if the 3W-RDM is slightly less “predictive” than the other two measures, it is not due to the weighting scheme but (most likely) to the inclusion of data from a third election year.

Finally, I counted how many—and which—states were “called” incorrectly by each measure in each presidential election.

Table 4: “Mis-called” States, 1996-2016

Year Cook PVI* 538 PL 3W-RDM Average
1996 9

AZ, CO, FL, MT, NV, NH, NC, SD, TX

8

AZ, CO, FL, GA, MT, NC, SD, TX

9

AZ, CO, FL, GA MT, NH, NC, SD, TX

8.7
2000 5

AR, CT, LA, MO, WV

6

AR, CT, LA, MO, NH, WV

5

AR, CT, LA, MO, WV

5.3
2004 4

NH, OR, PA, WI

3

NH, OR, WI

3

NH, OR, WI

3.3
2008 4

AR, IN, MO, NC

4

AR, IN, MO, NC

7

AR,AZ, IN, MO, NC, VA, WV

5.0
2012 0 1

FL

0 0.3
2016 5

IA, MI, OH, PA, WI

5

IA, MI, OH, PA, WI

5

IA, MI, OH, PA, WI

5.0
Mean 4.3 4.5 4.8 4.5

        *States in boldface were “predicted” Democratic wins, and states in italics were

         “predicted” Republican wins.

On average, four or five (out of 51) states are “mis-called” in a given presidential election. Again, the 3W-RDM fared slightly worse (4.8) than average (4.5). Of the 83 total misses (out of 918 possibilities), 52 (62.7%) were states that were projected Democratic wins that were actually won by the Republican nominee.

The presidential election of 1996, when Democrat Bill Clinton cruised to an easy reelection, had the most mis-called states, eight or nine; seven states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas) were mis-called by all three measures. By contrast, only one state was mis-called in 2012, Florida by the 538 PL: it projected Obama would lose Florida by 0.1 percentage points when he in fact won it by 0.9 percentage points.

Despite these differences, I would argue that all three measures have high criterion validity, as each does a reasonably good job of “projecting” the actual presidential election margin in a given state and year. My 3W-RDM performed only slightly worse than the other two measures, so I will stick with it for now.

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One final note about the utility of partisan lean measures.

The Alabama special Senate election between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones to be held on December 12, 2017 is drawing national attention for two reasons. One, a win by Jones would reduce the Republican Senate majority to 51-49. Two, Moore has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct with minors (as well as having been removed twice as Alabama’s Chief Justice for defying federal court orders).

The public polls of this election, which once showed a Moore lead of ~11 percentage points, have tightened considerably since the allegations first appeared on November 9, 2017. As of now, depending on how you aggregate and weight these polls, Moore is somewhere between four percentage points ahead and one percentage points ahead; my best estimate is that Moore is ahead 1.7 percentage points.

But consider this. Following the 2016 presidential election, the average partisan lean for Alabama (using all three measures) is D-28.7. As of this writing, the best estimate of how Democrats will fare in the 2018 Congressional elections is that they are ahead by 7.8 percentage points.

Putting these two values together implies that a generic Republican Senate candidate should be leading a generic Democratic Senate candidate by 20.9 percentage points (28.7 minus 7.8): this should not even be a close contest.

However, the polls suggest that Jones is performing somewhere between 16.9 and 21.9 percentage points better than a generic Democrat—that is a stunning difference, and one that may bode very well for Democrats in 2018.

Until next time…

[1] Technically, he only won 111, as one Democratic elector in Washington (state) cast his presidential vote for Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic nominee for vice president, and cast his vice presidential vote for Dukakis.

[2] I freely confess to being the artist. This kid-friendly (fine, I had just turned 22) exhortation to vote must have been in the Comics section of the Washington Post (I was living in DC at the time) the Sunday before the 1988 elections.

[3] My data start in 1984, so I would only have 5W-RDM for 1984-2000, 1988-2004, 1992-2008, 1996-2012 and 2000-2016.

[4] I have experimented with adding a weighted linear trend to the 3W-RDM. The logic is that if I want to use the previous three election margins in a state to “forecast” the state margin in the next election, I should account for the fact that, over time, some states are growing relatively more Democratic (e.g., Nevada has become 11.7 percentage points more Democratic relative to the nation since 1984-1992) or less Democratic (e.g., West Virginia, 44.7 percentage points). Adding a weighted average of all previous election-to-election changes in RDM to a 3W-RDM would, theoretically, account for any increased partisanship over the ensuing four years. For the analyses below, however, there was very little difference between the 3W-RDM and the 3W-RDM+weighted linear trend, so I exclude it.

[5] More formally r = covariance(x,y) divided by SD(x) * SD(y).

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 7.7 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).

Where do rank-and-file Democrats (and Independents) stand on issues right now?

In the wake of Democratic underperformance in the 2016 elections (losing the Electoral College, insufficient gains to win back the United States House of Representatives [House] or United States Senate [Senate], net loss of two governorships, hemorrhaging state legislative seats), various “autopsies” were released.

autopsies

Some autopsies reached conclusions that contradicted the finding of other autopsies (likely due to an inherent bias in the group conducting the autopsy). Left-leaning individuals (e.g., Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver) and groups (e.g., Center for American Progress) declared that the Democratic Party needed to be more responsive to its increasingly liberal and progressive base (in primaries, especially). The more centrist Third Way argued that liberals are still outnumbered by moderates and conservatives (though perhaps only in the Rust Belt states [Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin] won by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump). The race to be the next chairperson of the Democratic National Committee was seen as a proxy fight over this division, with Representative Keith Ellison representing the progressives and former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez representing the “establishment.” Perez won, 235-200, then immediately named Ellison deputy chairman in a nod toward party unity.

Other reports differed over whether Democrats should focus more on white men without a college degree or on younger and/or minority voters. I weighed in on this question here.  And the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight.com framed their “post-mortem” in the context of what Democrats would expect in their 2020 president.

Given this apparent divide over the best way for Democrats to proceed, which encompasses everything from messaging to election targeting to fundraising to candidate recruitment, I thought it would be a useful exercise to review what self-identified Democrats actually believe right now (along with the Independents they will need to capture to, say, win back the House in 2018). That is, what issue positions, as measured by available public polling, distinguish a majority of self-identified, rank-and-file Democrats from a majority of self-identified, rank-and-file Republicans? And, in these cases, when do a majority of self-identified, rank-and-file Independents align with the Democrats?

**********

Just bear with me while I review my methodology.

I used all polls available on the Issues page of PollingReport.com. This page breaks down non-partisan, publicly-available, issue-oriented polls into 20 categories: Problems and Priorities, Abortion, Budget and Taxes, Crime, Disaster Preparedness and Relief, Education, Energy, Environment, Food, Foreign Affairs and Defense, Guns, Health Policy, Illegal Drugs, Immigration, Law, LGBT, Race and Ethnicity, Social Security, Space Exploration, Transportation. Some categories, such as Foreign Affairs and Defense, have subcategories (e.g., Isis and Terrorism).

For each issue, I collected all polls for which partisan breakdowns (Democrat, Republican, Independent) were provided, going back (when necessary) to the summer of 2014. In this way I balance opinion recency with the desire to review as wide an array of specific issues as possible, while also capturing data from both the Trump presidency and the preceding Barack Obama presidency.

There are three important caveats about these data.

One, poll respondents sometimes choose issue positions based on their partisan identification (as opposed to holding an independent, a priori position). An example of this is a November 2015 poll[1] asking respondents whether the unemployment rate had increased or decreased under President Obama. A bare majority, 53% of Republicans said it had increased, while 76% of Democrats correctly answered that it had decreased. The opinions of Independents were not provided.

A related caveat is that partisan positioning may have shifted over time, particularly following the 2016 presidential election.

Two, these are national polls and thus cannot be used to divine partisan issue divides in specific states or Congressional Districts.

Three, issue preference distinctions between parties may mask key distinctions within parties, such as on abortion.

Issues are presented in no particular order. If polls were conducted across multiple months, I use the last month the poll was in the field.

**********

Income inequality. Democrats (87%, vs. 11% opposed, +76) and Independents (60%, +31) felt in 2015[2] that wealth is not fairly distributed among Americans, that the federal government should seek remedies (D 81%, +66; I 54%, +13), including increasing taxes on the wealthy[3] (D 84%, +72; I 63%, +32); smaller majorities of Republicans do not see this inequality (51%, +9) and oppose governmental remedies (64%, +30), including higher taxes (55%, +17).

Environment. Democrats and Independents strongly support the Paris] Agreement, oppose federal support for coal mining, believe climate change is man-made and support government intervention to reverse it. Smaller majorities of Republicans are more skeptical of climate change, support economic growth over environmental protection and oppose government intervention to reverse climate change/reduce global warming.

Reality of climate change. Democrats (80%, +61 relative to “About the same”) and Independents (54%, +13) felt in April 2017[4] that there had been “More extreme or unusual weather in the United States” in the past few years, while Republicans (60%, +33) thought it had been “About the same.”

Government role in fighting climate change. An April 2017 poll[5] found that 91% (+84) of Democrats and 73% of Independents (+49) were OPPOSED to “significantly cutting for scientific research on the environment and climate change, while 50% (+5%) of Republicans felt the opposite.

When asked in September 2014 which should receive higher priority, environmental protection or economic growth, 63% of both Democrats (+29) and Independents (+32) prioritized the environment, while a bare majority of Republicans (51%, +11) chose economic growth.

Coal production and fossil fuels. An April 2017 poll[6] found a deep partisan divide, perhaps driven by President Trump’s vociferous support for coal miners, over whether the federal government should encourage or discourage coal production. Democrats (80%, +66) and Independents (58%, +23), seeking to protect the environment, strongly favored “discourage,” while Republicans (69%, +50), seeking to protect coal jobs and the economy, strongly favored “encourage.” Still, this is not likely to be a winning issue for Democrats in coal-producing states such as West Virginia, which Trump won by 41.7 percentage points.

When asked in April 2016[7], 71% (+48) and 56% (+21) of Independents thought it would be a good idea for colleges and universities to stop investing in fossil fuels to reduce “global warming.” A majority of Republicans (55%, +18) disagreed.

Paris Agreement. In December 2015[8], Democrats were overwhelmingly in favor (86%, +77) of the United States joining “an international treaty requiring America to reduce emissions in an effort to fight global warming,” with Independents only slightly less enthusiastic (66%, +41). Republicans, while opposed, were far more evenly divided (52%, +10).

However, in what could be an electoral artifact, by June 2017 a clear majority of Republicans (68%, +47; averaging three polls[9]) supported President Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, while 85% (+78) of Democrats and 62% (+33%) of Independents were opposed.

Planned Parenthood. In a September 2015 poll[10], 82% (+70) of Democrats and 56% (+19) of Independents supported federal government support for Planned Parenthood. Technically, there were “opposed to cutting off” these funds. Republicans (71%, +46) preferred to cut off the funds.

Gun control/rights. There is near-unanimity across all partisan groups for universal background checks and preventing terrorists from acquiring guns, although when either issue is framed as something supported by President Obama, Republican support plummets. For some additional context, please see this post.

Gun sales. Between July 2015 and April 2017, CBS News asked[11] six times whether gun sales should be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are; for ease of presentation, I combined response for “less strict” and “kept as they are.” On average, 78% (+58) of Democrats thought gun laws should be made more strict; only 51% (+6) of Independents concurred. A solid 64% (+30) of Republicans, meanwhile, felt that gun laws should either be kept as they are (48%) or made less strict (16%). These results echo a June 2017 poll[12] in which 80% (+62) of Democrats and 54% (+12) of Independents support stricter gun control laws, with 68% (+41) of Republicans opposed.

Personal safety. Two polls (July 2016,[13] June 2017[14]), asked whether more guns or fewer guns would make the United States safer. Allowing for slight question wording differences: an average 82% (+70) of Democrats 50% (+10) of Independents said more guns would NOT make us safer; an average 70% (+48) of Republicans felt the opposite.

Perhaps reflecting the geographic self-segregation of Democrats into more urban areas and Republicans into more exurban and rural areas, Democrats (77%, +62) and Independents (64%, +36) in November 2015 said[15] they were more worried about being the victim of gun violence, while Republicans were more worried (barely: 50%, +5) about a terrorist attack.

Majorities of Democrats (82%, +69) and Independents (57%, +21) in October 2015[16] thought “better gun regulation” would reduce mass shooting, while 59% (+28) of Republicans favored “more people carrying guns.” Similarly, that some month[17], Democrats (79%, +60) and Independents (55%, +17) were opposed to “allowing more teachers and school officials to carry guns in schools,” while Republicans (64%, +30) were in favor.

Health care. Perhaps no issue divides Democrats and Independents from Republicans more than the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more colloquially known as the ACA or Obamacare, despite widespread (if barely among Republicans) agreement that Americans with pre-existing conditions should not be charged more for their health insurance nor should Medicaid enrollment to pre-2010 levels[18]. There was also partisan accord, in February 2015[19], on requiring “parents to vaccinate their children for diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella.”

ACA. A series of polls[20] conducted between May and August 2017 found that nearly all Democrats (85-91%, +77-87) and most Independents (57-65%, +28-41) opposed Republican ideas to repeal-and-replace Obamacare, while Republicans (58-61%, +24-34) mostly favored these ideas.

At the same time, in April and July 2017[21], on average, Democrats (90%, +83) and Independents (69%, +42) overwhelmingly supported making improvements to the ACA. By contrast, Republicans favored (65%, +34) continuing repeal-and-replace efforts. An April 2017 poll[22], conducted before the House approved the American Health Care Act, echoed this sentiment.

Obamacare exchanges. In June 2015[23], “the Supreme Court ruled that government assistance for lower-income Americans buying health insurance through both state-operated and federally-operated health insurance exchanges is legal.” Two polls conducted that month[24] found that, on average, Democrats (84%, +72) and Independents (67%, +20) favored this governmental largesse, while Republicans were (barely) opposed (52%, +10).

Single payer/Medicare-for-all. An series of polls in June and August 2017 poll[25] found that, on average, most Democrats (75%, +59) and a majority of Independents (56%, +22) favored the expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans, with 60% (+29) of Republicans opposed.

Marijuana legalization. Three polls conducted between January 2014 and August 2017[26] found a strong partisan divide: on average, 63% (+31) of Democrats and 60% of Independents favored legalization, while 61% (+26) of Republicans were opposed. Interestingly, between 2014 and 2017, overall support for marijuana legalization increased from 51% (+7) to 61% (+28).

Immigration. This is an issue where it is difficult to separate support/opposition for/to President Trump from support/opposition for/to issues associated with him.

Border wall along southern United States border. In February 2017[27], this central tenet of Trump’s presidential campaign was opposed by most Democrats (87%, +70) and Independents (61%, +25) and just as strongly favored by Republicans (77%, +57).

Executive order suspending entrance from seven majority-Muslim nations for 90 days. Trump’s executive order induced a stark partisan divide in early February 2017[28] (Democrats split 88-9% opposed, Republicans split 88-11% in favor), with Independents (51%, +6) just barely in opposition. A similar partisan divide was apparent on the question of a 120-day suspension of all refugee immigration: fully 92% (+84) of Democrats and 64% (+33) of Independents were opposed and 75% (+53) of Republicans were in favor.

When asked in September 2016[29] whether one supported or opposed “a blanket ban on the immigration of any person who lives in a country where there has been a history of terrorism against the west,” 78% (+62) of Democrats and 61% (+32) of Independents were opposed, while 54% (+16) of Republicans supported the idea.

In polls conducted in December 2015[30] and July 2016[31], an average 80% (+64) of  Democrats and 62% (+32) of Independents were opposed to a general Muslim ban, while Republicans (54%, +14) were somewhat in favor[32]. Other polls[33] released during this same time period had similar findings.

Illegal immigration from Mexico. In April 2016[34], when asked whether “you feel your own personal way of life is or is not under threat from illegal immigrants from Mexico,” fully 89% (+80) of Democrats and 68% (+38) of Independents, while Republicans were more evenly divided, 51-46%.

Syrian refugees. In November 2015[35], there was broad agreement (78-15% overall) that Syrian refugees should “go through a stricter security clearance process than they do now.” However, there was a partisan divide on the more general question of Syrian refugees coming to the United States. On average across two polls (November and December 2015[36]), Democrats (64%, +30) and (barely) Independents (50%, +4) were in favor (with the security clearance caveat cited above) and Republicans (72%, +48) were not in favor. And in September 2015[37], Democrats (69%, +40) and Independents (51%, +8) [38] favored increasing the number of Syrian refugees, while Republicans were opposed (67%, +37).

Islam. In February 2017[39], respondents were asked, “Generally speaking, do you think the Islamic religion encourages violence more than other religions around the world, less than other religions around the world, or about the same as other religions around the world?” Relative to “More,” Democrats (66%, +52) and Independents (53%, +25) chose “About the same;” relative to “About the same,” Republicans (63%, +38) chose “More.”

Use of military force. Going back a few years, a September 2014 poll found that more Democrats (59%, +23) and Independents (57%, +19) described themselves as “doves” (the United States should rarely or never use military force) and more Republicans (69%, +44) described themselves as “hawks” (military force should be used frequently to promote United States policy).

Equal protection under the law. I include here all LGBT and race/ethnicity questions.

Transgender. There is widespread agreement (75-23% overall, according to an April 2016 poll[40]) with “laws that guarantee equal protection for transgender people in jobs, housing and public accommodations.” However, that agreement does not extend to military service. In reaction to President Trump’s tweets about the subject, an August poll[41] found that Democrats (91%, +84) and Independents (72%, +49) strongly favored allowing transgender people to serve in the military, while Republicans (60%, +28) were opposed.

Same sex marriage. In three polls conducted between June and October 2015[42], an average of 67% (+41) of Democrats and 59% (+29) of Independents felt same sex marriage should be legal, with 56% (+20) of Republicans feeling it should not be legal (despite the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same sex marriage in all 50 states).

Religious exemptions. Two April 2015 polls[43] queried the right of businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers on religious grounds, potentially violating anti-discrimination laws. The question wording was slightly different, but on average Democrats (74%, +52) and Independents (60%, 25%) opposed these exemptions and Republicans (62%, +34) supported them.

Voting Rights Act. A February 2015 poll[44] asked whether the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was still necessary “to make sure that blacks are allowed to vote.” There were two interesting divides on this question. First, Democrats (62%, +24) and Independents (52%, +5) thought the VRA was still necessary, while Republicans (61%, +24) did not. Second, and perhaps more telling, fully 76% (+53) of black respondents thought the VRA was still necessary, while white respondents split 48-50 against.

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In sum, majorities of rank-and-file Democrats and Independents (in opposition to majorities of rank-and-file Republicans)…

…believe wealth is not fairly distributed among Americans and the federal government should seek remedies, including increasing taxes on the wealthy.

…support the Paris Agreement, oppose federal support for coal mining and believe climate change is both real and man-made (with government intervention required to reverse it).

…strongly support federal funding of Planned Parenthood

…feel gun laws should be more strict, more guns will not make us safer (Independents more evenly divided), more worried about being the victim of gun violence than of terrorism, better gun regulation would reduce mass shooting (not more people carrying guns) and oppose allowing more teachers and school officials to carry guns in schools.

…strongly opposed efforts to repeal-and-replace Obamacare (opting overwhelmingly to fix the law), supported government assistance for lower-income Americans buying health insurance through state and federal health insurance exchange and favored a Medicare-for-all/single payer health insurance system.

…support the legalization of marijuana

…oppose building a wall on the southern border of the United States and any form of “Muslim ban,” feel that illegal immigration from Mexico has not hurt their way of life and support Syrian refugees entering the United States (under stricter security clearance)

…have (relatively) more benign views of Islam

…feel the United States should rarely or never use military force to promote policy.

…support allowing transgender people to serve in the military and same sex marriage, while opposing allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT persons on religious grounds.

…and believe the Voting Rights Act is still necessary to protect ballot access.

Let the campaigns begin!

Until next time…

[1] Bloomberg Politics Poll conducted by Selzer & Company. Nov. 15-17, 2015. N=1,002 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.1.

[2] CBS News Poll. July 29-Aug. 2, 2015. N=1,252 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[3] CBS News/New York Times Poll. Nov. 6-10, 2015. N=1,495 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[4] Quinnipiac University. March 30-April 3, 2017. N=1,171 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.9

[5] Quinnipiac University. March 30-April 3, 2017. N=1,171 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.9.

[6] Quinnipiac University. March 30-April 3, 2017. N=1,171 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.9.

[7] 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll. March 30-April 3, 2016. N=1,010 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 4.

[8] Quinnipiac University. Dec. 16-20, 2015. N=1,140 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.9.

[9] NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll. June 21-25, 2017. N=995 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.1; Quinnipiac University. May 31-June 6, 2017. N=1,361 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.2; ABC News/Washington Post Poll. June 2-4, 2017. N=527 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 5

[10] Quinnipiac University. Sept. 17-21, 2015. N=1,574 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.5.

[11] CBS News Poll. April 21-24, 2017. N=1,214 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[12] Quinnipiac University. June 22-27, 2017. N=1,212 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.4.

[13] McClatchy-Marist Poll. July 5-9, 2016. N=1,053 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[14] Quinnipiac University. June 22-27, 2017. N=1,212 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.4.

[15] McClatchy-Marist Poll. Oct. 29-Nov. 4, 2015. N=1,465 adults nationwide (margin of error ± 2.6), including 1,080 registered voters (± 3).

[16] Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind. Oct. 1-5, 2015. N=771 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 4.2.

[17] CBS News/New York Times Poll. Oct. 21-25, 2015. N=1,289 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 4.

[18] Politico/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. June 14-18, 2017. N=501 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 5.3.

[19] CBS News Poll. Feb. 13-17, 2015. N=1,006 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[20] Quinnipiac University. July 27-Aug. 1, 2017. N=1,125 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.4; Kaiser Family Foundation. July 5-10, 2017. N=1,183 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[21] ABC News/Washington Post Poll. April 17-20, 2017. N=1,004 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.5.Margin of error ± 3.4; Kaiser Family Foundation. July 5-10, 2017. N=1,183 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3

[22] Quinnipiac University. April 12-18, 2017. N=1,062 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[23] CNN/ORC Poll. June 26-28, 2015. N=1,017 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[24] CNN/ORC Poll. June 26-28, 2015. N=1,017 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3; CBS News/New York Times Poll. June 10-14, 2015. N=1,007 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[25] Quinnipiac University. July 27-Aug. 1, 2017. N=1,125 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.4; Quinnipiac University. June 22-27, 2017. N=1,212 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.4.

[26] CBS News Poll. April 8-12, 2015. N=1,012 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.; Quinnipiac University. July 27-Aug. 1, 2017. N=1,125 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.4.

[27] CBS News Poll. Feb. 17-21, 2017. N=1,280 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[28] Quinnipiac University. Feb. 2-6, 2017. N=1,155 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.9.

[29] Monmouth University Poll. Sept. 22-25, 2016. N=802 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.5.

[30] Quinnipiac University. Dec. 16-20, 2015. N=1,140 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.9.

[31] CBS News/New York Times Poll. July 8-12, 2016. N=1,358 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[32] By September 2016, opposition to the proposed Muslim ban had ceased to be a partisan issue. A Monmouth University Poll (Sept. 22-25, 2016. N=802 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.5) found Republicans opposed 54-32%.

[33] McClatchy-Marist Poll. July 5-9, 2016. N=1,053 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3;  Quinnipiac University. June 21-27, 2016. N=1,610 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.4; ABC News/Washington Post Poll. Dec. 10-13, 2015. N=1,002 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.5. Across these three polls, average Democratic opposition was 81%, average Independent opposition was 59% and average Republican support was 64%.

[34] Monmouth University Poll. Aug. 4-7, 2016. N=803 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.5.

[35] CBS News Poll. Nov. 19-22, 2015. N=1,205 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[36] CBS News/New York Times Poll. Dec. 4-8, 2015. N=1,275 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[37] Pew Research Center. Sept. 22-27, 2015. N=1,502 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.9.

[38] Interestingly, a majority of Independents (58%, +21) in a November 2015 Gallup poll (Nov. 20-21, 2015. N=1,013 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 4) were opposed to the specific number of 10,000 or more refugees proposed.

[39] CBS News Poll. Feb. 1-2, 2017. N=1,019 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 4.

[40] CNN/ORC Poll. April 28-May 1, 2016. N=1,001 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[41] Quinnipiac University. July 27-Aug. 1, 2017. N=1,125 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.4.

[42] CBS News/New York Times Poll. Oct. 21-25, 2015. N=1,289 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 4.

[43] Quinnipiac University. April 16-21, 2015. N=1,353 registered voters nationwide. Margin of error ± 2.7; CNN/ORC Poll. April 16-19, 2015. N=1,018 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3.

[44] CNN/ORC Poll. Feb. 12-15, 2015. N=1,027 adults nationwide (margin of error ± 3), including 733 non-Hispanic whites (± 3.5), and, with an oversample, 309 blacks (± 5.5).

Clinton Derangement, or The Birth of a Notion

During the 2016 campaign, I was struck by two overlapping narratives.

One was the intensity of animus toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, particularly among Republicans. This felt to me less like policy disagreement and more like personal vendetta. This animus expressed itself manufactured outrage (and HOURS of Congressional hearings) over the Islamist militant attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 and the use of a private e-mail server while serving as President Barack Obama’s first Secretary of State. While neither Benghazi nor the e-mail server cast Ms. Clinton in the best possible light, the obsessive focus on them as somehow criminal acts (leading to chants of “Lock her up!” at the 2016 Republican National Convention) smacked of political overkill. Thus, the adjective “manufactured.”

To me, this animus echoed the fervor with which Republicans had gone after her husband, Bill Clinton, while he served as president of the United States. The Whitewater-Lewinsky investigations, which ran (with brief stoppages due to lack of evidence) from January 1994 to Clinton’s acquittal by the United States Senate (Senate) on February 12, 1999, were an earlier manifestation of what I will call “Clinton derangement.”

Two was the emergence, led by Donald Trump, of a virulent strain of raw nationalist populism, driven by mass rallies, calls for violence against journalists and protestors, and anti-elitist resentments (aimed at the establishments of both major political parties). Trump encouraged this nationalist populism through outrageous, often vulgar statements and Twitter musings, culminating in the Access Hollywood audiotape, released on October 7, 2016, on which Trump appears to brag about sexually assaulting women.

So, you ask, where is the overlap?

Well, consider the curious case of U.S. House of Representatives (House) member Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).

Immediately after the release of the Access Hollywood audiotape, Rep. Chaffetz announced that he was no longer supporting Trump’s presidential candidacy. His reason, passionately expressed during a media blitz, was that he could not explain to his 15-year-old daughter how he could support someone who utters “some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.”

Just 19 days later, however, Rep. Chaffetz tweeted this: “I will not defend or endorse @realDonaldTrump, but I am voting for him. HRC is that bad. HRC is bad for the USA.”

I wonder how that second conversation between Rep. Chaffetz and his 15-year-old daughter went.

In short: for Republicans, no matter how “abhorrent” (Rep. Chaffetz’s word) or “reprehensible” (the word of a Republican cousin-by-marriage who still voted for Trump) Trump’s behavior or how far he strayed from Republican orthodoxy, Hillary Clinton was somehow simply worse.

I wrote “strayed from Republican orthodoxy,” but the reality is that the nationalist populism embraced by Trump already existed among a significant segment of Republican voters.

Simply put, Trump did not create his voters, his voters created him.

**********

The more I thought about these two strands, Clinton derangement and an evolving Republican strain of nationalist populism, the more I found myself thinking about the presidential election of 1992 (and the subsequent midterm elections of 1994).

And an argument began to take shape in my mind, one that greatly clarifies both Trump’s emergence and Clinton’s defeat:

  1. With the elections of 1992 and 1994, the Democratic and Republican Parties switched governing roles. The Democratic Party went from being primarily a Congressional and state-house party to primarily a national (i.e., White House) party, while the Republican Party went in the opposite direction.
  2. Republicans blamed Bill Clinton for breaking their iron grip on the White House, and they have been punishing him (and his wife) for it ever since.
  3. The Republican Party underwent a profound transformation in the aftermath of the first Bush presidency (1989-93) as a result of both internal actions (e.g., Bush breaking his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes) and external events (e.g., the end of the Cold War). The common enemy (the Soviet Union) which had held together the disparate ideologies of the Republican Party for 25 or 30 years vanished, and previously dormant “fringe” factions asserted themselves.
  4. This newly radical Republican Party was characterized in part by a nationalist populism (embodied by Pat Buchanan) and a resentful anti-government ethos (embodied by Georgia Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich). And they had a new common enemy: the Clintons.

I will explore these arguments over a series of posts, beginning with this one.

*********

Just bear with me while I present three election data “items” related to the 1992 and 1994 elections.

Item 1.[1]

On Tuesday, November 3, 1992, Clinton captured 43.0% of the popular vote cast for president, 5.6 percentage points more than G. H. W. Bush (37.4%) and 24.0 percentage points more than Independent H. Ross Perot (19.0%). Considering only votes cast for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates (“two-party vote”), Clinton beat Bush 53.5 to 46.5%.

Clinton also won 32 states, plus the District of Columbia (DC), for a total of 370 electoral votes (EV); Bush received only 168 EV.

electoral-1992-s

Four years earlier, however, G. H. W. Bush had won 53.4% of the popular vote against Democrat Michael Dukakis (45.6%), winning 40 states and 426 EV; Bush beat Dukakis 53.9 to 46.1% in the two-party vote. Bush’s near-landslide victory (in the Electoral College, anyway) meant that Republicans would control the White House for a third consecutive four-year term.

electoral-1988-sIn other words, in just four years, Democrats had increased their share of the two-party popular vote by 7.4 percentage points, flipped 22 states from Democratic to Republican, and increased their EV total from 112 to 370.

That is an astonishing turnaround.

Item 2.

Following the 1992 elections, Democrats controlled 57 Senate seats and 258 House seats, while 30 of the nation’s governors were Democrats.

Just two years later, following the 1994 midterm elections, Democrats controlled 48 Senate seats and 204 House seats; only 19 governors were Democrats.

Put differently, just two years after Democrats regained control of the White House for the first time in 12 years, Democrats were absolutely slaughtered in Congressional and gubernatorial races, losing a net nine Senate seats, 54 House seats and 11 governor’s mansions.

That is not a turnaround. That is whiplash.

Item 3a.

Table 1: Summary of Democratic performance in Presidential, Congressional and gubernatorial races: 1968-2016

Presidency 1968 – 1988

(24 years)

1992 – 2016

(28 years*)

Post-1988 Change
Average % Total Vote 42.9% 48.7% D+5.8 perc pts
Average % 2-Party Vote 45.1% 52.0% D+6.9 perc pts
Average #Electoral Votes 113.0 313.4 D+200.4 EV
Average States Won 9.0 (+DC) 23.7 (+DC) D+14.7 states
Victories 1 4†† D+3 wins
Years in White House 4 16 D+12 years
 
Senate 1968-1992

(26 years)

1994-2016

(24 years)

Post-1992 Change
Average % Total Vote 51.2% 48.8% D-2.4 perc pts
Average % 2-Party Vote 53.0% 51.2% D-1.8 perc pts
Average # Seats 54.5 48.3 D-6.2 seats
Years in Majority 20 9.5 D-10.5 years
House
Average % Total Vote 52.9% 47.4% D-5.5 perc pts
Average % 2-Party Vote 54.1% 49.6% D-4.5 perc pts
Average # Seats 262.1 208.7 D-53.4 seats
Years in Majority 26 4 D-22 years
Governor
Average % Total Vote 51.7% 46.7% D-5.0 perc pts
Average % 2-Party Vote 52.9% 48.8% D-3.9 perc pts
Average # State Houses 31.0 20.7 D-10.3 state houses
Years in Majority 26 4 D-22 years

         *Through 2020

         Through 2018

         ††Excluding popular vote victories by Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016

In the six presidential elections from 1968 through 1988 (Table 1), Republicans won the presidency five times, four times by landslides (1972, 1980, 1984) or near-landslides (1988). The one Democratic victor was Jimmy Carter in 1976, in the wake of Republican President Richard Nixon’s Watergate-related resignation in August 1974, Nixon’s pardon by his successor (Gerald Ford) and various Ford gaffes. Still, Carter only managed to beat Ford by 2.1 percentage points (50.1 to 48.0%) and 57 EV (297-240[2]); Ford actually won more states: 27 to 23 (plus DC). In fact, had Ford flipped 5,559 votes in Ohio (25 EV) and 7,232 votes in Mississippi (7 EV)—just 12,791 votes out of 81,540,780 cast, he would have won 272 EV and held on to the presidency.

Overall in those six presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 42.9% of the popular vote (45.1% of the two-party vote), victories in nine states (plus DC) and 113.0 EV. The White House essentially “belonged” to the Republicans during this period.

During the same time period, however, Democrats controlled the House and held a majority of governorships. They controlled the Senate for 18 of 24 years, excepting only 1981-87. Following the 13 even-numbered elections from 1968 through 1992, Democrats averaged majorities of all votes cast for Senate, House and governor[3], for an average of 54.5 Senate seats, 262.1 House seats and 31.0 governor’s mansions.

In other words, from 1968 through 1992, while Republicans held a near lock on the White House, Democrats controlled Congress (both Houses for 20 years) and a majority of governor’s mansions. One interpretation is that voters preferred Republicans in the White House to conduct foreign policy (i.e., fight the Cold War) and preferred Democrats to manage domestic affairs (i.e., protect entitlements).

Item 3b.

AFTER 1992, however…

In the seven presidential elections from 1992 through 2016, Democrats won the presidential popular vote six of seven times (despite only winning the Electoral College—and thus the White House—four times), the exception being 2004, when Republican George W. Bush won reelection by 2.4 percentage points (50.7 to 48.3%) over Democrat John Kerry, capturing 286 EV to Kerry’s 251.[4] Once again, Ohio was pivotal. If Kerry could have flipped 59,188 votes there (out of 122,303,590 cast nationwide), he would have won 271 EV and the presidency (though he still would have lost the popular vote).

Overall in those seven presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 48.7% of the popular vote (52.0% of the two-party vote), victories in 23.7 states (plus DC) and 313.4 EV.

Meanwhile, since January 1995, Democrats have only controlled the House and held a majority of governorships for four years (2007-11), while controlling the Senate for only nine-plus years (May 2001[5]-January 2003, 2007-15). Following the 12 even-numbered elections from 1994 through 2016, while Democrats managed rough parity in Senate votes, they lost the overall vote for House and governor, earning an average 48.3 Senate seats, 208.7 House seats and 20.7 governor’s mansions.

The overall lower average of EV won by White House winners and the near-parity in Senate votes means that the more recent differentiation between Democrats as “White House” party and Republicans as “Congressional/gubernatorial” party is not quite as apparent.

Figure 1. Democratic % Presidential Popular Vote, U.S. Senate Vote, U.S. House Vote, Governor Vote: 1968-2016

Democratic % President, Senate, House, Governor, 2-party, 1968-2016

Figure 2. Democratic % Electoral Votes, U.S. House Seats, U.S. Senate Seats, Governorships: 1968-2016

Democratic % EV, Senate Seats, House Seats, Governors, 1968-2016

The Democratic presidential victory in 1976, Republican presidential victories in 2000 and 2004, and Democratic successes across the board in 2006 and 2008 obscure the trends in Figure 1 (Democratic percentages of the two-party vote cast for president, Senate, House and governor, 1968 through 2016) and Figure 2 (Democratic percentages of EV, Senate and House seats, and governorships, 1968 through 2016). However, the dramatic shift in governing roles (“national” vs. “legislative”) can still be discerned, especially in Figure 2, which focuses on the winning of control-determining EV, Congressional seats and governor’s mansions.

Figures 3 and 4 clarify the 1992-94 governing role shift by displaying, for each presidential election, the average of the Democratic results in that election and the previous one, and for each set of Senate, House and (two-year cycle) gubernatorial elections, the average of the Democratic results in that election and the previous two elections. In other words, each value in Figures 3 and 4 encompasses an identical rolling three-even-year-elections time frame.

Figure 3. Democratic % Presidential Popular Vote, U.S. Senate Vote, U.S. House Vote, Governor Vote: 6-Year Rolling Averages, 1968-2016

Democratic % President, Senate, House, Governor, 2-party, 6-yr-ave, 1968-2016

Figure 4. Democratic % Electoral Votes, U.S. Senate Seats, U.S. House Seats,      Governorships: 6-Year Rolling Averages, 1968-2016

Democratic % EV, Senate Seats, House Seats, Governors, 6-yr-ave, 1968-2016

The dramatic shift in party governing roles in 1992-94 is now strikingly clear, especially in Figure 4. What is also readily apparent is just how poorly Democrats have been faring in governor’s races since 1992. I have written elsewhere about the current extreme Republican advantage in governor’s mansions (16 Democratic, 33 Republican, 1 Independent). As Figures 2 and 4 show, the gap was not very different in the mid-to-late 1990s, during which Democrats held an average of only 18 governor’s mansions.

In a subsequent post, I will examine the defining events of 1988 through 1994 in more detail, moving from then-Vice-President G. H. W. Bush’s acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention through the wildly successful (for Republicans) 1994 midterm elections. I will follow that post with one in which I theorize about how resentment at Bill Clinton’s 1992 (and 1996) electoral successes and the Republican Party’s shift from “national” to “legislative” party may have resulted in the “surprising” 2016 elections.

Until next time…

[1] All presidential and Congressional election are from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, as are 1990-2016 gubernatorial election data. Gubernatorial data from 1967 to 1989 from the equally invaluable OurCampaigns.

[2] Ronald Reagan, who had challenged Ford for the Republican nomination, won the remaining EV, cast by a Washington state elector.

[3] Five states still hold gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years: Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi (next election: 2019), and New Jersey and Virginia (next election: 2017). To maintain consistency with presidential and Congressional elections, I combined the election results for gubernatorial elections held in even-numbered years with those held in the preceding odd-numbered year.

[4] Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee John Edwards won the remaining EV, cast by a Minnesota elector.

[5] On May 24, 2001, Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched to “Independent,” turning a 50-50 Senate tie, broken by Republican Vice President Dick Cheney into a 50-49 Democratic edge. In the subsequent 2002 midterms, however, Democrats lost a net of two seats, giving the Republicans a 51-48-1 edge.

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.

Should Democrats look to the southeast and southwest?

In a previous post, I implied that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 losses in five states won by Barack Obama in 2012–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa—resulted from white voters without a college degree (14 percentage points less Democratic in 2016 than in 2012) averaging 44.4% of these states’ electorates, while white voters with a college degree (10 percentage points more Democratic than in 2012) averaged 38.0%.[1]

This steep decline for Democrats in 2016 among midwestern/Rust Belt white voters without a college degree is the bad news.

Today, I will present some good news.

Four states totaling 80 electoral votes (EV)—North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Arizona—may be trending slowly toward the Democrats. Clinton lost all four of these states, as did Democratic nominees in 2004, 2008 (excepting a squeaker win in North Carolina) and 2012. However, the average margin by which she lost to Republican Donald Trump in these four states was 5.3 percentage points, about half the average 2004-12 margin (-10.2).[2]

This slow pro-Democratic trend is even clearer when you adjust for the national Democratic margins over the last four presidential elections, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: National and State-Level Margins (Democratic % – Republican %), 2004-16

Election National Margin Average Margin in   NC, GA, TX, AZ State Margin-National Margin
2004 -2.5 % points -15.6 % points -13.1 % points
2008 7.3 % points -6.3 % points -13.5 % points
2012 3.9 % points -8.7 % points -12.5 % points
2016 2.1 % points -5.3 % points -7.4 % points

Yes, on average, these four states were 7.4 percentage points less Democratic than the nation in 2016. But that is still a shift toward the Democrats of 5.6 percentage points compared to the 2004-12 average of -13.0 percentage points.

Put simply, as the country as a whole voted slightly more Republican in 2016, these states voted relatively more Democratic.

The maps in Figure 1, taken from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, show the counties where Democrats performed better in 2016 than in 2012 (shades of pink and red[3]), and where they performed worse (shades of blue).

Figure 1. County-level change in voting margin (Democratic % – Republican %) from 2012 to 2016

Georgia

georgia-swing-2012-16

Texas

texas-swing-2012-16

Arizona

arizona-swing-2012-16

North Carolina

north-carolina-swing-2012-16

In the five key states Clinton lost, she essentially matched Obama’s 2012 performance in the core urban Democratic areas of the state, while doing far worse than Obama elsewhere. In these four southeastern/southwestern states, however, Clinton actually improved on Obama’s 2012 performance in the urban (and surrounding suburbs) areas of the state. Specifically, Clinton improved on Obama’s 2012 performance in and around Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia; Austin, Dallas and Houston, Texas; Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona (as well the border counties with Mexico); and Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham/Greensboro/Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

These four states also have populations that are far less white (average 55.0%, 65.5% of the 2016 presidential electorate) than the five key states Clinton lost (81.0%, 82.4% of the electorate). Their residents are also slightly more likely to have a college degree (27.9% to 26.2% of the population, 50.8% to 44.4% of the electorate).

And as Table 2 shows (data from here), while these electorates were less white overall[4], they averaged more white voters with a college degree (34.5%) than white voters without a college degree (31.0%). That said, while white voters with a college degree were far less Republican on average (R+24.2) than white voters without a college degree (R+46.8) in these states, they were still far more Republican than all such voters nationwide. In fact, the smaller the white proportion of these electorates, the more Republican white voters (with or without a college degree) were[5].

Table 2: Presidential Voting Margins Among White and Non-White Voters With and Without College Degrees, Nationally and in Four Democratic-Trending States

State White College White Non-College Non-White College Non-White Non-College
U.S. +4 R 37% +39 R 34% +50 D 13% +56 D 16%
NC +19 R 37% +44 R 33% +63 D 13% +59 D 17%
GA +41 R 30% +66 R 30% +66 D 20% +72 D 20%
TX +31 R 31% +55 R 26% +28 D 21% +47 D 22%
AZ +6 R 40% +22 R 35% +22 D 11% +31 D 14%

Now, just bear with me while I briefly describe multiple linear regression.

Multiple linear regression is a statistical method that reveals how much a given (dependent) variable (say, state 2016 Democratic presidential margin) would change, on average, if other (independent) variables (say, state % white and % adults over 25 with a college degree[6]), changed by a specified amount. It also tells you how much of the variance in the dependent variable is “accounted for” (phrasing I prefer to “explained by”) the group of independent variables. Finally, it gives you an equation that can be used to calculate the “expected” value of the dependent variable given specified values of the independent variables.

Thus, using 2016 presidential election data from the 50 states and the District of Columbia, I estimated the following equation:

2016 Dem Margin = -0.53 – 0.51*% White + 2.94 *% College Degree

On average, then, a one percentage point increase in the white population of a state (all else being equal) lowered the 2016 Democratic margin in that state by an average 0.51 percentage points, while a corresponding increase in the percentage of adults over 25 with a college degree increased the Democratic margin by 2.94 percentage points. These two variables alone accounted for a whopping 75.4% of the variation in the 2016 state Democratic margins[7].

In 2013, the population of Massachusetts was 75.1% white and 28.0% of its residents over the age of 25 had a college degree. Plugging those values into the equation yields a “predicted” 2016 Democratic margin of 25.2, barely below the 27.2 percentage points by which Clinton actually won Massachusetts.

Table 3: Predicted and Actual 2016 Democratic Presidential Margins, Based Upon % White and % Adults with a College Degree, in Four States

State % White % College Degree (Age >25) Predicted 2016 Democratic Margin Actual 2016 Democratic Margin
GA 54.8% 28.0% D+2.0 R+5.1
TX 44.0% 26.7% D+3.6 R+9.0
AZ 56.7% 29.6% D+5.7 R+3.5
NC 64.4% 27.3% R+5.0 R+3.7

As Table 3 shows, this simple model “predicted” Clinton would win three states she lost: Georgia, Texas and Arizona. The average 9.6 percentage point gap between predicted and actual margins likely resulted from white voters with a college degree in these states voting more Republican than their counterparts elsewhere. Had this group voted as their national counterparts did in 2016 (R+4), all else being equal, Clinton would have won North Carolina’s 15 EV by 2.2 percentage points, Georgia’s 16 EV by 6.6 percentage points and Texas’ 38 EV by 0.7 percentage points, though she would still have lost Arizona’s 11 EV by 2.5 percentage points. Those extra 69 EV would have raised her total to 296, 26 more than necessary[8].

It is quite possible that the future of the Democratic Party lies with a three-part coalition of non-white voters, white voters with a college degree and younger voters (voters aged 18-39—37% of the electorate—voted for Clinton by 16 percentage points).

If this is indeed the case, then newly-elected Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez may want to think about putting less emphasis on midwestern and Rust Belt states with a large proportion of whites without a college degree[9] to focus instead on south Atlantic states like Georgia and North Carolina, and southwestern states like Texas and Arizona, whose electorates will become even more dominated by this three-part coalition in the future.

Until next time…

[1] At a practical level, this means that she lost the vast majority of white, low-population, rural counties in these states by an average 363,000 votes—and 14.0 percentage points—than Obama had four years earlier, while holding her own in the Democratic core counties.

[2] For comparison, Clinton lost the five key Midwestern/Rust Belt states by an average of 3.8 percentage points.

[3] Unlike every other news outlet or data analyst, Dave Leip colors Democratic areas red and Republican areas blue.

[4] The mix of non-white voters varies across by state, with Arizona and Texas having a higher Latino population (30.3 and 38.4%, respectively) and Georgia and North Carolina having a higher Black population (31.4 and 22.0%). Black voters supported Clinton by a margin of 81% percentage points, while Latinos did so by a margin of 38 percentage points.

[5] A thoroughly irrelevant sidebar: this effect (white voters becoming more Republican as the non-white population increases) inspired the “demographic trait activation” hypothesis I was going to test in my political science doctoral program. The one I never finished (though I did get a Master’s Degree out of it).

[6] 2013 data

[7] The “predictive value” of a state’s percentage white or college educated was also higher in 2016 than in 2012. In 2012, a one percentage point increase in state percentage white decreased that state’s Democratic margin 0.37 percentage points and a one percentage point increase in state percentage of adults with a college degree increased the margin 2.65 percentage points. These two variables accounted for just over half (56.5%) of the variation in the 2012 state Democratic margins.

[8] The total would be 301, but for five “faithless” electors.

[9]Acknowledging, of course, the very close margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (as well as in Minnesota: Clinton+1.5), suggesting that simply activating more voters belonging to this three-part coalition could easily flip these states Democratic again.

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

absolute-vote-change-2012-16

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

percentage-vote-change-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