Many of the analyses of why Trump won are based on the premise that the 2016 election produced an enduring, seismic shift in the electorate. An anecdote in Eliza Griswold’s book should make us rethink whether there truly was such a Trump Revolution. Amity and Prosperity is the story of a rural family in southwestern Pennsylvania and the problems they face when fracking starts nearby. Stacey, the main character, “didn’t buy the Trump craze” in 2016. Although she had had troubles with the EPA, she thought it should exist. She doubted that fracking could save Appalachia. Trump, to her, was just another pandering politician. On the other hand, she did not like Hillary Clinton either. She thought that Clinton was corrupt and no better on fracking than Trump. Stacey voted for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.
So, did Trump actually attract a new crop of voters to the Republican candidate? The answer seems to be yes. Many counties, like Stacey’s, swung from Obama in 2012 to Trump four years later. But perhaps many of the new Republican voters were not swinging to Trump as much as they were swinging away from Clinton. It turns out that for large swathes of previously Democratic voters she was not an attractive candidate. Some of those voters stayed home; some voted for Trump; and some voted for a third-party candidate. Why the antipathy for Clinton? Many reasons have been given. Some of her supporters claim that it was because she is a woman. Perhaps that was part of it. I once said to a friend who wanted to sit out the election because he liked neither major candidate, “Assess how you feel about Bill Clinton. Is your assessment of Hillary Clinton lower? If so, why? Her policies are similar to his and she has had more experience than he had when he ran for President. How much of the lower assessment is merely because she is a woman?” He pondered and just replied that for whatever the reason, he was not as enthusiastic about her as he had been for Bill. (He did end up voting for Hillary because he came to believe it was most to stop the Donald.)
I was not an enthusiastic supporter of hers, and I hope her gender was not the reason. I would like to think my lack of enthusiasm had good reasons, but I am not sure that another phenomenon did not affect me as well as many others. Hillary Clinton has been regularly attacked by the right wing for a long time, at least since her husband ran for the presidency a quarter-century ago. Few modern public figures have been vilified as much and for as long as she has been. This drumbeat of castigation surely affected many, and I wondered if I were truly immune. As Pierre Augustin Caron de Beumarchais has been quoted as saying, “Villify! Villify! Some of it will always stick.”
No matter whether those who distrusted Clinton had good reasons or not, many in 2016 found they could not vote for her, and at least some of them voted for Trump. If, however, these Trump votes were not as much affirmative votes for him as votes against Clinton, they don’t seem to herald an enduring Trump Revolution.
On the other hand, much reporting indicates that many previous Obama voters were affirmatively attracted to Trump and that is what made for the Trump Revolt. The implication is that something historic was going on, but that assumption should be questioned. Doesn’t something similar happen every time the White House changes parties? When Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower, at least some Ike voters did not vote for the 1960 Republican candidate. Similar electoral movements have occurred when Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama were elected president. Was the Trump election really different?
We also know (although he may not want to believe it) that Trump did not even get the plurality of the vote. Whatever the revolution, it was not a majority one. And even if it is true that he attracted many voters that had not before voted Republican, we should also realize that he drove away many voters who could have been expected to vote Republican.
Compare 2012 and 2016 election results. (Different sources do not always give the same nationwide vote totals, but, for consistency, I am using figures from the Federal Election Commission website.) In 2012, Mitt Romney got 60,932,152 votes. Four years later, Trump received 62,984,825. Trump got two million more votes than Romney but that does not mean that he made great inroads into previously Democratic voters. Instead, about 7.5 million more people voted in 2016 than 2012. With more voters as the country’s population increased, it is not surprising that Trump got more votes than Romney. More interesting than the vote totals for Romney and Trump is the percentage of the vote for each. Romney received 47.21 percent of the nationwide ballots, while Trump got 46.09 percent. In other words, there was no dramatic swing to him compared to the previous election. Analyses I have seen expend a good deal of effort dissecting the voters Trump attracted; they also ought to equally examine the voters Trump drove away. For example, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics mentions that “Trump’s margin was weaker than Romney’s in 86 of the 100 most educated counties—a fact that held true regardless of the jurisdiction’s normal partisan leanings.” But the authors set out only to interview voters in some swing states who shifted from Obama to Trump when there were at least as many voters who swung away from him. If that first group constitutes some new populist coalition, how should we label the at-least-as-significant second group?
(concluded October 12)