It’s election season, but now it always feels that way since we seem to have a perpetual election season. This campaign stretch may feel different from past ones, however, because of the president who seems to have transformed the political landscape. On the other hand, although he has held the executive office for closing in on four years, perceptions of him have changed remarkably little during that time. He seems neither to have attracted many new supporters nor has he driven many away. He has inhabited the same landscape since his election.
If this election season is different from the last one, it is not due to Trump who remains the same but because Hillary Clinton is not the Democratic candidate. For whatever the reason, many voters who did not vote for Trump could not vote for Clinton. They voted for third party candidates instead, and in key states these votes for Libertarians and Greens gave Trump pluralities and the decisive electoral votes. Trump, although he is not about to admit it and perhaps in a delusion does not believe it, did not get the most votes in the country, but he also did not get majorities in key states that he won.
Trump certainly has passionate followers. This gives the impression that he unleashed a new conservative juggernaut and that the last election was a revolution, a Trump Revolution. That has been overstated. If there was an electoral transformation, it was not by a majority of the electorate. Even if it is true that he attracted many voters that had not before voted Republican, we should also realize that he drove away at least as 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, but he did not get even close to a majority of that increased vote. Perhaps more revealing 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 by Salena Zito and Brad Todd 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 Trump. If that first group of Obama/Trump voters constitutes some new populist coalition, how should we label the at-least-as-significant second group of Romney/not-Trump voters?
The real takeaway from the 2016 election is not that Trump did so well, but that Clinton did so poorly. Even with more voters in 2016 than 2012, Clinton got slightly fewer votes than Obama—65,853,516 to 65,899,660—with a big drop in the percentage of the ballots. Obama got a majority of the vote, 51.6 percent, while Clinton got 48.18 percent. Trump did not get a higher percentage than Romney four years earlier, but Clinton got significantly less than Obama. Wasn’t the revolution not so much for Trump as against Clinton?
Perhaps the real revolution in 2016 was not for Trump but in favor of third parties. Obama and Romney together accounted for 98.8 percent of the vote. Clinton and Trump together only received 94.3 percent. The combined Libertarian and Green vote increased by over 300 percent. That third-party total went from 1.7 million in 2012 to 5.9 million in 2016.
Much has been made of states that Obama won, but whose electoral votes went to Trump and swung the election to him. Let’s look more closely at three of them: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
(Continued August 17)