What Just Happened? Thoughts on the election

By Hal Wolman. Hal Wolman was the founding Director of the George Washington Institute of Public Policy (GWIPP) and served in that capacity from 2000-2012. He is an emeritus professor in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University and a Research Professor in the George Washington Institute of Public Policy. Dr. Wolman is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.


Donald Trump won.

The election was very, very close.  The switch of a relatively few votes (less than 1% in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) would have given the election to Clinton.  If that had happened there would have been a quite different narrative.  This was not a massive shift in voting behavior, but a shift on the margins.  That said, see first sentence above.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.  But the correct response to that – besides saying that the Electoral College is an archaic institution – is, so what?  The election was fought under Electoral College rules, rules that both sides understood and which structured their behavior.  Had it been under the rules of a national popular vote, both candidates and their campaigns would have behaved much differently.  In particular, they would have spent a lot more of their time and resources in California, New York, and Texas, all essentially one-party very populous states which were non-competitive in electoral college terms and which were therefore largely ignored (except for fund raising).  In a national popular election one vote anywhere is as good as a vote anywhere else and the concept of “losing” a state would be meaningless.  Losing California by 1,000,000 votes rather than 1,000 has the same result in the Electoral College.  But it means you pick up 999,000 additional votes in a national popular vote election.  That means candidates would campaign where the most votes are.  And, under those circumstances it’s unclear who would have won.

So why did she lose?  Was it James Comey’s letter two weeks before the election?  Yes.  Was it Wikileaks constant drip of stolen emails?  Yes.  Was it third parties, particularly Jill Stein, but also Gary Johnson?  Yes.  Was it because she was just a bad candidate?  Yes.  Was it poor campaign strategy?  Yes.  Yes to all of these, because when an election is so close, anything that might have slightly pushed it in the direction of Trump could have made the difference.  But, the real culprit was…

Turnout.  Particularly among African-Americans, which was down substantially from 2008 and 2012 when Obama was running.  That’s not terribly surprising – high African-American turnout when the first African-American was running for President.  What’s surprising is that so called experts didn’t see African-American turnout dropping from these levels in 2016.  I suspect that, to the extent the polls got it wrong – and in the end the national polls didn’t get it very wrong – it was because they mis-estimated turnout among Democratic oriented groups.  (There is also some evidence that there were some people who said, out of concern that they would be harshly judged, that they intended to vote for Clinton when they really intended to vote for Trump.  Apparently a couple of polling firms conducted some telephone polls with a live interviewer and some through an automatic robotic type phone poll.  The latter consistently showed slightly more support for Trump, particularly among women.)  In addition the exit polls indicate that a slightly lower percentage of African-American who did go to the polls voted for Clinton than voted for Obama in 2012 and 2008 (again, not surprisingly).

Latino turnout did increase, but not as much as had been predicted.  And despite Trump’s focus on immigration, Mexican criminals, etc., Trump actually got a higher share of the Latino vote than did Romney in 2012!  Who knows why this happened?  (Although these exit poll results are contested.  See here.)

What about women?  Did the fact that the first woman ever to run for President help or hurt Hillary?  Don’t know, at least not yet.  There clearly was a shift of college-educated women from Republican to Democratic voting in 2016, which, since more educated women are likely to be more concerned with feminism (I think), is consistent with some advantage for Hillary as a result of her gender.  But it could also just as easily result from more highly-educated women being put off by the boorishness and grossness of Donald Trump.  Maybe some of each.

The clearest shift in voting behavior – and the one most commented on – is the shift among traditional working class Democrats, particularly in the industrial Midwestern and Middle-Atlantic states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania) from support of a Democratic candidate to support for Trump.  This has sometimes been portrayed as a rural vote, but it was clearly much more than that.  There simply aren’t enough people living in rural areas to make that much of a difference.  Instead it was people in smaller cities – think Scranton or Erie, PA, Akron and Youngstown, Ohio, Saginaw, Michigan, etc. – who were the switchers that mattered, and will matter in the future if the switch was permanent and not just one-off.

Why did this shift occur?  Given the tenor of the campaign, some have attributed it to racism.  Certainly the Trump campaign made it OK for racists and expressions of racism to be more publicly acceptable than they have been for a long time.  Nonetheless, I am not persuaded that racism was the main reason.  Remember, switch means that these are people who voted for an African-American for President in 2012 and 2008.  If they were willing to vote for an actual African-American then, why would racism explain a switch to Trump in 2016?  Maybe these are simply people to whom Trump had a special appeal in terms of a strong Macho (potentially authoritarian) candidate, much more so than a Romney or McCain did.  Working class authoritarianism is a well-documented phenomenon in the social sciences.

Maybe, as some have commented, it was a matter of working class whites as a group, a group experiencing the disappearance of traditional manufacturing jobs, higher rates of unemployment, and lower incomes, feeling left behind, disrespected, and their problems and issues ignored.  To get a sense of this, let’s take seriously the idea of trying to imagine – as we are frequently and rightfully told to do – what it’s like to be an African-American or a LGBT person, but this time let’s put  ourselves in the shoes of the white working class.  Is it possible that they might simply feel that “nobody – certainly not the political and economic elites – cares about me.”  They care about various minority groups, they care about gays, about immigrants, refugees, etc., but I’ve got problems too, and nobody seems to care.  I have no “identity” in a party that is characterized by identity group coalition politics (a coalition of victims as somebody has called it). They might even feel this way without being racist or homophobic (though some of them are certainly that as well).  Example: how does this sound to a member of the white working class?  The Black Lives Matter people say “Black Lives Matter.”  Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and others respond at first by agreeing but then saying, “All Lives Matter.” They are shouted down until they toe the line and say simply “Black Lives Matter.”  Now, I know what the Black Lives Matter people were trying to do and what their concern was.  But think of how this sounds to white working class people, most of whom are not steeped in the history of white privilege or in the understanding of Black social movements.  It sounds pretty much like they are saying “people like me and our lives don’t matter.”  Not good.

What’s the effect going to be of a Trump presidency?  There goes the Supreme Court for a generation unless Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kennedy all manage to hang on for at least four more years.  In terms of policy, who knows?  I don’t believe Trump really has any true policy preferences.  The path of least resistance for him is to simply say, “I ran as a Republican, Paul Ryan is a Republican, he seems to have some strong feelings about policy, I guess I’ll run with that unless someone gives me a reason not to.   That wouldn’t be good, but in many ways it wouldn’t be awful.  As a country we’ve had Presidents with Paul Ryan type thinking before (e.g., Reagan) and we’ve survived it.  On the other hand, he may follow his own idiosyncratic path, which would mean in many cases war with Republicans in Congress as well as Democrats.  The real worry for everybody is in the foreign and military areas.  What’s he going to do when he finds out that Putin isn’t all that nice a guy after all and has insulted him by sending men in plain green uniforms into, say, Lithuania?  Threaten to drop a bomb on Moscow?  Actually drop a bomb on Moscow?  God save us all.

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