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Post-Election Analysis

November 21, 2016

During assembly on Monday, November 21, Mark Smith, chair of the JBS History Department, began to shed some light on the presidential election results. He spoke at Mr. Abbott's request. Dr. Smith's full remarks follow:

In the aftermath of the controversial presidential election of 2000, President Clinton tried to reassure the confused nation by noting that the American people spoke on Election Day, and days after, we were still trying to figure out what they told us. 

What were the American people trying to tell us in he Election of 2016? Why did Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. Gabe Fleisher told us it was very likely that Clinton would win. Gabe was wrong. Don’t feel bad, advisee, so was almost every political pundit in the nation. My 8th graders in their election contest were all wrong. So was I. Even many Trump supporters professed surprise at their candidate’s victory. 

Barring some later revelation that the election results were hacked or some technical malfunction altered the outcome, we can offer some answers, but trying to figure out why a historical event happened so close to it can sometimes be a knotty and vexing question. The data isn’t all accounted for and our perspectives might not be detached enough to allow us the analytical clarity we seek. Historians years from now will try to unravel what happened and why. Still, it is important that we try to understand what happened, for in understanding, there may be some healing, or as President Obama said about President Elect Trump: “We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country.”

As Gabe explained in his talk, although a candidate can win a majority of the Popular Vote, we award the Presidency to the winner of the Electoral College, whose members meet in state capitals in a few weeks. Clinton garnered more votes in the election than Trump did, but she did so by running up large margins in highly Democratic states in a year when voter turnout dropped. 

Only 56% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the election, the lowest since 2000. If this room were the American electorate, only the balcony and the people in front of the main aisle of the lower bowl would have voted. And, remember, the electorate is the percentage of the people eligible to vote — most of the Americans in this room can’t vote because you aren’t old enough. When you look at Trump and Clinton’s vote totals as a percentage of the total American population, neither got 20% of all Americans.  In this room, that’s just the balcony.

So Trump won the Presidency, but he got a million less votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012 and John McCain got in 2008. In all, about a quarter of the eligible voters in America voted for Trump. So, how did Trump win? Well, Clinton got 6 million less votes than Obama in 2012 and 10 million less than Obama in 2008. We keep score by the Electoral College, and in the end, Trump flipped six states that Obama won in 2012.

In California, Clinton’s expected big win obscured a turnout problem. She got 2 million fewer votes than Obama did last election. Still, in liberal California, Trump did not expect to win, so the fact that he got 1.7 million fewer votes than Romney did not matter. Also remember that large states like California are underrepresented in the Electoral College. Because the minimum amount of electors a state can have is three, Wyoming’s small population gets it three electors, meaning a voter in Wyoming has 3.5 times the voting power as a California voter.

In Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Trump managed to either hold what Romney won or increase Romney’s totals. So, despite losing votes overall, Trump picked up votes where he needed them. 

Gabe told us that Trump needed to win the toss-ups and then steal something from Clinton’s expected camp. He did. His victories in Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were enough to make him president. Clinton’s big victories in her 18 states and DC won her the popular vote, but not the presidency.  In the most recent World Series, the two teams actually scored the same amount of runs, but one of them was declared the winner.

Clinton voters simply didn’t turn out.  In Michigan for instance, Trump won the state by 13,000 votes, yet almost 88,000 people showed up to vote in the election, yet did not cast a ballot in the Presidential race. This “undervote” is higher than previous elections. 

Clinton also under-performed Obama’s vote totals in key areas. In Detroit, for instance, Obama’s margin of victory was 441,000 in 2008. Clinton’s margin of victory was only 289,000.

Both candidates likely lost some voters to third parties: Almost 7 million people voted for a third party this time, up from 2.5 million last election. 

Clinton lost 5% in the 18-29 years old category; 6% of the Latino vote, and 5% of the African-American vote: all three were key elements of Obama’s coalition.

African-American turnout was down slightly from Obama’s elections. Perhaps the changes in the Voting Rights Act and photo ID laws played a role here.

Convincing the “change” electorate
Rural voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania turned out in higher numbers than their urban counterparts — Democrats generally run up big margins in cities and Republicans do the same in rural areas. Plenty of people wonder what led to this, and we can offer some suggestions, but nothing for certain. 

We could point to economic data that shows these areas of the Rust Belt were the hardest hit by a changing American economy. Manufacturing jobs vanished from these places over the last 50 years and voters there responded to Trump’s economic message that he would bring those jobs home. These areas had consistently voted Democratic for years, yet Trump convinced them that the lack of change in their communities stemmed from a failure of the Democrats to help them. 

When we examine exit polls, we find that 40% of the American electorate said “bring change” was the quality that mattered most to them in a candidate. Those voters voted 83% for Trump. Clinton won the “cares about me” vote, the “better judgment” vote and the “right experience” vote, but she didn’t win them as much as Trump won the “change” vote. 

Rural voters in the Rust Belt were frustrated, angry, and voted for change, just as Americans had when they voted for Obama, whose campaign in 2008 also explicitly pushed change. Whites without college degrees, a demographic which Bill Clinton won by a few points in the 1992 & 96 election, and where Obama did well in the Rust Belt, were won by Trump by 35%, the largest gap in polling history. 

In voting for change, these voters were not ignoring what they perceived as Trump’s flaws, they were prioritizing change over other factors.

20% of those who said Trump was not honest and trustworthy voted for him, and that was 63% of the electorate

18% of those who said Trump was not qualified to be President voted for him, and that was 60% of the electorate

20% of those who said Trump did not have the temperament to the Prez voted for him, and that was 63% of the electorate.

70% of the electorate said that Trump’s treatment of women bothered them, but of that group, 30% still voted for him.

Clinton believed her policies were more designed to help the poor, but her statements didn’t really seem to connect. She might regret calling potential voters a “basket of deplorables,” for instance. Our state is home to 8 of the poorest 100 counties in the nation, Trump won those overwhelmingly white counties with an average support of 80%. 

The intersection of politics, race, gender, and economy are hard to untangle generally, and people will study this election for years to come.

How could so many people have not seen that coming? Well, the polls were wrong. Polling is scientific, but not an exact replica of the electorate. In fact, most polls did say Clinton would win the popular vote and she did — just by a smaller margin than predicted — and that smaller margin stemmed from the turnout.  More of Clinton’s “likely voters” and that’s the way pollsters ask the question — are you likely to vote — more of Clinton’s likely voters did not vote. 

Somehow pollsters missed finding Trump’s likely voters in key states. No Wisconsin poll had Trump ever winning. Only one Michigan poll since June had Trump ahead, and only two since June had Trump winning Pennsylvania. While the Clinton camp seemed to know that the election was tightening, their ad buys suggest that they were expecting to win there, as they were fighting elsewhere.

Clinton’s campaign and groups that supported her spent more money on TV ads in Omaha, chasing one electoral vote than it did in Michigan and Wisconsin combined. Travel also played a role: Over the final 100 days of the election, Trump made 133 visits to battleground states, while Clinton only made 87 visits. Also, she never traveled to Wisconsin during the 102 days between the convention and the election.

Late Breaking Voters
After a primary season in which Clinton won a closely contested race against Bernie Sanders, one might suggest that the Democrats put forth a flawed candidate with a few scandals of her own. The two largest were the Clinton Foundation and the use of a private e-mail server. 

In terms of her e-mail server, 63% of the electorate said that her use of it bothered them. Of that group, 70% voted for Trump, but 24% still voted for Clinton. 

The decision of the FBI Director to announce that more Clinton e-mails were found on a non-secured computer 10 days before the election and then to clear Clinton of wrongdoing (again) two days before the election may have also had an impact on the race. 

National exit polling showed only 13% of Americans said that they made up their minds in the last week of the election. Of that small number, Trump won, 47-42%. 

If we burrow in on toss-up states, though, Trump took 54% of late deciders in PA, 58% in WI, 50% in MI, and 51% in FL. Late breakers in key states went for Trump.

The exact impact of things like Wikileaks and the letter from the FBI Director are unknown, but given this close election, one can understand Clinton’s frustration with the FBI Director.

So, what are we to learn from this election only a few weeks after it ended? 

First: if you care about the political process and public policy, you must vote.

Second: in a democracy like ours, you need to acknowledge that you will win some elections and you will lose some. Clinton supporters were not happy when Trump questioned the legitimacy of the outcome of the election as polls suggested he would lose. Clinton supporters should now consider what a loyal opposition looks like. The country has had divisive elections before, and the republic has endured.

Finally: do your part to make the country a better place to live. Get involved at politics at a local level. City and County governments make important decisions, too. Work to heal the wounds that you see, to fight injustice as you perceive it, and in the words of poet Bonaro Overstreet, you might doubt that you can have an impact on the political system, but that should not prevent you from trying to add “the stubborn ounces of your weight” to political debate. 

So, in the days ahead, when you see protests on-line or in the streets, or if you have Thanksgiving dinner with people of different political persuasions, recall the words of Abraham Lincoln. When he was sworn in as President, numerous states had already left the union. His first inaugural address gives us some words of wisdom I’ll end on: Let us seek to show “charity for all and malice for none…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Let us all then strive together towards the “better angels of our nature.”