What Didn't Happen?



DONALD TRUMP CLAIMED the US presidency with the smallest percentage of the popular vote of any victorious candidate since Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. His share of the vote was just 0.4 percent higher than that of Michael Dukakis in 1988. In raw votes, his deficit was similar to John Kerry’s when he lost in the re-election of George W. Bush—the only election in which the GOP candidate won the popular vote in the past 28 years. But the United States does not elect our presidents based on the popular vote.

This report has shown that Trump won in the Electoral College by carrying a coalition of white voters. This included retaining almost the entirety of the GOP’s regular voter base; capitalizing on increased turnout among young white voters; and improving on past Republicans’ margins among rural and small-town whites and whites without a college degree. By examining exit polls alongside other post-election survey findings, and in relation to Census Bureau Voting and Registration data, we argue that Trump’s margin among white voters without a degree was somewhat smaller than has been widely reported. However, due to their size as a portion of eligible voters, their modest increase in participation rate came together with lower turnout among other voter groups to make the white non-college vote share significantly higher than polls forecast. Ultimately, it was 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that made the difference—tipping these three states, and with them the Electoral College. 

But the report has stressed as well that we should not allow our analysis of who voted and for whom to downplay the critical matter of who did not. Depressed turnout rates—and quite possibly voter suppression—across several Democratic-leaning groups contributed enormously to Clinton’s defeat. If the 2016 presidential contest is indeed, as one commentary put it, “the election that spawned a million takes,”83 it is in part because the Clinton campaign had numerous potential paths to victory. Those who wish to assign blame can—and do—debate whether the brunt should be placed on Obama voters who swung to Trump, Romney voters who didn’t swing to Clinton, or those who voted for neither major-party candidate. 

But a clear-eyed assessment must acknowledge that no one of these alone can be deemed the reason for the election’s outcome. Still less is there any singular explanation for why voters chose to act as they did—the subject of forthcoming companion publications to this one. Rather than seeking such master causes, those wishing to build future campaign strategy will find their surest footing on a foundation that recognizes that all of the above put Donald Trump in the White House. And when those unhappy with the outcome move beyond disappointment that so many failures came to pass, they should see this also means that the way forward has not one but many possible openings.

  • 83. Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel, “Fear of Diversity Made People More Likely to Vote for Trump,” The Nation, March 14, 2017.