In the immediate aftermath of Hillary Clinton's suprising loss to Donald Trump, Democrats had all sorts of answers for why the former senator and Secretary of State ultimately tanked in the general election. None of them, naturally, had anything to do with Clinton or the often-baffling choices her campaign made (she visited Chipotle more often than Wisconsin during 2016). Russia "hacked" the election, don't you know, and "fake news" suckered voters out of pulling the lever for second-most-disliked candidate in the race. Clinton laid a good chunk of the blame on FBI Director James Comey's late-breaking announcement he was once again investigating questions about her private email server. "Swing-state voters made their decisions in the final days breaking against me because of the F.B.I. letter from Director Comey," Clinton said.
As both Jacob Sullum and I have noted, the bigger question is why was the election even close (as Clinton herself asked at one point, "Why aren't I 50 points ahead?")? The short answer is that both Clinton and Trump were unappealing to voters. The 2016 election was effectively a dead heat, with neither candidate winning anything like a decisive victory. Yes, Trump is legitimately the president but what does it say about the state of major-party politics when neither candidate could crack 50 percent of the popular vote? Among other things, it tells us that longstanding political coalitions the defined the GOP and Democrats are breaking down and appealing to fewer and fewer of us. This shouldn't be surprising—these parties have been around forever and are largely insulated from anything approaching competition with upstart third parties—and it shouldn't be cause for despair. From a libertarian perspective, it's a sign that we need a new national politics informed by 21st-century realities when it comes to our economic, social, and cultural lives. Democrats need to understand that the elitist, top-down, liberal mentality embodied by Clinton doesn't work anymore. Nobody wants to be told what to do all the time and, to the extent Clinton offered more endless intervention into every aspect of our lives, she was unappealing. Republicans too need to take note that Trump will enter office as a genuinely unpopular president. Not only did he fail to win the popular vote, he is intensely divisive and abrasive and while 81 percent of his supporters agree that life was better in America 50 years ago, that is not a dominant view among most of us. His rise is in no way "an extinction-level event" (as Andrew Sullivan has hyperventilated), but few presidents are successful with a backward-looking, pessimistic vision of the world based on demonstrable non-facts such as a supposed national crime wave.
Cooler, more fact-based analyses based on preliminary vote counts, exit polls, and voter interviews demonstrate that Clinton abjectly failed to replicate the "Obama coalition" that allowed the current president to be the only two-term president since Ronald Reagan to win a majority of votes in each of his elections. The winners in 1992, 1996, 2000, and now 2016 all won with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. In 2000 and 2016, the winner even lost the popular vote, an exceptionally rare outcome. Clearly Barack Obama was doing something effective—and tough to replicate—in pulling together groups comprising a majority of voters. While the "Obama coalition" has never been particularly well-defined, it roughly included at least the following: blacks, Latinos, Asians, milllennials, unmarried women, educated white voters (college degree or higher), and people making less than the median household income. A year ago, Democratic analysts were confident that the Obama coalition was alive and kicing and either Clinton or Bernie Sanders would win come November. "If you look at the support rates these groups gave to Obama in 2012," Ruy Teixeira told The Washington Post, "and walk those support rates into the probable representation of these voting groups in 2016, the 'Obama Coalition' would deliver a third victory for Democrats."
Well, that didn't happen. Yes, Clinton got almost 3 million more votes than Trump, but she failed to reach 50 percent and a lot of her votes came in states that were walkovers (California and New York, for instance), meaning she gained no extra electoral votes by running up the score. As The New York Times' Nate Cohn shows in a lengthy, detailed, and fascinating report using preliminary vote counts, overall turnout was about the same in 2016 as it was in 2012 (around 59 percent of eligible voters cast a vote), but black turnout was sharply down:
Black turnout dropped somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent — with few exceptions. It should be noted that the decline in black turnout appears very consistent across the country, regardless of whether states put in new laws that might reduce turnout, like those cutting early voting or requiring a photo ID.
Was the decline in black turnout enough to change the result of the election? It seems so. If black turnout had matched 2012 levels, Mrs. Clinton would have almost certainly scratched out wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Florida and North Carolina would have been extremely close.
If Clinton didn't excite black voters, she also lost ground among younger, white, working-class voters:
White voters without college degrees, for the first time…swung decidedly toward the Republicans. No bastion of white, working-class Democratic strength was immune to the trend.
For the first time in the history of the two parties, the Republican candidate did better among low-income whites than among affluent whites, according to exit poll data and a compilation of New York Times/CBS News surveys.
According to exit polls, Mr. Trump did better than Mr. Romney by 24 points among white voters without a degree making less than $30,000 a year. He won these voters by a margin of 62 to 30 percent, compared with Mr. Romney's narrow win of 52 percent to 45 percent.
It's worth noting the Romney did exceptionally poorly with minorities in 2012, losing blacks, Latinos, and Asians by historically wide margins. By most counts, Trump did better with minorities across the board and slightly better with whites overall. But as Cohn notes, the shift among younger, poorer whites in northern industrial states pretty much doomed Clinton when it came to electoral votes. As important, the pitch that Trump made to these people was essentially the same one that Obama made:
Mr. Trump owned Mr. Obama's winning message to autoworkers and Mr. Romney's message to coal country. He didn't merely run to protect the remnants of the industrial economy; he promised to restore it and "make America great again."
Just as Mr. Obama's team caricatured Mr. Romney, Mr. Trump caricatured Mrs. Clinton as a tool of Wall Street, bought by special interests. She, too, would leave workers vulnerable to the forces of globalization and big business, he said.
According to Mr. Trump's campaign, the proof of his commitment to the working class wasn't the auto bailout but the issue of trade: Mr. Trump said free trade was responsible for deindustrialization, and asserted that he would get tough on China, renegotiate Nafta and pull out of the trans-Pacific Partnership — two trade agreements that Mrs. Clinton supported or helped negotiate (she later rejected the trans-Pacific deal).
Harping on trade and protectionism allowed Trump to win over "large numbers of white, working-class voters who supported" Obama in 2012. But given economic realities—manufacturing jobs as a percentage of all jobs peaked in 1943—Trump will not be able to bring back the factory jobs he promised. And if he does succeed in slapping tariffs on all sorts of goods and services, we will succeed only in making things more expensive for lower-income Americans. There simply won't be enough time in the day for him to constantly cut cronyist deals with every factory and plant that threatens to bolt, as he did with Carrier in Indiana, either.
Perhaps the biggest implication of Cohn's analysis, though, is one he doesn't mention: Neither candidate cracked the 50 percent mark in terms of popular vote. As mentioned above, this has become a regular feature of presidential elections since the early 1990s and it confirms the starting point of my and Matt Welch's The Declaration of Independents, which is that the Democratic and Republican duopoly is losing its hold on American voters. Yes, every presidential winner for the forseeable future will be an R or a D, but what those parties stand for is already changing even as their ability to pull support is declining. To the extent that he functions as the standard bearer for the Party of Lincoln, Trump has tripled down on xenophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric that is now unofficially "part of the conservative creed," just like being anti-abortion. Under Ronald Reagan, such a stance would have been unthinkable. If Trump follows through on his big promises about protectionism, he will similarly redefine what it means to be a Republican away from a traditional embrace of free trade. Neither of these stances is likely to make Republicanism appealing to a majority of Americans, especially if Republicans continue to be against gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and abortion rights, all of which have majority support. According to Gallup, 72 percent of Americans think immigration has been a "good thing" for America, 84 percent think illegals should be given a path to citizenship, and 59 percent would like to keep or increase current levels of immigration. When it comes to trade, support for protectionism is rising (especially among Republican voters) but just 48 percent of Americans agree that "free trade deals have been a bad thing for the U.S."
In 2017, we'll have a president who lost the popular vote and campaigned on a platform that is broadly unpopular with Americans. Clinton deserved to lose based on her inability to reach traditional Democratic constituents or, better yet, define a vision for the future that genuinely attracted new people to her party. Trump, too, deserved to lose, at least based on his demonstrated inability to win voters to his side. Like George W. Bush in 2000, Trump ran a brilliant campaign that deserves to be studied closely by any and all interested in how to scratch out a victory. But his real challenge has yet to begin and if he insists on following through on his most-unpopular ideas—such as building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and, far more importantly, establishing a draconian system of employment verification which will inevitably inconvenience all of us—he will also be invading everyone's space in a way that will drive his numbers even lower. Similarly, if his massive (and vague) infrastructure plans merely imitate what occurred under the Obama stimulus package, we will once learn how "shovel-ready" jobs don't really exist or add much to a drifting economy. In certain areas, such as education and potentially in health care and energy policy, he has shown an interest in broadly deregulating things and allowing individual consumers and producers decide how to proceed. Such libertarianish policies would not only be good in and of themselves, they might provide a broader blueprint for a general 21st-century approach to policy. And yet, for every move toward giving people more choices, he seems to push in an authoritarian direction. How he negotiates that tension—or, more precisely, how he is forced to negotiate that tension—will define his presidency at its outset.