Why Donald Trump Won: Decade-Long Struggle of the Democratic Party with White Voters, and Other Unexplainable Factors

This is Part II of a special two part series on post-election mortem.  

In Part I, I discussed what I think we are called upon to do in light of Donald Trump’s victory while also providing some level of comfort for those frightened by his presidency.

In this Part II, I dig into the election results to see what I got right about the election, and more importantly, how I got the result so wrong.

My thoughts before the election are here.  Part II elaborates on many of the points I initially raised in the footnote there.

I, like most others, thought that Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald J. Trump with a comfortable margin on election night.

I was clearly wrong, but before getting into the why, permit me to start with what I got right.

In the footnote to my pre-election perspective, I noted how the conventional wisdom focusing on the Democratic Party’s advantage in the changing demographics of America is an incomplete story because of the party’s loss of the white vote.

I thought a good way to start the discussion in this post was to revisit the four states I mentioned in that earlier post–West Virginia, Missouri, Montana and South Dakota, all of which have a predominantly white electorate yet are outside of the South–and see how Hillary Clinton ended up performing there.

The chart below shows how Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1996, Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 (as of November 10) performed vis-a-vis the Republican nominee nationally as well as in each state.  The (+) shows that the Democratic nominee beat the Republican nominee while the (-) shows that the Democratic nominee lost.

(Michael Dukakis)
(Bill Clinton)
(Barack Obama)
(Hillary Clinton)
National -7.8 +8.5 +3.9 +0.2
West Virginia +4.8 +14.8 -26.8 -42.2
Missouri -4.0 +6.3 -9.4 -19.1
Montana -5.8 -2.9 -13.6 -20.5
South Dakota -6.3 -3.5 -18.0 -29.8

As the chart shows, ever since Michael Dukakis outperformed his national eight point loss in all four states, the Democratic nominee has progressively performed worse, with the bottom falling out on Tuesday night.  The collapse in West Virginia, which was a solid blue state as late as 1996, is particularly stunning.

In this sense, the election of 2016 was the perfect storm for the Democratic Party.  As the party continued to hemorrhage the white vote for several cycles, the Republican Party nominated a man who rode to the nomination the wave of white blue collar voters that used to form the core of the Democratic Party.

In my pre-election post, I flagged the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan as those that may surprise on election night because those states have a large number of working-class whites. I’d like to take credit for calling out the latter three states in particular, but never in my wildest dreams did I think Trump will carry each of those states; after all, I said “I don’t doubt Donald Trump will be swamped.”

So where did I go wrong?

First and foremost is in how much the Republican base ultimately came around voting for Trump.  During the primary season, in exit poll after exit poll, Republican voters indicated they could not accept Trump as the party’s ultimate nominee.  I took them at their word (mostly because I was in the same boat) and expected that Republicans would abandon Trump in doves in the general election, either by crossing party lines or just staying home. Yet, exit polls showed that not only was the share of the Republican vote higher this time compared to 2012 (32% v. 33%), nine out of ten Republicans voted for Trump.  I was in the distinct minority of Republicans who kept their word.

I also overestimated the impact Trump’s shenanigans would have on voters.  Past audio tapes and witnesses who came forward afterwards strongly suggested that Trump has no respect for women, yet he won 42% of the women vote, which was only marginally lower than the 44% Romney garnered. In fact, Trump carried white women by 10 percentage points, with 53% of the vote.

Trump didn’t seem to have suffered much with the Hispanics, either.  Despite calling Mexicans rapists and threatening policies that would “self deport” immigrants, he got 29% of the Hispanic vote, which was higher than the 27% Mitt Romney got.

I can’t begin to come up with reasons that explain these numbers.

I can only speculate, but at the end of the day, I think what happened was that each party had nominated the one person who could lose to the historically-bad nominee of the other party. Speaking as a Republican, Hillary Clinton was the one person I could not in my good conscience vote for, and she was apparently not all that popular with the Democratic base either, as evidenced by the 11% of self-identified Democrats who didn’t vote for Clinton.  Many more Democrats in the Obama coalition probably stayed home, even as the working class whites came out in doves to vote for Trump.  It didn’t help that she is a historically terrible candidate who ran another terrible campaign.

Of course, Trump’s strength with working class whites, Republicans coming home and  Clinton’s unpopularity all showed up in the polls, which consistently indicated that the election was a three to four point race.  That’s pretty close, especially considering the margin of error, yet until the day of the election, I was with all of the pundits who said that a Clinton victory was all but assured.

Why?  Because I was convinced that a Donald Trump presidency was impossible.

That was my biggest mistake.

As the always-insightful Sean Trende of RealClear Politics cautioned months ago, when the clinching argument is “it cannot be,” it probably is.


3 Responses to “Why Donald Trump Won: Decade-Long Struggle of the Democratic Party with White Voters, and Other Unexplainable Factors”

  1. 1 Rich November 12, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    “Why? Because I was convinced that a Donald Trump presidency was impossible.

    That was my biggest mistake.

    As the always-insightful Sean Trende of RealClear Politics cautioned months ago, when the clinching argument is “it cannot be,” it probably is.”

    When studying physics lab error testing and later statistical analysis in sociology in college, I had several professors warn me of this. They’d say along the lines of, “If your margins for error are too narrow, recheck your sample size to population ratio. If they are too wide, adjust your model’s sensitivity coefficient or regress along a different variable.”

    My opinion is that the media made the candidates seem equally bad in different ways. With that successfully ingrained in both sides, the leftist media preached the numbers against Trump with great hubris, and that convinced many people to stay home. These people are those who will never be fully engaged with politics but can be encouraged when properly motivated. I feel the conservative right will vote more consistently, as if it’s akin to paying taxes, and typically vote their own even if it’s not in their favor. The left does tend to be more inclusive, which is why they demand people stand up for their opinions and seemingly bash anyone who thinks differently. However the right is more deceiving and dangerous because they appear accepting until you cross the line, but althewhile were never going to accept you as an equal anyways.

    In Japan, it’s “Equal but different.” In America, it’s “Different until proven equal” and that proving process is seemingly infinite. But it being ‘seemingly infinite’ is really just my despondency in the system leaning towards hyperbole. The layers of government work best when they work together, and the only person I see doing that now is Pence and that scares me far more than Trump.

    • 2 joesas November 26, 2016 at 8:25 am


      Your initial discussion about margin of error is quite scientific and very much beyond my understanding, although I get the concept of “margin of error” from those election polls. I can see how if they are too narrow or wide, something is amiss.

      I do now think that the media playing the “It cannot possibly be Trump” game probably hurt Clinton’s campaign. One of the interesting things about American politics is that while the left is quite active politically on many issues, the right tends to be more focused on more limited number of issues, which sometimes leads to more political success.

      I disagree with your categorization of the right; I think the right makes it fairly clear that there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance. What frustrated me to no end in college was the left saying we should all be open to other ideas, but apparently to the exclusion of conservatism.

      Finally, maybe I’m a naive optimist, but I think America is a much more optimistic place than you categorize it.

      Thanks for reading as always!

  1. 1 Donald Trump’s Election Requires All of Us to Listen, and Have Faith in the U.S. System of Government | The World According to Joe Trackback on November 11, 2016 at 7:16 pm

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