Understanding the 2016 US Presidential election

By Lorenzo

We humans are excellent at motivated reasoning: taking a preferred framing and using it to “explain” events. The more highly educated we are, the better we are at it.

We homo sapiens are also a profoundly cultural species. In particular, we are moralising, status-conscious, coalition builders. We have a powerful, apparently inbuilt, tendency to copy behaviour which either has prestige or comes from folk with prestige. Which gives us even more reasons to buy into framings that reinforce a sense of who we are and where we (seek to) fit.

So, when dealing with something as fraught as the 2016 US Presidential elections, it is best to start, as much as possible, with the empirics: in this case, the voting statistics. The following post is based on the voting statistics from David Leip’s Atlas of US elections–a very informative and easily accessed resource.

In 2016, as in 2000, the Republican ticket won the Electoral College, though the Democratic ticket won the popular vote. This is a fairly rare event in US political history (it happened previously in 18241876 and 1888), so to have it happen twice in 5 elections is noteworthy.

So, comparing the 2000 and 2016 Presidential elections, several things stand out. (All figures are rounded up to a single decimal point.)

In both elections, the third Party vote was above 2%. 

The third Party vote totalled 3.8% in 2000, mainly due to Ralph Nader’s candidacy for the Greens winning 2.7% of the vote. It was 5.6% in 2016, mainly due to Gary Johnson’s candidacy for the Libertarians winning 3.3% of the vote.

In both elections, the Democratic popular vote win was due to California.

In both the 2000 and 2016 elections, the Republican ticket won the popular vote in the rest of the USA. Since California, like most states, uses a “winner take all” system for its Electoral College delegate selection and since it is leaning more and more Democratic, there is less and less reason for Republican Presidential campaigns to put any effort in campaigning there.

We can see this effect in the Californian results. In 2000, Al Gore won California 5.9m votes to 4.6m votes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won California 7.4m votes to 3.9m votes.

In 2000, George W Bush won the rest of the US popular vote by 0.7m votes. In 2016, Donald Trump won the rest of the US popular vote by 1.8m votes. In both elections, the Democrat advantage in California was larger than the Republican advantage in the rest of the US.

The two elections had very different dynamics compared to the previous Presidential election

The most striking difference in the two elections was how well the Party tickets did compared to the immediately prior Presidential election. In 2016, Donald Trump increased the Republican vote over 2012 by 1m votes. In 2000, George W Bush increased the Republican vote over 1996 by 11.3m–largely due to the collapse in the Reform Party vote.

In 2000, Al Gore increased the Democrat vote over 1996 by 3.6m. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost 2.4m votes over 2012. (In both elections, the Democrats were the Presidential incumbent Party.)

If we look at the pattern over the previous two elections, in 2012 Mitt Romney increased the Republican vote by 1m while Barack Obama lost 3.6m votes. In other words, Donald Trump essentially replicated Mitt Romney’s increase in popular votes while Hillary Clinton continued the decline in the Democratic popular vote, but not quite as much.

So, what we see is a steady trajectory over the 2012 and 2016 Presidential elections–the Democratic popular vote declining significantly, albeit at a slightly slower rate; the Republican vote increasing at a significantly slower, but steady, rate. In votes for President, the Republicans have not been surging nearly as much as the Democrats have been going backwards.  Which strongly suggests analysis should not concentrate on what the Republicans were doing right so much as what the Democrats have been doing wrong.

In popular vote terms, the Democrats currently dominate Presidential politics

In the 7 US Presidential elections after 1988, the Republicans have won the popular vote once: in 2004. But they have won the Presidency 3 times: 2000, 2004, 2016. As, however, the Democrat dominance in the popular vote is essentially a California effect, their popular vote failures may be something of a warning to the Republicans but, short of changing how the Electoral College works (either by abolishing it, or eliminating “winner takes all”) the political significance of that will continue to be muted.

Given that the Republicans continue to dominate Congressional and State politics, a constitutional amendment to change the Presidential selection system seems somewhat unlikely. Indeed, the Republican domination of State politics is striking:

Republican America is now so vast that a traveler could drive 3,600 miles across the continent, from Key West, Fla., to the Canadian border crossing at Porthill, Idaho, without ever leaving a state under total GOP control.

Who goes backwards?

As the US population continues to grow, and as it remains very much a Two-Party state, with very strong institutional barriers to third Parties getting anywhere, Democratic or Republican tickets going backwards in the popular vote is somewhat noteworthy. George H W Bush managed it in 1988 (-5.6m) and 1992 (-9.8m).  John McCain managed it in 2008 (-2.1m). The only Democratic candidates to manage it in that time have been Barack Obama in 2012 (-3.6m) and Hillary Clinton (-2.4m).

The Republican Presidential vote has been relatively steady since George W Bush’s win in 2004:

2004  62.0m
2008  60.0m
2012  60.9m
2016  61.9m

The Democratic Presidential vote has been much more variable in that time:

2004  59.0m
2008  69.5m
2012  65.9m
2016  63.6m

The Republicans seem to have more solidly attached votes, the Democrats a larger “floating” vote. Donald Trump got (slightly) less votes than President Bush in 2004, despite 12 years of population growth, while continuing the slow increase in the Republican vote since 2008. Hillary Clinton got more votes than John Kerry in 2004 while continuing the significant decline in the Democratic vote since 2008.

Starting with the electoral facts

The story of the 2016 election is the continuing Democratic decline in votes being significantly larger than the slow Republican increase in votes. The story is not how The Donald and the Republicans won the general election, the story is how Hillary and the Democrats lost. Any analysis that does not start from there is imposing its framing on the election. Especially as the much vaunted switch of the “Rust Belt” white working class to the Republicans seems to have been underway from 2012, long before The Donald’s upset win in the Republican primaries was even a surreal possibility.

The victory story for The Donald is how he won the Republican primaries. An analysis which can tie that to the Democrat decline in Presidential votes is one worth considering.

 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. Posted November 20, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Another excellent piece!

  2. Posted November 21, 2016 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks Don! 🙂

  3. Posted November 27, 2016 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    You see, this is why I use percentages rather than raw numbers – or why, if you’re going to use raw numbers, you need to wait a while. With a further week of counting, the numbers are now Clinton 64.64 million to Trump 62.41 million, which means the Republican gain is now greater than the Democrat loss. That doesn’t invalidate all the analysis, but it does render some of your questions moot. I agree strongly however with the point that “The victory story for The Donald is how he won the Republican primaries” – as far as the election itself is concerned he performed pretty much like a typical Republican.

  4. David j h
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    It still seems peculiar to me when the so-called ‘bastion’ of “democracy” has what is called a ‘free vote” – where, perhaps 60% percent of the population can be ‘whipped’ to the ballot box, and where perhaps 31% of the 60% can be considered a ‘majority’.

    self still remains confused as to how the “Electoral College” can be considered as a mandate, when the “majority’ of those who bothered to turn up at a ballot box (and yep, the temptation to ‘bully’ some of the less mobile – or more likely to be intimidated – to ‘stay away’ from the ballot box) – can actually be considered truly “democratic”.

  5. Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Charles @3: I will update the figures when the counts are final. So far, the only significant change is to lower the Democrat loss in votes and increase the Republican gain; this makes both The Donald’s and Hillary’s efforts look better than suggested above.

    Dad j h @4: The US is a republic first and a democracy second. The Electoral College is a reminder of that, but so is the Supreme Court.

  6. Alan Earle Black
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    A candidate winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote has only happened four times, not five. In 1824, there were four candidates for President and while Andrew Jackson got more votes than the other three, he did not get a majority of the popular vote and none of the candidates got a majority in the electoral college. The election was decided by the House of Representatives picking John Quincy Adams as President.

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