Once you get around the false idea that Donald Trump won a sweeping national victory yesterday (he actually lost the popular vote) and begin looking at his electorate votes as representing a coalition of states he won, some very narrowly, it gets easier to understand how it happened. Eleven long months ago, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report created an interactive gizmo for looking at voting trends he called the Swing-o-Matic, enabling the user to move vote shares around in various states for five demographic groups: whites without college degrees, whites with college degrees, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians/Others. Playing with it himself, Wasserman made this observation that seems a tad prophetic now:
A small shift in the national vote is all it would take for Republicans to break through Democrats’ supposed “Blue Wall.” If all five of our groups were to shift just 3 percentage points toward the GOP in 2016, Republicans would “flip” Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and win 315 electoral votes — almost a mirror image of the 2012 outcome.
These “Blue Wall” states are those that voted twice for Obama. If you average out the white vote, where Trump made big gains among non-college-educated white voters that more than offset his losses of vote share among college-educated white voters, then a fairly uniform 3-point shift is close to what we saw. Clinton held on to Colorado and Virginia, and New Hampshire’s still out, but the list of casualties is impressively similar.
The key point is that the Democratic margins in these states were fragile to begin with, and most of them were not going through some sort of nonwhite population boom. Here’s another nugget from Wasserman’s long-lost analysis:
Suppose African-American voters were to return to pre-Obama, 2004 levels of turnout and partisanship (turnout down from 66 percent to 60 percent and support for Democrats down from 93 percent to 88 percent). In that scenario, Democrats would lose Florida, and their overall margin of victory would be cut by more than half in Ohio and Virginia, giving them almost no room for error with other groups.
Turns out African-Americans dropped from 13 percent of the electorate in 2012 to 12 percent this year. And Trump’s percentage of that vote, according to the exit polls, was 8 percent.
The moral of the story is this: We all love single-bullet theories of how elections — especially surprising elections like the one we held yesterday — turn out the way they do. But sometimes winning coalitions are a matter of combining dribs and drabs of voters and deploying them in exactly the right place. This is how Trump won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. And the truth is, Democrats didn’t quite know what hit them, because they did not fully use their abundant resources in the states that wound up killing them. Yes, of course, there are megathemes in the story of this election about globalization and racism and an itch for an authoritarian government in some sectors of the electorate. And Democrats really ought to be alarmed by the double-digit shifts in party vote share in once-blue states like Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio:
But the difference between victory and defeat is often a matter of small things that, done differently, might give us a different outlook on the future of our country today.