In the days and weeks following the November 2016 election, we were bombarded with stories of radical rupture—that the unforeseen, even the unforeseeable, had transpired seemingly without warning or explanation. Surely some of the dynamics that brought Donald Trump—the least qualified candidate to ever top a major party ticket—to the White House were indeed new. Others however had been in the making for quite some time, whether we had seen them or not.
I am excited to introduce a new report on the 2016 presidential election, which is the first publication from a partnership launched between Tides and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley. The purpose of this partnership is to produce research, analysis, and strategy to strengthen civic engagement and grapple with dynamics of othering, polarization, and the changing politics of identity in the post-2016 U.S. political landscape.
The publication is a research report that lays out what the data say happened in the presidential election of 2016. It cuts through the dizzying succession of headlines, narratives, and recriminations to provide readers with a reliable set of facts and lessons about the election that brought Donald Trump to the White House. Titled “What Didn’t Happen?: Breaking Down the Results of the 2016 Presidential Election,” the report challenges a series of particularly prominent post-election narratives while also putting forward its own conclusions. It is organized around six broad sub-groups of voters—the young, women, people of color, “working class” voters, Rust Belt voters, and whites—on which pundits and analysts have focused post-2016 political debates.
For this report, I investigated prevailing narratives about each of the above voter groups in light of data from a range of sources made available over the past year. As one example, my research triangulated across data sources to challenge the idea that the unexpected impact of white voters without a college degree in 2016 was due to a unique “Trump effect.” Trump’s most significant gains over Mitt Romney were indeed with these white non-college voters, but what is hidden by biases in well-known exit polling figures is that this demographic group’s shift to Trump fits within the longer historical pattern of their migration to the GOP.
This demographic group’s shift to Trump fits within the longer historical pattern of their migration to the GOP.
Significantly, last week’s gubernatorial election in Virginia appears to support the case I make about 2016 in the report. Governor-elect Ralph Northam did better than Clinton (in a state that she won) among Millennials; both women and men; low-, middle-, and high-income Virginians; and whites and voters of color. But Northam lost among white Virginians without a degree by essentially the same margin (72-26) as Clinton lost them to Trump (71-24)—even against a GOP candidate who only began to resemble Trump in the ugly closing weeks of the campaign. Highlighting the depth of this historic trend in so-called “white working class” voting offers lessons for any stakeholder group looking to make decisions about how to invest energy and resources in the coming election cycles.
The report underscores that it was not only the margin by which whites without a degree supported Trump, but their overall share of the electorate in some key states that proved decisive. This in turn draws our attention to some other key facts:
- Overall African American voter participation dropped notably since its historically high rate in 2012. But the decline was most marked among younger African Americans—including all of those age 18 to 45—for whom turnout rates reached their lowest point since 2000.
- The nearly 12.7 million Latinxs who voted in 2016 were a slightly larger share of the electorate than in 2012, but their share of actual voters continues to lag well behind their share of the voting-eligible population.
- Steep declines in turnout among African Americans in Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina, as well as American Indians in Arizona, raise serious questions about how much those states’ new voting restrictions suppressed the vote in communities of color in 2016.
African American Voter Participation by Age
Sources: US Census Bureau Voting and Registration tables, 2004-2016.
The report also arrives at several other key conclusions that push back against common storylines around the 2016 election. These include:
- The gender gap in voting was indeed historic in 2016. But while Hillary Clinton won almost 95% of African American women’s votes, Trump won among white women, including 60-62% of those without a college degree.
- The popular image of the struggling “working class” electorate as white is inaccurate by any standard. Of all 2016 voters who had no college degree and lived in households with an income under $50,000, around 40% reported a racial or ethnic identity other than white. This group split its vote 47-47 between Clinton and Trump.
- Of the white voters without a college degree who voted for Trump, around 60% were from households in the top half of the income distribution. One in five was from a household with an income over $100,000.
- Significant rates of voter abstention and third-party voting in the “Rust Belt” were crucial to the outcome in these swing states—and temper the image of unbridled enthusiasm for Trump there.
- In the Rust Belt swing states, Trump’s margins saw the biggest increases relative to Mitt Romney’s margins in small-town and rural counties that dependably favor GOP candidates. Trump won because these “red” areas got redder.
Tides is excited to kick off this series of research reports, memos, and strategy documents that will help our communities understand the facts of the 2016 election. With the research report, “What Didn’t Happen?,” Tides and the Haas Institute start with the “what”—the foundational facts—of the 2016 election.
Subsequent publications will focus on the “so what” and the “now what.” How do we understand the roles of racial and economic anxiety in our democracy today? How do we support communities contending with state laws that make it harder for their members to vote? What other structures of our democratic system – such as the 2020 census and redistricting – can we make better equipped to serve all of our society? And more near at hand, how do we apply lessons learned in 2016 to what will no doubt be one of the most contentious mid-term elections in recent memory in 2018?
Keep an eye out on this website for these forthcoming releases, or sign up for updates from Tides.
Joshua Clark, PhD, is the Tides Senior Fellow at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley