November 9, 2016 at 10:36 AM
On Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton appears to have been the choice of a plurality of voters to be the next president of the United States. As of writing, she leads Donald Trump by about 35,000 votes nationally, a margin that will likely climb as more votes from heavily populated, Democratic-leaning states are added.
But Hillary Clinton will not be the next president of the United States because those voters didn't live in the right places. Clinton won big in states that Democrats usually win and closed the gap in big states that Democrats usually lose. But in smaller states where Democratic victories have been narrower in recent years, Donald Trump got more votes and therefore got the electoral votes and therefore won the presidency.
Data from overnight shows how the electoral map changed between 2012 and now. In a broad swath across the upper Midwest, Donald Trump outperformed Mitt Romney by a wide margin.
But that map obscures Clinton's deeper problem: She received far fewer votes than Barack Obama in an election that was supposed to see a big increase in turnout. Ballots are still being counted, so these numbers will shift, but the Democratic candidate for the presidency received fewer votes in 2016 than 2012 in 46 states. Trump got more votes than Romney in 28 states.
In Michigan, Clinton got 13 percent fewer votes than Obama. Trump got 7 percent more than Romney.
In Pennsylvania, Clinton got 5 percent fewer votes than Obama. Trump got 9 percent more than Romney.
In Wisconsin, Clinton got 15 percent fewer votes than Obama. Trump did slightly worse than Romney -- in a state that was home to Romney's running mate.
Part of this is a switch of the choice of voters in those states, particularly white voters without college degrees. Nationally, those voters moved from backing the Republican by 26 points in 2012 (according to exit polls) to backing the Republican by 39. College-educated whites moved from backing Romney by a 14-point margin to backing Trump by 4.
But part of it is simply a drop in turnout overall. About 118 million votes have been counted so far, according to the Associated Press. That's fewer votes than 2012, 2008 and 2004 -- even as the population has grown by 47 million people since 2000.
Why? One likely reason is that Hillary Clinton's get-out-the-vote effort faltered, perhaps in part because she lacked a fervent base of support outside of major metropolitan areas who would volunteer. Another possible (but iffy) reason is that the Trump campaign explicitly tried to suppress turnout among Clinton's base of support. Another is that Obama was successful in inspiring infrequent voters to go to the polls in a way that Clinton wasn't -- and in the way that Obama wasn't in 2010 and 2014 when he wasn't on the ballot.
Increase Clinton's current vote totals 2 percent and Clinton wins Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Boost her support 3 percent and she adds Florida and Pennsylvania -- and wins the presidency. Three percentage points is precisely the sort of difference that a get-out-the-vote effort is supposed to make. Part of that difference could and should have come from big cities in those states, but it didn't.
This shift in turnout is certainly a big part of why the polls missed Trump's victory. National polls showed Clinton with a slight lead, which she appears to have earned. Had turnout been higher, those polls would likely have been spot on, since the actual electorate would have better matched the electorate pollsters expected to see. (State polls are a different issue.)
Hillary Clinton appears to have at least matched if not exceeded Donald Trump's national support. But the distribution of that support and a failure to get voters to the polls in a handful of states means that Trump will be our next president.