The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why did Trump win? In part because voter turnout plunged.

(Jay Westcott /News & Daily Advance via Associated Press)

The 2016 election was, everyone seems to agree, one of the most bizarre and disturbing and fascinating in anyone’s memory, mostly because of the walking goat rodeo who will be our next president. This summer the Pew Research Center reported higher levels of interest and engagement than in any election they had studied over the last two decades.

Yet voter turnout actually declined. What happened?

First, let’s look at the numbers. While there are still a few votes left to count, the latest totals show just under 120 million votes cast for president. That’s down from 2012, which was in turn down from 2008 — and don’t forget that the population is always increasing. While turnout hit a recent peak of 61.6 percent of the voting-eligible population, this year it was only 56 percent. Here’s a chart (I’ve used data from Professor Michael McDonald’s United States Elections Project; note that these are the votes for president, which is slightly different than the total number of ballots cast):

Right now, Republicans have an interest in characterizing Trump’s win as the result of a vast outpouring of support. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan called it “the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime.” They’ll claim that it provides Trump (and them) a mandate to do whatever they want, because the American people rose up as one and demanded it.

But that’s plainly not true. While Trump managed to gain an electoral college victory, not only did he get fewer votes than Hillary Clinton — a fact that, remarkably, seems to merit nothing more than a footnote in almost every discussion of the election — he got fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012, fewer votes than John McCain in 2008, and fewer votes than George W. Bush in 2004. In total, fewer than 26 percent of eligible American voters cast their ballots for the man who will occupy the Oval Office come January.

Supporters of President-elect Donald Trump rejoiced across the nation on Election Night as their candidate defied the polls. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: JIM WATSON/The Washington Post)

There’s no doubt that Trump brought out some voters who hadn’t voted in the recent past. And his electoral college win was built in large part on his ability to perform particularly well in some key Rust Belt areas — enabling him to win the previously Democratic states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. But overall, Trump had just about as weak a performance as you can have and still become president.

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What’s also important here is how poorly Hillary Clinton did. She got 6 million fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2012, and nearly 10 million fewer than he did in 2008:

To simplify things into their broadest terms, in recent elections the Republican always gets around 60 million votes; the question is whether the Democrat can bring out more voters or not. If they can, as Obama did twice, they win. If they can’t, as Clinton and John Kerry failed to, they lose.

So why did this happen? There are many explanations and many factors that likely played some part. First, Clinton didn’t inspire the same kind of enthusiasm among Democrats as Obama had. Second, it seems likely that FBI Director James B. Comey’s well-timed announcement that the bureau was investigating Anthony Weiner’s laptop, leading to days of screaming headlines about “CLINTON EMAIL REVELATIONS!!!” led some voters to conclude that both candidates were corrupt and there wasn’t much point in going to the polls.

Third, this was the first presidential election since conservatives on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, which allowed Republican-controlled states to pass a series of measures meant to suppress the votes of those who were likely to vote Democratic, particularly African Americans, Latinos and college students. In some of those states on which Trump built his victories, Republican-designed voter suppression laws, including ID mandates, limits on early voting and a reduction in polling locations, seem to have had their intended effect. As Ari Berman noted:

27,000 votes currently separate Trump and Clinton in Wisconsin, where 300,000 registered voters, according to a federal court, lacked strict forms of voter ID. Voter turnout in Wisconsin was at its lowest levels in 20 years and decreased 13 percent in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-American population lives.

And the Trump campaign itself had an explicit strategy to demoralize Democrats, developed by Trump campaign CEO Stephen Bannon. As Bloomberg Businessweek reported two weeks ago:

Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. ‘We have three major voter suppression operations under way,’ says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.

How much credit they can take is open to debate, but there’s no doubt that they got the result they were after.