The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

2016 was an ordinary election, not a realignment

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face off during their first presidential debate. (Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Political scientists will be analyzing the bases of Donald Trump’s dramatic victory for a very long time. So far, the evidence points toward a toxic brew of economic and cultural anxiety, populism, racial resentment, sexism and authoritarianism, among other factors. But from a broader perspective, the search for specific explanations for Trump’s support is probably misguided. An extraordinary campaign has produced a remarkably ordinary election outcome, primarily reflecting partisan patterns familiar from previous election cycles.

As John Sides has already noted, the national election outcome was consistent with forecasts based on “fundamental” factors like incumbency and the state of the economy — though he and I and many others imagined that it would not be, given the many remarkable features of this year’s race, and of Trump’s campaign in particular. By the conventional standards of high-minded democracy, many commentators believed that Trump’s manifest unsuitability for the presidency should have doomed him at the polls. But millions of ordinary voters, employing their own less rarefied standards, viewed Trump as a strong leader who would “say what he meant” and “get things done.”

Most state election outcomes were also surprisingly consistent with past voting patterns. Here is the relationship between Trump’s popular vote margin in each state on Tuesday (based on preliminary returns, with the heavily Democratic District of Columbia omitted in order to make the other results more legible) and Mitt Romney’s margin in 2012:

It may be helpful to put these shifts in historical perspective by comparing them with similar shifts in previous election cycles. Elsewhere I have tracked continuity and change in presidential election outcomes from 1868 through 1996, noting that recent elections have been marked by “a period of partisan stability and predictability unmatched since the end of the 19th century.” That period of unusual stability has continued through the first two decades of the 21st century. Here is the trend in “partisan continuity,” a measure of the extent to which each set of state-level election outcomes has reflected the partisan forces evident in the three preceding elections:

The extent of partisan continuity evident in 2016 — at the far right of the graph — is slightly lower than in 2012, but well above the average value for the past century, and very much in line with typical values in the past several elections.

Nonetheless, as usual, pundits are trotting out visions of realignment. Even before the election, Michael Lind proclaimed that “the old political system is crumbling, and a new American political order is being born.” Jonathan Haidt called 2016 “a global turning point … the year that the battle between globalists and nationalists became the central axis of conflict” in the United States and Europe, adding that “the battle will grind on … long after Donald Trump leaves the national stage, as the United States becomes a ‘majority minority’ country sometime between 2050 and 2060.”

Perhaps. We won’t know anytime soon, since major realignments of the party system usually take years or even decades to unfold. In the meantime, however, it would be a mistake to read too much into Trump’s victory, remarkable as it was — and remarkable as his presidency may well be.

Christopher Achen and I have argued that in most democratic elections, “the choice between the candidates is essentially a coin toss.” In 2012, the “fundamentals” predicted a close election and the Democrats won narrowly. In 2016, the “fundamentals” predicted a close election and the Republicans won narrowly. That’s how coin tosses go. “It is a blunder to expect elections to deliver more.”

Larry M. Bartels is a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. His books include “Democracy for Realists” (with Christopher H. Achen) and a newly revised edition of “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.”

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