The past few weeks have been boom times for those who want to replay the 2016 presidential election to decide who is to blame for the outcome. For some, the answer is FBI Director James Comey. For others, the answer is Russia. For many, the answer is Hillary Clinton and her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad campaign.
Just yesterday it was the bloc of voters who switched from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, as opposed to the lack-of-Democratic turnout. According to McClatchy’s Alex Roarty:
Many Democrats have a shorthand explanation for Clinton’s defeat: Her base didn’t turn out, Donald Trump’s did and the difference was too much to overcome.
But new information shows that Clinton had a much bigger problem with voters who had supported President Barack Obama in 2012 but backed Trump four years later.
Those Obama-Trump voters, in fact, effectively accounted for more than two-thirds of the reason Clinton lost, according to Matt Canter, a senior vice president of the Democratic political firm Global Strategy Group. In his group’s analysis, about 70 percent of Clinton’s failure to reach Obama’s vote total in 2012 was because she lost these voters.
I have no doubt that each of these narratives get at some aspect of the truth. But whenever this topic comes up, I feel like
gouging my eyes out with a dull spoon there’s a key point that always goes unacknowledged: from the outset of the general election campaign, Clinton faced a more difficult challenge than is commonly understood.
As I pointed out last year and as the April 2017 issue of PS: Political Science & Politics notes, the fundamentals of the 2016 campaign had the race as pretty close to a toss-up. Economic growth in the first half of 2016 was pretty weak. The incumbent party was trying to win a third consecutive presidential campaign. Both of these facts meant that, despite Obama’s personal popularity, the fundamentals of the campaign were far from a Democratic cake-walk.
How did these fundamental models do? I’ll just outsource this answer to Jim Campbell from SUNY-Buffalo.
The final vote count indicates 65.9 million votes were cast for Clinton and about 63.0 million for Trump, providing Clinton with a 2.9 million national popular vote plurality. About 7.8 million votes were cast for other candidates. Despite Trump’s electoral vote victory, Clinton received a narrow but clear plurality of the national popular vote. Clinton received 51.1% of the two-party popular vote cast nationwide to Trump’s 48.9%.
So, how did these forecasts do? With a few exceptions, the accuracy of the presidential vote forecasts ranged from impressive to extraordinary. In my introduction to the October symposium I described how the models weighed the overall conditions, weak economic performance, and general dissatisfaction with the direction of the nation against the pre-campaign preference polls of the candidates. The former favored the Republicans and the latter favored the Democrats, but all of this was within a context of an open-seat race in a period of polarized hyper-competition. On balance, the forecasts expected a Clinton plurality in a tight race. Summing up, I wrote that “the median forecast predicts that Clinton will win 51.1% of the two-party national vote.” This calls for an end-zone celebration.
To be fair, the tightness of the fundamental race heightens the magnitude of each mistake made by Clinton and her campaign. But I think the general election polling numbers mistakenly gave the impression that Clinton’s victory was inexorable when the reality was more murky. Despite Obama’s personal popularity, the simple fact is that the same party has won three consecutive presidential elections only once since 1952. In 2000, Al Gore was running on a stronger economy and still barely eked out a victory in the popular vote. Clinton faced a more difficult path.
To his credit, Nate Silver pointed this out back in January:
2016 was generally treated as Clinton’s race to lose when that conclusion didn’t necessarily follow from the empirical research on presidential campaigns. A better perspective was that Clinton was leading in the polls despite somewhat challenging conditions for Democrats, no doubt in part because of Trump’s flaws as a candidate. However, that made her vulnerable if the candidate-quality gap closed — whether because of her own problems as a candidate or because Trump’s performance improved — in which case partisanship would kick in and she’d be headed for a barnburner of a finish.
By all means, have the experts look at what each candidate did right or wrong during the campaign. Just don’t write it up as if 2016 was Clinton’s race to lose. It really wasn’t.