An unusual president, but not an unusual election

Whether you think it’s a good thing or bad, due to the working class or the college educated, about economic insecurity or white nationalism, the one thing everyone seems to agree on about Donald Trump’s victory is that it’s a revolutionary development, a complete break with precedent.

And in political terms that’s probably true. But electorally, it’s the one thing that’s demonstrably false. What’s most striking about last week’s result is its normality.

Four years ago, Mitt Romney gained a two-party swing of 1.7%.* Last week, Trump fell just short of that achievement, gaining a further 1.4%. And he gained it in very much the same places. Here are the 15 most marginal states (margins below 5% in 2012), showing the swing at the last two elections:

State GOP vote 2008 Swing 2012 Swing 2016 GOP vote 2016
Arizona 54.3% 0.3% -2.4% 52.2%
Colorado 45.4% 1.8% 1.2% 48.4%
Florida 48.6% 1.0% 1.1% 50.7%
Georgia 52.6% 1.3% -1.0% 53.0%
Iowa 45.2% 1.9% 8.1% 55.1%
Michigan 41.6% 3.6% 4.9% 50.1%
Minnesota 44.8% 1.3% 3.1% 49.2%
Missouri 50.1% 4.7% 5.3% 60.1%
Nevada 43.6% 3.0% 2.1% 48.7%
New Hampshire 45.1% 2.0% 2.6% 49.8%
North Carolina 49.8% 1.2% 0.9% 52.0%
Ohio 47.7% 0.8% 6.0% 54.5%
Pennsylvania 44.7% 2.5% 3.3% 50.6%
Virginia 46.8% 1.2% -0.6% 47.5%
Wisconsin 42.9% 3.5% 4.0% 50.5%


There are a couple of outliers, but the similarity is very clear. Yes, Trump did particularly well in the “rustbelt” – in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But (except for Ohio) Romney was already performing above average in those states. They were always likely to be part of any successful Republican strategy, regardless of who was the candidate.

The 2012 result left the Republicans needing another 64 electoral college votes for victory, which on a uniform swing would have meant four states, or 2.7%. Trump won three of the four (missing Virginia), but grabbed another three from further up the pendulum: Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.

If he were really a transformative candidate, he would have won – or at least got big swings – in places where Romney had been way behind. But he didn’t; all his gains were on margins under 5% to start with, and his two biggest swings (9.7% in North Dakota and 8.5% in West Virginia) were in states where Romney had already got well above average swings in 2012.

Nor did Trump lose ground spectacularly anywhere. He went backwards slightly in states like Texas and California (both down 3.2%), but he held on to most of the Republican vote – with the sole exception of Utah, where a local independent conservative took a large slice.

The other thing you might expect to see if there was something revolutionary going on would be a big difference between the performance of the presidential candidate and that of the party’s representatives in Congressional elections. But that too failed to materialise. The latest figures for the House of Representatives show Republican candidates scoring in aggregate 51.5% of the two-party vote – a little better than Trump’s performance.

Again, swings were generally small. Only about a dozen of the 435 seats have changed hands, with Democrats recording a small net gain.

So Trump’s victory was very much a Republican victory. The many things that make him distinctive may have had something to do with him winning the Republican nomination, but they have no explanatory power when it comes to the election itself. He won because he was the endorsed Republican candidate and the party’s leaders and supporters stood loyally behind him.

This has been a clear trend in the United States over more than two decades: party loyalty counts for more and more, while individual candidates count for less and less. Many of us thought that Trump would break that pattern, but he failed to do so.

Because he won such narrow majorities in big states – four with less than 0.75% – Trump was able to win a majority in the electoral college without winning the popular vote. Depending on your point of view, that’s either good luck or smart strategising, but either way it’s no different from what any Republican candidate would have been trying to do.

Hillary Clinton finished with 50.5% of the two-party vote, a lead of just over 1.36 million votes. The electoral college is malapportioned in favor of the small states (because electoral votes are allocated according to total congressional delegations, including the two senators per state), but that actually wasn’t her problem. If the electoral college was to be redistributed according to population, the Democrats would gain by only three seats.

The reason that the electoral college periodically gets the “wrong” result is the same as for any system of winner-take-all districts, such as Australia’s House of Representatives: mathematically, there’s just no guarantee that majorities in a majority of districts will add up to an overall majority.

But the reasons given against reform in parliamentary systems – the need to maintain local representation, the difficulty of settling on a proportional method, the possible instability of proportional systems – have no application to the electoral college. Running a single nationwide presidential ballot is simple; dozens of countries do it routinely.

Having won the jackpot this time, however, the Republican Party will be set more firmly than ever against change.


* Note: I’m using David Leip’s figures, which seem to be slightly ahead of the AP tallies. All results and margins are given in two-party terms, factoring out independents and third-party candidates. This makes them easier to compare and better corresponds to how Australians think about elections, but working with primary votes instead would tell much the same story. Some states are still counting and rechecking postal votes, but for practical purposes these figures are close enough to final.

3 thoughts on “An unusual president, but not an unusual election

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