In Nate Cohn’s post “A 2016 Review: Turnout Wasn’t the Driver of Clinton’s Defeat” at The Upshot, he mines data indicating that, in the 2016 presidential election, “the turnout was only modestly better for Mr. Trump than expected,” and “To the extent Democratic turnout was weak, it was mainly among black voters. Even there, the scale of Democratic weakness has been exaggerated.” Further,
Instead, it’s clear that large numbers of white, working-class voters shifted from the Democrats to Mr. Trump. Over all, almost one in four of President Obama’s 2012 white working-class supporters defected from the Democrats in 2016, either supporting Mr. Trump or voting for a third-party candidate.
This analysis compares official voter files — data not available until months after the election — with The Upshot’s pre-election turnout projections in Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The turnout patterns evident in these states are representative of broader trends throughout the battleground states and nationwide.
The turnout was slightly and consistently more favorable for Mr. Trump across all three states. But the turnout edge was small; in one of the closest elections in American history, it might not have represented his margin of victory.
Cohn explains that “the black turnout was roughly in line with our pre-election expectations.” However, “On average, white and Hispanic turnout was 4 percent higher than we expected, while black turnout was 1 percent lower than expected.” African American turnout, Cohn notes, “was significantly lower than it was four or eight years ago, when Mr. Obama galvanized record black turnout,” but not far our of line with what pre-election studies anticipated.
Cohn cites a broad increase in white voter turnout “among young voters, Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliated voters, urban, rural, and the likeliest supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump.” But “The greatest increases were among young and unaffiliated white voters.” Cohn adds that “The turnout among young and white Democratic voters was quite strong,” and he sees a slight edge for Trump in voter enthusiasm among his supporters. “Over all, the turnout among white voters with a greater than 80 percent chance of supporting Mr. Trump was 7 percent higher than expected, while the turnout was 4 percent higher among white voters with greater than an 80 percent chance of supporting Mrs. Clinton.”
“If turnout played only a modest role in Mr. Trump’s victory,” concludes Cohn, “then the big driver of his gains was persuasion: He flipped millions of white working-class Obama supporters to his side…The voter file data makes it impossible to avoid this conclusion.”
None of this is to argue that Democrats wouldn’t benefit from a more effective effort to turn out their base. It’s just a description of what really happened in the November elections. But it does corroborate the argument that Trump secured his electoral college victory in the predominantly white working-class precincts of the battleground states.
A few things to remember in mulling over Cohn’s conclusions: Clinton won the popular vote by a nearly 3 million vote margin, and the popular vote winner has been elected President in all but a very few elections. Monday morning quaterback generalizations about her campaign strategy should be considered in that light; Secondly, be a little skeptical of pundits spinning Cohn’s findings into an argument that Democrats must reconfigure their strategy to win a “majority of the white working-class.” In reality, Democrats need only a larger piece of this constituency, and a ten percent improvement in a few states would likely have been adequate in 2016; and, thirdly, Trump was poster-boy for an unusual presidential candidate, and it’s hard to see how future Republican candidates will be able to get away with similar shenanigans — especially considering the litany of disasters that have defined his first 100 days.