One of the most striking aspects of the 2016 presidential election was the shifting demographics. The vast majority of predictions and forecasts prior to November 8th were wrong, partially because the national public opinion polls and algorithms utilized to make such predictions and forecasts rely “representative” samples of the American electorate. Opinion polls attempt to adequately represent the demographics of the United States in order to accurately represent the political opinions of the United States at large via samples of only 800-1,100 people. The data from these polls are then used to make forecasts of election results. However, this is not the only data utilized in these forecasts. At least some forecasting models use historical data, state polls, and attempt to model uncertainty in their algorithms. This is intended to give a more complete picture of the election than the opinion polls, which essentially only give data for that moment the poll was conducted. While valuable, this information is incomplete. By using all of these different data sources a more complete picture emerges.
Except in 2016. Each of these data sources failed to provide an accurate picture of the election outcome because the demographics shifted. To be more precise, how the demographics voted shifted. The map above from the New York Times shows the partisan shift in margin across the country from the 2012 presidential to the 2016 presidential election. As can be seen, the majority of America experienced some shifting of the margins. While this is to be expected (vote totals aren’t going to stay exactly the same) in how many places and by how much the margins shifted is striking. It is a demonstration that partisan polarization is increasing in the American public. This fact is further demonstrated when examining the presidential election results by county.
Upon first look what is perhaps most striking, though not necessarily surprising, is the stark contrasts between the “colors” of various parts of the country. Most of America is red (Republican) while the areas surrounding urban areas are blue (Democratic). The national vote is close because of the population density differences between the urban areas which traditionally vote Democrat and more rural areas which traditionally vote Republican. If votes were based on square footage the Republican Party would win in a landslide. This difference is highlighted again by this New York Times map showing the size of lead by county. Circle size is proportional to the amount that county’s leading candidate is ahead.
However, as mentioned, this is traditional voting behavior. What was different in 2016 was that white voters voted as a faction and overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. This voting behavior is nothing new and not unexpected of minority voters who vote Democrat in vast majorities, but is relatively uncommon of white voters. Furthermore, not only did whites vote as a faction, they turned out. This turnout is the key. Donald Trump won the white vote by virtually the same margin as Mitt Romney in 2012, but there were more of these voters in 2016. Exit poll data from CNN and changes in voter turnout from 2012 to 2016 provided by FiveThirtyEight.com demonstrate these changes.
Now compare these to the election results by county. Areas of America that are mainly white voted Republican. Areas of America that voted Republican and are mainly white increased their turnout from 2012 while areas which voted Democrat had a slighter increase in voting, if not decreases. Thereby, Donald Trump won the election by overwhelming winning the white vote and convincing those white voters to turn out on Election Day. Conversely, while Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won the minority vote (to a greater degree than Trump won the white vote), she lost vote margins from President Obama in 2012, and these groups did not turn out as they had in 2012.
Hillary Clinton lost the demographic battle. She could not maintain minority vote margins and could not entice these voters to show up on November 8th. Donald Trump was able to galvanize the white vote and excite them into showing up to cast their ballots. He was even able to get college-educated white women to vote in his favor, a vote which has historically gone for Democrats. And in the short-term this struggle over demographics will most likely continue.
Winning coalitions are traditionally narrow, but this presidential election redrew those lines. But the margins remain narrow. In the future that may change as the white vote will decrease and minority voters will increase as the demographics of the United States change over time. However, party affiliation of white voters is moving more strongly Republican than party affiliation of whites and minorities is moving Democrat. This chart from The New Yorker highlights these differences.
The past two decades have shown that American public opinion is moving away from the Republican Party. Younger voters are more liberal on traditional GOP issues such as gun rights, abortion and welfare. This was especially considered the case following the 2008 presidential election in which young and minority voters turned out to cast their ballots in record numbers for a black, progressive candidate. However, as the 2016 election demonstrated, not only did millions of voters feel President Obama did not live up to his promise of 2008 but that millions of others also feel that he did not go far enough in legislating those progressive ideals. And Hillary Clinton failed to provide additional or alternative reasons for their vote while Donald Trump was able.
Now the question becomes, can Donald Trump continue to galvanize and excite his faction of voters? That remains to be seen. If he is able, 2020 will most likely look much like 2016. If he is not to fulfill his promises of systemic change the demographic battle for American voters will most likely begin anew in 2020.