Clinton apologists and the popular vote

A lot of people have been trying to make sense of Clinton’s loss to Trump last week. Conservative pundits not necessarily pleased with the rise of Trump have blamed an aggressive backlash to “weaponized” political correctness. On the left are continued complaints about Russian interference, even motivating calls that the Electoral College deny Trump the office when they vote next month. And extremist elements to both the far-right and far-left have responded with vandalism and violence.

The situation is frantic and there doesn’t seem to be consensus on what got us here. Many blame racism at a high level, but that charge lacks specificity and therefore explanatory power. All meaningful approaches rightly address the Electoral College, but the underyling forces seem yet to be clearly articulated. A careful study of two pro-Clinton apologetic flavours of voting analysis is instructive in understanding just how Trump won in 2016.

High turnout?

We have the Electoral College haters who lament that Clinton won the popular vote. This of course is barely true: ABC news reported yesterday that Clinton has 62.409 million votes to Trump’s 61.283 million, putting them within a percent of each other by that measure. As far as recent Electoral College upsets go, that’s actually a much wider gulf than Bush/Gore in 2000. That race saw more than 20 million fewer votes cast and put the candidates within only half a percent of each other. The important difference is that in 2000, literally any single state switching to Gore would at the least have led to an Electoral College draw, and in the case of Florida (or even Nevada for that matter) a switch would have put Gore in the White House. In 2016 though, at twice the popular vote lead by percentage, Clinton would need the reversal of a coalition of states amounting to the Electoral clout of Texas — the third richest in Electoral votes — in order to win outright.

It’s then perhaps both strange and unsurprising that a partisan organ like Slate would boast about Clinton’s near-record popular vote haul. Three days after the election, Slate‘s Leon Neyfakh reported that “Hillary Clinton Likely Received More Votes Than Any Presidential Candidate Beside Obama.” In case the motivation behind this reporting is unclear, it should be noted that you can still read the report today on a webpage whose URL ends with “did_clinton_fail_to_turn_out_registered_democrats.html.” The obvious subtext here is that Clinton didn’t have a turnout problem.

While acknowledging that “population growth makes it all but inevitable that major-party candidates in the present will receive more votes than candidates from the past,” the short piece still closes with an assertion calculated to rile its core readership:

…when assessing Clinton’s candidacy, it does seem worth noting that she got more votes than George W. Bush did in 2004, than John McCain did in 2008, than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and than Donald Trump did in 2016.

Bu on the 11th of November when this piece was published, Clinton had already passed McCain 2008 but was only roughly tied with Romney 2012. The claim about Bush 2004 was not true (and still isn’t): Bush got a cool 62.0 million votes that year, while Clinton had only around 60.5 by last weekend. Nevermind that though, since the piece was going on projections from the New York Time‘s Nate Cohn that Clinton would wind up with 63.4 million votes to Trump’s 61.2 million when all was said and done. On that basis, Slate‘s Neyfakh asserted that “it’s becoming increasingly clear that support for Clinton wasn’t particularly low by recent standards.”

This is, of course, deeply misleading. As Neyfakh alludes in talking about population growth, a much more valuable turnout measure comes from the share of the relative vote. Considering only registered voters as recorded in their thousands by the Census Bureau, we obtain the following share for the historical races Neyfakh calls out:

Year Voters Republican Republican Popular Vote Share
2004 142 070 000 Bush 62 039 073 43.67%
2008 146 311 000 McCain 59 597 520 40.73%
2012 153 157 000 Romney 60 589 084 39.56%

Where Clinton lands in this pantheon is open to interpretation. Politico reported in October that there were over 200 million registered voters in 2016! That profound and frankly unbelievable jump would put Clinton’s projected 63.4 million votes at just under 32% of the electorate. Perhaps there was a Millennial registration surge, but let’s assume to Clinton’s advantage that the dreaded spectre of the Clinton/Trump race actually only kept American registration more or less on pace in 2016 at a more reasonable 165 million. That still places Clinton’s share of the vote at only 38.42%. That’s more than a percent less than the most dismal case Neyfakh calls out — Romney’s — and is more than three percent less than Kerry’s losing haul of just over 59 million votes in 2004. Not low by recent standards!

Spoiler effect?

We also have the Third Party antagonists that lament the Electoral College might have swung if only Gary Johnson and Jill Stein didn’t exist. Their combined share of votes cast was about three times better than it was in 2012 when they both also ran for their respective parties, but the Washington Post reports that there were only five states where “Trump won by a margin smaller than the combined Johnson/Stein vote.” There’s some imaginative bookkeeping whereby all of Stein’s votes go to Clinton and she finally wins by taking Pennsylvania among others, but this scenario seems pretty far out.

That doesn’t stop Chris Frizzelle of my city’s own Stranger from fantasizing about it. In a piece titled “”Awash in False Conspiracy Theories and Petulant Immaturity, Liberals Put Trump in the White House”” — yes, the headline is itself a quotation — my first hint that something wasn’t right was in the very first sentence. Frizzelle does the right thing in reporting his surprise about believing otherwise, but Newsweek is still in fact not a source of “serious, important journalism.” Read the characteristically overlong piece Frizelle’s editorializing yourself if you dare — I quit following the third, offensive paragraph and an arduous scroll to see where the bottom was. Frizelle’s gist about the piece is a list of DNC talking points. Emphasis mine:

“Bernie-fan conspiracy theories” contributing to “a sense of ‘corruption’ surrounding Clinton”,  “the number of one-on-one debates Clinton was forced to have with Sanders… contributed to Trump’s win,” “‘Sanders supporters were tricked into believing a false narrative’ created by Russian propagandists.

Most significant is the alleged disproving of the “canard that Sanders would have won against Trump” through Newsweek‘s reporting about an alleged anti-Sanders Republican playbook. Apparently team Trump planned to target Sanders’s ficticious rape essay, the claim that a young Sanders lived on welfare, and the idea that “the words ‘environmental racist’ [would appear] on Republican billboards” after it became known that “he co-sponsored a bill to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to a poor Hispanic community in Texas, where it could be dumped.” I haven’t fact checked any of the claims except about the essay, but regardless it seems very unlikely to me that attacks like these would have lost or swayed more would-be Sanders supporters to Trump than were lost or swayed from Clinton by similar arguments. It also seems basically impossible that ‘environmental racist’ would be fighting words for many Republicans, but maybe the mainstream media has something still to teach me.

Frizzelle’s quotation of the Newsweek piece I thankfully didn’t read concludes with perhaps the most salient assertions:

If just the Stein voters in Michigan had cast their ballot for Clinton, she probably would have won the state. And there is no telling how many disaffected Sanders voters cast their ballot for Trump.

Again we have the fantasy of all Stein voters probably handing Clinton a victory in Michigan if only they could see reason. That’s not nothing since Michigan has just over 40% of the votes Clinton would need to reclaim an Electoral win. But the cognitive dissonance gets into high gear when we also include a wistful ignorance of just how many “disaffected Sanders voters” actually voted for Trump. If that number is small, we can safely ignore it; if it is large, we can imagine a President-Elect Sanders if the primary had gone as slightly differently as these Democratic apologists imagine the general election might have; and if it’s somewhere in between, we’re still idly speculating about what might have been. Nothing points to clear blame for the Third Party defectors.

Bottom Line

Democrats and their apologists are scrambling to deflect their party’s stunning loss from its real causes. That loss came as a shock to the left since the Democrats were basically everyone’s favourite. But the obvious conclusion is that both candidates were deeply unpopular and marshaled record-low shares of the electorate in this century, that those dismal showings were still basically impervious to other challenges, and that ultimately Clinton was much less popular to the Electoral College than was Trump. It’s time to abandon bedtime stories about how it might have been different and begin the national soul searching needed to understand what’s really behind that result.

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