The Boring Story of the 2016 Election

Matt Yglesias is basically right about what happened in the 2016 election. Despite the elaborate theories that have been floated over the past few months, the real story as told by the exit polls is very boring: Donald Trump won because Hillary Clinton was an extremely unpopular candidate.

Donald Trump did not win because of a surge of white support. Indeed he got less white support than Romney got in 2012. Nor did Trump win because he got a surge from other race+gender groups. The exit polls show him doing slightly better with black men, black women, and latino women than Romney did, but basically he just hovered around Romney’s numbers with every race+gender group, doing slightly worse than Romney overall.

However, support for Hillary was way below Obama’s 2012 levels, with defectors turning to a third party. Clinton did worse with every single race+gender combo except white women, where she improved Obama’s outcome by a single point. Clinton did not lose all this support to Donald. She lost it into the abyss. Voters didn’t like her but they weren’t wooed by Trump.

Some Pundits Understood This
What’s a bit odd about the post-election punditry is that a good number of pundits understood these basic demographic mechanics well in advance of the election outcome. For instance, Jamelle Bouie perfectly nailed it in February of 2016:

If these issues [of Trump creating deep antipathy among women, people of color, and young people] are borne out in a general election, then Trump will have an even larger problem than negative attacks. He’ll have a negative electoral map. With abysmal ratings among blacks and Latinos, Trump is uniquely unsuited to this year’s demographics, which—all things equal—has a modest tilt toward Democrats. With Marco Rubio or John Kasich, Republicans might have a chance with minority voters. With Trump, that’s gone. To win, he would need to bring a massive influx of new white voters and create a further swing towards Republicans among existing white voters, all without alienating moderate whites or sparking counter-mobilization from nonwhites.

As Bouie notes, if Trump’s politicking caused an enormous swing in the voting choices of women, people of color, and young people towards the Democratic nominee (here Clinton), then the only way he could have won is by running up the score among white voters. It turns out Trump’s politicking did not cause any noticeable swing of the voting choices of women, people of color, and young people, and so he did not need to run up the score among white voters, which is something he failed to do entirely.

Unsatisfying Story
So the overall story the data tells us is that Trump won with less white support than Romney because he managed to hold strong enough with female and nonwhite voters and because Clinton was so unpopular that she bled a significant enough portion of Obama’s coalition into the abyss.

The lack of attention to this story of Trump’s win makes sense because it is satisfying to basically nobody.

Liberals do not like it because they want Trump to mean some of their identitarian arguments are true and because it is extremely humiliating to the liberal establishment in general that their hand-picked candidate was world-historically weak. After writing delusional arguments saying the plain fact of Clinton being bad at politics (something Clinton herself admits) was actually wrong, it’s easy to understand why the post-election truth that Clinton lost because she’s very bad at politics is not one they rush to embrace.

Conservatives do not like it because they want Trump to mean at least something about how voters are not happy with liberal overreach.

And leftists do not like it because they want Trump to mean at least something about how the Democratic party’s refusal to embrace a transformative economic message is dooming it.

Some of these narratives could even be true in general about our political moment. But they are not explanations of what happened here. Clinton lost because Clinton was a really bad candidate. If you had replaced her with almost anyone else, they would have beaten Donald Trump. Bernie would have won. O’Malley would have won. And Barack Obama would have dominated in an absolute landslide.