One of the enduring truths for American political campaigns is that who the candidates are perceived to be often matters more than what they say, or how well organized they are. The 2016 presidential campaign provided a good example of this basic principle.
The election was decided by a razor-thin margin in three states, meaning that analysts can point to any number of individual reasons to show why Trump was able to win in the end, and the analysis would hold water. But the basic structure of the race was set by two things: entrenched partisan behavior, and the candidates selected by the two parties.
Entrenched partisan behavior means that voters who usually vote Republican or Democrat will continue to do so, regardless of who the nominated candidates are. A recent paper suggests that much of this is due to an unfavorable perception of the other party, driving a sense of belonging to one’s own party, but it’s not entirely clear why voters exhibit this behavior. Thanks to entrenched partisan behavior, both candidates were able to get large shares of the electorate, simply by being their party’s candidate.
Hillary Clinton was always going to be the candidate of the status quo and the establishment. During the primary she gave a series of speeches that positioned her as a progressive candidate, and during the general election she placed her bets on peeling off voters who usually vote Republican from Donald Trump by presenting him as dangerous, along with the message that she stood for “an economy that works for everyone“.
Her team calculated that her policy positioning would keep the Democratic coalition of Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns together, while she would also try to break through entrenched partisan behavior with direct attacks on Trump’s character. White, suburban women were a particular target for this, with Clinton’s team hoping they could be peeled away from the Republican candidate. An extensive field organization driven by advanced analytics would then deliver enough turnout in key places where the race was deemed to be close.
It didn’t happen that way in the end. Candidates try to tell their story in order to define themselves, rather than be defined by the other side, but in Clinton’s case voters already had a clear picture of who she was, and nothing she did during her campaign changed that. Clinton couldn’t break through the entrenched partisan behavior as much as hoped, partially because her candidacy itself was a driving motivation for many Republican voters.
Clinton also couldn’t change that she stood for everything that non-college educated white voters feel resentment over, many of whom feel threatened by a changing America, and believe that the political establishment has done little to protect them. In the South, these voters haven’t supported a Democratic candidate since the civil rights era, but in the Midwest and Rust Belt a portion were still a part of the Democratic coalition, or didn’t usually vote. That changed in 2016.
A little tour of recent electoral history, in maps (1/x).
First, the shift from 2012-2016. Blue = dem improvement; red = GOP pic.twitter.com/FWOkMrlbgV
— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) November 29, 2016
Trump embodied reactionary change and fighting back against the establishment. Even before his campaign started, Trump was positioned as fighting for the populist base, such as by questioning Barack Obama’s birth certificate and also thanks to his unique reputation from being a reality TV star and real estate developer with near 100% name recognition.
During the presidential campaign, Trump’s calls for a wall to be built along the border to Mexico, or for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States, further reinforced this candidate positioning. Trump was carved out as the candidate who “fights for us” among non-college educated white voters, in contrast not just to Hillary Clinton, but also Jeb Bush, whom Trump targeted relentlessly during the primary campaign.
Organization and messaging still matter, but that is where campaigns play for the margins. Either can make the difference between winning and losing when the election is close, but they won’t change the fundamentals of the race. This also doesn’t mean that another candidate other than Clinton would have necessarily won against Trump, since it is difficult to speculate about what the dynamics of the campaign would have been, had there been different candidates.
In 2016, the basic structure of the electorate remained more or less constant compared to 2012 because of entrenched partisan behavior, except for a big enough shift of non-college educated white voters in rural communities in the Midwest and Rust Belt towards Donald Trump. That shift happened because of what Hillary Clinton and Trump represented to them in the context of the Barack Obama presidency and a changing America. Countering shifts in the electorate that worked in Clinton’s favor happened in States where they didn’t make a difference, such as California or Utah.
That enabled Trump to break through in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania where, according to the most recent result totals, he won by a combined 102,719 votes, which is about 0.08% of the total votes cast in the election, thereby delivering him an electoral college victory.
By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst