Trump Focused on Whites, But at What Cost to the GOP?

The just completed presidential election was, for Donald Trump, a test of the hypothesis that all you need to win are the votes of the shrinking white majority. It worked for him this year. But what Trump did to get those white votes put the Republican Party in a weaker position for future presidential elections.

In this and in upcoming posts, I take a look at election returns with these questions in mind. Did Trump succeed in turning out out a lot of new white voters? How did his divisive rhetoric affect his performance among voters in a portion of the electorate that will be larger in future elections (among Latinos, in particular)? What are the implications for the GOP?

Trump won fewer votes than Romney

This election wasn’t so much about Trump reaching a previously untapped white audience and getting them to the polls. It was more about Democratic constituencies not voting in the numbers of the previous two elections.

Did Donald Trump energize previously untapped voters? Actually he received fewer votes than Romney did in 2012, by a smidge, despite the fact there were nearly 11 million more eligible voters this year than there were in 2012—including 3.2 million new non-Hispanic white eligible voters. According to the exit polls, Trump won 58 percent of the white vote, while Romney picked up 59 percent.

Voter turnout in the past three presidential elections
Voter turnout in the past three presidential elections (data from exit polls)

 

 

First-time voters broke for Clinton

According to the exit polls, there were plenty of first-time voters—10 percent of voters were voting for the first time. They broke for Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent.

Democratic turnout was down dramatically

On the Democratic side, turnout was down. Way down. Nationally, there were four million fewer Democratic votes cast than there were in 2012. Turnout was down 5.5 million from 2008. Again, this is despite an electorate that was 5 percent larger than it was in 2012—and it included 7.5 million additional blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minorities.

Depressed turnout killed Clinton in closely contested states

Despite this decline, Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote nationally. The decline in the turnout of Democratic constituencies made its effect felt most in the states where Trump ran up his electoral collage totals.

For example, in Pennsylvania, Clinton got 2,844,705 votes. That is down more than 145,000 votes from 2012 and more than 431,000 votes from 2008. Trump’s margin of victory was 68,000 votes statewide. The story was the same in Michigan. There were 297,000 fewer votes for Clinton than there were for Obama in 2012, and 605,000 fewer votes than Obama’s total for 2008. Trump’s margin of victory was less than 12,000 votes. Wisconsin gave Clinton 239,000 fewer votes than Obama got in 2012, and Trump’s margin of victory there was just over 27,000 votes. Trump did better in Pennsylvania and Michigan than Romney did, but he actually fell short in Wisconsin.

White turnout nationally was in line with Census projections

According to Census projections, 69.1 percent of the citizen voting-age population was non-Hispanic white. Among those who actually voted, according to the exit polls, the percentage of whites was only marginally higher—70 percent.

In sum, the idea that Trump found “lost white voters” and mobilized them to any great extent doesn’t hold up given the turnout results and the propensity for first-time voters to vote for Clinton.

In the next post, I’ll look at Trump’s performance among non-white voters, particularly Latinos.

 

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