OK, about the headline: It was my suggestion. It suggests I know why Trump won.
But I offer some theories involving negligent journalism and the Electoral College’s expiration date.
First of all, there was no Trump revolution. It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen in Massachusetts, or Texas, or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or anywhere. Donald Trump ran a strong enough campaign to benefit from the work that had been done before him. But he didn’t tap into anything new. It was already there waiting for him.
In the 2008 election — another that will surely live in infamy — Arizona Sen. John McCain polled just fewer than 60 million voters in losing to Barack Obama.
In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney received the highest vote total ever recorded by a losing candidate for president at just fewer than 61 million. Obama had roughly 66 million. Obama won by 5 million votes after having won by 9.5 million votes in 2008. Obama won both these elections comfortably and the Electoral College reflected that in both cases.
This time around, Trump is the president-elect. But he did not win the national popular vote.
Would issue-based reporting have produced a different result? The best story in this election right now is to find the people in swing states who voted in 2012 but not this year, and ask them, Why?
One wonders if we’ll ever get to read or see it. Clearly once again journalism has largely failed the American public by paying too much attention to the presidential horserace and not enough to the policies of the candidates.
Hillary Clinton remains more than 500,000 votes ahead with 99 percent of the vote tallied [as of late Saturday, Nov. 12; Michigan and New Hampshire still unofficial.] That happened because she rolled up enormous tallies in states that were safely blue. Trump did the same in states that were safely red, but while his only truly large state was Texas Clinton won going away in the vote-rich states of New York and California.
(California is an interesting story in itself and I will get to it later. It is a picture of voter disenfranchisement and tells us everything that is wrong with the Electoral College system.)
Instead of conducting a national election throughout the, well … nation, we conduct it in a few key states.
Why are these states key? Very simply, they are sometimes blue and sometimes red. They don’t know what they are. But we know them as the states where all the action is. They are Michigan and Virginia, Wisconsin and Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa. And, of course, Florida – which is really two states inside of one state with a liberal south and conservative north.
Locally, we’d be out of luck in the presidential general election mix if not for New Hampshire, which defies the rest of the Northeast by refusing to be a deep shade of blue.
New Hampshire’s four electoral votes matter in these tight presidential elections, and the candidates fight it out by buying ads on Boston television stations that run during newscasts and Bruins, Celtics and Patriots games. That’s how you get to New Hampshire voters. Boston television stations love that New Hampshire is purple – it’s a lucrative game. As a bonus we know all about Maggie Hassan and Kelly Ayotte, even if we couldn’t cast a vote for either one of them in the New Hampshire U.S. Senate race.
Clinton did not do well in the swing states. She won New Hampshire but lost in places where Obama had won before. The margins were narrow, but it happened too many times. That is why she is on the outside looking in today with more votes than Trump but nothing to show for it.
And it is here that we can put any notion of a Trump revolution to rest. For all the attention paid to Wisconsin, Trump posted the same approximately 1.4 million vote total that Romney amassed in 2012. The difference was with Clinton. She underperformed Obama’s 2012 total by about 240,000 votes. She lost Wisconsin by a percentage point – about 27,000 votes.
How did that happen? How could this, of all elections, turn out a lower total in Wisconsin than the 2012 race? And while it is true that third party candidates were good for a couple of percentage points more this year than in 2012, most of those votes were going to Libertarian Gary Johnson. It is not reasonable to assume that Clinton would have been the beneficiary of those votes if Johnson were not on the ballot. The total number of votes cast for president in Wisconsin in 2012 was 3,068,434. This year, that number dropped to 2,944,620.
Clinton’s underperformance was stark in Ohio, where Trump outpolled Romney’s 2012 vote by about 100,000 but Clinton fell short of Obama’s winning total that year by about 500,000. Ohio went from blue to red.
Iowa is another example. Trump eclipsed Romney by about 70,000 votes and beat Clinton, who fell short of Obama by 172,000 votes. Obama won the state in 2012.
In Michigan, Clinton lost more ground than Trump gained compared to the 2012 vote. In 2012 Michigan went to Obama, despite it being Romney’s home state. This year it was Trump by the narrowest of margins.
It is these narrow losses, caused more by Clinton’s inability to get people to the polls (Pennsylvania and Florida are exceptions – strong showings by Trump) than by Trump’s ability to do better than Republicans past, that cost her the election.
Had Clinton won in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin she would be president, complete with that popular vote win.
And what about that popular vote win?
The vote in California was down precipitously this year. In 2012, Obama amassed 7.8 million votes there – 3 million more than Romney. This year, Clinton had 5.5 million compared to 3 million for Trump. Californians know the state is blue and didn’t feel they had any skin in the game. Had they shown up even on the scale of most other states, Clinton would have won the popular vote by well over a million. And it still wouldn’t have mattered any more than it does today.
Is this good for Democracy? As journalism — print, digital and broadcast — veered full-speed into the circus of Trump’s insults and Clinton’s emails, were voters in swing states left without a strong understanding of the economic policies of the two candidates?
Voters in small towns across America don’t read The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which covered this race magnificently and thoroughly, in great numbers. They read smaller papers that make choices – the too easy choices to print the salacious instead of the substantive. It’s nothing new. But this election was different and the media were swallowed up by it.
Not only that, fewer people are reading newspapers than ever before. But they are reading something, and much of it is propaganda not grounded in fact. The most popular news station on cable is FOX News, which is an infomercial for the Republican Party. Polls have shown that its viewers are more likely than those of any other station to believe that climate change is a hoax and that Obama was not born in the United States.
A final question to consider: Would millions of Californians have stayed home if we had scrapped the Electoral College? Is it too much to ask that presidential elections pay attention to voters in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Sacramento? Not to mention New York City and Dallas and Seattle and Birmingham, Alabama, and Nashville? And what about Boston and Providence and, for that matter, Worcester?
That’s what would happen if we scrapped the Electoral College. We’d have national campaigns and the candidate with the most votes would win.
Pro-Trump readers may say this is all sour grapes, that I’m writing a manifesto for Democratic rule. But the math can work the other way. Someday a Democrat is going to win the presidency in similar fashion, with a Republican scoring the national popular vote victory but falling short electorally in a few key states. The Republicans won’t like it any more than the Democrats do now.
The Electoral College was a great idea. It allowed a massive new nation to put regional candidates into a general election. In those days, most people from Massachusetts had never been to South Carolina and weren’t going anytime soon. The Electoral College gave all of the states a voice. Over time, the country became smaller and smaller. It all seems very quaint now. But is it effective?
Take a look at the current system and ask yourself, is this really how the United States should run a presidential election? And then ask yourself, is the media going to cover the story of the Electoral College?
Richard Nangle is a longtime government reporter for the Telegram & Gazette and now a principal contributor to Worcester Sun, who also happens to be a journalism professor at Emerson College.