Why Did Trump Win? A Roundup of the Most Popular Theories.


In the past week, I’ve seen hundreds of pieces about why Donald Trump won and why Hillary Clinton lost. In the next few months, I’ll see thousands more. So do we have an answer yet?

Ha ha. Of course not. For the most part, people are just blaming all the stuff they already believed in. I recommend skipping those pieces entirely. I haven’t entirely made up my mind yet, but for the record, here’s how I’m currently feeling about all the usual suspects:

James Comey. Yeah, I think he made a big difference. Pretty much everyone on both sides agrees that support for Clinton shifted in response to Comey’s first letter and then again in response to his second letter. My guess is that his last minute intervention swayed the vote by about 2 percent. That’s not a lot, but in this election it was the difference between winning and losing.

Whitelash. In general, I’m unconvinced. White voters made up 72 percent of the electorate in 2012 and 70 percent in 2016. This doesn’t suggest that Trump motivated white voters to turn out in unprecedented numbers. Nor did white voters support Trump at a higher rate than they supported Romney. However, there’s more to this….

The white working class. Maybe. They did vote for Trump in greater numbers than they voted for Romney, but that merely extended a trend that’s decades old. The white working class has been getting steadily more Republican since Nixon, so it’s not clear if Trump accelerated this trend or merely benefited from it. It’s also possible that rural blue-collar whites had a substantial effect in a few key swing states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin) even if they didn’t have a big effect nationally. We need more data here.

Racism. This one is tricky. Obviously Trump appealed to white racism, but it’s not as if racism suddenly spiked in 2016. It’s about the same as it’s always been, and it’s hard to see in the data that it made a big difference compared to previous years. However, we did learn something new and disheartening: it didn’t make a difference. In 2012, 93 percent of Republicans voted for Romney. This year, 90 percent voted for Trump. It turns out that Republicans just don’t care about explicit appeals to racism and misogyny. You can be as openly bigoted as you want, and you’ll only lose 3 percent of the Republican vote.

Third parties. This doesn’t explain anything. Third-party candidates did double their vote share compared to 2012, but so what? Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were candidates in 2012 too. If they got more votes this year, it’s because the two major party candidates were less appealing than Obama and Romney—which is what we’re trying to explain in the first place.

The fundamentals. This probably had a bigger effect than it’s getting credit for. There are lots of models out there, but generally speaking they mostly suggested that 2016 was a very winnable year for Republicans. The economy was OK but not great; Democrats had been in office for eight years; and Obama’s approval rating was mediocre. Clinton was fighting a modestly uphill battle the whole way.

The media. I think the press played a significant role in Trump’s victory, though the evidence is all anecdotal. Two things were in play. First, Trump hacked cable news. He figured out that they’re basically in the entertainment business and will provide endless coverage to anyone who drives ratings. The more outrageous he was, the more coverage he got. Second, the media’s gullible willingness to cover Clinton’s email woes so relentlessly hurt her badly. It’s easy to say that Clinton has no one but herself to blame for this, and there’s something to that. Still, even long after they should have known better, the press reported every new development in breathless tones and 60-point headlines—even though, time after time, it turned out there was nothing there. They got played—and what’s worse, they got played by the same wide-ranging cast of Hillary haters that’s played them before.

Sexism. I don’t know. It obviously seems likely that it played a role, but I haven’t seen any real data to back it up.

Lousy turnout from Democrats. Maybe. It appears that voter turnout in general was down from 2012, but only slightly—and once all the votes are counted it might be dead even. In any case, turnout seems to have affected Democrats and Republicans about equally. We need more data before we can say much about this.

Millennials. This clearly had an effect. Young voters abandoned Clinton in much greater numbers than older voters (about 5 percent vs. 1 percent, by my calculation). Likewise, third parties got about 9 percent of the millennial vote, compared to 3 percent of the older vote. There’s not much question that Clinton did poorly among millennials, and this reduced her overall vote total by 1-2 percentage points. The question is why this happened. The options are (a) Clinton was a corrupt, neoliberal sellout that young voters were never likely to warm up to, or (b) Bernie Sanders convinced millions of millennials that Clinton was a corrupt, neoliberal sellout who didn’t deserve their vote. Take your pick.

Voter suppression. This had, at most, a small effect. Among the key “firewall” states that Clinton lost, Pennsylvania has no voter ID law; Michigan has a loose ID law that allows you to vote without ID if you sign an affadavit; and Wisconsin has a strict photo ID law. Wisconsin was very close, and voter ID might have made the difference there. But Clinton still would have lost.

The electoral college. Yeah, there was that.

Once again: this is my best take on all of these theories right now. But the actual evidence is still weak. CPS data won’t be available for years, and in the meantime we have exit poll data—which is suggestive but not much more—and a lot of people looking at county and precinct level data, trying to tease out who voted for whom. We’ll eventually know more, but it will take a while. Until then, it’s probably best not to be too sure of whatever your own pet theory is.

Except for James Comey, of course. That guy sucks.