Skip to main content

This is the first article in a series that reviews news coverage of the 2016 general election, explores how Donald Trump won and why his chances were underrated by the most of the American media.

Donald Trump’s victory in last November’s election victory came despite the fact that he lost the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, making for the widest discrepancy between the popular vote and the Electoral College since 1876. So one measure of the quality of horse-race analysis is in how seriously it entertained the possibility of such a split in Trump’s favor. This is one point on which the data geeks generally came closer to getting the right answer. FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model, for example, saw the Electoral College as a significant advantage for Trump, and projected that he’d be about even money to win the Electoral College even if he lost the popular vote by 1 to 2 percentage points. Overall, it assigned a 10.5 percent chance to Trump’s winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, but less than a 1 percent chance of Hillary Clinton’s doing the same.

By contrast, much of the conventional reporting during the campaign wrongly presumed that the Electoral College would be an advantage for Clinton. For instance, on July 30 — at a time just after the conventions when national polls showed Clinton and Trump almost tied1 — The New York Times wrote of Trump’s “daunting electoral map” and narrow path to 270 electoral votes:

Even as Mr. Trump has ticked up in national polls in recent weeks, senior Republicans say his path to the 270 Electoral College votes needed for election has remained narrow — and may have grown even more precarious. It now looks exceedingly difficult for him to assemble even the barest Electoral College majority without beating Hillary Clinton in a trifecta of the biggest swing states: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The article would go on to cite premises that reflected the idea of the “emerging Democratic majority,” the phrase coming from the title of a 2002 book by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, which argued that the country’s changing demographics — particularly, the growing number of minority and college-educated voters — worked in Democrats’ favor. For instance, the Times implied that Trump’s problems among “Hispanic voters and suburban moderates” constituted an especially big liability in the Electoral College.

But the “emerging Democratic majority” had a lot of flaws, some of which had been pointed out by data-savvy journalists for years. (See for example Real ClearPolitics’s Sean Trende, The Upshot’s Nate Cohn, and FiveThirtyEight contributor David Wasserman.) One basic problem with the theory is that while white voters without college degrees might have been declining as a share of the electorate, they still represented a hugely influential group and significantly outnumbered racial minorities in the electorate. According to Wasserman’s estimates, 42 percent of voters are whites without college degrees. By comparison, 27 percent of voters are nonwhite. If white noncollege voters were to start voting Republican by the same margins that minorities voted for Democrats, Democrats were potentially in a lot of trouble, even if they also made gains among college-educated whites.

Furthermore, whites without college degrees are overrepresented in swing states as compared to the country as a whole. Sure, there were some exceptions, such as Virginia. But in the average swing state — weighted by its likelihood of being the tipping-point state — whites without college degrees make up an average of 45.3 percent of the electorate, higher than their 41.6 percent share nationwide. That’s a big part of why Clinton won the popular vote while losing the Electoral College.

Florida 17.6% 40.1%
Pennsylvania 12.3 49.8
Michigan 11.7 52.5
North Carolina 11.2 40.4
Virginia 6.0 36.7
Colorado 6.0 41.6
Ohio 5.2 53.3
Wisconsin 4.8 57.2
Minnesota 3.8 53.7
Nevada 3.7 41.9
Arizona 2.8 41.6
New Mexico 2.8 27.5
New Hampshire 2.3 56.5
Georgia 2.3 34.2
Iowa 1.3 62.0
Weighted avg. of tipping-point states 45.3
United States 41.6
Swing states had an above average share of white noncollege voters

The weighted average includes states where the tipping-point chance was below Iowa’s 1.3 percent.

The “emerging Democratic majority” also hadn’t held up that well empirically. Since the book was written, Democrats had good election cycles in 2006, 2008 and 2012 but bad ones in 2004, 2010 and 2014 — and had decent results in federal elections but had fared miserably in elections for governor and state legislatures.

Why then, did the idea have such currency? One reason may be that it was seductive to liberal cosmopolitans, a category that includes most journalists at the Times and at other news outlets (including FiveThirtyEight). If you live in a big city and work in an industry dominated by college-educated professionals, you might intuitively overestimate the education level of the electorate and how rapidly it was diversifying.

There’s a more banal possibility also: The failure to see Clinton’s vulnerabilities in the Electoral College reflected a lack of attention to detail. It was easy to make a superficial case along the following lines: Democrats had won two presidential elections in a row, the minority population was growing, and states such as Arizona were becoming more competitive. Therefore, Advantage Clinton in the Electoral College. By contrast, the flaws in the argument required a pencil and paper — or a spreadsheet — to work out. If you weren’t being careful, you might have missed that the Midwestern states moving away from Clinton had a lot more electoral votes than the ones like Arizona that were moving toward her, or that polls showed her substantially underperforming Obama in middle-class states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan. Another important detail — as discovered by Cohn — is that exit polls had probably overstated the diversity and education levels of the electorate.

Or it may be that these are really two sides of the same coin: Because journalists were predisposed toward the assumption that the country was too diverse to elect Trump, they didn’t probe it for flaws as much as they might have otherwise. The “emerging Democratic majority” was reasonable-sounding argument, but it didn’t hold up well to scrutiny and it didn’t get enough of it.

VIDEO: The long, storied history of Inauguration Day weather


  1. This was before Clinton’s convention bounce would become apparent in the polls.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Comments Add Comment