This is the second 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.
If the “emerging Democratic majority” was one pillar of the flawed argument that Hillary Clinton had an Electoral College advantage over Donald Trump, the other was the “blue wall,” the claim that Democrats began with a base of 242 electoral votes because they’d won them in each election since 1992. Here’s a version of the argument as it appeared in The New York Times on July 30, for example:
For now, though, Mr. Trump is grappling with a magnified version of the dilemma that threatens to stymie Republicans every four years. Democrats have won a consistent set of 18 states in every presidential election since 1992, giving them a base of 242 Electoral College votes even before counting some of the biggest swing states. As a result, the last two Republican nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, would have needed to capture nearly all the contested states on the map in order to win.
It turned out that Clinton lost three “blue wall” states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin — along with the 2nd Congressional District of Maine. Throughout the campaign, the Times and most other news outlets had downplayed Trump’s prospects in these states, which were enough to win him the election.
What was wrong with the “blue wall” idea? You can read our longer critique here, but the gist of it is that looking at a state’s long-term voting history told you almost nothing about how it was likely to behave the next time around. California and Vermont had once been reliably red states (they had voted Republican in each election from 1968 to 1988) until they suddenly weren’t. In 1992, the first year of the “blue wall,” Arkansas and West Virginia were more Democratic than Connecticut. A state’s short-term voting history (how it voted in 2012 and 2008) might tell you something more, by contrast. But that information needed to be interpreted carefully because states rise and fall with the national tide.
An alternative to the “blue wall” and the “emerging Democratic majority” was to look at the underlying, macro-level conditions of the race, or what we sometimes refer to as the “fundamentals.” Political scientists and other empiricists disagree on exactly how to do this, and the precision of these methods can be overestimated. But there’s broad agreement on a couple of propositions:
- First, there are few if any permanent majorities. A newly elected party (for instance, Barack Obama’s Democrats before the 2012 election) often wins a second presidential term. Beyond that, it’s not much of an advantage to be the incumbent party, and it may be at a slight disadvantage when a party tries to win more than two terms in a row.
- Second, the economy matters a lot to voters, and a better economy helps the incumbent party, other factors held equal.
By this rubric, the 2008 and 2012 elections were likely to be strong years for Democrats. In 2008, Obama was facing John McCain after Republicans had held the White House for two terms and overseen a financial collapse. In 2012, Obama was a first-term incumbent running for re-election and the economy was just good enough to get him over the finish line.
But Clinton faced more headwinds in 2016, trying to win a third consecutive term for her party amid a mediocre economy. Against a “generic” Republican such as John Kasich or Marco Rubio, she might have been in a toss-up race or even a slight underdog, in fact. So she was counting on good economic news — or for Trump to underperform a “generic” Republican because of his unique flaws as a candidate1.
The “fundamentals” approach also has its limitations. There are lots of ways to measure economic conditions, and they don’t always agree with one another. Furthermore, fundamentals models don’t have any notion of what makes for a good candidate, which sometimes leads to the mistaken view that candidates and campaigns don’t matter at all.
But instead of being presented with appropriate qualifications, this perspective was almost completely lacking in coverage of the 2016 campaign.2 (And it wasn’t because reporters were unfamiliar with it: In 2012, there was lots of attention to how the economy was affecting the race, with monthly jobs reports being as hotly anticipated as new poll releases from Florida or Ohio.) Coverage rarely mentioned the parallels between Clinton and Al Gore, for instance, who had failed to win a third consecutive term for Democrats in 2000 under similar conditions to the ones Clinton faced.
Instead, 2016 was generally treated as Clinton’s race to lose when that conclusion didn’t necessarily follow from the empirical research on presidential campaigns. A better perspective was that Clinton was leading in the polls despite somewhat challenging conditions for Democrats, no doubt in part because of Trump’s flaws as a candidate. However, that made her vulnerable if the candidate-quality gap closed — whether because of her own problems as a candidate or because Trump’s performance improved — in which case partisanship would kick in and she’d be headed for a barnburner of a finish.
Incidentally, Clinton slightly outperformed the “fundamentals” according to most of the political science models, which usually forecast the popular vote rather than the Electoral College. For instance, the economic index included in FiveThirtyEight’s “polls-plus” model implied that Trump would win the popular vote by about 1 percentage point. Instead, Clinton won it by roughly 2 percentage points. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s something to consider before assuming that Clinton must have been an exceptionally flawed candidate.
It’s also possible, of course, that Clinton and Trump were both “bad” candidates but that their flaws mostly cancelled one another out. This idea would seem to be supported by their record-low favorability ratings, for example. One bit of pushback to this theory: Politicians are an unpopular lot nowadays, and most of the other men and women who ran for president in 2016 wound up with bad favorability ratings too. So Trump and Clinton’s unpopularity may have been partly an artifact of the partisan political climate.3 Either way, it’s rarely easy to win a presidential election, and Clinton was trying to win hers under more challenging conditions than what Democrats faced in 2008 and 2012.