Expert Q&A: The 2016 Election


The 2016 presidential election delivered a surprising result. We turned to our resident experts on American politics to get some answers.

November 15, 2016 — Last week's presidential election was, for many Americans, one of the most shocking political events of their lives. Real estate magnate and reality TV personality Donald J. Trump (R-N.Y.) defeated former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in a race that featured unprecedented vitriol and the breaking of many supposedly ironclad traditions in presidential politics.

Despite virtually all pollsters giving Clinton a modest national lead throughout the campaign and anywhere from a 70 to a 99 percent chance of winning on election day, Trump undermined her advantage in the electoral college by swinging longtime blue states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan (pending final results) into his column and holding on to swing states Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio. Clinton is still expected to win the national popular vote by a 1-2 point margin, but as we've seen in four other elections — 1824, 1872, 1888, and 2000 — that does not guarantee her the presidency.

We reached out to some of the Department of Government's experts on American politics and the presidency to help parse out how Tuesday's results happened, what was truly unexpected, and how this affects the political system moving forward.

How did virtually every pundit get this election so wrong?

Hans Noel: They didn’t get it “so wrong.” Most everyone thought Clinton would win, but for many, the expectation was not a blowout. Modest polling errors like this are common. It’s just that they don’t usually mean a change in who wins.

But the polls were definitely off. There are several possible reasons. First, there may have been Trump voters who didn’t want to say they were voting for Trump (or who had not yet decided themselves), and reported incorrectly. Second, more likely, Trump voters may have been less willing to answer polls, especially if they think the media are biased and not to be trusted. And third, perhaps most likely of all, pollsters have to predict who will turn out to vote, and those predictions were wrong.

It’s worth noting, though, that the way most political scientists think about elections is that the background of the election — what we call the “fundamentals” — matter more than anything the candidates do. These are things like the state of the economy, which in 2016 had only modest growth, and whether the incumbent president is running. There are many different ways to look at these things, but they mostly predicted a very close race or a modest Republican victory. And that’s what happened.

What does this mean for the future of the Democratic coalition? The Republicans? Who do you see emerging as new leaders?

HN: It’s too early to say. Right now, Democrats are falling all over themselves assigning blame. It’s cathartic, but in the end, what matters is who sticks around and fights on. We’ll see who that is.

For the Republicans, the Trump victory really revealed the cleavages within their coalition. The alt-right backers of Trump are at odds with the libertarians and with the moderate Wall Street Republicans. But it’s a coalition like any other. They have the reins of power, and there are things they can agree on doing. The fractures may mean that some proposals go nowhere, such as Trump’s infrastructure initiatives, but others will succeed.

What will be the major political battles of the next 2-4 years? What will hold particular political salience?

HN: I don’t see a huge realignment here, so I think we’ll see the same issues resurface. Taxes. Spending. Social programs. Abortion. And especially immigration. But on many of them, Republicans will be in a position to move policy in the opposite direction that Obama and the Democrats had moved it. In some of the issues where Trump differs from Republicans, such as trade, there may be less change or more sporadic change.

One issue that will be particularly salient is voting. There is a cleavage between those who want to expand voting rights and make it easier for everyone to vote and those who argue that such provisions make it easier to commit voter fraud. There is really no evidence for widespread voter fraud, but election administration is conducted at the local level, and there are lots of places where it can seem possible. Now that Republicans control the federal government and many state governments, it will be easier to implement restrictions aimed at reducing fraud, but which will also affect voting access for those who would not commit fraud.

In what ways should we expect future elections to be similar to this one? Different?

HN: There’s been a lot of talk about how this election is different, and it was different. But it’s also in many ways the same. Republican and Democratic voters voted for their own parties at about the same rates as in previous elections. The tone of the discourse was worse, but it had been moving in that direction already.

After the issues raised in this campaign, why did American women — specifically, white American women — vote the way they did?

Michele Swers: Generally, people vote their party first. Clinton received the support of 89 percent of Democrats and Trump got 90 percent of Republicans. Historically, white women, who the press often refer to as the soccer moms and the Wal-Mart moms, vote Republican. Clinton's gender gap was similar to Obama's. She did better than Obama with white college educated women and won this group of women, but she lost the non-college educated white women by a large margin. Across the board, women were less likely to support Trump than men in the same category — so while Trump won 62 percent of non-college white women, he did 10 points better with non-college educated white men.

Do you believe sexist attitudes were a major factor in Clinton's defeat?

MS: It is likely that Clinton's gender made it more difficult for her to get support from men, and white non-college educated men in particular.  Some Trump supporters certainly used sexist slurs in their attacks on Clinton, and he encouraged that with his treatment of her.

Do you expect the issues we've historically considered "women's issues" to continue to be a salient point in future elections?

MS: Social issues, particularly abortion, will continue to be a focus of elections in the future, because women's groups are central to the Democratic base and care deeply about equal pay, reproductive rights and other policies aimed at working women, single mothers and other groups of women. 

On the Republican side, social conservatives are very focused on abortion. Trump has promised to appoint a Supreme Court justice that will overturn Roe v. Wade, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence has focused on abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood throughout his congressional career and his term as governor of Indiana. The number of women in the workforce continues to grow, and government policies will need to change to support working women and their families.  Trump was the first Republican candidate to suggest paid family leave, and he has focused on using the tax code to help parents pay for child care and to encourage employers to offer child care. If he pursues these policies in office, that will be an important advancement for women in the workforce.

How do you reconcile a historic night for female elected officials at most levels with a defeat at the highest level?

MS: Looking at the Congressional elections, there were some important advancements for women, particularly women of color. But overall, women did not make big gains in Congress.  There will be 78 Democratic women and 26 Republican women in the 115th Congress. This represents two more Democratic women and two fewer Republican women then served in the 114th Congress.  Since most women in Congress are in the Democratic party, when Democrats have a bad night, so do women — and many of the women in competitive House seats lost.

The greatest gains were for women of color, particularly in the Senate. Prior to this election there were only two women of color who had ever served in the Senate: Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) from 1993-98, and Georgetown alum Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) (L'78), who was elected in 2012. 

Now, for the first time, there will be more than one woman of color in the Senate. Kamala Harris of California has both African-American and Indian-American heritage. Catherine Cortez Mastro (D-Nev.) will be the first Latina elected to the Senate. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is Asian-American, and the first Democratic woman with military service elected to the Senate (Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), elected in 2014, was the first woman elected to the Senate who served in the military). In the House, Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) will be the first African-American woman elected from Delaware. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) will be the first Indian-American woman in the House. 

Why did pre-election models of voter behavior fail?

Michael Bailey: One the one hand, reports of their failure are a bit overstated. Polls said Clinton would win about 3 percent more than Trump nationally, and she won about 1 percent more.  This is within the norm for polls.  They are never perfect.

On the other hand, they failed in a rather dramatic fashion by suggesting that Clinton had leads in all the battleground states. This may have made her complacent (she never even visited Wisconsin) and some of her supporters may have not voted or may have worked less hard to mobilize support on her behalf. There are two places where polls can fail: failing to predict who will vote (the "turnout model"), and failing to account for non-response bias (meaning that the types of people who responded were systematically more favorable to Clinton even after accounting for their age, gender etc). I think there were modest failures on both counts, and they added up to a catastrophic failure.

What were the most surprising changes in voting patterns between 2012 and 2016?

MB: Less urban areas went incredibly strongly for Trump. There is a story about class here: Clinton's elite supporters looked down on these areas of the country and paid a price. There is also a story about race: These are predominantly white areas. I think both aspects were in play. But these are not hard-wired into our system as Obama did perfectly well in many of these areas (at least in the midwest) in 2008.

What trends from this election do you expect to last through future elections? Will enough of these trends last to require a fundamental party base realignment?

MB: There have been several trends that could continue beyond this election. Older, white voters in less urbanized areas are moving the the Republican Party — especially in the Midwest, where they had historically been relatively friendly toward the Democratic Party.  Non-white and younger voters are moving toward the Democrats.  We're not at a fundamental realignment. Remember: A majority of people voted for Clinton. If Trump's presidency succeeds, I expect him to hang onto this coalition. If it fails, I think a strong Democratic candidate could easily win back many of the midwestern states Clinton lost.

How big a factor in the outcome was voter suppression/low turnout?

MB: Turnout seems to be very important.  Clinton underperformed Obama in several key areas, such as Detroit.  On the one hand, this is not too surprising given the historic nature of Obama's presidency and tendency of voters to tire of the party in (presidential) power.  On the other hand, demographics were moving in Clinton's favor, and I think many expected the fear of Trump to motivate Democratic-leaning voters. 

I don't think we have the full story on the extent to which changes in voting laws affected the election.  We do know a few things however. One, there is absolutely no evidence that the in-person voter fraud that could (conceivably) be affected by voter ID laws is a problem. Two, we know that the people pushing these laws are strong partisans who have a record of changing a series of laws in ways that advantage Republicans. For example, North Carolina Republicans changed early voting location sites in a way that clearly disadvantaged African-American voters. They then bragged about reductions in black early voting. This is shameful and not something that the courts should allow.

At this point, these laws are probably best viewed as another in a series of disadvantages the Democrats operate under in contemporary politics.

How do you see the legacy of Barack Obama's presidency playing out?

Stephen J. Wayne: Obama's principal legacy will be the contributions he has made to the country's economic recovery from the Great Recession, his reversal of military policy from "boots on the ground and ships at sea" to the use of special forces and new technologies to advance America's military objectives, and his attempt to provide opportunities for health insurance for all Americans, especially the elimination of preconditions for coverage and the extension of family coverage to children 26 or younger. He has also appointed more women and minorities to executive and judicial federal government positions than any of his predecessors.

Do you expect Trump to succeed in expanding the powers of the presidency — as most modern presidents have done — or be largely reined in by his party/Congress?

SJW: Trump will build on the increased expansion of the president's executive powers, with or without congressional approval.

What aspect of the presidency stands to change the most from a Trump administration?

SJW: Taxation, health care, environmental, and perhaps educational policies will change the most during a Trump presidency.

What will be the biggest determinant of whether Trump is elected to a second term or not?

SJW: Reelection will depend on the extent to which he is able to achieve policy change and the impact that change has on the people who voted for him.

Hans Noel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government whose research and teaching focuses on political party coalitions and ideology.

Michele Swers is a Professor in the Department of Government whose research and teaching focuses on Congressional politics, primarily the impact of women on politics and policymaking.

Michael Bailey is the Colonel William J. Walsh Professor of American Government in the Department of Government and the McCourt School of Public Policy. His research and teaching focuses on Congress, elections, trade, and the Supreme Court.

Stephen J. Wayne is a Professor in the Department of Government whose research and teaching focuses on the American presidency and electoral politics.

Questions by Patrick Curran.