The 2016 presidential-election campaign was long and arduous. And so too is the ongoing process of counting the roughly 135 million ballots cast in a relatively high-turnout election where most Americans did not vote for Donald Trump. What we have learned as the count continues is that the sweeping “Trump Triumphs” headlines and pronouncements from two weeks ago created Republican delusions of electoral grandeur that are not supported by the actual results.
After Trump was declared the winner, his supporters rushed to claim a mandate. Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman who is now set to serve as the White House chief of staff, announced on ABC’s Good Morning America that November 8 had produced “an electoral landslide” in which “the American people agreed that Donald Trump’s vision for America is what this country has been waiting for.” PolitiFact reviewed the chairman’s statement and concluded: “We rate Priebus’ claim False.”
That’s an understatement. As the votes continue to be counted in a process that will not be completed until mid-December, the myths of election night are giving way to the cold, hard reality that voters turned out in large numbers to reject Trump’s vision. They favored Clinton over the Republican nominee by a significant popular-vote margin. Trump is succeeding not based on the popular will but by assembling an Electoral College majority based on exceptionally narrow margins in a handful of battleground states.
Here’s what we know two weeks after the election:
Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote lead is unprecedented in modern times.
1. Hillary Clinton is winning the national popular vote by more than 2 million votes.
Two weeks after the polls closed, the Democratic nominee had 64,225,534 votes to 62,209,804 votes for Trump in the well-regarded count maintained by David Wasserman for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Those numbers put Clinton ahead by more than 2 million votes, a number roughly parallel to that seen in a count maintained by David Leip, another serious monitor of the results.
Clinton’s margin will grow significantly, as it is estimated that several million votes have yet to be counted in western states (particularly California) that encourage high turnouts, that are meticulous about the process of counting absentee and provisional ballots, and that have strongly favored Clinton in this election. Clinton has also picked up tens of thousands of votes as local and state election officials in Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and other states continue standard reviews of vote tabulations. Wasserman and others now estimate that the Democratic ticket is likely to finish with a popular-vote advantage over Trump of roughly 2.5 million.
2. Clinton’s “winner-but-loser” popular-vote lead is extending to levels that are unprecedented in modern times.
Four candidates who lost the popular vote have assumed the presidency thanks to the Electoral College or decisions made by the Congress. But there has only been one instance since 1900 when a popular-vote loser “won”: that of Republican George W. Bush, who took office despite the fact that 543,816 more Americans voted in 2000 for Democrat Al Gore.
Clinton’s popular-vote advantage over Trump is now more than three times as large as Gore’s advantage over Bush. No Electoral College “loser” has ever opened up so wide a popular-vote lead over the Electoral College winner as Clinton now has over Trump. And the Democrat’s margin is growing.
Clinton’s popular-vote lead is now so substantial that it can be compared not merely with losers of the presidency but with winners. The former secretary of state enjoys a popular-vote advantage that is now 15 times greater than that of John Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960. Her lead is now more than three times greater than that of Richard Nixon over Hubert Humphrey in 1968. It has even surpassed that of Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford in 1976.
3. Trump’s percentage of the popular vote is declining.
As Clinton’s advantage grows, her percentage of the popular vote increases; she’s now around 48 percent. At the same time, Trump’s percentage declines; he’s now around 46.5 percent.
The overall results remind us that the majority of Americans did not vote for Trump for president. In addition to the roughly 64.1 million votes that have been counted for Clinton so far, another 7.1 million have been counted for third-party and independent candidates. With scattered write-in votes, that means that 53.5 percent of voters chose not to cast ballots for the Republican nominee. Only 52.8 percent of Americans rejected Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
4. Trump’s Electoral College lead is narrow.
Sometimes a candidate loses the popular vote, or gets a low percentage of the popular vote in a multi-candidate race, but wins the Electoral College decisively. That’s not the case this year. If the official reconciliation of votes identifies Trump as the winner in all the states where he is leading—as is likely—he will gain an Electoral College victory somewhere in the range of 306 to 232 (depending on whether all electors follow the dictates of the voters in the states they represent). That, as serious analysts of electoral politics remind us, is far short of a “landslide.”
“Calling a 306 electoral-vote victory a ‘landslide’ is ridiculous,” says Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Trump’s Electoral College majority is actually similar to John F. Kennedy’s 303 in 1960 and Jimmy Carter’s 297 in 1976. Has either of those victories ever been called a landslide? Of course not—and JFK and Carter actually won the popular vote narrowly.”
And here’s another twist: Trump’s Electoral College advantage extends from very narrow leads in several battleground states. In Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Trump’s ahead by around 1 percent of the vote. Out of almost 3 million ballots cast in Wisconsin, for instance, Trump’s ahead by roughly 27,000 votes. In Michigan, the Republican’s roughly 9,500-vote lead (out of 4.8 million votes cast) is so small that some Clinton backers hold out hope that it could be upset in a final review of voting in the state.
5. Clinton and Trump backers should share an interest in ensuring that all the votes are counted and that the final results are accurate.
The long counting process has stirred frustration on the part of Clinton and Trump backers. Social media is filled with bickering between the camps. That’s not new. Close elections in trying times invariably inspire disagreements. But, especially in an era of fake news and hyper-partisanship, getting state and national counts right is crucial. As states complete official reviews in anticipation of the December 13 deadline for certifying results before the December 19 Electoral College vote, a number of sincere calls have been made for reviews, recounts, and audits of the numbers. These are not annoyances or distractions; these are common responses to close contests.
Ron Rivest, an institute professor at MIT who was a member of the US Election Assistance Commission Technical Guidelines Development Committee, and Philip Stark, an associate dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, who was appointed to the board of advisers of the US Election Assistance Commission, have argued for audits of election results—especially in closely contested states. They note much reported pre-election concerns about hacking, but offer a broader argument for audits. “Computers counted the vast majority of the 130 million votes cast in this year’s election,” the pair wrote in a postelection article for USA Today. “Even without hacking, mistakes are inevitable. Computers can’t divine voter intent perfectly; computers can be misconfigured; and software can have bugs.”
Audits are not full recounts of all the ballots. They are reviews of a random sample of the ballots cast, which provide assurance that voting machinery and procedures have functioned properly.
Clinton backers have embraced proposals for audits, and several computer scientists and voting-rights activists have argued that Clinton’s campaign should call for full recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But Republicans also have reason to be interested in audits and recounts. While Trump’s advantage in several Great Lakes states is narrow, for instance, Clinton’s just barely ahead in states such as New Hampshire and Minnesota. With so many states so closely divided, Rivest and Stark argue that audits can “ensure that the machinery of democracy worked.”
Contrary to much of the initial reporting on results from around the country, the 2016 election drew a relatively high turnout by American standards. Two weeks after the polls closed, the review maintained by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report indicated that 133,475,821 votes had been counted. That’s roughly 4.5 million more than in the final 2012 count. It is also more than the final count in 2008, which was generally viewed as a high-turnout election. The US Election Project is now anticipating that the final count will be around 135,000,000.
The number of eligible voters has expanded, of course, so the actual percentage of the population casting ballots in 2016 is still below that of 2008, when turnout of eligible voters hit 62.2 percent. But this year’s turnout is likely to be comparable to 2012, when turnout was pegged at 58.6 percent. That’s still an absurdly low level of participation when compared to other countries. But the 2016 turnout rate did not collapse nationally.
6. Relatively high turnout did not translate into a mandate for Donald Trump or his party.
Talk of landslides and mandates should be put aside. This election offered a clear indication only that the United States is a divided nation. The Republican Party did not sweep the voting.
The Republican nominee lost the popular vote for the presidency. Preliminary results suggest that Democratic led in the overall popular vote by for Senate seats by almost six million votes. Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate, and Democrats picked up at least six seats in the House.
Democrats should not be satisfied with those results. The party and its candidates made strategic errors in 2016 and those errors cost them dearly. If Democrats do not learn from them, the party’s congressional caucuses will not mount an effective opposition in the next two years, and the party’s candidates will not be prepared to capitalize on the electoral opportunities that are presented in 2018 and 2020.
But Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to recognize that there was no “landslide” victory for Trump on November 8, and that no mandate for Trumpism can be found in the results of the 2016 election.