WASHINGTON – Elections regularly inspire an orgy of hype — and so it is with this one. The Democrats are in disarray, it’s said. Unless they’re enormously skillful or lucky, they risk becoming a minority party indefinitely. Be skeptical. The reality is that these dire forecasts have a habit of not coming true.
Remember Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964. After Watergate, Republicans seemed doomed. Ronald Reagan’s two successful terms, followed by the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988, seemed to entrench Republicans.
In each case, something (Vietnam, double-digit inflation, recession) altered the calculus and confirmed a long-standing axiom of U.S. politics: When Americans are unhappy, they throw out the party in the White House.
So we need to be wary now. The grim diagnoses for Democrats are surely overdone. It’s true that Trump’s victory was astonishing — but only because most political experts had predicted his defeat and, more important, because he survived his own behavior, which violated so many established norms of public conduct.
Once you dispense with this astonishing fact, Trump’s triumph appears less out-of-the ordinary. I have spent some time studying election statistics. Herein, some conclusions:
Despite all the vitriol — or perhaps because of it — the public was not nearly as engaged with the campaign as the round-the-clock cable and internet news media made it seem. One standard measure of political interest is whether people voted; fewer did, proportionally, than in 2012. Between that election and this, the voting eligible population grew 9 million to 232 million, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Election Project. But actual voting increased only by 4 million. Voter turnout was 58.1 percent, down from 58.6 percent, reports the Election Project.
Donald Trump did not win the election so much as Hillary Clinton lost it. In 2012, President Barack Obama won with almost 66 million votes; Clinton’s total was 63 million. Although that may increase slightly with some late reporting, it will not approach Obama’s count. If Clinton had simply matched Obama, she almost certainly would have captured the Electoral College and become president-elect.
Trump’s performance was less spectacular than it seemed — at least as measured by votes — and, in some crucial ways, was no better than Mitt Romney’s. Romney was criticized as a poor campaigner, but his popular vote and Trump’s were roughly equal (60.9 million), even though there were more eligible voters in 2016. Remember also that Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by more than a million votes.
Voting patterns are remarkably stable. Consider the share of white voters who supported the Republican candidate in the last four presidential elections (2004-2016): 58 percent, 55, 59, 58, report exit polls compiled by the American Enterprise Institute. Similarly, here’s the share of African-American voters who backed the Democratic candidate: 88, 95, 93, 88. Campaigning concentrates on a small sliver of voters whose minds aren’t made up or who are open to change.
Some lessons are plain. One is that the Democrats’ vaunted “ground game” — the get-out-the-vote operation — was vastly overrated. Another is that elections rarely produce genuine “mandates,” though leaders of both parties routinely claim that they do. (Not surprisingly, Trump is asserting a mandate to shake up Washington.) The people may have “spoken,” but their message is usually limited to voting for one candidate over another. Broader themes have to be inferred or invented.
With some exceptions (Abraham Lincoln 1860, Franklin Roosevelt 1932, Lyndon Johnson 1964 are examples), elections do not signal upheavals in American life. The commentariat — scholars, pundits, columnists, bloggers — have an interest in saying otherwise. They build impressive theories of social, political and economic change based on elections where the candidates are separated by only a few percent of the vote.
When you hear these pronouncements, you ought to temper them with history. It teaches that public opinion is fickle.
Robert J. Samuelson writes a column on business and economics for The Washington Post. © 2016, The Washington Post Writers Group
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