What Really Happened in 2016: Math, Not Myths

By Steve Phillips - Preface to 2nd Edition, Brown Is the New White

In trying to make sense of the 2016 election outcome, many people are buying into a myth about what happened, and they are ignoring the underlying math that explains what really happened.  The six charts in this Appendix illustrate - with facts, not fantasy - why Democrats lost the election.  They did not lose because huge numbers of Obama voters defected to Trump (as the myth would have it).  They lost because many African Americans did not vote at all and because large numbers of Obama voters defected to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein (what I call the "Johnstein voters.”).  What the data shows is that the path back to power requires re-inspiring Black voters and re-engaging the progressives who drifted to third and fourth parties.

The 2016 presidential was decided by a total of 78,000 votes in the historically Democratic states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.  These charts tell the story of that tragic shortfall.

The Cornerstone Crumbled

African American voters are the most Democratic voters of all, and they were the cornerstone of the Obama coalition, comprising 24% of all Democratic voters in 2012.  Black voter turnout rates nationally had steadily climbed since the year 2000, cresting in Obama’s re-election bid when 60% of all eligible African Americans cast ballots.  In 2016, however, African Americans were taken for granted, overlooked, and under-invested in.  I wrote a column for The Nation magazine in June of 2016 titled, “Are Black Voters Invisible to Democrats” where I tried to sound the alarm about the appalling absence of money moving to get Black folks out to vote.  Of the first $200 million earmarked by progressive independent groups in 2016, $0 was allocated for African American voter mobilization, and the Clinton campaign decided to field an uninspiring, all-White presidential ticket. 

The results were catastrophic - and entirely predictable.  Black voter turnout plummeted to its lowest level in 16 years.  Had African Americans voted in the levels they did in 2012, Hillary Rodham Clinton would have won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and she would be President of the United States.


US Census Bureau

Wisconsin:  What Really Happened

Not only was there not a huge surge of Obama voters to Trump, but Trump actually received fewer votes in Wisconsin than Mitt Romney did four years earlier.  What did happen is that, in a state Clinton lost by 22,000 votes, tens of thousands more people voted for the third and fourth party candidates than had done so in 2012.  Furthermore, in Milwaukee - a city that is nearly 60% Black and Latino - 65,000 fewer people voted in 2016 than had done so in 2012.


Michigan:  What Really Happened

In Michigan, nearly 5 million people voted, and the margin was just 10,704 votes. As with Wisconsin, either higher Black voter turnout or fewer defections to third and fourth parties would have won the state for the Democrats.


Pennsylvania:  What Really Happened

In Pennsylvania, the third and fourth party defections were not as decisive as the Black voter drop-off.  Clinton lost the state by 47,000 votes, and 137,000 fewer African Americans cast ballots than did so in 2012.