Karl Rove: Donald Trump Won Because Hillary Clinton Failed to Energize Voters

About 3.5 million Obama voters in 2012 didn’t cast ballots for Hillary this time.

Nov. 16, 2016 7:25 p.m. ET

Much of what passes for conventional wisdom about Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton is correct. But the Fox News exit poll shows interesting nuances.

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Voters were supposed to be energized and turnout to be vast. The pool of eligible voters rose 5.5% compared with four years ago—to 227 million from 215.1 million, according to the Census Bureau. Yet the number of ballots cast increased only 1.5%, to 131.2 million from 129.2 million. (Another million votes or so, mostly mail-in ballots from the West Coast, are still to be counted.)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

More striking: The votes cast for the two major parties fell in absolute terms. In 2012 the Republicans and Democrats took 126.9 million votes. This year? Only 123.7 million. Third-party candidates grabbed their biggest share since 1996: 5.5%, which translates into 7.5 million votes.

This is the fifth time in history that the winner of the Electoral College also lost the popular vote. It is the 14th time that the winner didn’t receive 50% of ballots. So far Mr. Trump has 61.3 million votes, or 46.8%, to Mrs. Clinton’s 62.4 million, or 47.7%. Her popular-vote lead will likely grow as ballots trickle in from predominantly blue states.

ENLARGE
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

How do those figures compare with 2012? Mr. Trump received about 317,000 more ballots than Mitt Romney, but also a slightly smaller—0.5%—percentage of voters. Mrs. Clinton received 3.5 million fewer ballots and 3.4% less than President Barack Obama. Both candidates this year won fewer white votes—Mr. Trump 1.6 million and Mrs. Clinton 2.3 million—than four years ago.

In other words, Mr. Trump didn’t win because he greatly expanded the GOP, but because Mrs. Clinton lost a significant chunk of the Obama coalition. Compared with 2012 she dropped 1.8 million African-Americans, one million voters age 18-29, 1.8 million voters aged 30-44, 2.6 million Catholics, and nearly 4.5 million voters with family income of $30,000 or less.

Because the Hispanic share of the electorate rose from 10% to 11%, Mrs. Clinton received nearly 9.4 million Latino votes, up 180,000 from Mr. Obama’s total in 2012. But because Mr. Trump won 29% of Hispanics, up from Mr. Romney’s 27%, the president-elect won 4.2 million Latino votes, roughly 690,000 more than Mr. Romney.

The dominant narrative is that Mr. Trump rode a wave of blue-collar, working-class support, created in large part by concerns about globalization. The former interpretation, with caveats, is largely accurate; the latter less so.

Working-class voters have been deserting the Democratic Party since the late 1960s. They were an important part of Richard Nixon’s silent majority, and many later became Reagan Democrats. It’s true that they helped propel Mr. Trump’s victory, especially in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

But these voters aren’t what most pundits imagine, not simply people with little formal education. Only 18% of voters had a high school education or less, down from 24% last time, according to the exit poll. Mr. Trump received 12 million votes from them, 2.2 million fewer than Mr. Romney. Mrs. Clinton got 10.6 million votes, 5.8 million fewer than Mr. Obama.

Those with a two-year degree or some college grew to 32% of turnout, up from 29%. Compared with 2012, Mr. Trump gained 3.8 million, and Mrs. Clinton dropped 350,000. Voters with a B.A. also increased to 32% from 29%. Among them Mr. Trump gained 260,000 and Mrs. Clinton gained 2.9 million.

So Mr. Trump’s advantage among voters with some college outweighed Mrs. Clinton’s among people with four-year degrees. Both candidates suffered losses among high-school-educated voters, but Mrs. Clinton’s deficit was twice as large.

Despite the anti-globalization rhetoric, the electorate seems to have been motivated by concrete concerns about the current economy. About a third of voters told exit pollsters that the economy was “excellent” or “good,” and Mrs. Clinton took 77% of them. But among the nearly two-thirds who felt the economy was “not so good” or “poor,” Mr. Trump won 63%.

When asked if they wanted the next president to continue Mr. Obama’s policies, 28% of voters said “yes.” They broke 91% for Mrs. Clinton. The 48% who said they wanted more conservative policies went 83% for Mr. Trump.

Americans were historically unenthusiastic about their choices in this election. Eighteen percent of voters said they had a favorable opinion of neither Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton. Those voters broke for the president-elect by 20 points, 49% to 29%.

As a result, the electorate could get grumpy quickly if President Trump doesn’t produce bigger paychecks and stronger growth. The economy remains the paramount issue for the incoming administration.

Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is the author of “The Triumph of William McKinley” (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

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