Skip to content
Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter February 22, 2017

The 2016 Presidential Election by the Numbers and in Historical Perspective

Nicholas Jacobs

Nicholas Jacobs is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

EMAIL logo
and James W. Ceaser

James W. Ceaser is Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

EMAIL logo
From the journal The Forum


Using election results as our point of departure, this article places the 2016 presidential election in historical perspective. Trump’s victory was an “expected” outcome, as races following two-terms of one party rule usually go to the opposition party. Trump also ran close to fellow Republicans competing for Congress despite his unusual relationship with many of those in the party he captured. Trump’s victory in the presidential contest proved remarkably economical. He lost most of his votes relative to Romney in 2012 in places where it did not matter, while his opponent ran up the score in the states she already had locked down. We further measure the increasing geographic concentration of each major party’s electoral support and consider how this relates to the controversy over the Electoral College.


Regardless of who won the 2016 presidential election, parts of the script read the morning after were likely to sound the same. Inevitably there would have been talk about the incoming president’s new mandate. Words like “realignment,” “unprecedented,” “era” would make you forget that the country that existed on November 7th was the same one that existed on November 9th. One of the two major political parties was going to be on the precipice of an internal civil war. And no matter the victor, the result was going to shape the legacy of Barack Obama.

Each national election is, of course, unique – that is one of the things that makes them so interesting. Yet, there is always the risk of falling into the trap of hype and rhetorical inflation by ascribing too much specificity to any one event. The purpose of this article is to put the 2016 election into a broader historical perspective by comparing it to other modern presidential elections. Among the lessons suggested by election returns we highlight three important patterns: first, Trump’ win has much in common with the victories of other “repudiating” presidents following two-terms of one party rule; second, a trend of growing concentration of partisan support by place – not just state, but county – stands out as one of the more interesting, and challenging, developments of the past two decades; and finally, despite Trump’s unusual distance from the party he captured, his connection to races for Congress was unexceptional.

The Presidential Race

Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in the 2016 election by earning 56.9 percent of the Electoral College vote. [1] Compared to the 30 preceding presidential contests since 1896 – the year most scholars mark as the beginning of modern presidential politics – it is clear that Trump’s self-proclaimed electoral-vote “landslide” is a huge exaggeration (Table 1). [2] The scores of the presidential winners over the period have varied greatly, ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s massive victory in 1936, where he earned all but eight of the Electoral College votes that went to Alf Landon (Maine, 5; Vermont, 3), to George W. Bush’s squeaker in 2000, with 271 votes (51.2 percent). Donald Trump’s victory falls on the lower end of this spectrum, ranking 26th out of 31. Trump performed just slightly better than Richard Nixon in 1968 (55.9 percent) and Jimmy Carter in 1976 (55.31 percent), and slightly worse than Harry Truman in 1948 (57.1 percent) and John Kennedy in 1960 (58.1 percent).

Table 1:

Electoral College, Popular Vote Rankings, Two-Party Vote Share.

RankingsPercent of Electoral CollegeElectoral ScoreNew PresidentPercent of Popular VoteNew PresidentPercent Two-Party VoteNew President
198.49523-8F. Roosevelt (1936)61.05L. Johnson (1964)65.22C. Coolidge (1924)
297.21525-13R. Reagan (1984)60.80F. Roosevelt (1936)63.85W. Wilson (1912)
396.83520-17R. Nixon (1972)60.67R. Nixon (1972)63.85W. Harding (1920)
490.89489-49R. Reagan (1980)60.32W. Harding (1920)62.46F. Roosevelt (1936)
590.33486-52L. Johnson (1964)58.77R. Reagan (1984)61.79R. Nixon (1972)
688.88472-59F. Roosevelt (1932)58.21H. Hoover (1928)61.34L. Johnson (1964)
786.22457-73D. Eisenhower (1956)57.41F. Roosevelt (1932)60.01T. Roosevelt (1904)
884.56449-82F. Roosevelt (1940)57.37D. Eisenhower (1956)59.17R. Reagan (1984)
983.62444-87H. Hoover (1928)56.42T. Roosevelt (1904)59.15F. Roosevelt (1932)
1083.24442-89D. Eisenhower (1952)55.18D. Eisenhower (1952)58.80H. Hoover (1928)
1181.92435-88-8W. Wilson (1912)54.74F. Roosevelt (1940)57.75D. Eisenhower (1956)
1281.36432-99F. Roosevelt (1944)54.04C. Coolidge (1924)55.45D. Eisenhower (1952)
1379.33426-111H.W. Bush (1988)53.39F. Roosevelt (1944)55.31R. Reagan (1980)
1476.08404-127W. Harding (1920)53.37H.W. Bush (1988)55.00F. Roosevelt (1940)
1571.94282-136-13C. Coolidge (1924)52.93B. Obama (2008)54.74W. Clinton (1996)
1670.59336-140T. Roosevelt (1904)51.64W. McKinley (1900)54.51W. Taft (1908)
1770.45379-159W. Clinton (1996)51.57W. Taft (1908)53.90H.W. Bush (1988)
1868.77370-168W. Clinton (1992)51.06B. Obama (2012)53.77F. Roosevelt (1944)
1967.84365-173B. Obama (2008)51.02W. McKinley (1896)53.69B. Obama (2008)
2066.46321-162W. Taft (1908)50.75R. Reagan (1980)53.45W. Clinton (1992)
2165.32292-155W. McKinley (1900)50.73W. Bush (2004)53.15W. McKinley (1900)
2261.71332-206B. Obama (2012)50.08J. Carter (1976)52.72W. McKinley (1896)
2360.63271-176W. McKinley (1896)49.72J. Kennedy (1960)52.37H. Truman (1948)
2458.05303-219J. Kennedy (1960)49.55H. Truman (1948)51.96B. Obama (2012)
2557.06303-189-39H. Truman (1948)49.24W. Wilson (1916)51.64W. Wilson (1916)
2656.88306-232D. Trump (2016)49.23W. Clinton (1996)51.24W. Bush (2004)
2755.95301-191-46R. Nixon (1968)47.87W. Bush (2000)51.05J. Carter (1976)
2855.31297-240J. Carter (1976)47.00D. Trump (2016)50.04R. Nixon (1968)
2953.26286-251W. Bush (2004)43.42R. Nixon (1968)50.01J. Kennedy (1960)
3052.17277-254W. Wilson (1916)43.01W. Clinton (1992)49.73W. Bush (2000)
3150.47271-266W. Bush (2000)41.84W. Wilson (1912)49.47D. Trump (2016)

Gray shading corresponds with Donald Trump’s ranking in each of the three metrics.

Some contend that the Electoral College vote is a poor metric for evaluating presidential victories, even though it is the only constitutionally established rule held constant over America’s electoral history. One alternative measure that is often cited is the percentage of all ballots cast, conventionally labeled the “popular vote.” Donald Trump fares similarly here, ranking 28th by receiving 47.0 percent of the popular vote. His less-than-majority support turns out, perhaps surprisingly, to be less-than-rare, having occurred in about one-third of modern elections (nine times). Trump ranks sixth in this group, besting Richard Nixon in 1968, Bill Clinton in 1992, and Woodrow Wilson in 1912. John F. Kennedy tops the list of majority-losers in 1960 with 49.7 percent of the popular vote.

Since some elections feature significant third party challengers, analysts prefer another measure that, as it were, “controls” for this factor: the percentage of the two-party vote going to the Democratic and Republican candidates. [3] Looking at only those ballots cast for the Democratic and Republican parties, Donald Trump won 49.5 percent of the vote. He thus lost a majority of the two-party vote to Hillary Clinton. In doing so, Trump joins George W. Bush in 2000 as the only presidents in the modern period receiving fewer two-party votes than their opponents. [4] There were three other such occurrences in the 19th Century, however, as Benjamin Harrison (1888), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), and John Quincy Adams (1824) also lost the two-party vote while winning a majority in the Electoral College. [5]

Looking at all 31 of the elections, it is worth pointing out that, on average, presidents enter office having won just under 56 percent of the two-party vote. In other words, presidential elections in America tend to be fairly close affairs. Even the most recent electoral “landslide” – Ronald Reagan’s 1984 rout – was less than 10 percent greater than Donald Trump’s victory. Ten presidential elections since 1896 have fallen within a margin of three-points (the usual error factor for national polls). All of these contests were hard-fought, with a degree of unpredictability and a high chance that the election could have gone the other way. History is always written after the fact, with an evident bias that only the winner could have won.

In assessing elections, it is most instructive to try to focus on “like” cases. Donald Trump is a first-time winner, which puts him into a category with fifteen other presidents. (We exclude here the sitting presidents who assumed office by succession and who went on to run and win in their first electoral contest: Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.) Trump’s election ranks 13th out of 16 in this category by electoral vote percent, and the same in the popular vote.

In looking at the margin of victories across all 31 elections, most of the big-league (bigly?) wins in the Electoral College have come when incumbent presidents were running for reelection. This was the case with FDR in 1936 and Ronald Reagan in 1984. These are the reconfirming elections for incumbents. Some first-time winners, however, could also score big under the right set of circumstances. Ronald Reagan in 1980 captured 90.9 percent of the Electoral College, and Eisenhower, Hoover, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt all earned over 80 percent of the electoral ballots their first time on the ticket.

Another important comparison is found in the set of elections that follows two (or more) terms in which the same party has held office and is running without an incumbent. This situation, often referred to as the sitting president’s “third term” election bid, has been a common event in modern presidential politics, occurring ten times. [6] The question is whether the sitting president can pass the baton on to a successor, further confirming his vision for the country. Although would-be successors often try to create some space from the President, establishing themselves as their “own person,” they are inevitably viewed as connected to the incumbent. Hillary Clinton, even though she was not a current member of the administration, chose to tie herself as closely to the incumbent as anyone in this group, rarely breaking with President Obama and relying on him and the First Lady to campaign regularly on her behalf. The sitting President himself went to great lengths to seal this bond, suggesting that not voting for Clinton would be “a personal insult, an insult to my legacy.” [7] Here was truly a case in which, at least during the campaign, both the candidate and the President treated the election as a “third term” bid.

One rule of thumb in American politics is that incumbents are hard to beat, having won 15 out of 20 elections since 1896 while averaging a hefty 56.8 percent of the two-party vote. Their victories account for the large number of “third term” election bids. Another rule of thumb is that candidates seeking a “third term” fare poorly, prevailing just three times; only William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, and H.W. Bush have managed such a feat. The reason usually offered for their lack of success is that, after 8 years of one-party rule, the public is inclined to seek change. By this view, history was working against another Democratic victory in 2016. In fact, the political scientist Helmut Norpoth includes a “third term” as a negative factor for the incumbent party in his remarkably prescient presidential election forecasting model, which predicted a Trump victory over Clinton with 87 percent certainty. [8]

As one of the seven “repudiating” presidential candidates, how does Trump compare to the others who prevented an incumbent president’s third term? As Table 2 shows, he ranks fifth in the Electoral College vote, sixth in the popular vote, and last in the share of the two-party vote. There is an interesting quality to this group of elections, which should give some pause to the confident predictions of victory for the out-party challenger. True enough, the sitting president’s party routinely loses its fight for a third term, but the repudiators have often just barely scratched out a win. Warren Harding’s 1920 “return to normalcy” election is the exception that proves this rule. Of the six elections following Harding’s re-capture of the White House, the winners have done so with an average of just 51.4 percent of the two-party vote. The list features three of the closest elections in American history: Kennedy’s win over Richard Nixon in 1960, George W. Bush’s over Al Gore in 2000, and now Donald Trump’s over Hillary Clinton. These narrow victories indicate that if there is a breeze blowing at the back of the change candidates, it is much milder than many assume.

Table 2:

Electoral Performance after Two Terms of One-Party Control.

YearNew PresidentIncumbent PresidentWinner Pop. Vote ShareNew President EC Share (Total EC Votes)New President Two-Party Vote ShareNew President Senate Seat Pick-UpNew President House Seat Pick-Up
Incumbent President’s Party Loses
1920W. HardingW. Wilson60.32%76.01% (404)63.85%+10+62
1952D. EisenhowerH. Truman55.18%83.24% (442)55.45%+1+22
1960JFKD. Eisenhower49.72%58.05% (303)50.01%−1−18
1968R. NixonL. Johnson43.42%55.95% (301)50.04%+7+5
2000W. BushW. Clinton47.87%50.47% (271)49.73%−5−3
2008B. ObamaW. Bush52.93%67.84% (365)53.69%+8+24
2016D. TrumpB. Obama47.00%56.88% (306)49.47%−2−7
YearNew PresidentIncumbent PresidentWinner Pop. Vote ShareNew President EC Share (Total EC Votes)New President Two-Party Vote ShareNew President Senate Seat Pick-Up (% Change)New President House Seat Pick-Up (% Change)
Incumbent President’s Party Wins
1908W.H. TaftT. Roosevelt51.57%66.45% (321)54.45%−1−5
1928H. HooverC. Coolidge58.21%83.62% (444)58.79%+8+32
1988H.W. BushR. Reagan53.37%79.33% (426)53.90%+0−2

Inside the States

The American presidential election is a race for the popular vote in 51 separate contests (the fifty states plus the District of Columbia.) These contests decide the election of the presidential electors, with all but two awarding all of their electors to the statewide plurality vote winner (Maine and Nebraska distribute votes according to their congressional districts and an at-large victory). As the national popular vote is primarily a reflection of the state-by-state differences in how the campaigns mobilize voters and how voters perceive their chances of affecting the outcome, it is necessary to look at the popular vote within the states.

Donald Trump won 30 state contests, Hillary Clinton 21. [9] Trump claimed an outright majority of the voters in almost half of all the states (24), and those states gave him 212 of his 306 pledged electors. Trump won by a plurality in six states (North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin). Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, earned over 50 percent of the in-state vote in 14 contests, including Washington, DC, worth 182 of her 232 pledged electors. This left seven states that she won by plurality (Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota).

The size of the victories within some of the states bears comment, as it provides an indicator of the likely safe states in the near future. Trump won nine states with over 60 percent of the total vote, though this brought in a total of just 55 electors. Wyoming earns the prize as the most enthusiastic state for Trump giving him 70.1 percent of the ballots cast. Secretary Clinton won five states with over 60 percent of the vote DC, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts – netting her 83 electors. Hawaii was the bluest state with 62.2 percent of the vote for Clinton, but it was a pale blue in comparison with the District of Columbia, which held her opponent a miniscule 4.1 percent of all ballots cast.

A much-discussed question in Republican circles has been how Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 compares to Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012. The simple answer is that Trump won the swing states that Romney lost (Florida, Ohio) and broke into the Democrats’ blue wall (Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin). Indeed, Donald Trump did not lose a single state that Mitt Romney won; he only added to the GOP total (Table 3).

Table 3:

States by Two-Party Vote; Republican Gains and Losses from 2012.

RankingsPercent of Two-Party Vote (Republican)StateGains/Losses from 2012
272.17West Virginia8.50
369.80North Dakota9.68
665.97South Dakota7.41
2057.38South Carolina2.04
2651.97North Carolina0.94
3149.80New Hampshire2.64
3745.35New Mexico0.64
4043.17New Jersey2.15
4241.79Rhode Island5.81
4538.92New York3.22
514.25Washington, DC−3.85

Using the measure of the two-party vote share, Trump’s gains become clearer. Trump outpaced Romney by nearly a point and a half nationwide (1.43), 49.47 to 48.04 percent. Voting statistics cannot tell us whether Trump’s better performance stems chiefly from his own greater appeal or because he faced a weaker candidate, but the different distribution of votes between 2012 and 2016 is telling about for Trump’s success. Trump’s gains relative to Romney were widely dispersed geographically. He upped the size of the two party-share in 40 of the 51 states, winning 32 of these by more than his overall national vote advantage over Romney (1.43 percent). Yet if Trump improved so greatly over Romney in many states, but had an overall national advantage that was slight, then where did he lose votes? One part of the answer is that Trump won by diminished margins in four safe Republican states that Romney had won big: Texas, Utah, Georgia, and Arizona. The other part of the answer is that Trump lost five states that Romney also lost, but by greater margins: California, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon, and Virginia. All these states but Virginia were safely Democratic; put differently, Trump lost ground in states that Obama won in 2012 and that Hillary would win by even more. In sum, recognizing that only the Electoral College vote counts, Trump’s victory proved remarkably economical. The businessman lost most of his votes relative to Romney in places where it did not matter, while Clinton ran up the score in the states she already had locked down.

These state-by-state analogues show that while some states became more competitive, there was also growing geographic polarization at the extremes. To provide a more granular analysis of the distribution of votes by the place where people live, we turn to county-level data. The county-level results, displayed in the form of chloroform maps of the United States, have provided the most spectacular visual impressions of recent elections, showing an ocean of red dotted by some islands of blue. Yet, these maps are partly misleading. The obvious problem is that some counties are large – 3.4 million votes were cast in Los Angeles County in 2016 – while others are small – 65 voters cast ballots in Loving County, Texas. Thus, while it sounds impressive to say that Donald Trump won an outright majority of the popular vote in 2501 of the country’s 3144 counties and county-equivalents, while Hillary Clinton won just 400, in reality, because of population differences, it means very little. Trump did significantly better in less populous counties, while Clinton secured victories in more populous counties, often synonymous with various metropolitan, urban areas.

There is another way to make use of the county data, however, that considers the population size of each county and measures the vote-share within it. The counties can be divided into three groups according to their degree of partisanship: 1) concentrated counties, where one of the candidates won over 66 percent of the vote; 2) reliable counties, where one of the candidates won between 55 and 66 percent of the vote; and 3) competitive counties, where one of the candidates won with between 45 and 55 percent of the vote.

Table 4 displays the number of counties within each of these groups, broken down by the two candidates. It also includes the total vote yield each candidate earned from the three categories. In total, there were 1676 concentrated counties in 2016 casting 40.8 million votes. Donald Trump took 1573 of these counties; Hillary Clinton won just 103. It is interesting to consider the proportion of each candidate’s national vote share which comes from the counties each candidate won. As such, Trump netted nearly 14 million votes from the 1573 counties he won, or about 22.3 percent of his total vote share. Clinton pulled 16.2 million votes, or about 24.6 of her national vote total, from the 103 counties she won. These concentrated counties were the critical core of each candidates’ electoral coalition.

Table 4:

Votes from Concentrated, Reliable, and Competitive Counties in 2016.

Total Number of CountiesTotal Yields of All VotesNumber of Counties for TrumpNumber of Votes for TrumpNumber of Counties for ClintonNumber of Votes for Clinton
Concentrated (Over 66% Favor One Candidate)167640,807,570 (29.85%)157318,370,78410320,425,056
Reliable (55–66% Favor One Candidate)89847,900,084 (35.04%)73022,545,28916822,578,499
Competitive (45–55% Favor One Candidate)52847,093,485 (34.47%)25121,542,13827722,359,842

Number of votes for Trump and for Clinton are from all the counties within the category. Percentages do not add up due to rounding, and because ten counties were neither concentrated, reliable, nor competitive. Total votes for Clinton and total votes for Trump do not add to total yields due to third party candidates. Disaggregated returns by county compiled by Dave Leip, as of December 21, 2016 and were accessed through the University of Virginia’s library.

Another notable point to be drawn from these data is that in an election so bitterly fought, just 34.5 percent of the more than 136.5 million votes cast for president came from competitive counties. Of those, Trump won 251 competitive counties, and Clinton won victories in 277. In all 528 competitive counties (won and lost) Trump secured 21.5 million votes and Clinton took just over 22.3 million votes.

Readers of this essay are likely interested in how areas with colleges and universities figure into this phenomenon of partisan concentration. While many large colleges and universities are located in counties with other populations that might skew these numbers, there are several notable examples of campuses where the county-equivalent effectively captures the university population and culture, such as Chittenden County, home of the University of Vermont (22.3 percent for Trump); Boulder County, Colorado, home to the University of Colorado (22.0 percent for Trump); and Charlottesville City where the University of Virginia is located (13.2 percent for Trump).

What makes 2016 noteworthy though is that the phenomenon of intense geographic concentration is not just confined to Academia-ville. Throughout the entire country on both sides of the partisan divide, America was dotted with bubbles of support for each party’s candidate. Simply put, Trump voters and Clinton voters often reside in different places while presumably living different lives and having little contact with one another.

County-level swings, as many have remarked, illustrate the critical factor that determined the election in Trump’s favor. For example, in those counties right in the heart of Wisconsin – Juneau, Adams, and Marquette – Trump earned 61.2, 59.2, and 60.3 percent of the two-party vote over Clinton. Obama had carried each of these counties in 2012 with 52.9, 54.0, and 51.8 percent, amounting to double digit swings in favor of the Republican candidate. Similar stories can be told throughout the upper Midwest as small shifts in each county added up to something far greater. In Michigan, Lake County in the West, and Macomb County in the East, Trump turned reliably “blue” places red. But even in those places not “flipped,” Trump pulled further ahead of his opponent, turning red places redder. Right on Michigan’s “thumb,” Huron County and Tuscola County had voted Republican in the past three elections, giving Mitt Romney 56.9 and 54.8 percent of the vote in 2012. Trump received 67.1 percent of the vote in Huron County, and 66.6 percent of the vote in Tuscola. The explanation for Trump’s victory lies in these microcosms, where voters – even those who once voted for Obama – behaved just like their neighbors and threw support to the Republican.

Likewise, in some of the counties surrounding the nation’s capital, Clinton expanded on pre-existing Democratic majorities. Whereas Trump concentrated his support and flipped 10 counties in Michigan, Clinton further concentrated her support in Montgomery County, Maryland, winning 74.7 percent of the vote; Obama won there with 70.9 percent 4 years earlier. In Fairfax County, Clinton won with 64.4 percent up from Obama’s 59.7 percent. And in Loudoun County (the nation’s wealthiest county just 40 miles west of DC), where Romney was able to pick up 47 percent of all ballots and where George W. Bush carried majorities in 2004 and 2000, Trump managed to get just 38.2 percent of the vote.

Looking finally at the historical trends in the distribution of county voting, the 2016 election stands out as the most geographically polarized of the last six elections. Since 1996, there has been a steady increase in the proportion of votes coming from concentrated counties going to both the Republicans and the Democrats (Figure 1). Whereas before this period (not shown) partisan “concentration” was mostly a function of who would ultimately win the election, in the last 20 years, both the winners and the losers have drawn a high proportion of their vote from these politically homogenous areas. True, the Electoral College map tends to inflate how “blue” and “red” parts of the country are, but the fact remains that in 2016 almost a fourth of all votes came from places that were deeply blue or red.

Figure 1: Votes from Concentrated Counties.Note: Figure illustrates the percent of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates vote-sharethat comes from “concentrated counties.” It takes the number of votes cast in places where 2/3 of the votewas for one candidate, and divides it by the total number of votes received. County-level returns are availablethrough Dave Leip’s Atlas of US Presidenital Elections.
Figure 1:

Votes from Concentrated Counties.

Note: Figure illustrates the percent of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates vote-sharethat comes from “concentrated counties.” It takes the number of votes cast in places where 2/3 of the votewas for one candidate, and divides it by the total number of votes received. County-level returns are availablethrough Dave Leip’s Atlas of US Presidenital Elections.

Down Ballot Elections

President Trump’s fortunes at the ballot box describe only part of what took place in the 2016 national election. The rest of the story is found down ballot, where the GOP held on to keep its majorities in both houses of Congress and continued a trend of remarkable gains in state elections that began in 2009. The overall party victory for the Republicans left the party in a stronger position in the government than at any time since the 1920s, if not since the 1860s.

For Republicans, the 2016 Congressional election was one of minor losses amounting to just seven seats in the House and two seats in the Senate. These numbers are not out of line with the record of incoming presidents who defeated a “third term” bid (see Table 2). Some of these victories were by narrow margins in which the performance of the new president’s party in Congressional races was less than spectacular. Republicans in 2016 running with Trump fared better than Democrats running with JFK in 1960, and better than Republicans running with W. Bush in 2000. Other repudiating victors, however, were accompanied by important congressional gains. Harding once again takes the lead, when Republicans added 10 Senate seats and 62 House seats; Obama and the Democrats in 2008 are a distant second, when they picked up 24 House seats and 8 Senate seats. There were two contextual factors in 2016 that make the minimal Republican losses look even less consequential. In the House, Republicans entered the election holding 247 of the House’s 435 voting seats (56.8 percent), the GOP’s largest majority since 1929 (270 seats, 62 percent). In short, it was going to be difficult for House Republicans to gain any more seats. In the Senate, the mitigating factor was not an historically high starting point, but the fact that Republicans were defending 24 seats held by Republicans, while Democrats were defending just 10. Under these circumstances, Republicans also held their own as just two states rejected their Republican incumbent, Illinois’ Mark Kirk and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, both states that Mrs. Clinton won.

When Democrats secured unified control of the national government following the 2008 presidential contest, along with large gains in Congress, there was no shortage of analyses proclaiming a new era of partisan-Democratic politics. The 2016 election has put an end to these prognostications, throwing cold water on those who, still basking in the warm glow of hope and change, kept predicting the demise of the GOP. In fact, the Democrats’ fall from the heights of 2008 began with the 2010 midterm “shellacking” that should have put Obama’s 2008 victory in its proper place.

The 2016 election has not, however, end the battle of what Trump’s victory means for Obama’s legacy. None other than the President himself entered the debate, taking the extraordinary step of claiming after the election that he could have won a third term: “I’m confident that if I had run again…I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it [his vision].” [10] Though the ultimate judgement of Obama’s record will be fixed by many factors, his role as party leader must figure into the equation. Here, his leadership has proven to be a political disaster with losses in the House and Senate exceeded only by President Eisenhower (Figure 2).

Figure 2: President’s Party Seats – Percentage Point Losses.Note: Figure illustrates the percent loss/gain of the president’s party in both the House of Representativesand the Senate over the president’s entire term. Losses and gains are as a percent of the entire chamber, notseats. Party division data are available through each chamber’s respective historical office.
Figure 2:

President’s Party Seats – Percentage Point Losses.

Note: Figure illustrates the percent loss/gain of the president’s party in both the House of Representativesand the Senate over the president’s entire term. Losses and gains are as a percent of the entire chamber, notseats. Party division data are available through each chamber’s respective historical office.

Beginning his presidency with just over 59 percent of all House seats, and 59 Senate seats, Obama’s last midterm election left Democrats in control of just 43.2 percent of all House seats, and 46 Senate seats. Since Woodrow Wilson, presidents have dealt with losses closer to a combined average of 5.9 percentage points; Obama’s combined losses amount to a 14.4-point decrease.

Moreover, the Democratic Party’s losses have not just been confined to national politics. When Obama came into office Democrats were on top at the state level holding 53.4 percent of the country’s 1922 state senate seats and 56 percent of the country’s 5411 house seats. [11] Democrats controlled 29 state senates and 32 state houses. Furthermore, 28 of the nation’s governorships were Democratic. While it is certainly the case that Georgia Democrats are not New York Democrats, and that governors’ fortunes are not tied to those of the president, [12] the Democrats as a whole were enjoying a resurgence at all levels of government.

Compare this with the Democrats’ political standing as Obama is leaving office. Now Republicans hold 58.4 of all state senate seats and 56.1 percent of state house seats. The GOP holds majorities in 35 state senates and 32 state houses. Collectively this stands as a 12.7 percentage point decrease – similar to the Democrats’ fortunes in the US Congress. And in the executive branch, Republicans now control 34 governorships.

When the 2016 presidential campaign got under way, many inside the GOP feared that a Trump candidacy might put an end to Republicans’ control of Congress. Clearly Trump was no normal partisan candidate, as he bucked the party establishment from the first days of the primary season. Yet, in retrospect, the “Trump effect” did not harm Republicans in 2016. Looking first at senatorial elections, they went the way of the Electoral College vote in all of the 34 states holding such contests. Even in Wisconsin, where a former Senator, Russ Feingold was on the ticket, the state turned red for Ron Johnson, just as it turned red for Trump; same story in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Florida, and North Carolina – all projected Clinton victories by most in the mainstream media, but which ended up going Republican in the Senate and presidential contests. The Democratic candidates pulled ahead with 54.4 percent of the vote in Illinois and 48 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, roughly paralleling what the Democratic, Mrs. Clinton, won in each state – 55.4 and 47.6 percent, respectively.

This raises the questions as to whether the 2016 election can be called a Republican mandate, whatever that illusive concept may mean. Many have already denied such a claim by appealing to the outcome of the presidential popular vote. Yet, the “popular vote” is a construction of the Electoral College. Absent the Electoral College, the actual number of votes for each candidate would significantly change, as the entire campaign would have been conducted differently. This recourse to a constructed notion of a national majority against a Republican mandate also overlooks the fact that there is another “popular vote” cast on November 8th, as every voter also had the chance to vote for their member to the House of Representatives. Of course, this measure also has no constitutional significance and is – as with the national popular vote – a pure facsimile of the existing geographically-based electoral system. It may seem almost too odd or bizarre a figure to be invoked – we agree – but the fact is that it has been mentioned with some frequency in recent years. For example, following the 2012 election, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne stated that: “Our political structure has been disfigured in another way: In November’s election, Democrats failed to win the House even though they received about a million more votes in House contests than the Republicans did.” [13] To be sure, Dionne’s concern was that Democrats won more votes in House contests, but failed to secure a majority of House seats. The partisan argument aside, it is also to suggest that there is some political significance in the total number of ballots cast for the parties in Congressional races, even if this measure suffers from some of the same logical problems as the presidential popular vote.

Piling facsimile on facsimile, Table 5 shows the two-party popular presidential vote and the two-party House vote from 2016 and 2008 elections. [14] Trump lost the two-party vote in 2016 with 49.5 percent, while the GOP secured a majority of the House two-party vote with 51.7 percent. By comparison, Obama secured 52.7 two-party vote in 2008, while House Democrats won 55.5 percent of the House popular vote. Thus, both presidents ran behind their House counter-parts, Trump slightly more than Obama. However, Trump led in more states, outperforming Republicans in 22, while Obama outperformed Democrats in 16 states.

Table 5:

Performance in Each State, Compared to House Popular Vote in 2016 and 2008.

Percent of Two-Party Vote (TRUMP)Percent of Two-Party Vote (GOP)MarginStatePercent of Two-Party Vote (OBAMA)Percent of Two-Party Vote (DEMs)Margin
49.8048.451.36New Hampshire54.8755.32−0.46
43.1746.26−3.09New Jersey57.8656.671.20
43.3543.991.36New Mexico57.6658.56−0.89
38.9237.781.14New York63.5868.63−5.05
51.9753.37−1.40North Carolina50.1754.68−4.51
69.8074.42−4.62North Dakota45.5961.97−16.38
41.7934.986.81Rhode Island64.2071.88−7.69
57.3859.75−2.37South Carolina45.4649.46−4.00
65.9764.101.87South Dakota45.9067.56−21.85
72.1766.495.69West Virginia43.9566.95−22.99
49.47%51.72%−2.26All votes53.69%55.49%−1.8

House popular vote figures compiled by the authors using data from the Associated Press and FEC.

Looking at the returns by each state in 2016, Trump’s placement on the top of the ticket operated very differently depending on where one was in the country. In states like Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island – where Trump lost by big numbers – he fared better than his Republican brethren running for the House. In these cases, the partisans came home at the top of the ticket as they so often do, but trailed off on the down-ballot races, sticking, as they so often do, with incumbents. In other states like Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas – places where Trump won with at least a four-point margin of victory – he performed worse than Republicans running for the House. In Texas, for example, 60.4 percent of the vote cast in contested House races went to the GOP; Trump secured 5.6 percentage points less than that. And yet, in a final set of states like Wyoming, West Virginia, Nebraska, Montana, and Iowa – all states that Trump won – the incoming president ran ahead of the House vote. Coattails were in the eyes of the beholder.


Did Mrs. Clinton lose the election, or did Mr. Trump win it?

There is a lot riding on that difference – degrees of political culpability, the prestige of scientific polling, and, for some, the moral fabric of the entire country. If Clinton lost, our collective surprise is attributable to just another Clintonian foible; Democrats can remain confident that if anyone else had run, even a socialist Senator from Vermont, Americans would have made the sensible choice to keep Donald Trump away from the White House – or at least two blocks away at his new Pennsylvania Avenue Hotel.

But taking our cues from the historical data amassed here, the 2016 Presidential election was Trump’s to win – and win he did, along with a majority of Republicans. Some have raised the question as to whether a more standard Republican such as Marco Rubio would have outperformed Trump. While the question is unanswerable, one thing is clear: Trump certainly won the election in a different way than could others. Their victory would have been based on pulling in more independents, a small slice of disaffected upper tier Democrats, and maybe more upper tier Republicans in places like Fairfax and Loudoun County, Virginia. Trump’s electoral coalition was built on bringing in a different group of voters, in much larger numbers than before, as in Huron County, Michigan.

The remarkable fact about our political era has been the absence of sustained dominance by either party at the national level. If we take 1992 as the start point, for the 28 years going up to 2020, Democrats will have controlled the presidency for 16 years, Republicans for 12. For the House, going up to 2018, Republicans will have held control for 20 of 26 years, the Democrats 6. For the Senate, again up to 2018, Republicans will be in power for 15 of 26 years, the Democrats 11. Moreover, after trading power 2 years ago, the Senate has changed hands five times since 1992. Overall and up to 2019, the G.O.P. will have held unified government for 10 years since 1992 – a feat Democrats enjoyed briefly for just 4 years (1992–1994 and 2009–2011), though the last period, which had the widest margins, was by far the most consequential. Even though the next age of party dominance seems always to be on the horizon, the dawn has never quite arrived. American politics for the past three decades has been closely divided, with the wins and losses fought at the margins.

There is then one final concern for what the 2016 election means for the future of America’s presidential selection system. The Electoral College – that vestige of Federalist political theory – has now produced a winner who has lost the popular vote twice in the last five presidential contests. Today it is commonplace to hear complaints that this method of election, which was once thought to favor Democratic candidates, now privileges Republicans, and that it could well, as Nate Silver has pointed out, “doom Democrats” once again in 4 years. [15] The same voices are likely to focus on problems of legislative apportionment raise objections to the representational system based on geographic units, perhaps advocating something like proportional representation.

The measure of geographic concentration introduced here suggests that the discrepancy between the national popular vote and the Electoral College vote could continue. The source of this discrepancy lies in the increasing concentration and distribution of partisans, which is becoming more important, not less, as Americans are choosing to live in different places. Would it be prudent to abandon an institution that takes account of these geographic differences? The alterative would be a system in which candidates do not need to build geographically diverse coalitions. However, so long as Americans get to choose what types of political communities they want to create, we can be sure that geographic differences will emerge. These distinctions only become politically harmful if candidates and politicians no longer face incentives to consider different parts of the country as politically relevant. This is at least one problem the Electoral College prevents.

About the authors

Nicholas Jacobs

Nicholas Jacobs is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

James W. Ceaser

James W. Ceaser is Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Published Online: 2017-2-22
Published in Print: 2016-12-1

©2016 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 30.11.2022 from
Scroll Up Arrow