This presidential election is quite extraordinary in the level of dissatisfaction that the members of one party, the Republicans, have with their presidential nominee and the number of defections that it has spurred, with conservative thought leaders and elected officials staying silent or lukewarm about Donald Trump and others abandoning him and some actively campaigning for his opponent Hillary Clinton. By any reasonable measure, Trump should be heading for a crushing defeat.
And yet the polls only show him trailing Clinton by an average of five points nationally and in the all-important Electoral College that actually elects the president, the current totals stand at around 330 for Clinton to around 210 for Trump. If these numbers hold through November, it would be a decisive defeat no doubt, but still close to the 332-206 margin by which Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012 and where he won 26 states plus DC and got 51.1% of the popular vote, and even closer than his 365-173 margin over John McCain in 2008 where he won 28 states plus DC and got 52.9% of the vote.
I am old enough to remember elections in which there were actual blowouts. In 1972, Richard Nixon beat George McGovern and won the Electoral College vote by a margin of 520-17, winning 49 states, and getting 60.7% of the popular vote. In 1984, Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale by 525-13 Electoral College votes, winning 49 states and 58.8% of the popular vote. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by a margin of 484-52 Electoral College votes, winning 44 states plus DC and got 61.1% of the popular vote. In 1988, George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by a margin of 426-111 Electoral College votes, winning 40 states with 53.4% of the votes.
But in all those races, the losing candidates were established politicians who had won elections in the past and were strongly supported by their parties (with the possible exception of George McGovern whose strong anti-Vietnam war platform alienated many in his party) and yet the renegade Trump, despite having held no elected office ever and with his wild campaigning style, is doing as well or better than all of them. How come?
Sam Wang, who runs the excellent website Princeton Election Consortium that does statistical analyses of elections, says that 1996 marked a definite shift. He said that the period 1952-1992 saw high volatility in support for candidates during the general election season while the period 1996-2012 saw much smaller variability. In his modeling of this year’s election, he initially thought that the zany Trump campaign would signal a return to the older period of higher volatility but the data so far suggest that the more recent low volatility still holds.
However, something changed starting in 1996. As I have written before, national politics in the United States became dramatically more polarized starting around 1994, when Newt Gingrich led Republicans to take over the House and Senate. Since then, as the graph shows, Presidential campaign dynamics have gotten much more stable. National polling margins have varied by only 3% on average. The Meta-Margin is even more steady, with a standard deviation of 1-3%.
It is now apparent that 2016 is more like 1996-2012 than it is like 1952-1992. Data points for 2016 are included in the graph above. Even though the breakdown of the Republican Party and the advent of Donald Trump have made 2016 a crazy political year, public opinion is more stable than ever.
The Princeton Election Consortium’s initial assumption was that 2016 would be as volatile as typical campaigns since 1952 (SD=6%). This was a conservative assumption with lots of uncertainty. It was consistent with claims by pundits – and by Republican candidate Donald Trump – that the electoral map was scrambled. However, that scrambling has not materialized. Obama blue states are still Clinton blue states, and with a few exceptions, Romney red states are still Trump red states. This again shows that voters are highly entrenched in their views.
What happened around the mid-1990s that might explain this shift? One of Wang’s commenters has a plausible theory, and that is that the advent of the World Wide Web in 1991 (the first web page went live on August 6, 1991 and you can see that page here) resulted in a proliferation of sources of information and this allowed for the creation of systems that enabled epistemic closure, with people now able to get information from sources that they already agree with and reinforced their views and thus were less likely to change their views during campaigns.
Counterpunch launched in 1994. Drudge Report in 1995. Fox News and MSNBC in 1996. Smoking Gun and WND in 1997. And since then we have Huffington Post, Politico, Breitbart, Right News, Democracy for America, and legion other news boards, discussion threads and other self reinforcing bubbles.
Interestingly, this solidification of support also led to the now permanent labeling of red states and blue states corresponding to whether those states reliably vote Republican or Democratic. This is not a choice made by the parties but by TV networks. The use of color maps emerged along with color television but there was no standard assignation of parties by color until around 2000 when the colors became fixed, no doubt because, as Wang suggests, state party loyalties also became frozen around 1996 and it became useful to keep the same colors from year to year.
So this is why even if Trump does not turn things round in the next couple of months and instead continues to run a chaotic campaign and say even more crazy things, he will likely still get around 200 Electoral College votes at a minimum and around 47% of the total vote or around 60 million votes, similar to what Romney got. That is what constitutes a ‘blowout’ loss in modern elections.