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Reaction to the 2016 US election: Institutions (and probabilities) matter
As we await final vote tallies and struggle to make sense of one of the most significant elections in our lifetimes, we offer a brief reaction to the events of the last 24 hours.
It would be inappropriate to start anywhere but with the U.S. electoral system itself, and the Electoral College in particular. For only the fifth time in the nation’s history, and two of the last five presidential elections, the winner of the popular vote has lost the presidency. Hillary Clinton appears to have a lead of about 200,000 votes over President-elect Donald Trump, out of approximately 120 million votes cast. Moreover, as an institution, the Electoral College appears to have worked precisely as designed.
Adopted into the Constitution as one of many compromises to enhance the power of rural voters in smaller states, the mobilization of the white, working-class in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania gave Mr Trump the edge he needed to surpass 270 electoral college votes. These Rustbelt states were all part of Mrs Clinton’s “Blue Firewall” which fell to Mr Trump, despite polling averages showing her ahead by about four points here, a deviation very similar to Brexit polling errors, which also appear to have not fully captured levels of nativist sentiment.
This is not simply a story of pollsters getting it wrong, despite the popularity of that account. Indeed, many national polling averages had Clinton’s lead at a margin small enough to fall within sampling error, and this entire election cycle reflected a larger number of undecided voters, and thus greater volatility or noise, compared to 2012.
One of the patterns emerging from the turnout data suggests that while Trump did somewhat over-perform among less educated white voters, compared to 2012, Mrs Clinton underperformed among African-Americans in urban centres, and among Millenials more generally. The degree to which turnout differences were the result of voting restrictions including limiting early voting hours and locations, registration list purging and voter intimidation remains to be seen. Early voting restrictions did have a depressing impact on African-American turnout prior to election day, but for whatever reasons, around 2 million people who turned out in 2012 stayed home this year.
Other institutions, including state Congressional redistricting plans, exerted additional influence on the overall composition of government, which will now be under unified control of the Republican Party. For example, in the heavily gerrymandered states of Pennsylvania and Michigan, Republicans took 14/18 and 9/14 Congressional seats, respectively, despite basically splitting the statewide partisan vote share. The additional seats won through these biased plans dilute voting equality in the same way that malapportionment dilutes the voting strength of urban, more racially diverse voters in the Senate. All of these institutions are biasing representation in the same direction.
Which brings us to the broader meaning of the 2016 U.S. election. The greatest failure of political observers in the media and academy may have been their inability to accurately assess the strength of, or susceptibility to, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny within the American electorate. We have elected a white nationalist to the presidency, and this is rightly a subject of serious concern both at home and abroad. Protests are erupting in large cities across the country, the same cities where voters have their elective voices diluted. It remains to be seen if Trump’s non-specific roster of policies and narrow majorities in a fractured Republican Party will combine to deliver legislative victories. Still, they may unravel Barack Obama’s legacy despite not having alternatives ready to go, and the future of the global political order initiated by the United States after World War II is uncertain.
At the same time, this electoral result can be understood as a near random outcome in the context of a volatile election among a people that, in the words of the great American poet Walt Whitman, “contains multitudes.” Had just one in one hundred Americans decided to vote for Mrs Clinton instead of Mr Trump in select states, or decided to participate instead of sitting this one out, many pundits would likely be talking about the ascendency of American Liberalism and the death of conservatism as an intellectual movement in the United States. So today we are in a great moment of uncertainty for all, and a justifiable fear hovers over many immigrants and People of Color. Yet we accept that, even in our dysfunctional democracy, even though we won’t always get it right, we keep going.
Anthony J. McGann is Professor of Government and Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde; Charles Anthony Smith is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine; Michael Latner is Associate Professor of Political Science at the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; Alex Keena is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Richmond. Their book Gerrymandering in America: The House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the Future of Popular Sovereignty (Cambridge University Press) is available now.
Image: Rich Girard