Monday, May 22, 2017

Some things to consider when thinking about political trends

I don't write so much these days on this blog, but that doesn't mean that I've stopped thinking about some of the themes that I have written about in the past. Today, I want to write a little about US national politics and trends. Specifically, I want to write a little about the US Presidential elections, and what it means for Democrats.

This urge was spurred on by an article I read at Vox ("What right-wing populism?"). Okay, the author makes some shortcuts by basically equating liberals with progressives and those with Democrats, but given the dominant duality of the US political system, that short-hand has become so commonplace that it is effectively taken as synonymous in many corners. However, he makes some good data-backed rhetorical points about the public wanting government spending even as they might say that they don't want government spending.

But this got me thinking about the "Trump Revolution" (of 2016) and the earlier "Reagan Revolution" (that happened in 1980). In both cases, the narrative was that working class/blue-collar voters moved from the Democrats to the Republicans. But in 2016, that story never rang true for me. After all, Hillary won the popular vote (and - indeed - the polls predicted the popular win quite accurately). And the increase in Republican votes between 2012 and 2016 was basically a rise of 2 million, but less than 1 million when Bush ran to his first popular vote victory in 2004. But - because the US population was lower in 2004 than 2016, this "less than 1 million than Bush in 2004" figure means that Bush actually won a greater percentage of the vote (29.06% of all voting-age Americans) than Trump (26.74% of all voting-age Americans). But let me unpack that a little bit, because those numbers seem too small.

What I wanted to do was to create an assessment of how many voting-age Americans did each party's candidate win in each POTUS election? Now, in every year, not all people vote (indeed, the average voter turnout for a POTUS election since 1940 is 56.3%). Therefore, if there is a year where the voter turnout is only 50% (like 1988), then a victory of 53.4% (which George H.W. Bush got) means that only 27.6% of voting-age Americans actually cast a vote for Papa Bush. Indeed, counted this way, most POTUS victories since 1940 were won with less than 1/3 of all voting-age Americans actually casting a ballot for the victor, save for four Presidents: FDR (1940, 34.4%), Ike (1952, 35.1%; 1956 35.0%), JFK (1964, 37.97%), and Tricky Dick (1972, 34.11%).

Okay, so what, though?

Well, if there was a major shift from Democrats to Republicans in 1980 with Reagan and 2016 with Trump, then there should have been a major shift in the share of voting-age Americans that the Republicans won in those years, and a consonant decline in Democrats compared to each previous election. With Reagan, we do see this:

Republicans: 26.24% (1976)     27.14% (1980)     +0.9%
Democrats: 27.36% (1976)     21.93% (1980)     -5.43%

But with Trump? Not so much:

Republicans: 26.37% (2012)     26.74% (2016)     +0.37%
Democrats: 28.53% (2012)     27.96% (2016)     -0.57%

So what's going on? Basically, the Republicans did gain more votes since the previous election, but 2016 was nothing like 1980. The change in Democratic vote-share in 2016 was nowhere near the enormous shift seen in 1980 moving away from Carter. And we see this in shifts in the popular vote from 2012:

Republicans: +2,050,000 votes compared to 2012
Democrats: -60,000 votes compared to 2012.

But, given the simple fact that Trump's share of voting-age Americans (26.74%) is basically the same as the average GOP vote-share since 2000 (26.78%) means that the power of Trump/Pence in the elections was not really any different from Bush/Cheney, McCain/Palin, or Romney/Ryan.

The only real difference is on the Democrats' side.

So 2016 isn't so much a story of conservative or right-wing America surging, but rather a story of liberal or left-wing American choosing to stay home. This, together with the Vox article, strongly suggest that - if liberal/progressive/Democratic Americans actually got out to vote - then there would be a dramatic across-the-board shift. Luckily for conservatives, the percentage of liberals/progressives who go and vote is lower than the percentage of voting conservatives.

(Note: All numbers are drawn from a simple set of calculations using voting statistics drawn from Wikipedia pages on presidential elections between 1940 and 2016.)

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