The finest of margins: making sense of Trump's triumph

Given a winner-takes-all political system in a world divided so evenly, splitting the vote on the left will always mean that the right wins elections.

Timmon Wallis
13 November 2016
Gary Johnson speaks to supporters. Flick/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

"Trump simply would not have won the election if third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein had chosen to swing their support in behind Hillary Clinton." Image: Gary Johnson speaks to supporters. Flick/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.As in the UK, the US presidential election actually hinges on a relatively small number of votes in a few ‘marginal constituencies’. In the US, these ‘marginal constituencies’ are states where the result could go either way. In this particular election, there were 16 states which were all but certain to vote Democrat (Clinton) and 24 states which were all but certain to vote Republican (Trump). That left only 10 which were actually up for grabs.

Because of the US ‘electoral college’ system, however, not all states are equal. Big populous states have many more votes than the smaller, less populous states. Florida, with 29 electoral college votes, was the most valuable ‘prize’ among the marginal states up for grabs in this election. As you may remember, in the year 2000, Al Gore lost this state — and thus the entire election — after numerous recounts and finally a Supreme Court decision that decreed George W Bush had won Florida by just 537 votes out of nearly 6 million votes cast in that state. 

In that 2000 election, Ralph Nader ran as a Green Party candidate and got almost 100,000 votes in Florida (and nearly 3 million across the whole country). If Nader had not run as a third candidate, Al Gore would almost certainly have won in Florida, and thus in the country. It may be unpalatable for some on the left of the political spectrum to think about voting for the lesser of two evils, rather than for someone you can really believe in. However, given a world that finds itself so evenly divided between left and right, and a political system in which the largest party wins all, splitting the vote on the left will always mean that the right wins elections.

This is exactly what happened again in 2016. While the labels ‘left’ and ‘right’ may not so easily apply in this case, the fact is that the Libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson, got over 200,000 votes in Florida, or nearly double the difference between the vote for Clinton and the vote for Trump (a difference of only 119,770 votes out of over 9 million votes cast). In other words, if Johnson had not run in Florida, there is a good likelihood that Clinton might have won in Florida.

Would Clinton have won the election if she had won Florida by a very small margin instead of losing it by a very small margin? Probably not, although there would have been no result announced that night, nor in the days following the election. There are still several states too close to call and the final counting is not expected to be completed until the end of November. Trump has won with 279 electoral college votes (9 over the winning line of 270). Without Florida, Trump would only have 250 electoral college votes, still 20 short of victory.

The next biggest prize among the marginal states is Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral college votes. Trump won this state by just 68,000 votes. Gary Johnson, meanwhile, pulled in just over 140,000 votes in Pennsylvania, so again about double the difference between Trump and Clinton. If Clinton had won Florida and Pennsylvania, she would in fact right now be the next president of the United States, with 277 electoral college votes. 

100 million eligible voters did not vote

In fact, across the whole country, Hillary Clinton got slightly more votes overall than Trump did, as was the case with Al Gore in 2000. Clinton received over 60 million votes and Trump just under 59.8 million. It’s not a big difference, but enough to win the presidency if that were how the votes were counted. However, as we know, it’s not total votes that count in US presidential elections but the electoral college which decides. And without Florida and Pennsylvania, Clinton does not have enough electoral college votes to win. 

There is more to this story than just the 200,000 or so people in those two states who chose to vote for a candidate who had no chance of ever being president. Voter turnout for the 2016 election was about 55.6% overall, which means that over 100 million eligible voters did not vote. That’s a lot of people — 40 million more votes than either Clinton or Trump received. It is also several million more than the number of those who did not vote in 2012 or in 2008, when voter turnout was 57.5% and 62.3% respectively. 

It is too soon to see a full breakdown of voter turnout in different states and electoral precincts. Even then it is very difficult to determine exactly who did not vote and why. However we know that Obama won in 2008 and in 2012 largely by bringing out the black vote in unprecedented numbers. In just two predominantly black precincts in Detroit and Milwaukee (in the marginal states of Michigan and Wisconsin), voter turnout in 2016 was substantially lower than in 2008 or 2012, suggesting that at least in some parts of the country, Clinton failed to bring out the Black vote and she might have paid a high price for this – losing two more key marginal states, Michigan with 16 electoral votes and Wisconsin with 10. 

As with voting for third party candidates who have no chance of winning the election, not voting at all is, at least for some, a statement of discontent with both of the two main party candidates. Despite Trump’s sexist and misogynist remarks about women, his claim that Mexicans were ‘in many cases’ criminals, drug dealers and rapists, his crude mocking of a disabled journalist and many other examples of alienating whole sections of the American public, the truth is that Hillary Clinton had also managed over the years to alienate herself from many sections of the American public. 

According to the exit polls conducted across the country by a consortium of national news media, 20% of the people who voted for Clinton did not think she was honest or trustworthy (compared to 5% of the people who voted for Trump not thinking he was honest or trustworthy). A whopping 39% of Clinton voters said they voted for her because they didn’t want Trump to get in rather than because they ‘strongly favoured’ her as a candidate. These figures indicate a rather lacklustre support for Clinton even among those who did vote for her. They also suggest why some who voted for Obama in previous elections — and may even have voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries earlier this year — did not, in the end, vote for Hillary or for Trump.

In fact, numerous polls right up to polling day showed that Bernie Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump than Hillary Clinton did in some of the key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Had Bernie Sanders been the Democratic candidate for president, he may well have beat Trump in an even more astonishing political upset than we ended up getting.

39% of Clinton voters said they voted for her because they didn’t want Trump to get in 

Sadly, we will never know if that would have happened. Instead, we are now faced with four years of Trump in the most powerful position on earth. Because the Republicans also retained control of both houses of congress in the election, Trump will also have a (more or less) free hand to implement his policies — something Obama could only dream of in his entire eight years as president.  

Those policies, in case anyone needs reminding, include a massive increase in military spending and pressure to force other countries, particularly in NATO, to increase their military spending as well. They include a promise to "bomb the shit out of ISIS", to increase the use of torture and to allow Israel to move its capital to Jerusalem. They include using nuclear weapons if necessary ‘because otherwise why do we have them?’ and encouraging both Japan and South Korea to start building their own nuclear weapons. 

Trump has said he will deport 6 million illegal immigrants from the US and ban Muslims from entering the country. He has said he will build a 1900-mile wall between the US and Mexico and that he will force Mexico to pay for it. He has described climate change as “fictional” and has promised to pull out of the Paris climate treaty, abandon all Obama's efforts to reduce US carbon emissions and return to coal as the major source of power for the US. 

Trump wants to raise tariffs to stop the huge flow of Chinese imports and to cut taxes even further for big businesses (like his!) to create more jobs in the US. He is committed to 'making America great again', but he can only do that by making other countries less great. He has no interest in the UN, in international treaties, in international law, or in compromising with other countries. He is only interested in making sure the US gets what it wants from the rest of the world.  

It is easy to be despairing about the American people at times like this. How could they choose to elect such a person to the highest office in the land? While there are many reasons why those who voted for Trump may have done so, let us remember that less than a quarter of the total US adult population actually voted for Trump. Let us remember that of the people who did vote, more of them voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump across the country.

Let us remember that less than a quarter of the total US adult population actually voted for Trump

But let us also consider the fact that Trump simply would not have won the election if third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein had chosen to swing their support in behind Hillary Clinton instead of standing against her. He probably would not have won if the Democratic Party machine had not stacked the odds in favour of Hillary and prevented Bernie Sanders from being nominated as the Democratic candidate. And he might not have won if just a few more voters in a few key places had been motivated enough to vote in the belief that voting would actually change their situations for the better.

These are all lessons that apply equally to the UK. The reasons Hillary Clinton lost this election are almost identical to the reasons Ed Miliband lost in 2015. They were both trying to appeal to an imaginary ‘middle of the road’ voter while losing the very support their party could always count on. We still have our Bernie Sanders in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, but he also has no chance of beating the Conservatives unless the left pulls together more cohesively and puts aside the minor differences in order to make a big difference possible. Without a more united left, what we get is very scary indeed, on both sides of the Atlantic.

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