Perhaps Not a Trump Win, But A Clinton Loss -- The Trap of Reasoning From a Price Change

One of the homilies one hears all the time from economists is "Never reason from a price change."  What does this mean?  Prices emerge in the market at the intersection of the supply and demand curve.  Often, when (say) a price of a commodity like oil decreases, pundits might reason that the demand for oil has suddenly dropped.  But they don't necessarily know that, not without information other than just the price change.  The price could have dropped because of a shift in the supply curve or the demand curve, or perhaps some combination of both.  We can't know just from the price change.

Which gets me thinking about the last election.  Trump won the election in part because several states like PA and WI, which had been safe Democratic wins in the last several elections, shifted to voting Republican.  Reasoning from this shift, pundits have poured forth today with torrents of bloviation about revolutionary changes in how groups like midwestern white males are voting.  But all these pundits were way wrong yesterday, so why would we expect them to suddenly be right today?  In my mind they are making the same mistake as reasoning from a price change, because the shift in relative party fortunes in a number of states could be because Trump is somehow doing better than Romney and McCain, or it could be because Clinton is doing worse than Obama.  Without other information, it is just as likely the story of the election is about a Clinton loss, not a Trump win.

Republican pundits want to think that they are riding some sort of revolutionary wave in the country.  Democratic pundits don't want to admit their candidate was really weak and like how they can spin white supremacist story lines out of the narrative that Trump won on the backs of angry white men.

The only way we can know the true story is to get more data than just the fact of the shift.  Let's go to Ramesh Ponnuru (and Kevin Drum from the other side of the political aisle makes many of the same points here and here).

The exit polls are remarkable. Would you believe that Mitt Romney won a greater percentage of the white vote than Donald Trump? Mitt took 59 percent while Trump won 58 percent. Would you believe that Trump improved the GOP’s position with black and Hispanic voters? Obama won 93 percent of the black vote. Hillary won 88 percent. Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote. Hillary won 65 percent.

Critically, millions of minority voters apparently stayed home. Trump’s total vote is likely to land somewhere between John McCain’s and Romney’s (and well short of George W. Bush’s 2004 total), while the Democrats have lost almost 10 million voters since 2008. And all this happened even as Democrats doubled-down on their own identity politics. Black Lives Matter went from a fringe movement to the Democratic mainstream in the blink of an eye. Radical sexual politics were mainstreamed even faster. White voters responded mainly by voting in the same or lesser numbers as the last three presidential elections. That’s not a “whitelash,” it’s consistency.

As I know all too well, a portion of Trump’s online support is viciously racist. Conservative and liberal Americans can and must exercise extreme vigilance to insure that not one alt-right “thinker” has a place in the Trump administration, but it’s simply wrong to attribute Trump’s win to some form of great white wave. Trump won because minority voters let him win. The numbers don’t lie. The “coalition of the ascendant” stayed home.

Trump had roughly the same vote totals as Romney and McCain, and did relatively better with non-whites and Hispanics.   The difference in the election was not any particular enthusiasm for Trump, and certainly not any unique white enthusiasm, but a total lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.   Look at the numbers in Drum's post -- Hillary did worse with every group.  For god sakes, she did 5 points worse than Obama with unmarried women, the Lena Dunham crowd that theoretically should have been her core constituency.  She did 8 points worse than Obama with Latino women!

This is not a story of a Trump revolution.  This is a story of a loss by a really weak Clinton.  Obama would have dusted the floor with Trump.


  1. Thane_Eichenauer:

    "Obama would have dusted the floor with Trump."

    Objection: Sheer speculation.

  2. Mark:

    The National Review article you linked to is by David French, not Ramesh Ponnuru.

  3. McThag:

    "Obama would have dusted the floor with Trump." if we accept this as a given, then: Thank goodness for the 22nd Amendment.

  4. Rob R:

    Largely agree, but on Obama dusting the floor with Trump its speculation without evidence. Obama has serious weaknesses that could have been exploited. Trump might have played a different game if that was the runnoff. He has seen off a host of Republican candidates and Clinton and likely would have beaten Sanders as well. Trump would have needed a better ground game and would have needed to get on-message much earlier. With better backing from the Republican Party base and its leaders there is no telling how Trump v Obama would have turned out. Obama does not look so cool when flustered and off the teleprompter.

  5. Tony Hansen:

    Obama beat Hillary. Trump beat Hillary.
    Did Obama more than "dust the floor" with Hillary?

  6. kidmugsy:

    That seems about right to me. Had I been an American my Trump vote would in reality have been an anti-Clinton vote.

    I thought I might never see a Dem candidate worse than Kerry; now I have. Next time, perhaps a GOP candidate worse than W? Please no.

  7. ZyprexaPlz:

    My in-laws live in Western PA, and voted Trump. It was for a really specific reason - they all work in some capacity in oil/coal/gas, an industry they perceive the Democratic party to be openly antagonistic towards. This may be the first time they've voted Republican, and it was that they simply didn't want to vote for a party who would leave them unemployed.

  8. morganovich:

    Obama would have dusted the floor with Trump.

    this is not as clear as it sounds.

    based on the 2012 votes in absolute numbers, trump would have won the electoral college vs obama.

    clearly, there are serious limits to such comparisons, but it certainly casts some doubt on the "dust the floor" hypothesis.

    trump is a seriously difficult guy to campaign against. he gets under your skin and takes the media spotlight, something obama is used to.

    it's actually quite possible trump would have beaten obama in a rout if BO lost his cool as seems likely.

    keep in mind: the total vote is not what matters. the electoral college is. the evidence DT would have beaten BO in PA, FL, OH, and NC is quite strong. at that point, it would be over.

  9. Mr. Generic:

    I'm shocked Trump won. I suspected we'd wake up Wednesday morning to a triumphant Hillary and Trump screaming about recounts and lawsuits. I expected the next 4 years would put us neck-deep in Clinton slime. I expected Trump supporters to spend the next 4 years licking their wounds and looking for a stronger strong-man. That's why I'm so glad he won.

    I'm glad these analyses are coming out. I was thinking, around 2 AM on Wednesday, that it was going to be a case of Hillary losing instead of Trump winning. I'll have to look, but I remember there were neighborhoods in Philadelphia where Romney got 0% of the vote. I wonder what the voting results in those neighborhoods were like this year.

    Around 9:30 PM on Tuesday, I was watching CBS news. They had a reporter in a Cuyahoga County polling station in a very strongly Democrat area. They were expecting there to be huge lines there waiting to vote after the polls officially closed, but the place was empty. That was one of my first "uh-oh" moments in regards to Hillary's chances.

  10. naturaljag0ff:

    I'll too my own horn here... I've said all along that ANY repub. nominee would beat HRC... she was simply a terrible candidate & Dems did themselves a huge disservice by allowing her corruption to infect that party and extort the Dem nomination.

    The only Repub. that might have lost to HRC was Cruz - we was/is too much like W.Bush, imo.

    Minority MEN will not vote for an elitist white woman... that is the 'racism' at play here, not angry whites.

  11. naturaljag0ff:


    Underneath all the mud & vitriol, this election was (ironically) decided by real issues... esp. economic issues, incl. immigration.

    I firmly believe Trump won this election the day he came out and trashed the TPP and promised to deliver pro-american trade deals. The electoral map largely supports this thesis.

  12. jmod46:

    "Trump won the election in part because several states like PA and WI, which had been safe Democratic wins in the last several elections, shifted to voting Republican. Reasoning from this shift, pundits have poured forth today with torrents of bloviation about revolutionary changes in how groups like midwestern white males are voting. But all these pundits were way wrong yesterday, so why would we expect them to suddenly be right today?"

    From Goodreads:

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

  13. mlhouse:

    Bullshit. This was not a anti-Hillary election. It was a pro-Trump election. If you look at why Trump won, it was because entire counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin turned away from the politics of old and jumped on the Trump. If you look at some of these counties, they voted for the Democratic candidate 60+ - 35% in election after election: Gore, Kerry, Obama. In 2016 Donald Trump carried the majority of the vote. That isn't a protest against a specific candidate, it is a protest for how the Washington elites have run the country for the past decades.

  14. SamWah:

    "As I know all too well, a portion of Trump’s online support is viciously racist." I'd like to know HOW he KNOWS that, and what that portion may be, in size and demographics. I no longer accept NR as a reliable source.

  15. names_already_taken:

    Urgg...I can't believe I got sucked down the hole of reading Kevin Drum comments. It's enough to make me wish Trump could somehow accomplish total destruction of the entire internet.

  16. zshfq:

    I don't trust the exit poll numbers for Latinos because most exit polls lack Spanish language polling. Given that a large percentage of Latino voters this election were likely first time voters (based on voter registration increases in heavily Latino areas) and were likely either immigrants themselves or first generation American Latinos who are primarily Spanish speakers, not polling these people would severely overestimate Trump's support among Latinos. In fact the exit poll from the one firm that I know of who specializes in Bilingual Latino polling, Latino Decisions, showed Clinton beating Trump 79-18, which was a better result than Obama.

    For African American voters, Clintons vote share was actually in line with Democrat presidential candidates of the last 40 years who are not themselves African American. (2004-88%, 2000-90%, 1996-84%, 1992-83%, 1988-89%, 1984-91%, 1980-83%, 1976-83%). Turnout on the other hand was lower and that may very well have hurt Clinton enough to lose Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

    As far as young voters go, most of Clinton's losses relative to Obama were not to Trump but to the third party candidates. This implies that her losses with this demographic were more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump. Again lower turnout among young voters did hurt her.

  17. David in Michigan:

    More talking heads (both).... no more credible now than they were before the election. They still don't get it. And probably never will.

    I voted for Donald Trump because I agreed with his message. Period. So did many others. The "anti-Hillary" or "weak Clinton" claims may have some merit but is not the reason he won the election.

    P.S. Yes, I'm a white male. I am college educated in the sciences. By my wife is a Mexican. She voted for Trump because she also liked his policies (though she continues to fear being found out).

  18. CT_Yankee:

    I'm going more with "life in front of the firing squad", or just giving her the option to stand in front of a 21 gun salute.

    They did not depose her maid (no clearance) who printed classified stuff fer her - or even look at the computer used for that printing. The "personal" emails have not been clearly defined, such as did they include anything dealing with the Clinton "charity". Now that the question of donation for access or as an aid to negotiations has been raised, erasing emails on the donations or access is clearly destruction of evidence. They let her set the rules for the investigation, who else gets to do that? She needs her passport revoked and finances frozen while a legitimate investigation actually tries harder to expose the truth instead of concealing it.

    Frankly, it would set a good precedent that an outgoing official would be held accountable for misconduct or abuse of power. A good politician would even be able to use such an inquiry as a way to highlight the legitimate reasons for a policy, helping to retain support after the new regime steps in with the intent to repeal all. A bad politician would help to resolve questions like how to handle Secret Service protection for incarcerated has beens.

  19. mesaeconoguy:

    I didn’t have time to check it out, but saw a story today of an analysis that said Trump would have beaten Obama in 2012.

  20. Colin77:

    Check your link: "UPDATED: Obama 2012 Would’ve Beaten Trump 2016"

  21. johnmoore:

    It was both. I would say it was an anti-establishment election - the stop-nothing Republican congress, the lying biased media, the progressives, Hillary, the political correct totalitarians.

    And, the free traders - free trade has passed its sell by date for the US. Free trade "lifts all boats" except it doesn't. It might lift the aggregate GDP of the partners, but not necessarily all the partners, and demonstrably not all the people in all the partners. There are a lot of victims of too much immigration in the US, and a lot of victims of aggressive Chinese mercantilism (which isn't free trade anyway).

    I don't know the answers, but the consequences we have seen tell me that my former adherence to free trade as an unalloyed good was mistaken.

  22. Penkville:

    Sort of except if you look at the final tallies, Trump came very close to beating Obama's performance in 2012 in the Electoral College for the key swing states. Impressive in my opinion, given all the opposition, own baggage and resulting negatives when compared with the advantages Obama had.

  23. lawrenceperson:

    How do we know that exit polls are, in fact, any more accurate than the other polls that have proven so fatally flawed in this election?

  24. Mondak:

    And yet every single day on the news you hear the following sentence:

    "Wall Street was up/down today on news that . . . "

    Most of the time the entire market had a tiny change one direction or another and yet they can pin the trading of millions of stocks on one small event or combined "fear".

  25. Seekingfactsforsanity:

    Everyone wants to analyze this in terms of personal identity by race, sex, etc. And why not - it’s become the best approach media has found to inflame its audiences and compete for viewers. Free Speech, Free Markets, National Security, Smaller Government and Lower Income Taxes, and yes, trust and corruption - I think these are really the drivers and the reason Republicans won this one. The best way to march toward socialism is through personal identity politics and that is the reason the left is constantly calling the other side racists, sexists, white supremacist and on and on. And I think the left's method has worked well - but, the right is starting to see through it all now. The right been shouted down long enough. And imho - that is why Republicans control the Peoples House, the State's House, and now the White House.

  26. Gdn:

    Found out by whom?