This article was updated on November 20 at 11:02 a.m. ET
This chart has been making the rounds on Twitter these past few days:
Turns out it's not a Trump insurgency, but a Clinton collapse. A graph that cuts straight through today's punditry ... pic.twitter.com/x41cyyy2XI— Jonathan Webber (@jonathanwebber) November 9, 2016
Donald Trump didn’t actually flip many Democrats, the thinking goes. Instead, Hillary Clinton failed to turn out liberal voters who had previously voted for Barack Obama. It’s a tempting narrative for smarting progressives, as it maintains status quo thinking—Clinton’s unlikable!—and removes any culpability on the part of the Democrats for missing a massive shift in the electorate. In other words, it’s Clinton’s fault, not theirs, that Trump won the presidency.
Unfortunately, that graph is missing something important. (And not just a properly scaled y-axis.) The numbers that came out on Election Night were enough to secure Trump the presidency, but they weren’t complete. State officials are still counting millions of provisional and absentee ballots, and within two weeks, Clinton will likely have another few million votes in the bank.
Most were cast in the Clinton-leaning states of California, Washington, and New York—not swing states—so they won’t change the Electoral College. But there’s a sufficient amount to put her within striking distance of Obama’s 2012 turnout, and help put an end to the argument that she simply didn’t work hard enough.
“We probably have about 7 million votes left to count,” said David Wasserman, an editor at Cook Political Report who is tracking turnout, shortly after the election. “A majority of them are on the coasts, in New York, California, and Washington. She should be able to win those votes, probably 2-1.” By mid-December, when the Electoral College officially casts its ballots, Wasserman estimates that Clinton could be ahead by 2 percentage points in the popular vote.
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What’s with the delay? Several states, notably California and Washington, have liberal absentee and mail-in voting laws. California, for instance, allows residents to submit ballots up to three days late (although they must be postmarked on or before Election Day). These provisions have made alternative voting pretty popular, and the ballots a bit harder to count. California alone has nearly 3 million votes still pending.
This has happened before. David Leip is the one-man band behind The Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, a website cataloging vote totals all the way back to the early days of the Republic. He remembers seeing much of the same vote-counting hysteria after Election Day in 2012, when it appeared Obama would fall far short of his 2008 total. “They did the same thing—‘Oh my goodness, look at all those missing votes,’” he said. From the numbers he’s seeing, California is due for a record turnout, and possibly other states are as well. It’s too soon to tell, he cautions, if Clinton’s total haul, which sat at 63.6 million as of the morning of November 20, will match or surpass the 66 million votes Obama received in 2012.
But let’s be clear: While these uncounted votes may grow Clinton’s popular lead, they absolutely will not change the course of the election. That math is settled; Trump holds an insurmountable lead in swing states, which turned his popular defeat into a sizable electoral victory. All the votes in liberal-leaning New York and California will not change that.
However, these ballots will knock the legs out beneath the argument that Clinton failed to mobilize Democrats. Yes, she’s no Obama in 2008. (Neither was Obama in 2012.) But county-by-county results indicate Democratic voters flipped for Trump, not that they stayed home. “We just saw massive shifts in the industrial midwest from ’12 to ’16, and those are the same voters,” Wasserman said. This is the conclusion Democrats must face, and in the absence of other data, it’s the one they’ll have to live with.