What If 2016 Was a Fluke?

Instead of heralding a realignment, Donald Trump’s victory might have resulted from exceptional circumstances.

A photo of Donald Trump at a rally.
Brittany Greeson / Getty

Donald Trump, like the prophet Joshua, understands the power of blowing his own horn. And like Joshua, Trump brought a wall tumbling down in 2016: the “blue wall” of states around the Great Lakes that supposedly gave Democrats an advantage in the Electoral College. Trump won not only the swing state of Ohio, but also Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and nearly Minnesota. Like Joshua’s victory at Jericho, the results heralded a new era—a realignment of those states and American politics writ large.

Or perhaps, like the biblical battle, the quick victory proved more an exception than a portent of things to come.

There’s still more than a month until Election Day (though an astonishing number of votes have already been cast), but current state polling suggests that if the election were held today, Joe Biden would win Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Ohio and Iowa are toss-ups. Elsewhere, perennial swing states such as Florida and North Carolina are toss-ups too. But so is Georgia, which has gone Democratic only once since native son Jimmy Carter was on the ballot. Although few experts give Biden a chance to win Texas, he’s close in the polls there as well.

As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight (caveats here) gives the chance of a Biden landslide as 28 percent, versus only a 21 percent chance of Trump winning at all. The president has ample opportunity to pull this out—one in five is still a big chance—but the possibility of a huge Biden victory seems to have drawn less attention than the prospect that Trump will come from behind to win.

Maybe that’s because after years of predictions by progressive demographers that the country was tending toward a “permanent Democratic majority,” 2016 seemed to augur a new era. Trump managed to cobble together an Electoral College majority that held most historically Republican voters, but added in a large number of white working-class voters who had traditionally voted Democratic. If he could hold that bloc in places like the Midwest, the new GOP might never manage a majority of the popular vote, and it might not even matter.

The shape of the 2020 race suggests that 2016 might have been less a realignment than an anomaly: A uniquely unorthodox Republican candidate, an extremely vulnerable Democratic candidate, and just the right external conditions combined to give the presidency to Trump.

This is not to say that the parties have not changed on policy, taking the GOP’s 180-degree-turn from free trade to protectionism as a prime example. Nor is it to say that there haven’t been meaningful shifts in the electorate. Trump continues to outperform previous Republicans with white, non-college-educated voters. But that doesn’t mean the electoral map has permanently transformed—a reality most clearly demonstrated in the upper Midwest.

“I think 2016 for the midwestern states was more of a fluke—a real disenchantment with Hillary Clinton, and a real willingness to give a chance to a nonpolitician,” David B. Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron, told me. “I think 2020 is going to show that those states are going to come back home to the Democratic Party.”

A presidential election had never seen a nominee like Trump before 2016: wealthy, famous, shameless, and a political outsider. By breaking with GOP dogma on issues such as entitlements and trade (at least rhetorically), he was able to appeal to voters who had little interest in patricians like Mitt Romney; and by openly espousing racism, he was able to appeal to white identity politics. Amid a long-running decline in manufacturing during the Obama administration, the industrial Midwest was especially fertile ground for him.

Clinton was also an unusually weak candidate, thanks to a combination of misogyny, her own frequent mistakes and past policy stands, and a decades-long barrage from conservative media. Many traditionally Democratic voters crossed the aisle or simply stayed home rather than vote for her.

The result was the shocking Election Night, in which Trump carried Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. By a hair, he won Wisconsin, which hadn’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan. He even came within spitting distance in Minnesota, which hasn’t gone red since 1972.

There were signs even then that Trump’s takeover was not built on a solid foundation. The narrow margins are the stuff of legend and Democratic nightmares, but they bear fresh emphasis. Of the four Rust Belt states that the president won, he won a majority (51.7 percent) only in Ohio. Elsewhere, he won weak pluralities: Michigan, 47.5 percent; Pennsylvania, 48.6 percent; Wisconsin, 47.2 percent. Political scientists, including Larry Bartels, in November 2016, and Seth Masket, in October 2017, argued that the election didn’t look like a realignment.

Nonetheless, a conventional wisdom developed that the country had inexorably shifted, in part because it seemed likely that the president would work to build on his coalition.

“What we assumed post-2016 was that the likelihood was for Trump to build on the lead he had over Hillary Clinton among those non-college white voters,” Amy Walter, the national editor of the Cook Political Report, told me. “What we’re seeing now is that 2016 may look more like a high-water mark for Trump than a stepping stone to even bigger margins with those voters.”

Instead of trying to expand his base, Trump has spent the past four years mostly appealing to his strongest core supporters. This was always risky, as it required him to thread the same fine needle he had in 2016. The past year has made it all the more difficult. The coronavirus pandemic has harmed the president, but perhaps the biggest damage has come from his handling of protests about police violence. When Trump struck a hard line over the summer, and used heavily armed police to clear a square near the White House, his poll numbers tanked, especially among white voters. His standing has never recovered. Trump continues to pound the issue, reckoning that white voters in states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, which have seen major protests and some rioting, will turn to him. They continue to refuse.

States’ electoral leanings do change, but they usually do so gradually. The former blue firewall, in particular, is likely to remain competitive in presidential elections. Biden seems likely to improve on Hillary Clinton’s poor performance with white, non-college-educated voters, but Democrats may never return to the sorts of numbers with the group that Bill Clinton put up.

One clue to the future of the white, non-college-educated vote will be the gender split. Consider the latest Des Moines Register poll in Iowa. The survey finds that Trump wins white men without a college degree in the state, 64 percent to 31 percent, while his margin among white men with a college degree is just 48–45. By contrast, Biden leads among white women with and without a college degree, at almost the same percentage: 56 versus 54. If numbers like that appear nationwide, it would suggest that Trump’s grasp on white working-class men remains strong but was offset by white working-class women.

Gender gaps and suburban shifts, rather than regional realignments, may prove to be the more enduring transformations of the Trump years. In the 2018 midterm elections, and in polling so far in 2020, Democrats have made significant inroads into suburban areas that were once solidly Republican, driven largely by women. Just as Trump’s prowess in the upper Midwest was fueled in part by antipathy to Clinton, these shifts have followed from antipathy to Trump. They may, however, prove to be more durable, given that they are accelerating an existing slide toward Democrats in places such as Arizona, Texas, and Georgia, creating a new cross-racial coalition. Then again, recent experience shows a little humility is wise when predicting permanent changes in the electoral map.