For all the talk about why Donald Trump was elected president while losing the popular vote and how he could win again, one of the least discussed results of the 2016 election offers valuable lessons for Democrats.
An astounding 7.8 million voters cast their presidential ballots for someone other than Trump or Hillary Clinton. The two biggest third-party vote-getters were Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson (almost 4.5 million votes) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (1.5 million voters). But others received almost another 1.9 million votes as well.
Libertarians and Greens may try to convince you that this reflects growing support for their parties. It doesn’t.
Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.
Remember, Johnson and Stein were also on the ballot four years earlier, and the former drew under 1.3 million votes and the latter not quite 470,000 votes.
In 2004, the two major-party nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerry, combined for 99 percent of the popular vote.
Four years later, Barack Obama and John McCain drew 98.6 percent of the popular vote. And in 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney took 98.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the Federal Election Commission.
But in 2016, Clinton and Trump together received only 94.27 percent of the popular vote.
Both were so widely unpopular that millions of voters opted to waste their votes by supporting third-party candidates who had no hope of winning.
Breaking down the votes
Two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, make clear what occurred.
The Democratic presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama’s popular-vote margins in those three contests ranged from a low of 144,000 votes in 2004 to 620,000 in 2008. In all three elections, the Democrat received a majority of the vote.
The weakest showing was in 2004, when Kerry won with 50.9 percent of the vote and defeated Bush in the state by 2.5 points.
But in 2016, Trump carried the state by 44,000 votes — just over seven-tenths of a point, even though he won 48.2 percent statewide.
Obama and Romney combined for 98.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in 2012, but Trump and Clinton combined for only 95.6 percent four years later.
While third-party hopefuls drew just under 83,000 votes in the Keystone State in 2012, they drew more than three times that number, 268,000 votes, four years later. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters couldn’t stomach either of the major parties’ nominees, so they cast protest votes for third-party and independent candidates.
The same thing happened in Wisconsin, but in an even more stunning way.
Wisconsin was a near dead heat in 2004. (Kerry won it by a mere 11,000 votes.) But Obama carried it by comfortable margins in 2008 (415,000 votes) and 2012 (213,000 votes).
Then in 2016, Trump carried the Badger State by fewer than 23,000 votes. But his vote total was less than what Romney received in 2012 — yet Trump carried the state while Romney lost it by over 200,000 votes.
Third-party and independent hopefuls in Wisconsin drew 39,000 votes in 2012 but more than four times that number, 188,000 votes, four years later.
At the same time, the major-party vote there dropped from just over 3 million in 2012 to 2.8 million in 2016.
Elsewhere, the same thing happened.
In Florida, the third-party presidential vote quadrupled from 73,000 votes in 2012 to 297,000 votes in 2016.
In Michigan, it increased almost five-fold, from 51,000 to almost 251,000, while the total number of votes in the state for major-party nominees fell.
Some third-party votes came from Libertarians, Greens and others who regularly vote third party.
But the surge in third-party and independent voters undoubtedly reflected the baggage of the major-party nominees in 2016.
Increased support for third-party candidates occurred in every state, though with differences in magnitude.
In very pro-Trump states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, the increase was muted, since there were fewer defections from Trump and Clinton in those states.
Many conservative and pragmatic Republicans found Trump vulgar, narcissistic, intellectually lazy and unqualified to be president, but they couldn’t force themselves to vote for Clinton.
On the other hand, some Democrats saw Clinton as insufficiently progressive and untrustworthy, and there was no way they could vote for her.
What it means for 2020
In theory, Trump could have reached out during his presidency to Republican defectors. Instead, he chose to double-down on personal attacks, nationalist rhetoric and divisive appeals to non-college-educated whites, who helped elect him.
That makes it unlikely for Trump to attract many of those who wasted their votes in 2016.
On the other hand, Democrats have the rare opportunity next year to woo progressives, Republicans and swing voters who threw their votes away by supporting third-party nominees.
Progressives now see the damage Trump has done, and Republicans who rejected Trump in 2016 have had their worst fears about him confirmed.
But if Democrats select a nominee who is again unpalatable to many voters, as Clinton was, that could send anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters back to third parties again in 2020.
While it is completely true that the Democrats “waste” large numbers of popular votes in California and New York, that’s not why Clinton lost in 2016.
She failed to mobilize anti-Trump voters, too many of whom decided that they couldn’t support either major-party nominee. Winning those voters who defected from the two major parties would be an important step for either side.
And right now, only the Democrats are in a position to take advantage of that, which is not good news for Trump, not only in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also nationally.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially on the Roll Call website on July 29, 2019.
Yes, it’s time for another of my “dangerous dozen open House seats” columns, which I have been writing since shortly after the establishment of the Jamestown Settlement (or so it seems).
This cycle’s version has a plethora of seats to choose from, given the 38 Republican and 19 Democratic seats where an incumbent is not seeking re-election, either because he or she is retiring or running for a different office. (The number does not include those districts where a special election has already filled a vacancy or will be held before November.)
Those 57 total retirements are the second largest since 1930, surpassed only by 1992, which had a total of 65 open seats.
Here is my list, in descending order of vulnerability.
The first 10 districts on the list look very likely to flip party control.
After that, things get a bit murkier.
Meehan’s suburban Philadelphia district has been completely redrawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, going from a very competitive district that voted for Hillary Clinton by 2 points in 2016 to one that would have backed her by 28 points under the new lines.
Meehan, who recently resigned from Congress, had his own problems anyway, but the new lines guarantee the Republican will be replaced by a Democrat.
2. Pennsylvania’s 14th (Conor Lamb, D)
Pennsylvania’s old 18th District has been chopped up a number of ways. Lamb has decided to run in the redrawn 17th District, where Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus will also be seeking re-election.
That means that the redrawn 14th, much of which is in now in Lamb’s district, won’t have an incumbent on the ballot in the fall.
The redrawn seat went for President Donald Trump by 29 points, making it an almost certain Republican takeover in the fall.
Ros-Lehtinen proved her political appeal in 2016 when she won re-election while Clinton was carrying her district by 20 points. But now that the Republican congresswoman is retiring, the heavily Hispanic district looks poised to flip party control.
Costello went back and forth about seeking re-election under the new lines. Clinton carried the old district by a single point but took the redrawn seat by 9 points.
The congressman finally announced that he would not seek re-election, and that almost certainly ended GOP chances of holding this suburban Philadelphia seat.
LoBiondo’s district is a contradiction. Trump carried it by 5 points, but President Barack Obama carried it twice, by 8 points each time.
The Republican incumbent lost his first bid for Congress in 1992 but hasn’t had a close contest since he won the open seat in 1994.
The favorite for this year’s open seat is Democrat Jeff Van Drew. National Democrats have wooed the moderate state senator to run for years, but he waited until the seat became open. Smart move.
McSally is running for the Senate in what could be a terrible Republican year, both in her state and nationally. While she is a strong candidate, her exit creates a huge hole for Republicans in a district Clinton carried by almost 5 points.
Divisions within the state GOP and a relatively weak Republican showing in Arizona’s 8th District special election last month suggest serious problems for McSally’s party.
7. California’s 49th (Darrell Issa, R)
Issa barely edged out Democratic challenger Doug Applegate two years ago and decided not to try his luck once again. Both parties have multiple hopefuls running, and the top-two open primary complicates any analysis.
But the district has been moving toward the Democrats, and Trump’s unpopularity — Clinton carried the seat by more than 7 points — and Democratic enthusiasm makes this district a prime takeover target. If a Democrat makes the top two, the district will flip.
8. California’s 39th (Ed Royce, R)
Clinton carried Royce’s district by 9 points so it isn’t surprising that this open seat is at great risk. Uncertain GOP turnout in the state, partially a function of Trump’s weakness, adds to Republican woes. Again, if a Democrat makes the top two, the district is likely to flip.
9. Pennsylvania’s 7th (Charlie Dent, R)
Dent has been an extremely popular and savvy officeholder, which has masked the competitiveness of this district. His retirement, and a redrawn district map, combine to make this vacant seat a Republican headache. Trump carried the old 15th District by 8 points, but Clinton carried the redrawn seat by a point — which is why the eventual GOP nominee will be an underdog.
Frelinghuysen was first elected to Congress in 1994, a huge Republican “wave” year, and he is retiring in what could become one of the larger Democratic waves in recent memory.
The pragmatic Republican hasn’t been tested in years, but Trump carried his educated, upscale Republican-leaning district by less than a point.
The likely Democratic nominee, Mikie Sherrill, is a Naval Academy graduate, former Navy pilot, former federal prosecutor and a woman. Looks like a giant migraine headache for GOP strategists — and a Democratic pickup.
11. Michigan’s 11th (David Trott, R)
This suburban district located northwest of Detroit usually leans Republican, but Obama carried it in 2008. Trump won it by a bit over 4 points, hardly an overwhelming margin. Both parties have crowded primaries that include current and former candidates and B-team hopefuls.
12. Minnesota’s 1st and 8th (Tim Walz, D/Rick Nolan, D)
Trump carried both of these districts by about 15 points, but both voted for Obama twice. They both have a substantial chunk of rural and blue-collar voters, giving the eventual Republican nominees the opportunity to flip a Democratic seat even while the national trend is going very much in the opposite direction. But since I’m not certain which is more likely to flip, I’ll put both on the list for now.
This list almost certainly will change as primaries play out, general election races engage and polls show how voters are reacting to the nominees and the broader political environment.
Keep an eye on a handful of races that just missed being included on my list but could be added later.
Those open districts include Washington’s 8th (Republican Dave Reichert), North Carolina’s 9th (Republican Robert Pittenger) and Kansas’ 2nd (Republican Lynn Jenkins). And even the open seat of Speaker Paul D. Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District bears watching.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 10, 2018.