Maybe the Voters Just Wanted Republicans in Charge
Of all the complex explanations attempting to make sense of what happened electorally in 2016, perhaps Occam’s razor should apply: people voted for Republicans because they wanted Republicans in power.
Before you dismiss this point as circular reasoning, consider this chart from Greg Giroux, who crunched the numbers on Republican House members in California who won reelection despite Hillary Clinton winning their district.
Even as Hillary Clinton was winning the state of California by 30 points, voters were splitting their tickets to make sure Republicans in Congress represented them. And this effect wasn’t isolated to just California. You can see the desire to keep Congressional Republicans in power in nearly every swing state and district in the country.
It’s tempting to put all the blame on Hillary Clinton for the drubbing Democrats took, but she outpaced down ballot Democrats throughout the country. In Wisconsin, Hillary lost by fewer than 25,000 votes, while progressive icon Russ Feingold did even worse in that state’s Senate race, losing by around 100,000 votes. The same happened in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and a host of other swing states.
In Virginia, one of the rare swing states where Hillary performed better than Obama in 2012, voters split their tickets in favor of Hillary as well. In the most competitive House race in the state—the 10th district—voters reelected Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock 53-47 after a strong challenge by Democrat LuAnn Bennett. But the very same voters of the 10th district went for Hillary 52-42. Mitt Romney won the same district in 2012 by a two-point margin, 51-49.
In Ohio, Donald Trump’s anti-free trade message seems to have been pivotal in his impressive 8-point victory there. But former champion of free trade Senator Rob Portman (who essentially flip-flopped on the issue just like Hillary Clinton) won his reelection by 20 points (!) over former Governor Ted Strickland. If trade really was the key issue in the minds of voters, they certainly didn’t penalize Hillary and Senator Portman in quite the same fashion.
The only real significant bucking of the trend on the Senate side came from Democrat Jason Kander of Missouri, who ran 16 points ahead of Hillary (and should garner some consideration for 2020 for the effort), and Evan Bayh of Indiana, who ran 10 points ahead. Both were solid recruits but faced massive headwinds.
To my eye, 2016 looks like a banner Republican year that got blunted by having a very unpopular Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. Sure, you can also argue that voters from the Obama coalition didn’t turn out enough in the most crucial states to help Hillary, but history doesn’t count the people who stay home. Across the nation, in nearly every close election, the voters on the margin went for the traditional Congressional Republican. The Obama backlash is now devastatingly complete.
As Donald Trump tries in vain to claim a mandate, it’s Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan who find themselves with a much more convincing case. In the races that mattered, voters broke decidedly in their favor, even as they hedged against Donald Trump. For Democrats, it’s a reminder that they too have a mandate—to stop selling a product that too few voters (and non-voters) are buying.