How the Obama coalition crumbled, leaving an opening for Trump

It is entirely possible, as many have argued, that Hillary Clinton would be the president-elect of the United States if the F.B.I. director, James Comey, had not sent a letter to Congress about her emails in the last weeks of the campaign.

But the electoral trends that put Donald J. Trump within striking distance of victory were clear long before Mr. Comey sent his letter. They were clear before WikiLeaks published hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. They were even clear back in early July, before Mr. Comey excoriated Mrs. Clinton for using a private email server.

It was clear from the start that Mrs. Clinton was struggling to reassemble the Obama coalition.

At every point of the race, Mr. Trump was doing better among white voters without a college degree than Mitt Romney did in 2012 – by a wide margin. Mrs. Clinton was also not matching Mr. Obama’s support among black voters.

This was the core of the Obama coalition: an alliance between black voters and Northern white voters, from Mr. Obama’s first win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses to his final sprint across the so-called Midwestern Firewall states where he staked his 2012 re-election bid.

In 2016, the Obama coalition crumbled and so did the Midwestern Firewall.

The Obama Coalition Falters

The countryside of Iowa or the industrial belt along Lake Erie is not the sort of place that people envision when they think of the Obama coalition. Yet it was an important component of his victory.

Campaign lore has it that President Obama won thanks to a young, diverse, well-educated and metropolitan “coalition of the ascendant” – an emerging Democratic majority anchored in the new economy. Hispanic voters, in particular, were credited with Mr. Obama’s victory.

But Mr. Obama would have won re-election even if he hadn’t won the Hispanic vote at all. He would have won even if the electorate had been as old and as white as it had been in 2004.

Largely overlooked, his key support often came in the places where you would least expect it. He did better than John Kerry and Al Gore among white voters across the Northern United States, despite exit poll results to the contrary. Over all, 34 percent of Mr. Obama’s voters were whites without a college degree – larger in number than black voters, Hispanic voters or well-educated whites.

The best data on the effect of turnout will ultimately come from voter file data, which will include an individual-level account of who voted and who didn’t. Most of this data is only beginning to become available.

But the limited data that’s already available is consistent with the story evident in the pre-election polling: Turnout wasn’t the major factor driving shifts among white voters.

The voter-file data in North Carolina Barack Obama, where nearly all of the state’s jurisdictions have reported their vote, shows that the turnout among white Democrats and Republicans increased by almost the exact amount – about 2.5 percent. The same appears to be true in Florida.

Nationally, there is no relationship between the decline in Democratic strength and the change in turnout. Mr. Trump made gains in white working-class areas, whether turnout surged or dropped.

The exit polls also show all of the signs that Mr. Trump was winning over Obama voters. Perhaps most strikingly, Mr. Trump won 19 percent of white voters without a degree who approved of Mr. Obama’s performance, including 8 percent of those who “strongly” approved of Mr. Obama’s performance and 10 percent of white working-class voters who wanted to continue Mr. Obama’s policies.

Mr. Trump won 20 percent of self-identified liberal white working-class voters, according to the exit polls, and 38 percent of those who wanted policies that were more liberal than Mr. Obama’s.

It strongly suggests that Mr. Trump won over large numbers of white, working-class voters who supported Mr. Obama four years earlier.

The Obama-Trump Vote

The notion that Mr. Trump could win over so many people who voted for Mr. Obama and who still approved of his performance is hard to understand for people with ideologically consistent views on a traditional liberal-conservative spectrum. Mr. Trump, if anything, was Mr. Obama’s opposite.

But the two had the same winning pitch to white working-class voters.

Mr. Obama and his campaign team portrayed Mr. Romney as a plutocrat who dismantled companies and outsourced jobs. The implication was that he would leave middle-class jobs prey to globalization and corporations.

The proof of Mr. Obama’s commitment to the working class and Mr. Romney’s callousness, according to the Obama campaign, was the auto bailout: Mr. Obama protected the auto industry; Mr. Romney wrote “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” in The New York Times.

There was one place where Mr. Romney was able to effectively argue that he could protect the industrial economy and the people who worked in it: coal country. There he made big gains after the Obama administration pushed climate-change policies that would reduce the production and use of coal.

In retrospect, the scale of the Democratic collapse in coal country was a harbinger of just how far the Democrats would fall in their old strongholds once they forfeited the mantle of working-class interests.

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