We will soon enough be leaving behind the 2016 election and entering the era of the Trump Administration, but now that the popular votes have all finally been counted, it’s worth running a few more times through what we can learn from the numbers. Today’s lesson: the historically unusual dependence of Hillary Clinton on the voters in a single state, California.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, Hillary won the national popular vote by 2.86 million votes (48.2% to 46.1%), due entirely to a 4.27 million vote margin of victory in California, which she carried by more than a 30-point margin (61.7% to 31.6%). Her margin in California was a million votes wider than Obama’s in 2008, the previous record for the largest margin in a single state. In fact, only five times in U.S. history has a candidate won a state by 2 million or more votes: after Hillary and Obama ‘08 (3.26 million), we have Obama ‘12 in California (3.01 million), LBJ in New York in 1964 (2.67 million) and Obama in New York in 2008 (2.05 million). Excluding 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt won California and took almost all the state’s Republican voters from President Taft, Trump’s 31.7% of the vote was the lowest by any Republican in California since 1856, and the lowest by any major-party candidate there since 1920.
Outside California, Trump outdistanced Hillary by 1.41 million votes, 47.8% to 46.6%. As I have noted before, Hillary’s support was so geographically narrow that she won a popular vote majority in only 13 states (plus DC), the fewest of any major-party candidate since Bob Dole, barely half as many as Obama four years ago. Bill Clinton in 1992 is the only candidate since World War II to win the election without winning a majority in at least 15 states. Trump, who won a majority of the vote in 23 states and won 7 of the 10 largest states, nonetheless had his support spread out much more broadly: his largest total margins of victory were in Texas (807,000 votes) and Tennessee (652,000 votes). By contrast, Hillary also won New York by 1.73 million, Illinois by 944,000, Massachusetts by 904,000, and Maryland by 734,000.
What I wondered, looking at these numbers, was how historically rare it was to see a candidate’s support as concentrated in a single state as Hillary’s. It turns out that it’s rare in post-WWII America, but the trend has varied over time more with population shifts than anything. 13.29% of Hillary’s votes came from California, the most for any candidate from a single state since we went to 50 states. The last candidate to draw more than 13% of his votes from a single state was Tom Dewey in 1944:
The chart goes back to 1880, the first election after the end of Reconstruction (I listed “51” states for elections from 1964 on that included DC). As you can see, the top 9 candidates on the list – and 11 of the top 12 – lost the election. The top 3 (Al Smith, Dewey and Wendell Willkie) all even lost New York, the state where they got the most votes. It turns out that running candidates with a geographically narrow appeal has always been a losing strategy.
That said, the predominant fact of this chart is the size of California and, before it, New York. The past century has seen a dramatic shift in the political balance of power among the states, and it’s not done yet – if we include the latest population projections at this decade’s midpoint, Florida may be ready to surpass New York in House seats and thus electoral votes (which are a state’s House seats +2), whereas a century ago, New York was ten times Florida’s size:
The Midwest as a whole is in decline, just as the GOP is ascendant there. If you’re wondering, between 1828 (the first election with popular votes tabulated for most states) and 1876, it was more common in a smaller nation with more regional voting patterns to have candidates overconcentrated in one state – Henry Clay in 1832 got almost a third of his votes from New York alone. (I’m not counting the Whigs in 1836, who took this strategy to its logical extreme and ran multiple candidates based in different states). New York was also dominant in this period, although it competed at times with Pennsylvania and Ohio:
If you think the shifts among the states were wild this past century, they were even wilder in the nation’s early history. In colonial times, as I detailed a few years back, the population was exploding, and the population behemoths (even if you counted only the free white population, excluding slaves who had no political rights) were Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. New York, in the age before steamships and canals and the growth of Wall Street, was tiny, with fewer people than Connecticut. New York would also benefit greatly from its disparately friendly treatment under British military occupaton during the Revolution compared to its nearest port competitor, Newport, Rhode Island, which saw its population decline under occupation and lost its status as a major commercial port. For example:
The Constitution originally apportioned House districts in the First Congress by a back-of-the-envelope estimate, to be followed in 1790 by the first Census (the U.S. actually conducted its first Census a decade before Great Britain did). You can read the first Census online here (submitted by the State Department and signed “Th. Jefferson”). Over the next 40 years, population and power shifted dramatically towards New York and Ohio (which only became a state in 1803), while Virginia stagnated and Massachusetts lost a big chunk of its population when Maine (previously a part of Massachusetts) obtained independent statehood in 1820:
The lesson, as always, is that nothing in American politics is forever. Populations shift, and the strength of parties in one part of the country or another waxes and wanes. The Electoral College produces anomalous results only in times of flux, when neither party can muster a majority. Before you know it, that will shift again, and we’ll stop talking about the Electoral College and go back to projecting the next “permanent majority.” In the meantime, Democrats need to find a way to reconnect outside of their coastal enclaves to avoid electing another President of California.