President-elect Donald Trump’s success at breaking the so-called “blue wall” – those Rust Belt states that had voted for a Democrat in every election since at least 1992 – was the key to his victory. To help understand how he did this, I compared exit poll data from the last three elections in those states – 2012, 2014, and 2016. There were three over-arching themes in terms of demographics: 1) Trump out-performed 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney among men, especially white men; 2) Clinton underperformed Pres. Obama’s 2012 margins with women and younger voters; 3) In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin the electorate was older than it was in 2012, but not as old as it was back in the mid-term election of 2014.
The exit polls also show that Trump’s success in these three states was about more than voter frustration with the state of the economy. In fact, Hillary Clinton did better among those who said the economy was “the most important issue facing the country,” than Obama did four years earlier. But, among those who said they wanted to see a president who “can bring change,” Trump crushed Clinton by 68-72 points. This is similar to the disconnect we saw in 2012 where voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin trusted Romney more on the economy, but by significant margins though that Obama “cared” about them more than Romney did.
*In 2016, it was worded “Cares About Me”
Each state, however, has a different story. In Pennsylvania, Clinton badly underperformed Obama and Gov. Tom Wolf (who won election in 2014), among younger voters – Wolf carried them by 24 points, Obama by 28 points, while Clinton won the millennial vote by 19 percent. More important, young voters made up a smaller share of the electorate than they did in 2012 – 16 percent to 19 percent. She did no worse than Obama among white voters, and improved over Obama among white women, but among white men Trump outperformed Romney by 11 points. Meanwhile, there were fewer African-American voters who turned out in 2016 (10 percent to 13 percent). In fact, turn-out among African-Americans looked more like 2014 than 2012.
In Wisconsin, younger voters are the big story. In 2012, 18-29 year olds made up 21 percent of the electorate and Obama carried them by 23 points. In 2016, these younger voters made up just 17 percent of the electorate and Clinton won them by just 3 points. Meanwhile, Trump did 10 points better among men – and 10 points better among white men – than Romney did in 2012. In fact, Trump’s coalition looks remarkably similar to the one that Scott Walker put together in 2014.
In Michigan, which was the closest state in the country, the composition of the electorate looks very similar to 2012. In fact, the electorate was less white (75 percent to 77 percent in 2012 and 79 percent in 2014) and younger (21 percent compared to 19 percent in 2012). But, as with the other rust-belt states, Trump out-ran Romney as well as the 2014 GOP nominee for Senate Terri Land among white voters – especially white men.
Conclusion: In the months ahead, we will get to look at individual voter files to get a better sense of who these voters were (or weren’t). Were they the so-called “missing white voters” who, unenthusiastic about their GOP standard bearers, sat out in 2008 and 2012, but came out in 2016 for Trump? Or were these the traditionally active voters who supported Democrats in the past – even as recently as 2012 – but switched to Trump this year? Were the younger voters who showed up in 2012 sitting home in 2016? Or was it the new generation of young people who weren’t old enough to vote in past election who did/didn’t show up? For now, however, it’s fair to say that Trump’s victory in these three states was thanks to his solid performance among white voters and men, the lack of turn-out and enthusiasm from younger voters for Clinton, and the fact that women didn’t back Clinton by a bigger percentage. Trump’s message of “change” was also a more resonate factor than just “the economy” in explaining his appeal and success.