Race and the 2016 Election

by John Hartigan Jr.


The urge is almost irresistible. The question presses, “What does the 2016 election say about race relations in the United States?” And the answer seems simple: Trump’s campaign allowed for, even encouraged, white supremacist voices and discourses to filter back into the mainstream media, and whites voted for him in large numbers. Therefore, white racism put Trump in the White House. But not so fast.

Understanding the significance of race in any context, let alone at the scale of such a large nation, is not usually that simple; and the tendency toward reductive, emphatic assertions about racial matters may easily do more harm than good. With elections, these issues are particularly complicated.

Think back to 2008 when Barack Obama won the White House. The pre-election handicapping was utterly fixated on the question of whether racism would keep him from winning. His victory, initially, led to facile assumptions that race didn’t matter and now we were entering a post-racial era. Clearly, those rushed judgments were mistaken. The problem isn’t the myopic optimism of such assessments; it’s their scope and forgetfulness. Considering race via national aggregates (election results or survey research) serves a purpose but obscures the facts that we each deal with race in very local circumstances through shifting contexts that often involve degrees of ambiguity. Also, in formulating emphatic conclusions based on such results, we forget the immense uncertainty preceding an event.

As I wrote about Obama’s victory in characterizing our “national conversation of race,” “we quickly lose sight of one of the conversation’s crucial characteristics. We forget how much uncertainty we have about race and how much ambiguity it often entails. That is, we disregard or overlook how thoroughly unsettled all this was before its apparent resolution in a defining event that promised to reflect a new consensus on how race matters.” The United States, today, is no more or no less racist than it was on Monday, November 7th, just before the election. So how do we think about the significance of race at this moment?

The first point to consider is that Trump garnered fewer votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012. That is, if Clinton had performed better—if her team took black voters more seriously and recognized the challenges of getting them to the polls—she would have won and we would not be engaged in dazed questioning of “what happened?” Regardless of how much hate-speech percolated up into media coverage of the election—and there was plenty in 2008, too—if the Clinton campaign more effectively mobilized its base, the post-election narrative would have taken a “good triumphs over evil” tone about the strength of American democracy. The razor-thin margins in Wisconsin and Michigan do not support broad, sweeping generalization.

Speaking of the Midwest, where Clinton’s hopes floundered, what do we make of white voters’ motivations in that economically hard-hit region? Here, the dynamic is two-fold. Let’s start with the Clinton campaign’s investment in the notion of a “coalition of the ascendant,” building off of Obama’s focus on minorities, millennials, and college-educated whites. Democratic strategists have quite ruthlessly calculated that this coalition means the white-working class is of diminishing import in assembling a base for victory. Why else would Clinton forego any general election campaign appearances in Wisconsin, even though she lost that state’s primary to Bernie Sanders, who also beat her in Michigan?

It’s not just Clinton, though; Trump’s team also misread Wisconsin, deciding not to have the candidate hold last-minute rallies there because Clinton’s advantage seemed too great. That is, both sides got these white voters wrong. How is that?

Part of the answer lies in the demographics-as-destiny assumptions about “the ascendant” America. The percentage of white voters in presidential elections is steadily declining. When Romney lost, pundits attributed his defeat to “missing white voters” who did not turn out to support a wealthy, East Coast businessman. What’s striking is that in 2016, the percentage of white voters continued its slide. Trump did not win because more whites voted. He won because many Midwestern whites who previously voted for Obama turned out for Trump instead. The surge of these white votes has been interpreted as racially motivated, but that’s an odd conclusion given that they previously helped elect a black man president. Rather, these voters make decisions on their interests in relation to changing circumstances: class and economics probably mattered most.

Journalists and pundits are engaged in a serious post-mortem on how they missed the indicators of Trump’s triumph. This is an interesting discussion but I sense in it a too-easy tendency to align the surge in white supremacist discourse with the shift in white-working class support away from the Democrats. This association doubles-down on previous misreadings of these whites, which is most strikingly evident in the way exit polls over the last few cycles have underestimated white-working class votes over the age of 45 by about 10 million people. In an election practically decided by 107,000 votes (the cumulative margin of Trump’s numbers in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania) that’s a real problem. Clearly, those misreadings confounded the Clinton campaign’s calculations of what it would take to win the election.

More deeply, our assessments keep underestimating the dire economic circumstances of lower class whites in this country—the only racial group whose life expectancy rate is dropping!—and too often reproduce long-standing tendencies to locate the problem of racism entirely in their ranks. A larger percentage of college-educated whites supported Trump over Clinton. Why aren’t we hearing more about their racial sensibilities and overall responsibility for the final outcome, especially when so much pre-election coverage suggested these whites were reversing historical trends of backing Republicans and instead breaking for Clinton? The effort to understand the role of race in the 2016 election should start there.

This contribution is part of PoLAR’s fifth emergent conversation, which is on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.