The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election:

A surprisingly unsurprising result

by Professor Thad Kousser

For those around the world who watched America’s 2016 presidential election, it was clear that this historic, continually shocking race was contested by extraordinary candidates.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is that, sifting through that data underlying Donald Trump’s come-from-behind victory, it turned out to be quite an ordinary election. Throughout Trump’s journey from reality TV star to fringe candidate to primary front-runner to general election underdog, he upended much of the conventional wisdom about American politics. Yet his route to victory turned out to be quite conventional. Decades of research on presidential elections have taught us two clear lessons.

First, in the words of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign advisors, it’s the economy, stupid.

One of the strongest predictors of presidential election results in November is the American economy’s growth rate in the spring. With the economy still sputtering its way out of the global recession, Donald Trump’s frankly stated critique of all that was still going wrong for the American worker resonated across the “rustbelt” from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Wisconsin.

Second, we know, from history, how tremendously difficult it is for one party to stay in power for more than eight years.

Just as Americans voted for Barack Obama’s hope and change after two terms of Republican rule under George W. Bush, fatigue with Democratic Party leadership stacked the deck against Obama’s chosen heir. Many statistical models published by political scientists well in advance of the election predicted, based on these two factors, a Trump victory. Most political scientists refused to believe our own models, because the image of a President Trump seemed so far from plausibility, but the models turned out to be right.

Another truism of presidential elections was confirmed this year. Democrats win when they cobble together strong supermajorities of minority voters; Republicans triumph when they consolidate the white vote. The Obama coalition brought together so many African-American, Latino, and Asian-American voters that he could afford to perform more poorly among white voters, in 2012, than any candidate since Michael Dukakis, winning only 39% of this group. But, according to exit polls, Hillary Clinton polled one percentage point worse among white voters, and five to eight points worse among the major racial and ethnic groups.

This was a traditional recipe for a Republican victory, even one by the least traditional Republican in modern history.


Thad Kousser | 2014 Distinguished Chair in American Political Science | U.C. San Diego → Flinders University

Thad is a Professor and Department Chair of Political Science at the University of California San Diego. His primary research areas are American state and national politics, government reform, direct democracy, interest group influence, and how politicians use social media. He has been a visiting professor at Stanford University, held the 2015 Flinders Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Political Science in Adelaide, Australia, is a recipient of the UCSD Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the Faculty Mentor of the Year Award, serves as co-editor of the journal Legislative Studies Quarterly, and has worked as a staff assistant in the California, New Mexico, and United States Senates. Kousser is also a kids soccer coach, an occasional water polo player, an awkward surfer, and an overly competitive triathlete.