Can They Count?

Blaming third-party voters for Trump's win isn't just bad politics. It's bad math.

Dave Rosenblum / Flickr

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election day victory, political wonks find themselves in an urgent predicament — apparently, not a single one of them owns a calculator. This crisis is ill-timed indeed. Performing simple feats of addition and subtraction is a vital part of the wonks’ post-election number-crunching ritual. But without calculators, wonks make mistakes.

The calculator crisis has already had an impact on public opinion. Justifiably unnerved by the shortage, data-slingers have flailed in the days and weeks following the election. As a result, they’ve churned out misleading analyses full of bad math.

The worst instances of bad math have to do with the so-called “protest vote,” cast by those voters who, disgusted by the major candidates on offer, pulled the lever for marginal third-party challengers like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. To hear the wonks tell it, these voters were dupes — frauds even — and they cost Clinton the election.

A smattering of examples: Clinton’s campaign wasn’t even cold yet when Paul Krugman — that wizened soothsayer of the liberal commentariat — first slandered Jill Stein as a spoiler. Then, the morning after the election, Kara Brown invited indignant Jezebel readers to join her in extending a “hearty ‘fuck you’ to Jill Stein and all who voted for her.” Tina Nguyen at Vanity Fair hopped on the bandwagon soon after, saying it was “undeniable that third-party voters cost Clinton the election.”

This isn’t just bad politics — it’s bad math. Their argument literally does not add up.

Show Your Math

Let’s say every single voter who voted for Jill Stein had instead held their noses and voted for Hillary Clinton. We won’t waste our time evaluating the national vote totals, since (as everyone now knows) Clinton actually won the popular vote by upwards of two million ballots. Trump is our president-elect thanks only to the all-important electoral college, a pro-slave state relic from the antebellum years.

So instead let’s take a look at the six states Trump “flipped” — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida — and that delivered him the electoral college votes he needed to win. Let’s suppose that in each of those states, all of Stein’s votes instead went to Clinton.

Of course, considering the chasm separating Stein’s politics from Clinton’s, this whole exercise is pure fantasy. More likely, without a left-wing third-party challenger on the ballot, many voters who pulled the lever for Stein would have simply exercised their right to “stay home” — a euphemism for choosing not to chart a path through the dense field of barriers standing between ordinary Americans and their constitutional right to vote on election day.

But let’s indulge the thought experiment anyway. In Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Florida, even if every single Jill Stein voter had instead voted for the Democratic candidate, Clinton still would have lost. I’ll show my math.

In Iowa, Trump (798,923) beat Clinton (650,790) by 148,133 votes, more than ten times Stein’s 11,119 vote total.

In Ohio, Trump (2,771,984) beat Clinton (2,317,001) by 454,983 votes. Stein got 44,310 votes — again, less than 10 percent of what Clinton would have needed to turn the state blue.

In Florida, 119,770 votes separated Trump (4,605,515) and Clinton (4,485,745). Jill Stein got just over half that — 64,019 votes.

It was closest in Pennsylvania. There, Trump (2,912,941) received 68,236 more votes than Clinton (2,844,705). Still, Stein (48,912) would have needed almost 20,000 more votes to cover that spread.

Here’s the takeaway: In these four key states — all of which went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and for Trump in 2016 — Jill Stein didn’t spoil a damn thing. The Democrats simply failed to win, not because a kooky left-wing killjoy peeled votes away from a competitive Democratic coalition, but because Clinton turned her back on an electorate still hurting from the recession and hungry for some kind of political response.

The Democrats’ doom was sealed when they decided to cede these states’ impoverished rural counties to a bigoted ideologue whose administration will make things much worse for ordinary workers. The Democratic Party’s abandonment of the countryside, populated predominantly by poor whites, wasn’t an accident — it was a strategy. But it was a profoundly out-of-touch one, and it cost Clinton the White House.

It’s true that the numbers tell a different story in Michigan and Wisconsin. In Michigan, if every single Stein vote had instead gone to the Democrats, Clinton would have beat Trump’s total by almost 21,000 ballots, netting the state’s sixteen electoral college votes. It’s a similar story in Wisconsin: Stein’s 30,980 votes would have just barely covered the 27,257 vote spread dividing Trump (1,409,467) and Clinton (1,382,210), turning the state blue and putting still more precious electoral college votes under her belt.

So, yes, if every single Stein voter in Michigan and Wisconsin had instead voted for Clinton, those two states wouldn’t have flipped. But that still wouldn’t have delivered the Democrat to the White House. Even with Michigan’s sixteen electoral college votes and Wisconsin’s ten, Clinton still would have come up short — 248 votes to Trump’s 290.

The Stein-sunk-Clinton argument simply doesn’t hold water.

Even bereft of calculators, some wonks can apparently count well enough on their fingers to recognize that obvious fact. So they’ve adopted a new strategy — simply lumping Stein’s vote totals with those of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in a laughable attempt to manufacture the data that might support their spoiler hypothesis.

But this move only works if we establish a false equivalency between Stein, whose party adopted anticapitalism as a platform plank this election cycle, and Johnson, whose platform hinged on a spirited defense of free trade. The fact that, for some Democrats, the most intuitive response to Clinton’s loss is to label the arch-conservative Libertarian a “spoiler” only goes to show how politically harebrained (and ideologically vacant) the right wing of the Democratic Party has become.

Speculating that Johnson voters might have otherwise voted for Clinton only makes sense when we consider Democratic insider Chuck Schumer’s losing strategy for this presidential contest: “For every blue-collar Democrat we will lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two or three moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

But this plan tanked, in part because at least some of those “moderate Republicans” failed to enter the Democratic tent — they voted for the Libertarian instead. So again, the blame for Trump’s victory lies less with third-party spoilers than with the Democrats’ own failed strategy.

Others have skipped the Stein-bashing entirely and zeroed in on a more high-profile target to smear with the spoiler label — Bernie Sanders. Disappointingly, one-time fellow-traveler Theda Skocpol chose this path, submitting a short letter to the New York Times blaming the socialist senator for “further[ing] Trump’s message and contribut[ing] to the con man’s catastrophic victory.”

Skocpol was once a gifted and sensitive historian. Now, she toes the Democratic Party line, even when it means playing dumb — for example, by claiming that “Sanders did not attract broad working-class support in the primaries.” According to Skocpol, “His base was overwhelmingly restricted to white liberals, especially in the cities and college towns.”

This is simply untrue. Sanders attracted majority support from millennials of all racial backgrounds, and claimed victory in impoverished rural counties across the nation.

He also won significant support from rank-and-file union members — plus a number of important union endorsements — even as the union bureaucracy did all they could to manipulate their members into backing Clinton. While it’s true that this rank-and-file enthusiasm for Sanders hardly equates to “mass working-class support,” it is clear that Sanders had the potential to build a strong working-class coalition, had he been able to extend his campaign through the general election.

Skocpol thinks that Sanders’s unwillingness to concede the primary to Hillary Clinton was prideful and bullheaded. But by staying in the race until the bitter end, despite the best efforts of the entire Democratic Party machine to sink his campaign, Sanders won a broad audience to social-democratic politics — the only politics that can beat Trump in 2020.

Skocpol’s nonsensical intervention can’t just be written off as bad math — it’s a bad argument, made in bad faith, in support of bad politics.

No Confidence in Voting

If the electoral field had included only Clinton and Trump — no challengers from the environmentalist left nor the libertarian right — the election probably would have had the same result.

The Democrats lost because their Republican challenger was able to galvanize voters far more successfully than Hillary Clinton, whose technocratic blend of esoteric policy-talk and milquetoast liberalism did next to nothing to motivate turnout, even with the specter of a Trump presidency looming large.

The latest numbers — which reflect the recently tallied mail-in and absentee ballots, as well as the votes cast on election day — show that Clinton received about sixty-five million votes, about as many as Obama in 2012.

Meanwhile, Trump bested Romney’s 2012 totals by about a million and a half votes — and while its certainly true that a number of voters who pulled the lever for Obama in 2012 opted for Trump this time around, it’s also true that Trump won votes from many people who didn’t vote at all in 2012, and who likely haven’t voted for a long time. As the New York Times pointed out, a recent study shows that in counties where Trump won by a margin of 70 percent or more, voter turnout was roughly 2.9 percent higher than in previous election years. But turnout was down by 1.7 percent in counties where Clinton won by 70 percent or better.

If we believe the liberal blogosphere, this is nothing but a simple story of racist working-class whites ditching the Democrats — and good riddance to them. But like so much of what the liberal blogosphere has to say, that argument is wrong.

By clinging to an outdated “third way” orientation ill-prepared to confront the decline in living standards for most Americans, Democrats have turned their backs on all working people, not just rural whites. And so, slowly but surely, they’re losing support — not just from the white residents of the disinvested rust belt, but also from black workers in urban centers like Detroit, the northwest wards of St Louis, and Brooklyn’s East Flatbush, where voter turnout declined significantly compared to 2012.

Where are these disappearing voters going? Overwhelmingly, they’re not defecting from one party to another. They’re just dropping out of the game, choosing not to participate in an electoral system that becomes more and more impenetrable, more and more alien to public life, with each passing election.

This piece has been reworked to reflect updated election statistics.