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What does voter turnout tell us about the 2016 election?

BY   November 20, 2016 at 3:03 PM EST
Voters cast their votes during the U.S. presidential election in Elyria, Ohio, U.S. November 8, 2016. Photo By Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

Voters cast their votes during the U.S. presidential election in Elyria, Ohio, U.S. November 8, 2016. Photo By Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

The vast majority of ballots have been counted nearly two weeks after one of the biggest political upsets in modern U.S. history catapulted Donald Trump to the presidency.

Estimates show more than 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls during the 2016 election, nearly breaking even with the turnout rate set during the last presidential election in 2012, even as the final tallies in states like California continue to be calculated, according to statistics collected by the U.S. Elections Project.

But among those figures were stark contrasts in key states that helped swing the election to Trump — in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and elsewhere — indicating the President-elect’s leap from long-shot candidate to the most powerful political position in the world may have happened in part because of apathy toward Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, especially among the Democratic base, several political scientists and organizations monitoring voter turnout told the PBS NewsHour.

While Clinton is leading the popular vote by more than 1.5 million over Trump as of Sunday, she trails President Obama’s 2012 totals by more than 2 million ballots — a chasm that may have cost her the election, said David Becker, co-founder of the Center for Election and Innovation and Research.

“Several million voters didn’t come out to vote,” Becker said. “Which is telling me that this idea of the Trump wave, a huge number of voters shifting over to Trump, is certainly not the story.”

Nationally, the number of people who voted for Trump were only slightly ahead of those who supported the last Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, in 2012.

But Becker said that while turnout in purple states like Florida and Pennsylvania had a slight uptick this year, at least 19 other states saw lower turnout rates compared with 2012, a scenario that is antithetical to presidential-year voting that tends to increase each cycle when an incumbent is not a part of the race.

According to Becker, turnout rates dropped by 1.3 percent in Iowa, 3 percent in Wisconsin and nearly 4 percent in Ohio in 2016, a combination that became a death knell for Clinton’s presidential hopes in areas where Obama performed well during his two terms.

Fourteen states installed new restrictive voting laws, which have historically targeted minorities, before the 2016 election, including in Wisconsin and Ohio. And this general election was the first since the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 that required federal approval on any state election law.

Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said voter identification laws hurt turnout in the city’s high-poverty districts this month, noting that 41,000 fewer people voted there in 2016 than in 2012.

However, the Brennan Center for Justice, nonpartisan law and policy institute, said there has not been enough data collected to determine the laws’ impact on the election.

Robert Alexander, a political science professor at Ohio Northern University, said many of the scenarios across the country that led to Trump’s victory also played out in Ohio, a crucial swing state.

“You saw turnout spike in more rural counties,” Alexander said. “If you take a look at a lot of the larger cities you did see depressed turnout there. It certainly was more consequential for Hillary Clinton than it was for Trump.”

He added: “Trump held firm in a lot of those cities. He didn’t lose ground relative to Romney.”

According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Trump and Romney shared about the same number of white voters during the last two presidential elections, and Clinton captured a percentage of women close to Obama. Clinton also did not perform as well as Obama with core Democratic blocs, including blue collar people.

“I don’t know if it’s so much this fleeing of the blue collar people to Donald Trump,” Alexander said. “But I think there’s a lot of blue collar individuals that the Democrats typically rely on. Those are the folks who didn’t show up.”

Clinton also pulled in a lower share of voters between ages 18 and 29 than Obama did during his two campaigns, Becker said.

Preliminary national exit polls released in the days after the election showed the contest was divided by race, gender and education, though black and Latino minorities did not turn out like they had for Obama and women did not show up for Clinton to the extent that many had predicted. While Clinton’s took 88 percent of African-American votes to Trump’s 8 percent, Obama defeated Romney among African-Americans by 93 percent to 6 percent, exit polls showed.

“Trump gave people who did show up a reason to vote for him,” Alexander said, noting that Clinton’s lead in the polls in the weeks leading up to the election was likely a factor for turnout rates. “People didn’t see that urgency. The people that did support her did not see her losing.”

Clinton contends that a letter sent by FBI director James B. Comey to Congress about the agency’s inquiry into her use of a private email server lost her the election.

But Becker said the difference in votes between Obama and Clinton may have been due to Obama’s “remarkable” ability to turn out voters. The president has been lauded for bringing people to the polls despite the fact the U.S. is ranked among the worst in developed nations in voter turnout, according to one analysis. And his takeaways from this year’s election are one of disenchantment among both Republicans and Democrats.

“I think there’s warning signs in both parties,” Becker said. “Obviously Democrats are losing votes and Republicans aren’t really building their base. The numbers they’re getting are holding pretty consistent. That should be troubling when the electorate is on the older side.”

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