Why Did Hilary Clinton Lose the 2016 Presidential Election? The Bernie Effect Revisited Gizachew Tiruneh, Ph. D. (Revisited!)


September 10, 2017

According to many analysts and pundits, Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election mainly because she did not do enough to listen to and talk about the economic concerns of the rustbelt workers. This seems to be a plausible argument and it may well have been the underlying factor for Clinton’s loss. A comparison of voter turnouts of Barack Obama’s 2012 and Clinton’s 2016 presidential elections in seven battleground states, for instance, seems to suggest that Obama was far more popular than was Clinton with the American voters. Clinton received higher votes than Obama only in Florida.


Obama-2012 Clinton-2016 Vote Differential Higher Vote   Receiver
Michigan 2,564,569 2,268,193 296,376 Obama
Wisconsin 1,620,985 1,382,210 238,775 Obama
Pennsylvania 2,990,274 2,844,705 145,569 Obama
Ohio 2,827,709 2,317,991 509,718 Obama
North Carolina 2,178,391 2,162,074 16,317 Obama
Iowa 822,544 650,790 171,754 Obama
Florida 4,237,756 4,485,745 247,989 Clinton


In the absence of a Democratic Party candidate who could relate to their economic woes, rustbelt workers seemed to have taken a chance on Donald Trump, a populist and nationalist Republican. Trump was consistent with his use of the phrase “the American worker” and promised to alleviate the economic woes of this group during the presidential campaign. Consequently, Democratic-leaning states like Michigan preferred to vote for him rather than for Hilary Clinton. Indeed, the success of Trump’s presidential campaign can be appreciated when compared with that of Mitt Romney’s, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. Not only did Trump win all of the seven battleground states (Romney won only North Carolina), he received more votes than did Romney in these states.


Trump-2016 Romney-2012 Vote Differential Higher Vote Receiver
Michigan 2,279,805 2,115,256 164,549 Trump
Wisconsin 1,409,467 1,407,966 1,501 Trump
Pennsylvania 2,912,941 2,680,434 232,507 Trump
Ohio 2,771,984 2,661,437 110,547 Trump
North Carolina 2,339,603 2,270,395 69,208 Trump
Iowa 798,923 730,617 68,306 Trump
Florida 4,605,515 4,163,447 442,068 Trump


When we compare Trump’s voter turnout success with that of Barack Obama’s, however, a different picture emerges. Obama was able to win more votes in five of the seven battle ground states in 2012 than what Trump received in these states in 2016. Trump had higher votes than Obama only in North Carolina and Florida. The success of Obama’s presidential voter turnout seemed to suggest that Democrats were less enthusiastic during the 2016 presidential election than in 2012.


Trump-2016 Obama-2012 Vote Differential Higher Vote Receiver
Michigan 2,279,805 2,564,569 284,764 Obama
Wisconsin 1,409,467 1,620,985 211,518 Obama
Pennsylvania 2,912,941 2,990,274 77,333 Obama
Ohio 2,771,984 2,827,709 55,725 Obama
North Carolina 2,339,603 2,178,391 161,212 Trump
Iowa 798,923 822,544 23,621 Obama
Florida 4,605,515 4,237,756 367,759 Trump


Despite Trump’s ability to mobilize more supporters than Romney and his smart choice of slogan, “the American worker”, Clinton (even with her controversial decision of using a private email server for her government-related communications) had actually a very good chance of winning the presidency in 2016. One of the reasons for Clinton’s loss of the presidency was probably due to what may be called the Bernie Effect. Bernie Sanders, with his left-of-center political views, seemed to have been more sensitive to the concerns of American workers, and a clear evidence for this was his primary wins over Clinton in Michigan and Wisconsin. The votes in the caucus state of Iowa were also close between the two candidates. Clinton, of course, won overwhelmingly in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. Note, however, that Sanders received hundreds of thousands of votes in each of the four states that Clinton won big.


Sanders Clinton Vote Differential State Winner
Wisconsin 567,936 432,767 135,169 Sanders
Michigan 595,222 576,795 18,427 Sanders
Iowa 49.6% 49.9% Caucus Clinton
Pennsylvania 719,955 918,689 198,734 Clinton
Ohio 513,549 679,266 165,717 Clinton
North Carolina 460,316 616,383 156,067 Clinton
Florida 566,603 1,097,400 530,797 Clinton


The question, then, is, did the Bernie Effect contribute to Clinton’ defeat?  Sanders’ supporters may have stayed home on Election Day, November 8th, for two reasons: first, they may have been disappointed that their beloved candidate lost the primary to Hilary Clinton. Second, his supporters may have been angered by the leaked information from the hacked data servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The leaks seemed to suggest that the DNC favored Clinton’s candidacy over that of Sanders’. Indeed, and quite remarkably, the lowest vote differentials between Trump and Clinton in the seven battleground states were in Wisconsin and Michigan, where Bernie Sanders beat Hilary Clinton during the primaries. In Michigan, Trump won over Clinton only by 11,616 votes. In Wisconsin, Trump’s vote margin over Clinton was 27, 257 votes.


Trump Clinton Vote Differential State Winner
Michigan 2,279,805 2,268,193 11,612 Trump
Wisconsin 1,409,467 1,382,210 27,257 Trump
Pennsylvania 2,912,941 2,844,705 68,236 Trump
Florida 4,605,515 4,485,745 119,770 Trump
Iowa 798,923 2,162,074 148,133 Trump
North Carolina 2,339,603 650,790 177,529 Trump
Ohio 2,771,984 4,485,745 454,983 Trump


While the proposition that the Bernie Effect may have contributed to the loss of Clinton remains unproven, it seems to be not unreasonable and may be put to test. One way of testing it is to conduct a survey. The sample survey would target Sanders’ 2016 Democratic Party primary voters and ask whether or not they voted on November 8th. Note that Sanders had received about 3.5 million votes in the seven battleground states during the primaries. If a number of Sanders’ primary supporters did not vote on November 8th, what were their reasons? Disappointment that Sanders lost to Clinton? DNC bias toward Clinton? Or a combination of both? Conversely, if Sanders’ primary supporters voted on November 8th, how many of them casted their votes for Trump (the candidate of the “American worker”) since their preferred candidate, Bernie, was not on the ballot?

Such a survey-based study, if done accurately, could also shed some light on the continuing debate about the full impact of the hacking of the DNC data servers during the 2016 presidential election. Put differently, while the hacking (which the Russians are accused of) might not have led to the transfer of actual votes from one candidate to another, it may have robbed potential votes from Hilary Clinton that could have helped her win the presidency.[1]





[1] Election data source for Trump, Clinton, and Sanders results is www.politico.com. For Obama and Romney, the election data source is www.uselectionatlas.org.


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