Hillary Clinton’s Urban Turnout Problem

On November 15, we released an article that highlighted the Democratic Party’s failure in last week’s election to gain traction in rural and small-town America. The effect of which stymied the party’s prospects in the House of Representatives and continued a trend that deserves more attention going forward. However, as we look into the results, it becomes clear that the Clinton campaign under-performed not only in suburban and rural counties, but also in the urban centers that it had come to count on. Ultimately, the election was lost in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin as the Clinton campaign under-performed in critical urban counties with a large drop-off from the 2012 voter turnout in each of these states. This cumulative decline made the difference.

Philadelphia, PA

The City of Philadelphia was instrumental in both of President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. As in other urban areas, the problem this year was turnout—the major-party vote dropped by more than 16,000 overall. In 2012, President Obama garnered 588,806 votes in Philadelphia, winning the city by a margin of 493,339. In contrast, Clinton received 563,275 votes, a decline of more than 25,000. Her citywide advantage dropped to 457,399, a plurality deficit of almost 36,000 votes compared to Obama’s performance in 2012. This plurality deficit in Philadelphia accounts for more than 50 percent of Clinton’s statewide deficit. The low turnout in Philadelphia played a huge role in pushing the state to the Republicans for the first time since 1988.

Milwaukee County, WI

In Milwaukee County, we have not yet differentiated the voting patterns of the urban portions from the suburban portions. However, the decline in total county turnout is indicative of the problem that contributed to Clinton’s defeat in Wisconsin—especially when you consider that the statewide margin was less than 30,000 votes.

Overall, major-party turnout in Milwaukee County was only 415,077 votes this year, compared to 492,576 in 2012—a drop of 76,499. Obama carried Milwaukee County by 177,514 votes in 2012, compared to Clinton’s margin of 162,895—a difference of 14,619 votes, which represents more than 50 percent of Clinton’s statewide deficit. It’s important to note that Trump was a weaker Republican candidate in Milwaukee County than either John McCain or Mitt Romney, as he received 28,833 fewer votes than Romney did in 2012, but turnout lagged significantly among Democratic voters.

Turnout in Milwaukee was likely a leading factor in Clinton’s loss of Wisconsin, making it the first time since 1984 that a Republican candidate won the state.

Wayne County, MI (including Detroit)

The results in Michigan may have been the biggest surprise of the 2016 election. As with the other highlighted areas, we see a precipitous drop in overall turnout in the state’s vital urban area—Wayne County—which led to Trump’s statewide victory by more than 12,000 votes.

In 2016, major-party turnout in Wayne County declined by 64,357 votes when compared to the last presidential election. In 2012, President Obama won 595,846 votes, 78,824 more than Clinton in 2016. Moreover, he carried the county by 382,000 votes, while Clinton’s margin was only 288,709—a drop-off of more than 93,000 votes. There is no question that the decline in Detroit/Wayne County turnout was instrumental in Clinton’s Michigan loss, marking the first time since 1988 that a Republican presidential candidate won the state.

The prevailing narrative of the election, to date, centers around the decline in Democratic support among white working class voters; while this did play a role, Clinton would have triumphed anyway if urban turnout had been higher (similar to the level seen for President Obama in 2012).

Change in Turnout and Democratic Vote for President, 2012-2016

City/County Decline in Major Party Turnout Decline in Democratic Plurality Clinton Statewide Margin
Philadelphia, PA -16,122 -35,940 -66,214
Milwaukee County, WI -76,499 -14,619 -27,257
Wayne County, MI -64,357 -93,291 -11,612

Once the city and county data becomes available, it will surely reveal that the turnout decline in battleground state urban areas was the single most pivotal factor in Clinton’s defeat.