How Unusual Was 2016? Flipping Counties, Flipping Voters, and the Education–Party Correlation since 1952
by Michael W. Sances, University of Memphis
Many explanations of the 2016 election result, a seemingly anomalous macrolevel phenomenon, have centered on two seemingly anomalous microlevel phenomena: many counties and citizens who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 flipped and voted for Trump, and low-education whites gave more of their votes to Trump than to Clinton. In this article, I first assess the novelty of these phenomena by placing them in the context of past elections. Compared to past presidential elections, the number of flips in 2016 was not unusually large, even in the Midwestern states. In contrast, the partisan divide by education was the highest ever in 2016. Using a series of counterfactual analyses, I then assess whether these factors were pivotal. If the flipping counties had not flipped, Clinton would have won the electoral college by 3 votes, and if the lowest-educated 20% of counties voted as they did in 2012, she would have won the electoral college by about 30 votes.