The race myth within the election

Op-ed: Data show that Donald Trump didn't win the election because of race, but that's why Clinton lost it.

"The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth: persistent, persuasive and unrealistic."

— John F. Kennedy

Last week's election shattered myths around the impact of data, money and organization in national politics. Yet Donald Trump's surprise victory has given rise to another myth, one that is persuasive at first glance, but false, and if left unanswered threatens to further tear our social fabric.

The myth predates Election Day, but was summed up and given legs by CNN's Van Jones, who, in disbelief at Mr. Trump's victory, stated that people of color had suffered a "white lash" from voters. It has now become conventional wisdom among many commentators and Democrats that Donald Trump won because white voters flocked to him due to animus toward minorities.

The National Election Pool's exit polls, however, tell a different story. First, contrary to conventional wisdom, Donald Trump got a slightly smaller share of white votes than Mitt Romney, his unsuccessful predecessor. He also received the same share as George W. Bush in 2004, and just three points more than John McCain in 2008 during President Barack Obama's landslide election. Second, Mr. Trump scored a higher Hispanic (+2), Black (+2), and Asian (+3) voter share than Mitt Romney. In short, Donald Trump's performance with white voters was average for a Republican, and he performed somewhat better than Mr. Romney among non-white voters.

The same is not true for Hillary Clinton, however. Ms. Clinton lost Hispanic (-6), Black (-5), and Asian (-8) voter share at rates more than double Mr. Trump's gains, meaning that these non-Clinton voters chose third-parties or left their choice for president blank more often than they voted for Donald Trump.

Turnout further challenges the myth. When the counting is done, Hillary Clinton will have received up to 4 million fewer votes than Barack Obama in 2012. Yet Donald Trump scored turnout very close to the GOP average over the past four cycles — about the same as Mitt Romney, slightly more than John McCain and slightly less than George W. Bush in 2004. The claim that Donald Trump turned out large numbers of newly registered disaffected white voters is not reflected in the numbers.

The myth also fades when we consider the white voters most maligned as xenophobic, namely those from "small city and rural" population centers, as designated on the exit poll. Importantly, this group as a whole made up 4 percent less of the electorate in 2016 than in 2012, once again challenging the notion that Mr. Trump inspired large numbers of new voters from the heartland. In 2016, Mr. Trump only gained three points of voter share with this diminished group over Mitt Romney in 2012.

Hillary Clinton was therefore not defeated by Donald Trump's increasing white support — there was none — but rather by Obama voters of all races who chose to stay home on Election Day or vote against her, often for third parties. Had Ms. Clinton achieved anything near President Obama's support in 2012 (never mind his massive 2008 totals), she would have won in a landslide.

Why does this matter? Because myth has potential to become reality. If discouraged Democrats continue to consider a vote cast for Mr. Trump as evidence of racism and xenophobia, Republicans will naturally respond with hostility to their accusers. This cycle of insult can only lead to increased division, unrest and dysfunction in Washington.

To be sure, the often incendiary rhetoric of Donald Trump and his slow rejection of extremist support are at the root of this false narrative. In this way the candidate did his tens of millions of well-meaning supporters an enormous disservice and exposed them to this attack. Yet the charge of racism, one of the most serious in our society, should not be leveled casually at millions. Democrats and many in the media are choosing an easy myth rather than hard analysis, and in doing so are degrading many of their fellow citizens, worsening division, and missing the fact that Hillary Clinton lost, not due to racism or xenophobia, but because millions of Barack Obama's voters did not support her.

Anthony Marcavage is a lawyer in Washington; his email is marcavage@gmail.com.

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