How Donald Trump won fewer votes than Romney or McCain — but still won the election

How Donald Trump won fewer votes than Romney or McCain — but still won the election
Source: AP
Source: AP

Hillary Clinton is on track to beat Donald Trump in the popular vote while she loses the presidential election, the first time that has happened since 2000. But what may be more striking is the fact Trump won while drawing fewer overall votes than Mitt Romney or John McCain, the past two Republican presidential nominees. Both Romney and McCain lost by wide margins to Barack Obama. 

Since the launch of his presidential campaign, journalists, pundits and pollsters all said Trump would need to "expand the map" to win the White House. Romney lost in 2012, the argument went, because he failed to win the support of enough minority voters. The former Massachusetts governor said as much after the election. Four years before that, McCain lost to Obama by more than 7 percentage points.

But Trump did not follow that pattern. He repeatedly insulted minorities, along with women, immigrants and religious groups. And Trump campaign insiders understood his disadvantage with these groups, which is why they reportedly engaged in voter suppression efforts targeted at minorities up to election day. 

With most of the vote counted, and remaining votes largely coming in from heavily Democratic places like California, Trump drew about 59.2 million votes nationally. That is behind the over 59.4 million votes Clinton drew.

Trump's 2016 total, so far, is over 700,000 votes less than what McCain drew in 2008 — and more than 1.7 million less than what Romney drew four years ago.

When all the votes are counted, Trump could edge McCain's 2008 total and draw close to Romney's. But his victory is all the more incredible given his campaign succeeded in driving up support among whites while shrinking the overall electorate. 

How this played out can be seen in Trump's unexpected, unprojected and historic wins in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (Michigan and New Hampshire may still go his way.) All four states voted twice for Obama, while Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had not voted for a Republican since 1988 and 1984, respectively.

Donald Trump at a rally in Wisconsin on November 2. Most analysts did not think Trump had a real shot at winning Wisconsin.
Source: Matt Rourke/AP

The key in those states for Trump? His larger margin among the white electorate in states that had a similar number of minority voters than they did four years ago. 

Take Wisconsin. Trump won 54% of white voters, who were 86% of the electorate, according to exit polls. Comparing 2016 to 2012, white voters were the same percentage of the electorate in Wisconsin. But this year, white men and women in that state went to Trump by 3 and 2 percentage points more than they went to Romney four years ago

Wisconsin voters are on track to cast about 100,000 fewer votes in 2016 compared to 2012. But Trump's small yet significant increase in support among white voters, who still make up 77% of the country, was enough to offset those losses.

This delivered Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes to a Republican for the first time since 1984. And echoes of this can be found across the country. 

The Takeaway: There are many narratives and data points the 2016 election has surfaced. One of them is how a slightly smaller electorate in some key states, combined with small increases for Trump among white voters, won battlegrounds Republicans expected to lose.