Voter suppression is the big, somewhat neglected, story of the 2016 election, insofar as that phenomenon is what caused Hillary Clinton to lose and Donald Trump to win. And it wasn’t just the well-planned and rigorous voter suppression being carried out by Republican-controlled states throughout the nation, photo-IDs, exaggerated myths of the fraudulent individual voters, fewer places and days to vote, etc., but a more insidious sort, a by-product of negative ads and the atmospherics of disenfranchisement.
What the Republicans succeeded doing was to trumpet Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings and, more cunningly, they helped raise Donald Trump’s negative ratings, too.
Indiana was a test-case for this, given all the attack television advertising aimed at the senate and governor race. Hard to count all the faults of both the Republican and Democrat candidates viewers were exposed to: Whoever was to be elected was already branded a crook, a criminal, or worse. Unfortunately, most of these ads were accurate, though less so the NRA’s.
In the presidential race, the statistic the media most often repeated, either wittingly or unwittingly becoming co-conspirators to suppress the vote, was both Trump’s and Clinton’s “unfavorable” ratings, higher than any other candidates in history commentators crowed.
The general distaste for both Trump and Clinton was promoted relentlessly over the course of the campaign and had its effects, both intended and accidental. Hillary Clinton’s own weaknesses played into this version of events, as did the outstanding boorishness of Donald Trump. Weirdly, the “high-road” behavior of President Obama and the First Lady drove up the contrast between themselves and those vying for the office.
The result of the 2016 election had a variety of causes, but voter suppression proved crucial. The distribution of the votes echoed the 2000 contested election: It’s cities vs. country, college towns vs. rural towns. Hillary Clinton, like Al Gore, won the popular vote. The enthusiasm gap between the contenders reared its head. A lot of people tried to deny it existed. This election may, or may not, be the last hurrah for a couple of generations of white folk. What do I think? As Jesus purportedly said on the cross while soldiers cast lots and divided up his garments: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Yes, we live in a divided America. But, as Bernie Sanders showed in the primaries, dividing garments and casting lots was in vogue.
But, unlike the Bush vs. Gore contest, the 2016 campaign itself suppressed the vote. The statistics are now just starting to come out that prove the point. Donald Trump barely received more votes winning than Mitt Romney received losing. That could only happen in an election where the chief attribute was voter suppression.
Americans tend to suppress the vote in any case, since barely half even bother to vote. But, in addition to those tendencies, this time there was a certain sort of not voting that led to the outcome. In Michigan, Michael Moore pointed out on MSNBC after the election, some twenty thousand voters who did vote skipped voting for any candidate for president.
This sort of thing has happened before and I wrote about it in my book on the 1996 presidential campaign. In the race for the senate in New York State in Bill Clinton’s first win in 1992 tens of thousands of voters did not vote for anyone for senator in that election. The reason was the Democratic primary had been so cantankerous and ugly that voters, mainly women – that primary was full of women candidates (Geraldine Ferraro, Liz Holtzman) and the eventual winner, Robert Abrams, was wounded by winning – voted for neither candidate. Alfonse D’Amato, the Republican incumbent, won narrowly. Republicans retained the seat because some Democrats felt aggrieved. Sound familiar? See Bernie’s boosters.
After that contest, in an autobiography, D’Amato wrote, “A significant number of liberals were so turned off by Abrams that they voted for Clinton and then did not vote in the Senate race at all. I may not have won liberal Ferraro voters, but Abrams lost many of them. As I learned...in a close election every vote and every non-vote counts.”
I am sure the non-vote count in the 2016 presidential category will be the largest in modern history. Voter suppression takes all forms and we have just witnessed the pernicious result of its success.