With a split in the 2016 Electoral College and popular votes, there’s been an unusual amount of jockeying this year over how to frame the Election Day results.
On the Dec. 4, 2016, edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, Vice President-elect Mike Pence used the yardstick of counties won to explain why Donald Trump’s victory was a watershed.
“To be around Donald Trump, as you know, having known him for a number of years, is to be around a man of boundless energy from literally the day after the election,” he said, “a historic election where he won 30 out of 50 states (and) more counties than any candidate on our side since Ronald Reagan.”
Is this correct? It is, though election experts say it speaks to longtime Republican dominance in rural areas.
We were able to secure statistics for counties won by each presidential candidate from Dave Leip, creator of the indispensable “Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections” website.
The data we looked at shows Pence is on target that the number of counties won by Trump exceeds the number of counties won by every Republican presidential candidate since Reagan in 1984. In 1984, Republicans won 2,781 counties compared to 334 for Democrats. In 2000, the GOP took 2,397 counties to 659 for the Democrats and in 2016, Republicans won 2,623 counties to 489 for the Democrats.
Trump receives credit from electoral specialists for expanding the Republican footprint, notably in places that had previously backed Barack Obama. According to a calculation by Time magazine, Trump won 220 counties that had voted for Obama in 2012, while Hillary Clinton took far fewer — 17 — that had gone for Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee.
And Trump outperformed Romney’s vote share in 2,728 counties, compared to just 383 where Clinton outperformed Obama.
But the places where Clinton performed better than Obama did were almost always in much more populous counties. According to Time’s calculations, the counties where Clinton gained ground on Obama had a median of 75,554 voters in 2016. The comparable figure for the counties where Trump exceeded Romney’s performance was 9,905 voters. So the median Clinton-trending county was more than seven times bigger than the median Trump-trending county.
The divide doesn’t stop at population. Mark Muro and Sifan Liu of the Brookings Institution crunched the numbers on the overall economic output of Clinton and Trump counties. Their finding? Clinton’s comparatively tiny number of counties “encompassed a massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity,” compared to 36 percent for Trump’s much larger stable of counties. Here’s a graphical representation of what they found, with Clinton counties in blue and Trump counties in red, and each county’s rectangle scaled to the size of the output in that county:
“Here you can see very clearly that with the exceptions of the Phoenix and Fort Worth areas and a big chunk of Long Island, Clinton won every large-sized county economy in the country,” the authors wrote. “Trumpland consists of hundreds and hundreds of tiny low-output locations that comprise the non-metropolitan hinterland of America, along with some suburban and exurban metro counties.”
All of this illustrates a general pattern for Democrats in recent election cycles: They have run strongly in populous and economically growing urban and suburban areas, but poorly in lightly populated rural areas. This has been true for the entire period we’re looking at — in fact, Bill Clinton never managed to win more counties during his two victories in the 1990s — but the partisan disparity has been growing steadily. And the pattern reached a new apogee with the Trump vs. Clinton race.
This helps explain why Clinton has so far won 2.6 million more votes than Trump did — almost 2 percentage points more — while losing so many counties.
“Loving County, Texas, has a population of 82, while California’s Los Angeles County has over 9.8 million,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University political scientist. “The number of counties won is not necessarily a meaningful indicator, absent any consideration of the population of these counties.”
Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist, agreed.
“Partisanship increasingly correlates with urbanism,” he said. “There are a lot more rural counties than urban ones, so I’d expect Republicans to be winning more and more counties over time. So the claim that the GOP is winning more counties is possibly an interesting reflection on residential living patterns, but it doesn’t really reflect what the voters wanted or what the government has a mandate to address.”
Pence said that Trump “won more counties than any candidate on our side since Ronald Reagan.”
The electoral results leave little doubt that Trump expanded Republican success compared to Romney’s baseline in many corners of the country. However, it’s important not to overstate the importance of the statistic Pence cited. Clinton may have won fewer counties overall, but the ones she did win tended to be much more populous and economically dynamic.
The statement is accurate, but it needs an asterisk.
We rate it Mostly True.
For the full fact-check, please see www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/dec/04/mike-pence/mike-pence-says-donald-trump-won-most-counties-rep/
Says Donald Trump “won more counties than any candidate on our side since Ronald Reagan.”
— Mike Pence on Sunday, December 4th, 2016 in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press”