Donald Trump didn’t just outlast a long list of Republican challengers to be the last man standing for the presidential nomination. He won by remaking the Republican Primary electorate itself.
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About 25.7 million people have voted in the 2016 Republican primaries and caucuses so far. That’s about seven million more votes than were cast in the entire 2012 GOP presidential primary – and there are likely still well over two million votes yet to be cast in nine states this year, including in the nation’s most populous state, California.
And a close look at the numbers provides a lot of evidence that Trump didn’t win the party over so much as his supporters overran the primary process. In essence, Trump democratized (small “d”) the GOP process and took it away from the establishment.
Consider Florida’s March 15 Primary, where Sen. Marco Rubio was supposed to have chance to make a statement with a big win, or at least a strong showing, in his home state. Rubio lost by some 400,000 votes and won only his home county, Miami-Dade. It was a massive 19-point victory for Trump.
But the reason the victory looked so impressive was the sheer number of voters that turned out. Trump captured more than 1.07 million votes on March 15. That was far-and-away the most votes received by a candidate in a Florida Republican Presidential Primary.
How big was Trump’s vote? If you add the total votes from 2016’s two establishment Republican candidates in Florida – Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – you get a final tally of 797,000. That’s a big number. It’s greater than the number of votes cast for Romney in 2012, 776,000.
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But Rubio and Kasich’s total added together still would have lost to Trump by more than 200,000 votes. That’s remarkable. About 1.67 million people cast votes in the Florida Republican Primary in 2012. More than 2.36 million cast votes in 2016 – and it appears Trump captured most of that increase.
Beyond Florida there is more evidence of the size of the Trump vote overrunning the traditional GOP vote in establishment strongholds around the country, particularly later as the establishment candidates banded together to “stop Trump.”
On April 26, Trump swept five states and all but captured the nomination. In those states the numbers in key counties suggest that the establishment vote was remarkably consistent with where it has been four years ago.
In Chester County, Pennsylvania, Trump easily handled Kasich – 35,500 votes to 23,800 votes respectively. But in 2012, Romney won the same county in a landslide with only 24,400 votes.
In Fairfield County, Connecticut, Trump dominated Kasich – 33,000 to 20,000 votes. But in 2012, Romney won Fairfield with only 13,000 votes.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, Trump edged Kasich – 18,900 votes to 17,100 votes. But in 2012, Romney won the county handily with only 17,400 votes.
Those counties hold the hallmarks of the GOP establishment. They all have median household incomes of more than $80,000 and more than 45% of the 25-or-older population has a bachelor’s degree. Romney won at least 60% of the vote in all of them in primaries in 2012.
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Yet they all went to Trump, as did every county in the east coast states that voted on April 26 – Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Turnout was up by at least 80% in all those states from four years before. Some of that is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Republican race went longer in 2016 and the vote in those states mattered more. But the numbers suggest that much of the establishment vote did turn out, there just wasn’t enough of it.
To be clear, Trump’s wins likely aren’t only about increased turnout. He almost certainly has captured some of what is considered the establishment vote in those counties and around the country.
But the presumptive nominee’s wins, combined with the increase in turnout and the numbers for Rubio and Kasich – and later for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – indicate the driving force behind Trump has been a big bump in the number of votes cast.
In other words, voter turnout, the very thing that candidates and parties cite as evidence of their strength, may be the biggest force behind the weakness of the Republican establishment in 2016.