A Lucky Break for Trump that No One is Talking About

Without this Weird Law, Trump Would Have Lost the Election Bigly

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The 2016 presidential election was much closer than most people think.

Trump won by 74 electoral votes, which seems like a lot, but the entire election actually came down to an outdated law regarding how the ballots are printed. Just a quick warning, the numbers I’m about to share with you are a bit shocking.

There were six states with less than a 2% margin of victory. Alphabetically they are:

State Electoral Votes Margin of Victory Who Won?
Florida 29 1.3% Trump
Michigan 16 0.3% Trump
Minnesota 10 1.5% Clinton
New Hampshire 4 0.4% Clinton
Pennsylvania 20 1.2% Trump
Wisconsin 10 0.8% Trump

Source: CNN.com

Clinton got 14 electoral votes by winning close races. Trump got 75.

If, for some reason, these six states were to flip their results by just 2%, then Hillary would have won by a score of 293 electoral votes to Trump’s 245. That’s the entire election right there. It all comes down to less than 2% of the vote in six states. Just a little nudge one way or the other.

What could have made a 2% difference? Stronger campaigning? More debates? Trump saying just one more insanely insensitive thing? Maybe. Maybe not.

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” – Donald J. Trump

Stanford political scientist, Jon Krosnick suggests something that almost certainly would have been the nudge Hillary needed.

I’ve done the math and it all checks out. Every single one of these states would have had different outcomes…are you ready?

…if the names on the ballot were printed in a different order.

Yup. Where the candidates’ names appeared on each state’s ballot put the winner over the top in every one of these close races. Had the names been listed in a different order, there would be a different result, and we would have a different president-elect.

Whoa…wait…

Shooting someone wouldn’t cost him voters, but ballot order would? HUH?

That can’t be right. People vote based on policy, platform, political party, trustworthiness, candidate character and charisma, and issues that are important to them, right? They don’t vote based on how the names are listed on the ballot!

Do they?

Truthfully, most people aren’t influenced by ballot order. Most people know exactly who they’re voting for before they ever step into the booth and see the ballot. In fact, the more familiar the candidates are, the less influence ballot order has on the outcome. So, someone running for Senate is going to benefit more from favorable ballot order than someone running for President.

But it’s undeniable. Ballot order does influence some voters. Even in Presidential elections.

How do I know? Because Ohio.

Ohio is interesting because ballot order is rotated randomly by precinct.

This is a social scientist’s dream. Real people making real decisions with a controlled and isolated variable. There are twelve states that use a fair, rotating ballot order system. That’s plenty of naturally occurring data. All you have to do is look at the results.

After analyzing dozens of elections this way, Krosnick has found that it’s best to be listed first. Last is next best. The middle is a no-man’s land where you do not want to get stuck. Psychologists call this the “primacy and recency bias” and it shows up in all kinds of our decisions. While there are a few theories, no one is exactly sure why it happens.

Regardless of why, one thing is for certain…ballot order makes a difference. In a 2004 paper titled, An Unrecognized Need for Ballot Reform, Krosnick concludes that although the effects of name order are relatively small in terms of affecting or distorting the will of the public, the fact remains that in a close race, the winner can, and has been decided by the order candidates’ names appear on the ballot.

For example, in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election, he found that ballot order influenced anywhere from 0.76% up to as many as 9.45% of voters. When an election comes down to just 537 votes in Florida (less than 1/100th of a percent of votes cast), even the smallest of differences is enough. Incidentally, George W. was listed first on every single ballot in the state of Florida.

What did Krosnick find the average influence that ballot order has on a Presidential election is?

About 2%.

We’re talking hundreds of thousands or even millions of votes. Enough of a difference to give Hillary 293 electoral votes. That 2% nudge is all she needed to win.

The 2016 Presidential election was ripe for the ballot order effect. A large number of voters were still unsure of who to vote for going into Election Day. There was a general feeling of being forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Is it possible that the primacy and recency bias could have tipped the scales for a small percentage of voters?

Was Trump’s victory in 2016 decided by ballot order? By freakin’ BALLOT ORDER?!?

My opinion? Most definitely, yes.

Every state determines ballot order differently, so let’s look at those six states where a 2% ballot order effect actually would have made a difference in the outcome of that state’s election.

New Hampshire
According to the University of Virginia’s CenterForPolitics.org ballot order is determined in the Granite State by “party placed by total number of votes in last presidential election.”

Who won the last election? Barack Obama. He’s a Democrat, so the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton was listed first on every ballot in New Hampshire.

Hillary ended up winning New Hampshire by 0.4%.

Minnesota
Ballot order here is determined by “reverse order of votes for all statewide candidates in last election.” It was kind of a pain, but I grabbed my calculator and Googled the 2014 election results. The Libertarian Party received the fewest votes putting Gary Johnson first on the ballot.

Democrats and Republicans received the most votes respectively, putting Hillary last on the ballot and Trump second-to-last.

Again, Hillary took advantage of primacy and recency and ended up winning Minnesota by 1.5% while Trump got stuck in the “muddy middle”.

Wisconsin
Now things get a little more interesting

CenterForPolitics.org says that ballot order is determined in Wisconsin by “order of votes for party (governor) in previous election.”

Who won the gubernatorial race in 2014? Scott Walker…a Republican. That puts the Republican candidate in the top spot.

Donald Trump was listed first and won Wisconsin by just 0.8%. Had he been dropped to the “muddy middle” then he would have lost the estimated 2% boost from the ballot order effect, giving Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes to Hillary.

Michigan
How do they set ballot order in Michigan? “Order of votes for party in previous secretary of state election.”

Who won the previous secretary of state election in Michigan? Ruth Johnson…Republican. That put Trump at the top of the ballot again, giving him a narrow 0.3% victory and all of Michigan’s 16 electoral votes.

Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, the party in power is listed first on the ballot.

Who is the majority leader of the Pennsylvania State Senate? Jake Corman…Republican. That put Trump at the top of every ballot in Pennsylvania, giving him a 1.2% edge and all of Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.

Florida
Oh, Florida. With your hanging chads and other electile dysfunctions.

Ballot order here is decided by “order of votes for party in previous election.”

Who won the Florida gubernatorial race in 2014? None other than Rick Scott…a Republican and bald man, who has been described by the Miami media as “Donald Trump without the wig”. (And who was Florida’s governor back in 2000? Jeb Bush…George W. Bush’s brother.)

Again, Trump was first on every ballot and yet he only won by just 1.3%, capturing a whopping 29 electoral votes and cementing his victory.

Conclusion

Ballot order gave Trump the presidency.

Change the ballot order and Hillary Clinton would have won with 293 electoral votes as well as the popular vote.

I’m not here to whine about who should or should not be president. (I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.) It happened and it’s over.

I’m more interested in asking, what do we do next?

I believe we have to make the only right choice available to us. We have to do everything in our power to make all elections fair in the future, don’t we? Now that we understand the impact of ballot order, most laws are simply outdated. Only twelve states mandate that ballot name order be rotated. Twelve!

The solution is simple. Use randomized, rotational systems in every state. Let’s make America fair again.

5 thoughts on “A Lucky Break for Trump that No One is Talking About

  1. ed fox

    WOW,

    And I did not even take Statistics in school…
    but you already know I could not find a clothes pin large enough to “hold my nose” and vote for either one.

    Tim, Good job on reporting here. (as always).

    Reply
  2. Franc Karpo

    Double WOW! I have read a lot of possible explanations on how Trump won the election. This ballot order theory makes perfect sense and really could have been a major factor in those tight races.

    Reply
  3. Jason Hessler

    Why didn’t Wisconsin go to Romney instead of Obama in ’12? Walker was the Gov. since 2011. Do we ignore those facts? What about PA in 2012? Don’t let this be your CNN debate moderator moment……..

    Reply
    1. Tim David Post author

      Jason, I’m not saying that ballot order always determine who wins. It is only responsible for a 2% boost. In most states candidates win by much more than 2% so the ballot order effect isn’t enough to make a difference. Clinton won by 93% in DC. Doesn’t matter who was listed first, she was taking it. In 2012, if Obama had the top ballot spot in PA and WI, then he would have won by even more than the 5% and 7% he won by (respectively). Ballot order favored Romney, but it just wasn’t enough to tip the scales.

      Reply
  4. Jean Latting

    I thought I had read every explanation. This one is new to me too. Makes sense — primacy and recency bias! Adding rotating ballot order to my electoral reform list. Thanks for this insight.

    Reply

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