The Slatest

Clinton’s Popular Vote Keeps Edging Closer to Obama’s in 2012. But That’s a Misguided Comparison.

Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally at North Carolina State University on Nov. 8 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s popular vote total continues to inch ever closer to President Obama’s haul four years ago. According to the Cook Political Report’s vote tracker, last updated on Tuesday afternoon, Clinton is now within roughly 438,000 votes of 2012 Obama, and may yet match him when all the ballots are counted. Clinton’s advantage over Donald Trump, meanwhile, stands at more than 2.6 million and counting

None of that matters in terms of who will replace Obama in the Oval Office next year, of course. Barring a miracle, the Electoral College will vote later this month to send Trump to the White House. Still, popular vote totals are not-insignificant data points for the history books, and they’re worth exploring, as conservative pundit David Frum wrote Tuesday.

That’s probably true, but the emerging storyline—that Clinton performed as well as her Democratic nominee predecessor—is not exactly right. The number of eligible voters in the country grew by an estimated 10.7 million between 2012 and 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, and there were 6.9 million more presidential votes—and counting—cast this year than four years ago. There’s no perfect way to level the playing field between 2012 and 2016, but if we remove those additional votes from the equation, Clinton would be trailing Obama’s 2012 total by roughly 3.7 million votes today. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m assuming these 6.9 million additional votes were split between Hillary and Trump according to each candidate’s overall share.)

Another way to view Clinton’s performance relative to Obama’s is in plain percentages. Thanks to the nation’s shifting demographics, the 2016 electorate was ostensibly more favorable to Democrats than the 2012 electorate was. And yet Obama won 51.1 percent of the popular vote four years ago, while Clinton is currently sitting at 48.2 percent. To match Obama’s 2012 popular-vote total, Clinton would have needed to win only 48.5 percent of the 2016 votes counted so far; to match Obama’s 2012 popular-vote share, she would need about 4 million more votes than she has.

In the end, then, comparing Clinton’s 2016 total to Obama’s 2012 total shouldn’t make her or her party feel any better, since she won a significantly smaller share of the popular vote this year than the president did four years ago. Then again, using Trump’s performance as a comparison will likely only make them feel worse, since Clinton won a significantly larger share of the popular vote this year than the president-elect.