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Voters cast their votes during the U.S. presidential election in Elyria, Ohio, U.S. November 8, 2016. (AARON JOSEFCZYK/REUTERS)
Voters cast their votes during the U.S. presidential election in Elyria, Ohio, U.S. November 8, 2016. (AARON JOSEFCZYK/REUTERS)

U.S. ELECTION 2016

Lack of voter turnout in Midwest swing states contributed to Clinton’s election defeat Add to ...

Trump didn’t triumph; Clinton faltered.

That appears to be the harsh, unintuitive verdict emerging from Tuesday’s presidential election, as the final vote tally takes shape and partisans on both sides look for meaning in the political moment that has produced the phrase “president-elect Donald J. Trump.”

With an unknown but dwindling number of ballots still to be counted, it’s becoming clear that Hillary Clinton will fall well short of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election vote total, probably by millions of votes, while Donald Trump will only slightly exceed Mitt Romney’s popular vote total. The numbers suggest a different story than the popular tableau of Mr. Trump rallying an army of voiceless voters to storm the establishment citadel. Rather, it may be that the decisive bloc of voters was Democrats who stayed home, rather than Republicans who grabbed their pitchforks.

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Conclusions about turnout are necessarily tentative for now, as mail-in ballots and provisional votes (in which someone’s registration is questioned) are still being counted. And enough Clinton supporters did turn out to give her an edge in the popular vote, possibly by as much as a percentage point or more.

But especially in the crucial Midwestern swing states, a fatal coolness toward Ms. Clinton – not the ardour of Trump supporters – seems to have killed her chance at the White House.

Paul Bledsoe, a public policy consultant and former staffer in Bill Clinton’s White House, believes the apparent collapse in Democratic turnout can be traced to Ms. Clinton’s failure to make a positive case for her presidency. The bulk of her campaign ads, he noted, were about Mr. Trump’s shortcomings.

“I think Clinton made a fundamental mistake, assuming that people are more motivated to vote against someone, than to vote for them,” he said. “She never made the compelling economic case that the Democrats [would really help the working class]. … That’s how Bill Clinton got elected, for God’s sake!”

Two demographic groups, especially, seem to have abandoned Ms. Clinton without turning to her Republican opponent: young people and African-Americans.

According to a national exit poll, some two million voters between the ages of 18 and 29 supported a third-party candidate or none of the options on the ballot – more than in 2012. In at least two crucial Midwestern states, those neither-nor votes may have been decisive: in Wisconsin and Michigan, the vote total for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, a darling of young leftists, accounted for more than Ms. Clinton’s margin of defeat.

Ms. Clinton has struggled to galvanize the youth vote since her primary battle with Barack Obama in 2008, but her relative weakness with black voters in this election may have been more politically damaging.

Early exit polls – which are far from perfectly reliable – suggest low turnout among African-Americans in Wisconsin, a Democratic stronghold that Mr. Trump carried to the astonishment of political observers. In Milwaukee County, which contains the heavily black city of Milwaukee, almost 60,000 fewer voters cast ballots than in 2012, decimating Ms. Clinton’s tally relative to President Obama’s four years ago.

A similar story played out in Ohio, where a depressed turnout was concentrated in the Democratic bedrock of the state’s big cities. Cuyahoga County, which contains Cleveland, went for Ms. Clinton by more than two to one on Tuesday, but with 50,000 fewer voters turning out to the polls than during Mr. Obama’s re-election. Michigan’s big cities appear to have seen smaller turnouts as well – enough to swing the close statewide race to Mr. Trump.

A certain decline in African-American enthusiasm was expected as America’s first black President was no longer on the ticket. Meanwhile, barriers to voting in black communities – from infrequent polling places to discriminatory voter ID laws – are thought by some to have hurt Ms. Clinton’s chances.

But Ms. Clinton also appears to have become complacent about the party’s Midwestern strongholds. A report in The Atlantic magazine a week before Election Day noted how little time or advertising money her campaign was spending in Wisconsin and Michigan during the home stretch. The former Secretary of State failed to visit Wisconsin even once during the general election, a sign of her confidence in the state’s support.

Even if she had visited, it might not have turned the tide; throughout the campaign, Ms. Clinton’s brittle, technocratic style failed to set Democratic hearts racing. Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence and a pollster who predicted Mr. Trump’s victory, said that his models foresaw low Democratic turnout.

During the campaign, he asked partisans how “interested” they were in the election on a scale of 1 to 7. Democrats “were not as enthusiastic,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “Our turnout model was able to accurately paint a picture of who was going to show up.”

Mr. Bledsoe, the former Democratic aide, chalked up the election defeat to a failure in Ms. Clinton’s strategy. She failed to grasp something “that’s almost universally true in American politics,” he said. “People want to vote for somebody.”

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