The Geography of the 2016 USA Presidential Election: Analysing the Republican Party vote

Adrian Kavanagh, 6th-10th January 2017 

This article will offer a geographical perspective on the election results at the 2016 USA Presidential election. I have purposely held off on writing this article for the past few weeks, as election results still needed to be finalised in many US states a number of weeks after the election took place on 8th November 2016.


Figure 1: States won by Trump (red) and Clinton (blue) at the 2016 Presidential Election contest. Maine is shaded in purple, because Trump won one electoral college vote there (Congressional District 2), even though Clinton won that state. Alaska (won by Trump) and Hawaii (won by Clinton) are not included here.

This article will focus on the “where” of the recent electoral contest – what states saw the biggest increase/decrease in support for the different parties/candidates, as well as how these trends relate to overall regional trends within the USA over the past few decades, as well as the degree to which the number of voters increased/decreased across the different US states. In order to keep this post relatively focused/concise, most of this account will focus on teasing out the Republican Party support patterns at this election, but also within the context of the trends evident at other recent presidential election contests.

The Republican Party

The earlier article focusing on disproportionality/bias at the recent US Presidential election showed that Donald Trump won the election by a 306-232 margin in the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote by a 2.1% margin/by almost three million votes – based on data provided by Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections website. This article will not particularly focus on disproportionality/bias, although some findings here may offers some clues as to why such disproportionality/bias occurred and as to why Trump won the election, or rather Clinton lost the contest.


Figure 2: Allocating US states (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) to different regional groupings, based on Black and Black (2007)

The focus here will be on trends at the state level, but the account will also focus on trends at a larger regional scale. The regions focused on here (see Figure 2) will be those identified by Black and Black (2007) in their book, Divided America: The ferocious power struggle in American politics, which were subsequently used in the geographical analysis offered by McKee and Teigen (2009) in their journal article in Political Geography; “Probing the reds and blues: Sectionalism and voter location in the 2000 and 2004 U. S. presidential elections”.

The first question is to ask where did the Republican candidate fare particularly well/not so well at the 2016 election?


Figure 3a: Support (%) for Donald Trump by state (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) at the 2016 US Presidential election.

Figure 3a shows that the strongest support levels for Trump came from states located in the traditional Republican “red state” strongholds in the Mountains/Plains and South regions, although Trump also fared especially well in a number of states located in the Midwest region. Trump’s strongest performances came in the states of Wyoming (68.2%) and West Virginia (67.9%), where he won more than two-thirds of all the valid votes cast. Trump won more than 60% of the vote in seven other states – Oklahoma, North Dakota, Kentucky, Alabama,  South Dakota, Tennessee and Arkansas. Trump won between 50% and 60% of the vote in fourteen states, meaning that he won a majority of the votes in 24 states overall at this electoral contest. A number of these states would have been spoken as being potential “swing states”/”purple states” ahead of the election, including South Carolina (54.9%), Alaska (51.3%) and Georgia (50.4%), as well as Texas (52.2%) and Missouri (56.4%), but this list also includes states that were won by Barack Obama at the 2012 election – Iowa (51.1%) and Ohio (51.3%).

By contrast, Trump’s weakest performance – by some distance – came in the District of Columbia, where he won just 4.1% of the total valid votes cast there. He won less than one third of all the votes cast in four other states – Hawaii (30.0%), Vermont (30.3%), California (31.5%) and Massachusetts (32.8%).


Figure 3b: Change in the percentage share of the (valid) vote support won by Republican Party candidates by state (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) between the 2012 and 2016 presidential election contests

Looking at changing support trends for the Republican between the 2012 and 2016 presidential election contests, a very obvious geographical pattern emerges (Figure 3b). The percentage share of the vote won by the Republican candidate fell across all of the states located in the western and south-western parts of the USA. But this loss in support did not translate into the Republicans losing any of the states won by Mitt Romney in 2012, given that a large number of these states were strong “blue states”, where he was not in serious contention to win, or strong “red states” – where Trump could easily sustain a loss of votes, mainly to Third Party candidates such as Johnston and McMullin admittedly, without risking a loss in any of these states (including Utah, where the Republican share of the vote fell by 27.5% but Trump still won the state comfortably because the rest of the Utah votes were split between Hilary Clinton and Evan McMullin.  The percentage share of the vote won by the Republicans also fell in a number of states in the south-eastern part ofthe USA, although this did not result in the loss of any states (even including the crucial swing-state of North Carolina) and Trump actually went on to win in Florida, mainly because the Democrat share of the vote fell by an even larger margin.

A number of the states that registered a percentage increase in the Republican vote share were concentrated in the North East and Midwest regions, with this trend resulting in Republican gains in a number of states in these regions, including Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as Pennsylvania, but also including Maine Congressional District 2.  The Republicans also made gains in the South in the states located adjacent to the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys. Only two decades earlier these states in this region would have been grouped among the key swing states at the presidential election contests of 1992 and 1996, but trends over the following decades saw these states moving decisively towards the Republicans and very much into the “red state” category. There were also support gains for the Republicans in the three states located at the northern tip of the Mountains-Plains region – namely Montana and the Dakotas.

Ultimately, the cases where the Republican vote share fell between 2012 and 2016 tended to be focused on either strong “blue states”, where the party was not in contention to win, or strong “red states”, where a loss in support could be sustained, or else states (such as Florida and North Carolina) where the extent of the loss in support for the Democrats outstripped the Republican losses.

Looking at the change in the raw number of votes won by Romney and Trump at the 2012 and 2016 contests respectively, the evidence shows that Trump fared better than Romney in 38 out of the 50 states in the USA, while he won fewer votes than Romney did in the other 12 states and also in the District of Columbia. The most successful state for Trump, in this regard, was Florida, where he won over 450,000 more votes than Romney had won in that state at the 2012 election. The next strongest state in this vein was New York (where Trump won almost 325,000 more votes than Romney did in 2012) – potentially reflecting a “home state” advantage for Trump – but this did not translate into a gain/more electoral college votes, as Clinton still won that state comfortably by a margin of over 1.7 million votes). However vote gains in the next three strongest states in this regard did see these states turning “red”, amounting to a gain of 54 electoral college votes for the Republican candidates. Relative to the number of votes won by Romney in 2012, Trump won over 290,000 more votes in Pennsylvania, almost 180,000 more votes in Ohio and almost 165,000 more votes in Michigan. Trump’s ability to turn Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan “red” was shaped, in part, by the loss in support by the Democrats in these states relative to the vote levels won by Obama in 2012. In two of these states, Ohio and Michigan, the extent of the Democrat losses far outstripped the level of gains made by the Republicans between 2012 and 2016 – in Ohio the number of votes won by the Democrat candidates fell by over 430,000 between 2012 and 2016, while the number fell by almost 300,000 votes in Michigan.

By contrast, in California Trump won over 350,000 fewer votes than Romney did in that state in 2012, but this loss of Republican votes had no impact whatsoever on the party’s haul of electoral college votes, given that the loss in Republican support, especially when offset against a significant gain for the Democrats (of nearly 900,000 votes) in that state This merely acted to widen the margin of the Democrat victory in this strong “blue state”(admittedly by over a million and a quarter votes) but ultimately had no impact whatsoever on the number of electoral college votes won by each party/candidate. This again ties in with the narrative discussed in the earlier post of disproportionality/bias of Trump being the more successful candidate in terms of winning votes where they needed to win them. This trend can also be evidenced in relation to Utah. The number of votes won by the Republican candidates fell by over 225,000 votes between the 2012 and 2016 presidential election contests, although this was, in part, down to the fact that Mitt Romney was always going to do very well with the very large Mormon vote in that state in 2012. As noted earlier, in part due to the fact that the rest of the votes were split almost equally between Clinton and the “Third Party” candidates (but most notably McMullin), Trump could still sustain this level of loss in Utah and go on to win that state by a relatively comfortable margin.

There were a small number of “swing states” where Trump won a smaller number of votes than Romney had won in 2012. In the case of Virginia, this loss in support (which could, as with other states, such as New Mexico, be related to changing demographic trends within that state) did significantly reduce Trump’s chances of winning that state – he won almost 55,000 fewer votes than Romney did in 2012, while the Democrat vote increased by almost 10,000. However, the margin of the Democrat victory (by over 210,000 votes) in Virginia – a state that appears to be turning more “blue” in recent electoral contests – suggests that Trump was unlikely to have won that state, even if he had won the same number of votes that Romney won in 2012, or slightly improved on the Romney vote.  The Republican vote also fell in New Mexico (by over 16,000), albeit not to the same extent as the fall in the Democrat vote (by over 30,000), but again, as with Virginia, Trump was not really in serious contention to win another state, which has been moving consistently over the most recent electoral cycles from being a red state to then being a swing/purple state and then to being a generally blue/Democrat-leaning state.

The other swing/purple state where the number of Republican votes fell appear, at first glance, to be rather surprising. Wisconsin was one of the crucial “swing states”/”blue wall states” that Trump gained at the November election. Indeed Wisconsin, based on poll trends ahead of the election, seemed to be one of the least likely of the Trump targets as regards the “blue wall” states, which were meant to safeguard/copperfasten the expected Clinton win. When we compare the Trump vote with Romney’s 2012 vote in Wisconsin however, we see that the Republican vote there fell by over 2,500 votes between the two contests. So how did Trump manage to make an important gain in a state that Obama had won by a margin of over 210,000 votes in 2012. The answer lies solidly in the large loss of support experienced by the Democrats in Wisconsin between 2012 and 2016, with the number of votes won by Clinton there being almost 240,000 votes fewer than the number won by Obama in 2012.

State/Congressional District Republican Democrat
Florida 454,439 267,219
Pennsylvania 290,299 -63,833
Ohio 179,568 -433,545
Michigan 164,287 -295,730
Iowa 70,366 -168,875
Wisconsin -2,682 -238,449

Table 1: Change in the number of votes won by Republican and Democrat presidential election candidates between 2012 and 2016 (based on analysis of data drawn from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections).

This trend was also evident in most of the other “swing states” that Trump gained in the 2016 elections, with the notable exception of Florida, as is illustrated by Table 1. Unlike the case in Wisconsin, the number of Republican votes did increase in all of these states between 2012 and 2016. But in most of these cases (namely Ohio, Iowa and Michigan) the extent of the Republican vote gains was far outshadowed by the level of the Democrat vote losses between these two presidential election contests. It is fair to surmise that in a number of these cases, the Trump wins in these states were as much, or more, to do with the Democrats inability to get their own vote out  as it was to do with ability of the Trump campaign to attract new voters to the Republicans. In fairness to the Trump campaign, however, the evidence would suggest that this reflected the stronger campaigning by Trump in a number of these states, especially in states (such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan) that many analysts, prior to the elections, had assumed would be ultimately won by Clinton.  (I am also well aware that Trump did also make a gain in Maine Congressional District 2, but – as of now – I am struggling to find detailed/reliable voting data for these 2012 and 2016 presidential election contests in this congressional district.)


Figure 4: Change (%) in the number of (valid) votes cast by state (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) between the 2012 and 2016 presidential election contests.

Indeed, the failure of the Democrat get-out-the-vote effort, which was deservedly lauded at the 2008 and 2012, at least in these states is very much illustrated in the map showing the changing trends in voter numbers between the 2012 and 2016 presidential election contests (Figure 4). Contrary to the expectation that the high unfavourability ratigns for both of the the main candidates would have the effect of depressing voter turnout levels at the 2016 contest, the statistics show that almost 8 million more voters turned out to vote at this election than had turned out to vote at the 2012 contest (a trend that, of course, would have been shaped somewhat by population increases across the same time period). The biggest increases in voter numbers came in a number of states located in the West and South-West – states that the Democrats fared relatively well in as regards increasing the party vote share/number of votes won by their presidential election candidates – potentially due to high Latino populations in some of these states. The number of votes cast between 2012 and 2016 fell in only four states. But three of these were crucial swing states that almost effectively sealed Trump’s path to the presidency when he won them – Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio. The fall in the overall vote numbers in these states – which all saw an increased number of votes for Third Party candidates between the two elections – can be solely put down to the significant loss in the number of votes cast for the Democrats, as detailed  in the voting statistics in Table 1 above.


Figure 5: Percentage share of the vote won by Republican presidential election candidate by region, 1972-2016

What did the Trump victory mean in the context of longer-term trends as regards support levels for the Republican Party at presidential elections? Did this election mark a significant realignment in terms of the support bases for the two largest parties, both in regional terms and demographic/social terms? Based on the exit poll figures, this election marked a notable swing towards the Republicans among white working class voters and this trend is particularly evident from Figure 5 above. This shows that the Republican vote in most of the US regions (regions as defined by Black and Black (2007) – see above) did not increase by any great extent between 2012 and 2016 and indeed the percentage share of the vote won by the Republicans actually fell in

  • the Pacific region (Mainly down to a strong showing for Clinton in California, which ultimately did nothing to enhance her chances of winning the election/the electoral college.)
  • the Mountains/Plains region (Mainly due to a weaker Republican performance in the “Sun Belt” states, as well as Utah – in part down to the stronger performance by third party candidates, especially in this region, and probably also because of a swing towards the Democrats among Latino voters in the states in the South West. Again, as with the Pacific region, the overall loss in Republican support in this regin did not translate into the loss of any electoral college votes at all.)

The Republican share of the vote also fell slightly, on average, in the South region, but – as noted earlier – the Trump campaign did push up the Republican vote in the one state in this region where an increase in support would really matter, namely Florida. The Republican share of the vote increased by only a very small margin in the North East region, but this average overall level masks the fact that there were losses for the Republicans in strong “blue states” where such a loss in support did not matter a jot in terms of winning/losing electoral college votes, namely Vermont and Massachusetts. But the party vote share did increase in a number of other states in this region, resulting in gains in Pennsylvania and Maine’s Congressional District 2, while New Hampshire and Maine state have now emerged a strong potential targets for the Republicans in future elections.

In terms of the winning or losing of recent presidential election contests, the Mid West region has emerged as the most important region. Blue states tend to predominate in the North East and Pacific regions and red states tend to dominate the Mountains/Plains and South regions, but a large number of swing/purple states tend to be found in the Mid West. And, of course – based on the common theme running through this article of Trump gaining votes where he needed to gain them and losing votes in regions where it didn’t really matter – this was the region where the Trump campaign fared best in at the 2016 election as regards growing the Republican share of the vote, as illustrated by Figure 5 above. This also marked one of the best performances by a Republican presidential election candidate in the Mid West region across the last quarter of a century, with the notable exception of George W Bush’s performance in that region at the 2004 election. This contrasts strongly with the trend in the Pacific region, where the Republican share of the vote was at one of its lowest levels in a presidential election contest across the last 45 years and where the party’s share of the vote was significantly down on the levels won by Nixon and Reagan in this region at elections in the 1970s and 1980s.


Figure 6: Number of electoral college votes won by Republican presidential election candidate by region, 1972-2016

What was the regional breakdown when it came to the number of electoral college votes won, or lost, at this election and how did it compare with trends evident at other recent presidential election contests? Figure 6 shows that the number of electoral college votes won by the Republicans in 2016 either increased relative to the number won at the 2012 election, or else stayed at the same level as in 2012. Trump failed to win any state – and hence any electoral college votes – in the Pacific region, but this is a trend that has characterised this region at every presidential election contest since George Bush Senior’s win over Michael Dukakis at the 1988 election. The number of Republican electoral college votes won in the Mountains/Plains region also remained at the same level as those won at the 2012 contest – with Trump’s strength in the traditional “red states” in the interior being offset by the growing trend towards the Democrats, largely driven by demographic change, in the South West states. At every election since those of 1976 and 1980, the South region has consistently offered the Republicans its largest haul of electoral college votes and Trump improved on the party’s performance in this regard relative to the 2008 and 2012 thanks to his win in Florida.  Between 1998 and 2012 the Republican presidential nominee had won electoral college votes in the North East region on only one occasion – namely the 2000 election, when George W Bush’s very narrow win over Al Gore in new Hampshire proved crucial to ensuring that he won the electoral college in that election, despite losing in the popular vote. In 2016, wins in Pennsylvania and in Maine Congressional District 2 pointed to the emergence of a much more competitive Republican Party in this region, or at least parts of it; a trend that was further underpinned by narrow defeats in the states of New Hampshire and Maine. The most significant gains at a regional level came in the Mid West region, however, where the number of electoral college votes won by the Republicans more than doubled relative to the level won by Romney in 2012. This marked the party’s best performance in terms of winning electoral college votes in the Mid West region for almost three decades (since the 1988 election); a trend that comes also in the context of the overall reduction in the total number of electoral college votes being allocated to the Mid West (and North East) regions (losing out mainly to the Pacific and South regions) due to changing populations levels across the USA.


This article has offered an in-depth geographical study of the 2016 US Presidential Election, with a specific focus being offered to trends associated with the Republican Party and Donald Trump, their candidate at the 2016 election contest. The over-riding message emerging from this study is that the “where” matters when it come to explaining the election results. As illustrated in the earlier article on disproportionality/bias, Trump win the election not because of the total number of votes that he won (obviously given that he lost the popular vote to Hilary Clinton by some distance), but because of where he won votes. Trump had an uncanny knack (although this may be testament to the Trump campaign’s strategy) of winning, or gaining votes, where he needed to do so and of losing votes in states where such a loss of support made absolutely no difference whatsoever in terms of his ability to gain electoral college votes, or defend states (such as North Carolina) that had been won by Romney in 2012.


Suggested Further Reading/Useful Resources:

  • Black, E. and Black, M. (2007) Divided America: The ferocious power struggle in American politics. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • McKee, S.C. and Teigen, J.M. (2009) Probing the reds and blues: Sectionalism and voter location in the 2000 and 2004 U. S. presidential elections, Political Geography, 28(8), 484-495. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2009.11.004
  • Johnston, R.J., Rossiter, D.J. and Pattie, C.J. (2006B). Changing the scale and changing the result: Evaluating the impact of an electoral reform on the 2000 and 2004 US Presidential elections. Political Geography, 25(5), 557-569. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2006.03.009
  • Johnston, R.J., Rossiter, D.J. and Pattie, C.J. (2006A). Disproportionality and bias in the results of the 2005 general election in Great Britain: evaluating the electoral system’s impact. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 16(1), 37-54.
  • Johnston, R.J., Rossiter, D.J. and Pattie, C.J. (2005). Disproportionality and bias in US Presidential elections: how geography helped Bush defeat Gore but couldn’t help Kerry beat Bush. Political Geography, 24(8), 952-968.
  • Dave Leip’s Atlas of US Presidential Elections website; 

About Adrian Kavanagh

Lecturer in Maynooth University Department of Geography.
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