The most unqualified and controversial person ever to run for the presidency of the United States will now become only the fourth person in the country’s history to lose the popular vote –in this case by over 2 million votes– and yet win the election in the Electoral College. Not that long ago, the idea of Donald Trump being the President of the United States was so outrageous, indeed so laughable, that it was fodder for cartoon satire (“The Simpsons,” season 11, episode 17, 19 March 2000). Millions in the United States and around the world are not laughing now. How was Trump, a vulgar, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic political neophyte, able to pull off one of, if not, the biggest political upset in American history? Why did Clinton lose?
The first point to emphasize is just how close the election was. Clinton won the popular vote. That is a fact. But equally telling is the razor-thin margin by which Trump won the swing states that tilted the Electoral College to him. Trump took Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida by a combined 201,879 votes, out of the approximately 132,000,00 cast nationally. This means that 0.15% of the total votes cast decided the outcome. To put it another way, Trump won those states with a vote that was less than the number of people who attend a University of Michigan and a Penn State University home football game on any given Saturday.
Why did Trump win? The answer seems straightforward: Democrats, or perhaps better put, those who voted for the Democratic candidate in 2008 and 2012, did not show up on Tuesday. Depending on the final vote, it looks like Clinton will receive somewhere between ten and five million fewer votes than President Obama did in 2008 and 2012. And, for the most part, these voters did not switch sides. The number of people who voted for Trump was slightly more than those who cast their ballot for John McCain in 2008 and fewer than those who opted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Looking at the key swing states mentioned above, however, complicates the picture. It was indeed the case that fewer people voted for Clinton than did for Obama in Michigan and Pennsylvania in either of his wins, but more people voted for her than for him in Florida. We need to explain, then, not just why the Democratic vote failed to turn out in some places, but also why Trump was able to attract a voting bloc that was just large enough to edge her out in key battleground states.
The available data from exit polls suggests that there were three groups of voters who supported the Republican candidate (Jon Huang, Samuel Jacoby, K.K. Rebecca Lai and Michael Strickland, (8 November 2016). “Election 2016: Exit Polls, “ New York Times, 2016). The first of these was the hard-core, Trump-adoring base. This is the group that has attracted the most attention among commentators and pundits. They were the ones who showed up at Trump rallies, displaying all the fanaticism of rock groupies at a concert or true believers at a Christian fundamentalist revival. In aggregate, they were overwhelmingly white, rural, and older. Most of them had only a modest educational background, and, in terms of income, they were solidly working class. They were not from the poorest sector of society but not that far up the income ladder either. These were the people who were hit hard by the Great Recession, experiencing job losses, wage reductions, and down-sizing, and whom the Obama recovery seemed to pass over. Their anger was fuelled both by the growing income inequality that left them with a shrinking slice of the economic pie and by the yawning gap between their expectations and aspirations and their prospects of ever achieving them. They saw themselves as the shrinking middle class, the “forgotten” Americans, and the “silent majority.” Wall Street was booming, but their Main Street was busting. The big banks were bailed out, while they got kicked out of their homes. They were angry, and Trump gave them a voice. And, like the Tea Party, he gave them a target: The Washington Establishment. And who better epitomized the Establishment than Hilary Clinton?
Trump spoke to peoples’ fear and insecurities. Of those who voted for him, 64% said that immigration was the single most important issue facing the country, followed by terrorism (57%), as opposed to Clinton voters who saw foreign policy (60%) and the economy (52%) as most important. Building a wall, deporting millions of illegal immigrants, banning Muslims, resonated with many of his followers, no matter how unrealistic they are as policies. It didn’t matter. “Trust me, I’ll do it,” he said, and they believed him. Moreover, he had credibility on these issues that no other Republican candidate had: he was a “birther.” Indeed, he was the most visible and vocal of those who denied that President Obama had been born in the US. He tapped into their class anxieties, their racial prejudices, and their gender biases and promised to deal with them. He would keep the alien other out and throw out those who were already here; he would get their jobs back; he would restore “social order.” He would pack the Supreme Court with conservative jurists who would roll back gay, minority, and women’s rights.
The last important reason why Trump was able to mobilize his base so effectively was largely symbolic. His campaign slogan—Make America Great Again— for example, is replete with meaning. For some of his followers, it meant “Make America White Again.” For others, the key word was “again.” This tapped into the narrative of American decline that the right-wing mainstream media and the alt-Right blogosphere has been spewing since 2008. It played on people’s nostalgia for an earlier time when white men ruled and women and minorities knew their place, and America kicked ass around the world. It harkened back to a time before Viet Nam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, and the Gay Rights Movement. Equally important was the language Trump used. The crude, vulgar vocabulary in which he proclaimed his racist, sexist, and xenophobic views was just as important as what he was saying. He defied “political correctness” and made it OK to say things about African Americans, women, and immigrants in public that previously his followers spouted among themselves in the confines of their bars and basements, gun clubs and militia meetings. We see his followers, emboldened by his victory, spewing the language and symbols of hate and intolerance all across the country.
Simply put, Trump appealed to people across the country and especially in regions like the Rust Belt, who felt that they had been written out of the American Dream. He empowered them. And they adored him for it. Thus, no matter what he said; no matter how many women he sexually assaulted; how many scandals he had been embroiled in, it didn’t matter. In spite of his being a New York billionaire who has led a life a universe away from their own, it didn’t matter. He was one of them. He “got” them. As loyal as his base might be, however, it was never large enough to give him a victory, though they were critically important in the swing states. For victory he needed to draw votes from elsewhere.
The second group who voted for Trump was the Republican party faithful. Reflective of this group are the party leaders, like Paul Ryan and many others on what became a long list, who found Trump’s rhetoric odious and obnoxious. Who found him personally objectionable and even denounced his actions and policies publicly. And yet they still voted for him, fatuously trying to distance themselves from Trump by saying that they “supported the Republican nominee.” Likewise, many in the rank and file voted Trump because he was the Republican candidate, pure and simple. Trump's many faults and failings could not trump their loyalty. They would support their party’s nominee no matter who it was; no matter how vile he or she was; no matter how unqualified he or she was—they would vote for the Republican nominee. There certainly were numerous Republicans, like those in the “Never Trump” movement, who did not vote for him. But they didn’t vote for Clinton either. They stayed home or voted for a third party candidate.
The last group includes many in the first two, but also many independents, who opted to stay home. These were people who for a variety of reasons disliked or distrusted Hilary Clinton. Some of these were vestiges of the 1990s “Clinton-haters” or the “Clinton crazies.” These were people who believed that "Bill Clinton, enabled by his wife, was a serial rapist, a drug-runner, a closet racist, a cocaine addict, someone who ordered the murder of close friends and aides” (David Freedlander, (22 May 2014). "These Clinton Haters Can’t Quit the Crazy,” The Daily Beast). While not a voting bloc, the remnants of the Clinton crazies played an important role in the campaign. Some of the major anti-Clinton media outlets, like Fox News (founded in 1996), and some of the media darlings of the Right who exerted powerful influence in the campaign, like Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, and many others, go back to the crazy days of the late 1990s and cut their media teeth Clinton-bashing. Not surprisingly, Trump picked up on this, and in rally after rally he fed the nonsense spouted by the Clinton crazies to his base like it was red meat to a lion (Eric Boehlert,(25 May 2016). "Embracing the 'Clinton Crazies,' Trump Becomes AM Talk Radio's Nominee for President," The Huffington Post. Media Matters for America). That energized his base, but the rhetoric of the Clinton crazies influenced another group as well: older independent voters.
Even among independents who were not Clinton crazies, the baggage from the 1990s weighed heavily on her candidacy. These were older people, whose political niche is on the center-right. Many of them supported Obama in the previous elections. But their recollection of the scandals of the late 1990s, Bill Clinton’s infidelities, his impeachment and the like, and the repackaged rhetoric of the Clinton haters predisposed them to give credibility to the lies, about the Clinton Foundation for example, and to the faux scandals, like Benghazi. That is why FBI Director James B. Comey’s letter of 28 October was so important. As Navin Nayak, head of the Clinton campaign’s opinion research division, pointed out to staffers in a post-election email: “Comey’s letter in the last 11 days of the election both helped depress our turnout and also drove away some of our critical support among college-educated white voters—particularly in the suburbs” (Sam Levine, (11 November 2016). "Hillary Clinton Says FBI Swung the Election Outcome,” Huffington Post). Even though the letter exonerated her, it didn’t matter. At a visceral level it simply reinforced their perception about the Clintons. Thus, according to the exit polling data, the majority of those voters who made up their mind in the week leading up to the election voted for Trump. While not captured in the data, I strongly suspect that even more undecided voters simply stayed home. They could not vote for Trump and they would not vote for her.
The issue of Clinton's trustworthiness and honesty simply would not go away. Because of this, Trump’s real scandals and lies slid off of him like he was made of teflon, whereas rumors and falsehoods stuck to her like glue. Representative of people in this group was a female independent voter in Ohio who voted for Trump. When asked by an exit pollster why she didn’t vote for someone who be be the first woman president in US history, she replied: “I want to see a woman president more than anything; just not that woman.” She was not voting for Trump, she was voting against Clinton. When asked to describe what best explained why they voted for the candidate that they did, 42% said that they voted for Trump because they strongly favoured him as opposed to 51% who voted for him because they strongly disliked Clinton.
Did Trump win or did Clinton lose the 2016 election? She won the popular vote and he won the Electoral College by eking out victories in key swing states by the narrowest of margins. Understanding and explaining exactly what happened on 8 November 2016 will take time and a lot more study. There will be no simple answers. For example, one easy explanation that has been touted posits that Trump’s victory was a backlash against the Washington Establishment. And there is an element of truth to that. But, then, how do we explain the fact that 95% of congressional incumbents were re-elected? If voters so despised the Establishment, then why did they vote to keep it intact? What I think we can say at this point is that Trump was able to put together an unlikely, if not unprecedented, coalition of blocs of voters—some of whom were for him, and some who were against her. That in combination with the considerable number of formerly Democratic voters who just sat this one out gave him just enough support in key states to win slender majorities. Let me end with an extended quote from an analysis, which I think at this point best captures what happened.
“In Wisconsin, Trump’s current margin of victory is just over 27,250 votes. In Milwaukee County alone, Clinton won 288,986 votes (so far) ― down from Barack Obama’s 328,090 in 2012. That’s a difference of 39,104 votes in that one county. Those voters didn’t go to Trump, who received over 32,000 fewer votes in the county than Republican candidate Mitt Romney did in 2012 ― they just didn’t turn out. If Clinton had gotten those votes that Obama received, she would have won the state” (Ryan Grim (15 November 2016). “ Elizabeth Warren Gets Real, Dings Obamacare: ‘We failed not in our messaging but in our ideology’,” Huffington Post).
(first published in CHRONOS magazine, 15 Nov. 2016)
The number of people who voted for Trump was slightly more than those who cast their ballot for John McCain in 2008 and fewer than those who opted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Looking at the key swing states mentioned above, however, complicates the picture. It was indeed the case that fewer people voted for Clinton than did for Obama in Michigan and Pennsylvania in either of his wins, but more people voted for her than for him in Florida.
He tapped into their class anxieties, their racial prejudices, and their gender biases and promised to deal with them. He would keep the alien other out and throw out those who were already here; he would get their jobs back; he would restore “social order.” He would pack the Supreme Court with conservative jurists who would roll back gay, minority, and women’s rights.
Did Trump win or did Clinton lose the 2016 election? She won the popular vote and he won the Electoral College by eking out victories in key swing states by the narrowest of margins. Understanding and explaining exactly what happened on 8 November 2016 will take time and a lot more study. There will be no simple answers. For example, one easy explanation that has been touted posits that Trump’s victory was a backlash against the Washington Establishment. And there is an element of truth to that. But, then, how do we explain the fact that 95% of congressional incumbents were re-elected? If voters so despised the Establishment, then why did they vote to keep it intact?