Why did Donald Trump win?

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President-elect, Donald J. Trump. 

So I was wrong, Donald Trump has won the Presidency. Going into election day I still felt sure that the trend towards populist candidates would be halted in its tracks, and that normal service would be resumed thanks to the United States somewhat archaic Electoral College system. Before polls began to close, I didn’t really see a path to the White House for Trump. I mean, to win he had to win Florida, and although that would be close high Hispanic turnout would surely allow Clinton to edge the win. Likewise, I fully expected Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to go Clinton’s way. Michigan and Pennsylvania had voted Democrat in every Presidential Election since 1992, Wisconsin in every Presidential Election since 1988. Surely Trump couldn’t take them, could he?

Alas, I was wrong. Trump didn’t just take one of these States, he took all four. Add to his column North Carolina, Ohio (by an astonishing 8.6 percent), and Iowa, and you’ve got the recipe for a comfortable victory in the Electoral College — currently projected to be 306 votes for Trump to 232 for Clinton. Having said this, it looks as though Clinton narrowly won the popular vote. But, as we know only too well (Gore 2000), it’s all about the Electoral College.

So, why did Trump win? Most of the media and political pundits effectively anointed Hillary Clinton as the next President (and the polls also suggested this outcome), and I must admit that I was only too willing to follow suit, and I am sure that I wasn’t the only one.

Prior to the election, all the talk was about how the sleeping giant of the American electorate, the Hispanic population, was going to play a huge part in deciding the winner. But in actual fact, the Hispanic impact was overstated. Yes, it was arguably the Hispanic population which got Clinton over the line in Nevada (mostly as a result of early voting) but it was always going to be Florida which mattered the most. There was somewhat of a surge in Hispanic voters (particularly in the early voting), and more Hispanics did indeed vote in this Presidential Election than in any previous Presidential Election. However, although Hispanics did vote overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, they didn’t vote for Clinton quite overwhelmingly enough. In fact, Trump actually received around 27 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. This means that he beat Bob Dole’s 1996 tally of the Hispanic vote (Dole got just 21 percent), and received a similar percentage to Mitt Romney’s 2012 share (Romney also took around 27 percent of the Hispanic vote). All this meant that despite the surge in the number of Hispanic voters, Clinton still couldn’t compete in Florida, undoubtedly the most important State in this election.

And on top of this, Trump had a surge of his own. The surge of the white working class. Similarly to those in the UK who voted to leave the European Union in June, these tended to be voters who felt disillusioned by the political elite and left behind by globalisation. Although the results of recent US elections and the ongoing demographic changes in many of the swing states suggested that the Democrats could win an election despite minimal support amongst working class whites, this view proved to be unfounded. In 2012, President Obama won so comfortably in the Midwest because of his strong showing with white working class voters. His low rating with this group was almost purely due to the result in the Southern safe Republican States.

In short, in the swing states Hillary Clinton did not outperform President Obama with Hispanics to the extent required to counteract the huge support Donald Trump was gaining with white working class voters. The biggest surges in Hispanic support for Clinton came in California and Texas, States which were never going to have any bearing on the result. Yes, she did outperform President Obama slightly in some areas of Florida, with Clinton slightly improving the Democratic margins in heavily Hispanic counties such as Miami-Dade, but she did not improve the margin enough to counteract the white working class voters which Trump was winning — many of whom had voted for Obama in 2012.

The same huge support for Trump amongst white working class voters was evident in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In counties which President Obama had won by twenty points in 2012, Trump was drawing level. In counties which President Obama had won by double figures in 2012, Trump was winning handsomely. In these swing states, the same was true as in Florida, Clinton wasn’t over-performing President Obama in the Democratic strongholds. For example, in Pennsylvania, Clinton was unable to get close to the margin needed in Philadelphia to overturn the white working class vote in over areas of the State. The same was true in Ohio, with Clinton not winning cities like Cleveland by enough to overturn her deficit elsewhere.

In short, Clinton certainly made gains among minority groups and the well educated during this election. However, these gains did not seem to occur in the swing states which needed them the most. Either this, or they were simply overwhelmed by the unexpected huge support Donald Trump had amongst the white working class — a group everyone expected him to win, but very few suggested he would win by as much as he ultimately did.

Perhaps the Clinton campaign’s real failure was to misread which were the actual swing states. Throughout the campaign, Clinton barely visited Wisconsin and Michigan, with the campaign putting out hardly any television advertising in these States. Given that they had voted Democratic in Presidential elections for so many years, they thought that they were absolutely safe. Even in nearby Minnesota, typically an even stronger Democratic State in Presidential Elections, the margin of Clinton’s victory was very, very low.

Given how wrong the polling was about these States it is, in hindsight, no surprise that the Clinton campaign didn’t foresee the problems that they were going to have in these States. The same was true in the Trump campaign, who said that their polling results were much the same as professional pollsters. Very few people saw the surge in Trump support in any of these States, apart from perhaps Ohio — although even there the polls generally only had Trump a point or two ahead, nowhere close to the 8.6 percent margin he ultimately took Ohio by.

It is difficult to now what caused such a huge polling error, but perhaps the most simple explanation was that voters were simply not willing to tell pollsters that they were backing Trump. We saw a similar phenomenon in the recent European Union referendum, where polls before the referendum gave the Remain campaign a surprisingly strong lead, seemingly because many Leave voters were telling pollsters that they planned to vote remain. We also saw a similar thing in the recent referendum in Columbia on the agreement on a peace deal between the Columbian Government and the FARC rebels. Whatever the error is, it will take far a far deeper evaluation of the polls and the methodology used, in order to ascertain what the errors were.

So it was the surge in white voters which took Donald Trump over the line, but that isn’t really an explanation for why Trump was able to win the Presidency.

Was he able to win because of Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity? I’m not sure I buy into this argument, mostly because I think that generally both candidates were disliked, and personality wise Trump probably was disliked more than Clinton. Indeed according to the results of the preliminary exit polls, 54 percent of voters viewed Hillary Clinton unfavourably, whilst 61 percent of voters viewed Donald Trump unfavourably. Therefore, to some extent, I feel that this debunks the argument that Clinton lost because of her national unpopularity — although it was arguably a contributing factor.

Delve more deeply into the exit polls, and I think they shine more light on why Trump won. The exit poll revealed that among Trump supporters, 92 percent felt that the country was on the wrong track, 88 percent were angry with the way the government was working, and 70 percent were voting for a candidate who they felt could bring about change. For Clinton supporters, they were found to generally feel as though the country was on track, and only fourteen percent were voting for a candidate who they felt could bring about change.

So, in short, voters were switching to Trump because they felt that he was the only chance to bring about change. For these voters, many of whom had voted for Obama in 2012, they were willing to vote for Trump despite their misgivings about him purely because he could bring about change, and shake up the Washington establishment. This is much the same as in the EU Referendum, where many people voted Brexit purely to give the Westminster political establishment a bit of a kicking.

Typically, when a single party is in government for an extended period of time (in this case, Obama had been President for eight years) their supporters grow disillusioned, particularly if their ‘champion’ is failing to enact the change that they voted for. This is the main reason why since 1952, there has only been one occasion where the same party has held onto the Presidency for three consecutive terms, with this of course being between 1980 and 1992 when Ronald Reagan was succeeded by George H.W. Bush.

In recent years, gridlock has characterised the workings of Washington D.C., and in his second term President Obama has been able to accomplish little without the use of executive orders. It was here that Clinton’s status as a member of the political establishment counted against her. Throughout his campaign Trump kept saying things along the lines of “she’s been in Washington for thirty years and she hasn’t solved these problems, don’t expect her to solve them now.” Whilst it isn’t true that Clinton had been in Washington D.C. for thirty years, the view that she wouldn’t be able to end the gridlock in government was clearly one shared by many. Indeed, even Clinton’s most ardent supporters would be hard-pressed to support the notion that Clinton would have been able to enact transformative change. It was this reason, that so many voters chose to go for Trump. They simply thought that he was the only chance that they had to change things with regard to healthcare, immigration, manufacturing jobs.

Whether or not he actually has the ability to do, they are not really that bothered. Having exhausted every other avenue for what these voters perceive to be positive change, they are willing to give a complete outsider a go, in the hope that he can shake up the establishment.

This trend in favour of populist and anti-establishment political candidates is one which is replicating itself around the world, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Of course we’ve got Trump, and we also had Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Primary. Before that we had the win for Leave in the EU Referendum. Even earlier we had the win for Syriza in Greece. Next year we’ll find out whether the trend continues in the French Presidential Election, where Marine Le Pen continues to look strong.

All over the world, voters are concluding that they want a change from the political establishment who they blame for the poor economic situation which many voters experience in their daily lives. For those who have been more insulated by the economic problems experienced by the developed world over the last eight years, this is perhaps quite hard to comprehend. But the truth is perhaps that voters are willing to vote for anything that they feel will bring about change, and shake up the political establishment.

Overall, Trump won because the voters felt that he was the only candidate who could bring about change. We will soon see whether he manages this task, and if so what changes he brings about.

2 thoughts on “Why did Donald Trump win?”

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