I was shocked when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016. I couldn’t see how he could surmount the imperatives of the Electoral College map and national demographics. And, the polls in key battleground states (not the national polls, which were within the margin of error) predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the weekend before the election.
But, Trump won in the key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Trump won by a total of only 77,744 votes in the three states that gave him his Electoral College win — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. This put him over the top for a win of 306-232 in the Electoral College, despite Clinton winning 2.8 million more votes. Here, I focus as much on why Trump won as on why Clinton lost.
1. The right message and focus on economic issues
Donald Trump had the right economic message to win in key states (such as Rust Belt states losing jobs) and for key constituencies — rural voters and those worried about losing their jobs. The key parts of Trump’s message of economic populism were:
- Promises to oppose what he called bad international trade deals, including promises to oppose the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and to re-negotiate the 1994 NAFTA trade deal with Mexico and Canada;
- Promises to bring back jobs that had moved to other countries and to revive industries, such as auto manufacturing and coal mining, that he said had been hurt by the trade deals;
- Promises to end tax incentives for corporations that move jobs offshore;
- A promise to build a wall on the Mexico/U.S. border and keep illegal immigrants from taking American workers’ jobs’;
- A promise to undertake a massive investment in infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports etc. — to create jobs; and
- An argument that his success in business would be a huge asset in creating jobs.
All this fit within Trump’s slogan and promise to “Make America Great Again.”
Two-thirds of the voters said that “people in power have not paid much attention to what I worry about.” That included 80 percent of white working class men, 69 percent of white working class women, and 63 percent of what some call the Rising American Electorate of unmarried women, millennials, and minorities. The Millennial Impact Report showed that economic issues mattered most to millennial voters. In 2008, Democrats received 45 percent of the rural vote nationally, but they only received 34 percent in 2016.
Tony Fabrizio, the Trump campaign’s chief pollster, said Trump’s victory came down to just 4 counties in Florida and one county (Macomb) in Michigan. Barack Obama had won these counties in 2008 and 2012, but Trump carried them by 54 to 42 percent in 2016. Trump won Macomb County by 50,000 votes, and the total margin in Michigan overall was only 10,704 votes, so Macomb gave him Michigan’s 16 electoral votes.
Despite President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry in 2009, the number of factory jobs in Michigan has dropped from 900,000 to 600,000 since 2000, and real wages have dropped from $28 an hour in 2003 to $20 an hour today. Still, the major reasons for the loss of manufacturing jobs are technology and robotics that reduce the number of humans on the assembly line.
Donald Trump made seven trips to Michigan after securing the GOP nomination, including a third visit to Macomb County two days before the election. The first thing he said upon taking the stage was, “We will stop the jobs from leaving your state.” He added, “It used to be cars were made in Flint, and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.” David Axelrod (Obama’s strategist) and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News both said the reason Clinton lost is that she did not go to Wisconsin after the Democratic Party convention in July.
Similarly, in Erie County, Pennsylvania, Obama beat Mitt Romney by 68,036 to 49,025 votes in 2012. But, in 2016, Trump beat Clinton there by 60,069 to 58,112 votes.
During the Presidential debates, Hillary Clinton’s message focused on economic change and her agenda of creating more good-paying jobs, raising incomes, raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on the rich, investing in infrastructure, and making college debt-free.
However, after the debates, Clinton began to focus her ads on disqualifying Trump on his temperament, his capacity to handle a foreign or nuclear crisis, and his vulgar treatment of women. She offered little economic content and ceded the title of economic “change agent” to Trump.
2. Capturing the ground as the candidate of change
Trump became the candidate of change with his promise to “drain the swamp.” He also became the symbol of resistance to changes that many voters feared or did not like, such as:
- Changes in the economy;
- Changes in the social and cultural scene, such as gay rights, Black Lives Matter, political correctness, and a turn away from religion;
- A perceived rise in immigration;
- An increase in terrorism internationally; and
- Changes in views about America’s exceptionalism and place in the world, which also fit into his slogan of “Make America Great Again.”
In the Center for America Progress’ post-election survey, 50 percent of Trump voters said the most important influence on their vote was that they wanted “to vote for Trump and the chance to shake up the political establishment.” Two-thirds of Trump supporters and Republicans think American society has “become too soft and feminine.” Trump supporters saw too little influence for whites and men and too much influence for minorities and women.
Trump voters literally see the world differently. For example, post-election, The Washington Post showed a group of Americans aerial photos of the Trump and Obama inauguration crowds. The Obama crowd was visually much bigger and actual crowd counts at the time were much larger than Trump’s crowd count in 2016. Still, 15 percent of Trump supporters said the clearly emptier Trump inaugural crowd photo was the one containing the larger crowd.
A leading Republican polling firm, The Tarrance Group, said, “Finally, in the end, the candidate quality that mattered most was ‘change.’ On the presidential exit polling, ‘change’ was the top response at 39 percent, and Donald Trump won…with that group of voters by 82 percent.”
3. Late-deciding voters
Trump got the support of the majority of late-deciding voters. Usually, late-deciders split fairly evenly between the two candidates. In 2016, a critical 11 percent of voters decided in the final week, and they chose Trump by 50 percent to 36 percent.
Also, pre-election polls had shown a total of about eight to 10 percent of the vote going to Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Instead, a total of only five percent voted for those two nationwide, again with the late-deciders going for Trump. Late-deciders went for Trump by 17 points in Florida and Pennsylvania, by 11 points in Michigan, and by 29 points in Wisconsin. Undecided voters may have been swayed by the FBI’s reopening of the Clinton email investigation, by the WikiLeaks revelations, or by Trump’s final messaging.
4. James Comey’s late reopening of the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton
One reason late-deciding voters (particularly white suburban women) may have gone to Trump is that on October 28, 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey publically announced he was reopening his inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server when she was U.S. Secretary of State. This was just 11 days before the general election vote on November 8. Carl Bialik of the poll aggregator Five Thirty Eight says Clinton’s lead in polls fell by about three points after the letter.
Earlier in the summer on July 5, Comey had concluded the FBI’s investigation, saying “no reasonable prosecutor” would pursue criminal charges against Clinton for using a private email system while she was at the State Department. However, he had called her “reckless” in her use of the private server. Though Comey did clear Clinton once again on November 6 — just two days before the Tuesday election on November 8 — it may have been too late. This was one of three reasons that Hillary Clinton herself said she lost the election. The other reasons she gave were Russian WikiLeaks (see below) and misogyny.
5. Russian WikiLeaks
During the campaign, anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks released 33,000 emails of Clinton’s campaign Chairman John Podesta and other Democratic officials. U.S. intelligence agencies — including the CIA, FBI, and the Defense Intelligence Agency — have blamed Russia for orchestrating a campaign of cyber-attacks on Democratic Party political organizations, with the goal of undermining public confidence in the democratic process, hurting Clinton, and helping Trump.
This is the second reason that Clinton herself gave for losing the presidential race. She said, “I was on the way to winning until the combination of Jim Comey’s letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off.”
How much the Russians intervened in the 2016 election and how successful they were is yet to be determined. Three investigations are currently being undertaken — in the U.S. Senate, in the U.S. House, and by a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, appointed by the Dept. of Justice. Many losing candidates tend to find reasons other than their own failures for their losses and tend not to credit the other candidates, so I list this more as a possible reason. Personally, I think Trump’s economic message was absolutely key.
6. Voter turnout
Though Trump won almost two million fewer votes than 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton won seven million fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2012. Nationwide, voter turnout was about 58 percent — lower than in 2008 and 2012. Low turnout typically benefits Republicans.
Historically, those less likely to vote — the young and minorities — tend to vote Democratic if they do vote. And, exit polls showed Trump won about eight percent of the African American vote, which was more than the six percent received in 2012 by Mitt Romney. Clinton could have won if African American turnout in Michigan and Florida in 2016 had matched 2012 levels. In North Carolina, for example, 60,569 fewer African Americans voted in 2016 than in 2012.
7. Defections from the Obama electorate
After the election, Global Strategy Group, a Democratic political firm, analyzed the November voting data and concluded that defections — voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 — were a key reason Clinton lost. About 50 percent of those who voted for Obama and then defected to Trump said their incomes are lagging behind the cost of living, while another 35 percent said they were just treading water. Of the Obama-to-Trump defectors, 42 percent said the Democratic Party was the party of wealth, Hollywood, and what they called the Loony Left.
8. Strong dislike of Hillary Clinton
This election was between two candidates who each had extremely high disapproval ratings. For example, exit polls found that only 38 percent of those who voted had a favorable view of Trump, and Clinton was viewed favorably by only 40 percent.
A November CBS/New York Times poll found that 64 percent of Americans said that Clinton was not honest or trustworthy versus 55 percent who said Trump was not honest or trustworthy. Voters who viewed both Trump and Clinton negatively made up 18 percent of the total electorate. They ended up voting for Trump by 49 percent to 29 percent, with the rest voting for third-party candidates or not voting.
In the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Florida, Trump won a majority of the voters who were unfavorable toward both candidates — winning in most cases by a two-to-one margin. And, the Republican polling firm The Tarrance Group says this group “broke late for Trump.” This also led to a lower-than-expected percentage of women voting for Clinton.
Among women, Clinton won by 54 percent to 41 percent. But, 53 percent of white women favored Trump. It is hard to separate the voters who really were not ready to vote for a woman for President from the voters who were not ready to vote for this particular woman for President. Hillary Clinton, David Axelrod (pollster and strategist in the Obama campaigns), and Jonathan Alter (MSNBC pundit) all said they thought misogyny was a factor in her loss.
9. Trump’s use of social media
Trump was the best candidate ever in using social media. Pioneered by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, social media is a powerful way to identify and target your voters and then get them to the polls. Trump took this to the next level with his use of Twitter, sending out tweets that the mainstream media could not resist covering in their regular newscasts.
This meant the media were covering what Trump wanted to talk about and gave him free media coverage, which helped offset Clinton’s advantage in campaign spending.
10. The Republican ground game and higher-intensity voters
In presidential campaigns, you have to have a message that connects with voters (see number one above) and excites voters. Trump voters outside of the major cities and suburbs were much more intense in their support (+ eight percent) for him than were Clinton voters. This boosts the effectiveness of the “ground game” — staffers on the ground who are calling voters, implementing get-out-the-vote campaigns, and using social media to target likely voters.
In 2008 and 2012, Obama and Democrats had the superior ground game. In 2016, Republicans caught up. Clinton had a good ground game, but she never connected as intensely with key constituencies as Trump did.
11. Trump’s celebrity status and outsider image
Donald Trump has been a public figure in American for more than 30 years — from his days as a World Wrestling Entertainment promoter to hosting “The Apprentice” TV show, to building resorts, hotels, casinos, and golf courses with his name on them. This celebrity status, combined with his expert use of social media, enabled him to garner relentless media attention and free advertising.
One study found that by May 2016 alone, Trump had already received the equivalent of $3 billion in free advertising from media coverage of his campaign. His lack of previous experience in government, his criticism of the media and “the elites,” and his unpredictable, say-anything comments and tweets all fit into his image as a political outsider who would, in his words, “drain the swamp.”
12. The Bradley effect
In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, lost the race for Governor of California even though he was ahead in the polls. Among pollsters, this is referred to as “social desirability bias.” In effect, the voter lies to the pollster because of his or her perception about what is socially acceptable to say. The voter does not want to be perceived as racist, in Bradley’s case, or as sexist in Hillary Clinton’s case. Conversely, some of those polled in 2016 may have felt it was “politically incorrect” to say they were voting for Trump, so they lied or said they were undecided.
13. The polls in the three key states were wrong
This may not be a reason Trump won, but it is a major reason why his victory was such a surprise. I never pay much attention to national polls because Presidents are elected in state-by-state votes under the Electoral College. On the morning of election day, Real Clear Politics, which averages all the major polls and is closely followed by pundits and the media, had Hillary Clinton ahead nationally by 45.5 percent to Donald Trump’s 42.2 percent with the rest going to third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.
But, in the three key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, Real Clear Politics had Clinton ahead by 6.5 points in Wisconsin (46.8 percent to 40.3 percent), by 3.4 points in Michigan (45.4 percent to 42 percent), and by 1.9 points in Pennsylvania (46.2 percent to 44.3 percent). The margin of error in most polls is three percent.
Trump outperformed these projections by 7.5 points, 4.4 points, and 3 points, respectively. If Clinton had won these three states with their 46 electoral votes — Wisconsin with 10 electoral votes, Michigan with 16, and Pennsylvania with 20 — she would have won by 278 to 260 electoral votes. Instead, Trump won by 306 to 232.
Looking at the poll numbers more closely, you see that the election morning polls in Wisconsin only totaled 87.1 percent — Clinton’s 46.8 percent to Trump’s 40.3 percent. The two third-party candidates polled a total of 7.8 percent, but they only received about five percent in actual election day voting.
That leaves about eight percent of the remaining 13 percent of the electorate, and Trump got almost all of it. The result: he won Wisconsin by 48 percent to 47 percent. It is highly unusual for one candidate to get almost all of the late-deciders (see number three above).
According to final vote tallies, Trump won Wisconsin by 22,748 votes, Michigan by 10,704 votes, and Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes. This means Trump won the Presidency by 77,744 votes out of 136 million ballots cast nationwide. In 2012, Barack Obama won these three states — Wisconsin by 6.7 points, Michigan by 9.5 points, and Pennsylvania by 5.2 points.Voting & Elections Perspective