Polls showed Donald J. Trump trailing by several points going into election day. The New York Times predicted that Clinton would win the election 84 percent of the time. Across the political spectrum, Americans expected an early night to accompany a Clinton victory.
Yet, it happened. Trump was elected to the highest office in the free world on Tuesday, November 8th. Pollsters, journalists, and Trump staffers alike are sitting in their office, stumped by the looming certainty of the result they never saw coming. How could this have happened?
The answer comes down to demographics. Trump won major victories in several key swing states, including North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In each of these states, his margins were razor thin. Yet, his campaign’s ability to rouse its base ultimately won him the election. Nearly every urban area in the country showed high margins for Clinton, but high turnout among white voters, especially in rural districts, made the difference for Trump. The oft-ignored white underclass made its way to the polls in unprecedented fashion, and the Clinton campaign’s inability to account for this phenomenon resulted in its ultimate demise. The wave of populism and white nationalism that accompanied this election represents the overwhelming sentiment of discontent and anger infecting rural white America. Trump’s ability to appeal to this anger and fear, as well as his rhetorical focus on winning back manufacturing jobs, was crucial in reaching this group of disaffected voters.
Though polls underestimated the power of these voters, millions were able to look past Trump’s hateful rhetoric, even to embrace it, in an effort to express their feelings of their unrepresentation in traditional Washington politics. 58% of white voters voted for Trump, and non-college-educated whites supported him at a rate of 67%. Even non-college-educated white women supported him at a rate of 62 percents. These interests were represented down ballot as well, in particular in key swing states. Republicans surprised in several key senate races, including upset victories in Missouri, Indiana, and Wisconsin. On a national level, the GOP maintained control of both the House and the Senate, despite losing seats in both chambers. This represents an overwhelming victory for the interests of Trump’s so-called “silent majority.” Looking forward, Democrats will have to account for this white backlash to their policies and actively work to incorporate disaffected white voters into their coalition. Although they have a tough 2018 senate map in front of them, Democrats can look forward to a 2020 rematch with President Trump.
In many ways, the outcome of this election was unpredictable. But in many ways, it was a direct response to demographic and economic shifts that have been occurring in this country for decades: racial and religious changes, changes away from manufacturing jobs, and an increase in economic inequality. 2016 was, by all accounts, a win for reactionaries.