An upset in review: why Trump won

Donald Trump’s victory shocked the world as he managed to pull off one of the most significant presidential election upsets in history. But as the dust settled following the protests and outcries that followed November 8, many of the factors that led to a Trump win became clear. The circumstances of this political cycle, Trump’s “America first” rhetoric, and his policies of reactionary, anti-establishment reform appealed to demographics that felt marginalized by both the Republican and Democratic Parties. These points, accompanied with the Democratic campaign’s inability to gain strong voter turnout and to appeal to white voters, propelled Trump to a landslide electoral college victory.

On the morning of the election, The New York Times gave Hillary Clinton an 85 percent chance of winning the presidency. Similarly, the Huffington Post, another liberal news organization, placed Clinton’s chance to win at 98 percent.

As a result of polls and predictions that pointed to a clear Clinton victory, Priya Patel, like most of America, entered election night expecting Hillary Clinton to win. Recalling the night, she remarked, “All the polls said Hillary. I felt in my heart it would be Hillary,” before letting out a light, yet dispirited chuckle.

Since 1952, there have been seven presidential elections following a party’s second or third term in control of the presidency. In these cases, only once has a party retained power (the election of George H. W. Bush following Ronald Reagan's two terms being the exception). This trend has become the nature of the two party system. The simplest explanation for this phenomenon is that many Americans have a natural distrust for our political class and a distaste for permanent ruling bodies. However, it is important to point out that Obama regained much of his popularity during the election–a break from trends in presidential favorability ratings during the end of an eight-year term (his ratings were far higher than both Clinton’s or Trump’s entering the election). Obama’s uncharacteristically high approval ratings suggested that the Democratic Party had retained their support from 2008 and 2012, yet the results proved otherwise. These results indicate that the natural presidential cycle of power between political parties was not the only factor at play.

Low propensity voters tend to favor Democratic candidates over Republican, and these words rang true for the outcome of the 2016 election, which hit a 20 year low in voter turnout with only 55.4 percent of eligible voters casting ballots (statistic as of Nov. 30). Although votes are still being counted, the common consensus is that Hispanic and African-American voter turnout declined. While the Clinton campaign expected a decline in African-American voting numbers (as African-American voter turnout has been exceptionally high the previous two elections with Obama as the Democratic nominee), the campaign was relying on a strong Hispanic turnout to propel them to victory. While margins of White, African-American and Hispanic voting numbers remained relatively similar as compared to 2012, a decline in minority voting numbers tipped the electoral college in Trump’s favor. The cause of this dip in Hispanic voting numbers is still open for debate. As a result of Trump’s hardline immigration policies and his numerous xenophobic and racist comments regarding Hispanics, it is difficult to explain this decline. While Hispanics did vote at a ratio of 2-to-1 in favor of Clinton, their voting margins and voter turnout remained below what the Clinton campaign aimed for and was relying upon.

Patel commented on this, saying she was surprised by the number of women and minorities who decided not to vote for Hillary, attributing this result to misinformation and lack of education.

Entering the election, Trump was fighting an uphill battle in the electoral college. His only path to victory was to win essentially every swing state, or find a way to flip several “blue states," which Trump found in the Rust Belt. The Rust Belt refers to the series of states in the Northeast and Midwest who have suffered an economic decline in the last several decades, characterized by declining industry, unemployment, and a shrinking population. Trump managed to win the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, three states that have all voted Democratic since 1992. Trump’s protectionist economic policies and his promise to revitalize the dwindling coal, steel, and energy industries appealed to states deindustrialized by the effects of globalization and free trade agreements. And while most economists contend that there is little that Trump can do in office to reverse this economic trend, his promise to fight for the Midwest was enough to win the support of voters who felt embattled and forgotten by Washington.    

In Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, the word “change” rang throughout the nation. It was a simple, yet powerful message that resonated with voters fed up with the status quo. That year, Hillary Clinton ran a campaign built on gaining establishment support within the Democratic Party and Congress, and as a result, many voters felt they were having a candidate chosen for them. In response, they turned to Obama, a candidate who promised to be a voice for the people. Although Trump ran a much different campaign than President Obama with a far different message, he triumphed over Hillary for much of the same reason Obama did in 2008: by being a voice of change.

Patel added that conservative backlash and many people's “basic mistrust of Hillary Clinton” as two other components that let to Clinton’s defeat on election night.

While the factors listed in this article are not exhaustive, they are some of the most overlooked components that led Trump to victory. However, I believe it is important to note that I do not condone the type of campaign Trump ran, nor many of the policies that campaign was built upon. This article is not intended to glorify Trump’s victory, but rather look at why he won. Trump’s campaign was remarkably and unexpectedly effective for 2016’s political, social and economic climate.

Posted on December 24, 2016 .