A Rage for Change: How Donald Trump Won the Presidency - by John Hodges

In the early days of the 2016 election, most pundits and political figures expected a normal election. Jeb Bush, the son of two former presidents and a fixture of the so-called Republican establishment, was the favorite to win the Republican nomination, while Hillary Clinton, wife of a former president and one of the most recognizable figures in American politics, was the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Then, on June 16, Donald J. Trump, the bombastic businessman and reality TV star, descended the escalator of his skyscraper on Fifth Avenue to launch his highly improbable campaign for President of the United States. Over the next 15 months, the 2016 presidential election devolved into one of the most raucous and divisive elections in modern history. Donald Trump ignored centuries of political norms and precedents, running an unconventional campaign on his own terms with sharp rebukes from Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet, on November 8, defying almost every poll, projection, and expert, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States by a significant electoral margin. Donald J. Trump won the presidential election in a stunning upset as a result of anti-establishment sentiment, economic discontent, a rise in nationalism, and favorable demographics in states needed to win the electoral college. Currently, the demographic trends in the country favor the Democrats, though structural problems and geographic polarizations threaten the party’s chances.

Based on the conditions in the country, the 2016 presidential election should have been a veritable toss-up, with some indicators pointing to a Democratic victory and others pointing to a Republican victory. Overall “the U.S. economy had made important progress since the Great Recession,” (Sides, Tesler, Vavreck) with the DOW Jones Industrial Average peaking at 18,836 on August 15 of this year, compared to its low point of 6,547 on March 9, 2009, and with unemployment down to 4.9% from a peak of 10%. Additionally, Barack Obama, in his final year as President, was relatively popular according to public opinion polling, despite today’s polarized climate. From the end of the conventions through election day, his approval rating ranged from 48 to 56, according to Gallup. However, Obama’s approval lags behind the pace of the economic recovery, and he “has been the only president since John F. Kennedy whose approval ratings did not tend to increase alongside evaluations of the economy” (Sides, Tesler, Vavreck) and he “seems to have … escaped the credit for the recovery.” (Sides, Tesler, Vavreck) Additionally, electing a member of the incumbent party after two full terms is a tall order, with George H.W. Bush, Harry Truman, and Herbert Hoover being the only candidates to do so in the past century. The conditions in the country going into the 2016 presidential election did not benefit one party in particular but rather had the makings of a close race.

Donald Trump’s promise to fix the rigged system and to “Make America Great Again,” was clear and simple. Beginning with his announcement speech, the infamous campaign slogan became the rallying cry for the Trump campaign. To Trump, this phrase meant a variety of things. A large focus of his campaign’s message was a promise to bring radical change to Washington and to dethrone the so-called establishment. After 6 years of government gridlock, Americans were frustrated with the way the government was working. In a study from 2014, just 30% of Americans said they had confidence in the Supreme Court, 29% said they had confidence in the presidency, and just 7% said they had confidence in Congress (Gallup). Mr. Trump’s opponent, a woman who has served in political life in some way for more than 30 years, was an easy target of this anti-establishment message. This anti-establishment strategy paid off, with exit polls showing that 4 in 10 voters wanted the next president to bring “needed change” (Wall Street Journal). Proudly stepping into his role as an outsider, Trump utilized the electorate’s frustration with the political establishment to his advantage.

Nationalism was a key aspect of Trump’s message, as he repeatedly promised to return America to its supposed glory days, and to elevate its standing and influence on the world stage. After 15 years of rising global terrorism, unsuccessful and unending foreign entanglements, and the resurgence of Russia and China as foreign rivals, many Americans felt that the country had failed to live up to its powerful legacy under the leadership of President Obama and demanded a strong leader to facilitate this return. Trump’s promise to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” along with his threats to pull American support from global military alliances such as NATO, Japan, and South Korea because of what he saw as disproportionate and unfair costs and responsibilities alarmed the political and national security establishment. To his supporters, however, this promise to put “America First” resonated. Exit polls showed that 53% of voters thought the fight against ISIS was going poorly, compared to 41% who thought it was going well (CNN). This 53% showed a strong preference for Trump, with 68% of them voting for Trump, and only 25% for Hillary (CNN). Donald Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” by restoring American glory and dominance on the global stage resonated with voters frustrated after years of foreign policy mishaps.

Donald Trump’s brazen economic populism, contrasted by Hillary Clinton’s lack of a clear, effective economic message, galvanized his support amongst parts of the working class to help fuel his victory. In the elections of 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama painted himself and his party as a warrior for the working class against the menace of the big business-backed, upper class-focused Republicans. His strategy worked, with white-working class voters propelling him to victory in Rust Belt states including Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In 2016, however, the script was flipped. With the Democratic Party “[appearing] to have lost its ownership of the economic issue,” (Norporth) Trump appealed directly to the working class, specifically the white working class, in a way that Republicans had not for several election cycles. He spent a great deal of time in the Rust Belt, where the economic recovery has been significantly slower than other parts of the country due to manufacturing jobs continuing to be shipped overseas or replaced by machinery. Trump pinned the responsibility for this economic exodus on the elites, claiming that the business and political establishment had sold them out by making ineffective trade deals that benefited large corporations. Trump railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which was signed by his opponent’s husband, President Bill Clinton, blaming it for the changing economy in the Rust Belt and promising to defend the working class. He also promised to punish companies that move jobs overseas with harsh tariffs and stiff penalties. This message worked, with exit polls showing that a plurality of 42% of voters believed that international trade takes away American jobs, and with Trump winning 64% of those voters (CNN). Perhaps even more impactful, of the 62% of voters who rated the country’s economic condition as ‘poor,’ 62% voted for Mr. Trump (CNN). Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, failed to come up with an effective economic message. Though she frequently touted her plan to narrow the widening gap between rich and poor through policy proposals such as raising the minimum wage, the economy was by no means the center of her message. Instead, especially after the parties’ national conventions, Clinton’s core message was that Donald Trump was unqualified to President of the United States, turning the election into a referendum on the candidates. While both public and private polling indicated that this strategy was working, the polls clearly missed the power of working class frustration. Donald Trump’s populist message resonated with working class voters, who helped hand him a victory.

Despite the growing ethnic diversity of the American electorate, geographic disparities doomed Hillary Clinton and led directly to Donald Trump’s victory. Going into the 2016 election, Democrats saw significant demographic advantages around the country. The white majority of the American electorate continued to shrink, while the number of Hispanic and Asian eligible voters, both traditionally democratic groups, had risen by 17% and 16%, respectively, since 2012 (Pew). Democrats were optimistic that a candidate like Donald Trump, who had used racially-tinged rhetoric throughout his campaign, would help Clinton hold together the ‘Obama coalition,’ holding similar levels of support as Obama did in 2008 and 2012 while benefitting from these groups’ growing population. In the end, Clinton proved unable to hold the same support amongst these groups as Obama had, winning 8% less of the Latino population and 10% less of the Asian population compared to 2012 (Washington Post). This demographic problem, however, paled in comparison to Clinton’s struggles, or perhaps more notably Trump’s strengths, among white working class voters. Trump won 67% of white voters without a college degree compared to Clinton’s 28%, a remarkable 38% margin and a 14% improvement for Republicans compared to 2012 (New York Times). It was this Trump surge among the white working class that toppled the so-called Democratic ‘Blue Wall,’ which includes the states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all of which have voted for the Democrat in at least the past six presidential elections, and all of which Donald Trump won. Trump’s “appeals to a group of largely alienated white voters” (Noel) and his ability to “[exploit] internal divisions on trade” (Noel) were key to his success in these states. These states are less diverse than the rest of the country, and minority voters are heavily concentrated in their urban areas. By minimizing the effect of minority voters, and by triggering a tidal wave of Republican votes amongst the white working class, Donald Trump was able to reshape the electoral map to his advantage.
In an election filled with stunning surprises and dramatic turning points, Donald Trump’s victory truly shocked the world and defied all expectations. With polls, political scientists, and the media, all telling Trump it couldn’t be done, he seized on a rising tide of voter discontent and nationalism, particularly amongst the white working class, to propel himself to victory. Aided by the fact that his opponent was deeply flawed and almost as unpopular as himself, he made the gains amongst the electorate he needed to make, while preventing Hillary Clinton and the Democrats from expanding the ‘Obama coalition.’

John Hodges