How anti-establishment outsider Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States

Mike Pence speaks at Trump Headquarters after Donald Trump wins 2016 presidential election

Susan Page and Brad Heath, USA TODAY 

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump was shunned by much of the Republican establishment, but he forged a message of economic grievance and political change that resonated with white voters in rural areas and small towns.

Early Wednesday morning, the political novice who was taken seriously by almost no one when he announced his presidential bid 16 months ago won the White House over Democrat Hillary Clinton, the final stunning turn in a campaign that defied one conventional wisdom after another.

With a signature pledge to "make America great again," Trump managed to run up a huge margin in counties that have voted Republican in every election since 2000. He was winning those counties by 66%-30%, a margin of 36 percentage points. In 2012, Mitt Romney had carried them by 29 points.

But Clinton didn't make similar gains in traditionally Democratic counties. She was winning in those by 66%-31%, the same margin that Obama had carried them four years ago.

The long, contentious and sometimes ugly campaign deepened divides by geography, gender and education. New coalitions were emerging that could roil the two major parties and reverberate in American politics for a generation.

Clinton's Democratic coalition included overwhelming support from African-Americans and a wide margin among Latinos, plus the backing of a majority of white college-educated women and the affluent — voters that used to be Republicans. Trump's Republican coalition was almost entirely white and included a crushing margin among men without a college education — the sort of working-class guys who used to be Democrats.

They were battling for votes in a nation that was downbeat about their leaders and, for some, their lives.

In exit polls by Edison Research, more than three in five voters said things in this country had gotten "seriously off on the wrong track." Among those voters, 69% supported Trump, 25% Clinton. Nearly a quarter of voters described themselves as “angry” about the way federal government is functioning. They were at the core of Trump’s support.

Only a bit more than a third predicted life for the next generation would be better than today, the fundamental tenet of the American dream.

Optimism and enthusiasm was in short supply.

The most common reaction among Trump supporters to the idea of Clinton's election was "scared;" that was also the most common reaction among Clinton supporters to the prospect of Trump's election. Fewer than half of voters said they strongly favored their own candidate; four years ago, two-thirds had. Only one voter in 50 viewed both candidates as trustworthy; nearly one in three voters said neither was.

That wasn't exactly a prescription for a political honeymoon.

Historians and political scientists struggled to cite a precedent for a contest so defined by division and attack. The dominant message from each candidate was that the other couldn't be trusted with the keys to the White House.

"You'd have to go back to Burr-Hamilton in the Weehawken duel," said New York Rep. Steve Israel, an eight-term Long Island Democrat who is retiring. (History class reminder: In 1804, then-vice president Aaron Burr mortally wounded former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.)

Trump's election was groundbreaking. At 70, he will be the oldest president ever elected, and the first to have had no experience in government or military command.

He defeated another groundbreaking candidate. The former secretary of State was the first woman nominated for president by a major party in the 240-year history of the republic.

Sixteen months ago, they launched their candidacies within days and a mile of one another, at Trump Tower and on Roosevelt Island. Here's a look at what happened in their final showdown Tuesday, and why.

 

  • Blue-collar whites turned red

There was a time when white men without a college education — men who worked with their hands, including those in unions — were a backbone of the Democratic coalition FDR forged.

But this year, they gave Trump his most avid support, embracing his message that unwise trade deals and competition for jobs from illegal immigrants had cost them their place in the middle class. They backed him by more than 3-1, 72%-23%.. While Clinton was endorsed by the leadership of most labor unions, voters from union households backed her only narrowly.

In an analysis of counties where the most people work in manufacturing, Trump was leading by an overwhelming 70%-26%. He was winning by another huge margin, 60%-37%, in the 121 reporting counties with the highest rates of unemployment.

With that, he cracked the so-called "blue wall" of reliably Democratic states across the industrial Midwest.

"Trump speaks plainly, assaults the 'political correctness' forced upon them, embraces traditional values and promises to protect and restore working-class jobs,"  said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn. Meanwhile, Clinton comes across to many as "an elitist who sees many of them as 'deplorable,' won't protect American jobs, pushes offensive 'trendy' moral values and is a lifetime government hack."

 

  • A gender divide

Maybe this shouldn't be a surprise: The campaign featuring the first female nominee — and one running against a male opponent accused of sexual harassment — was heading toward a record gender gap.

Men backed Trump by 12 points; women backed Clinton by 12 points. The exit polls indicated that the difference in support for a candidate between male and female voters would match or surpass the record 11 percentage points in the 1996 campaign.

Also unsurprisingly, women were more upset by allegations that Trump had groped and demeaned women in the past than men were. Close to six in 10 women said his treatment of women bothered them "a lot;" just over four in 10 men felt that way.

A majority of college-educated women voted for the Democratic candidate for the first time since at least 1952, when exit polls allowed demographics characteristics to be analyzed.

However, the key divisions Tuesday weren't only about gender. They also were about education. White women who weren't college graduates? They backed Trump by double digits.

  • Obama, a mixed blessing

President Obama was both one of Clinton's biggest assets and one of her biggest problems.

Never in modern times has an outgoing president worked as hard as Obama did to try to elect his successor, and his healthy job-approval rating, now at 56% in the Gallup Poll, was a boost for his party's nominee.

But Clinton didn't do quite as well as Obama did among African Americans, one part of his winning coalition. And she lagged him among Millennials. Voters under 30 backed her 55%-37%, a formidable margin but not the 66%-32% that Obama scored over John McCain in 2008.

Clinton's embrace of Obama also put her at odds with a broad sentiment for change.

Democratic consultant Tad Devine, top strategist for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, called it a "tremendous headwind" against her, especially given her close association not just with one president but with two. In effect, he said, she was running for "a fifth Clinton-Obama term."

Only about one in three said the next president should continue Obama's policies. Close to half wanted more conservative course, one in five a more liberal one. Nearly four in 10 said the ability to "bring about needed change" was the quality that mattered to them most, outpacing experience, judgment or caring "about people like me."

Trump's support was strongest among those most unhappy about the country's direction and, perhaps, about its increasing diversity. He was winning the nation's whitest counties by more than 3-1, 74%-22%. Clinton fared significantly worse in those counties than any Democratic candidate since Al Gore in 2000.

One of the senior Republicans who declined to endorse Trump was former president George W. Bush, who left the top his Texas ballot blank rather than vote for Trump. But GOP voters were on Trump's side. Among 778 counties that have voted Republican since 2000, mostly rural areas and small towns, he was doing better than any candidate since, yes, George W. Bush in 2000.


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