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The 2016 Election in Print

By: Michael Nelson
April 10, 2018

onald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election was astonishing. Political analysts of every stripe confidently predicted his loss from the day of his announcement until well into Election Day. On June 16, 2015, the day he announced his candidacy, Ladbrokes, the world’s leading political betting firm, made him a 100-to-1 long shot. The Huffington Post refused for months to “report on Trump’s campaign as part of [our] political coverage,” choosing instead to cover his campaign in their entertainment section. In her campaign memoir What Happened, Hillary Clinton confessed that “when Trump declared his candidacy for real in 2015, I thought it was another joke.” Joel Pollak and Larry Schweikart provide a long list of errant predictions in How Trump Won, including those by Ross Douthat (“Trump will not be the Republican nominee”), Karl Rove (“Trump can’t win [the] general election”), and Frank Luntz (“Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States”). Alan Abramowitz, a prominent political scientist whose statistical model forecast months before the election that the Republican nominee would win because economic and political fundamentals were so favorable, decided that Trump was such a bad candidate that his model did not apply.

The presidential election wasn’t Election Day’s only surprising outcome. Most experts predicted that the results of the Senate elections, in which the GOP defended more than twice as many seats as the Democrats, would turn over control from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Wrong again. The Democrats gained just two seats, not the five they needed to secure a majority. Predictions for the House gave the Democrats an additional fifteen to twenty seats, bringing them within striking distance of a majority. That didn’t happen either. Democrats gained a paltry six seats, leaving the Republicans in charge of a united party government—a newly inaugurated president and a majority of both houses of Congress—for the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected in 1952.

Although its results were surprising, the election’s magnitude was less remarkable. In Defying the Odds, James Ceaser, Andrew Busch, and John Pitney deflate Trump’s claims to have won “a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College” and the “the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.” From 1788 to 2012, forty-five of fifty-seven presidential elections were decided by a larger electoral vote majority than Trump’s 304-227 victory over Clinton. In the seven elections following Reagan’s landslides in 1980 and 1984, the winning candidate outdid Trump in the Electoral College five times. And the new 115th Congress was only narrowly Republican, especially in the Senate where the party’s majority was just 52 to 48. After Trump appointed Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the Democrats’ victory in the special election to fill his seat further narrowed that majority.

The challenges awaiting President Trump arose in some measure from his campaign’s divisive nature. He branded the leading Democratic contenders, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former secretary of state Clinton as “Crazy Bernie” and “Crooked Hillary,” and led chants of “Lock her up!” at campaign rallies. Nor did Trump spare Republican rivals Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush, whom he dubbed “Lyin’ Ted,” “Liddle Marco” (Trump’s spelling), and “Low-energy Jeb.” Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and Lewandowski’s coauthor David Bossie in Let Trump Be Trump, claim that he drew these epithets “from his knowledge of Jungian archetypes” born of his close reading of Jung’s Memory, Dreams, Reflections. Who knew?

Trump also dismissed Arizona senator and Vietnam War hero John McCain, who endured more than five years of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese rather than be released before his fellow captives, as “not a war hero. . . . I like people who weren’t captured.” Neither McCain nor any of the other four living former Republican nominees for president regarded Trump as fit to hold the office. According to Mark Updegrove in The Last Republicans, former president George W. Bush let friends know that he would not vote for Trump and his father, former president George H. W. Bush, called Trump a “blowhard” and voted for Clinton. The 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, publicly excoriated Trump’s financial bankruptcies as well as his “personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.” Three leading conservative publications—the Weekly Standard, National Review, and Commentary—actively opposed Trump. Even CRB Digital contributor Publius Decius Mus supported him only as a desperate “Flight 93” solution to the greater disaster posed by Clinton.

The October, 2016 release of a 2005 Access Hollywood recording of Trump describing his vulgar approach to women (“you can do anything—grab ‘em by the pussy”) raised the level of intraparty opposition. McCain demanded that he withdraw from the election, as did Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, and other party leaders. Trump doubled down, dismissing his language as “locker room banter” and, more plausibly, attacking former president Bill Clinton as “the greatest abuser of women in the history of American politics.” As for Hillary Clinton, who as Joshua Green points out in Devil’s Bargain “had tweeted in November: ‘Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported,’” Trump blistered her as “an enabler” who “attacked the women who Bill Clinton mistreated afterward.” Trump even brought four of President Clinton’s accusers to the second presidential debate.

The same freewheeling and aggressive style that alienated Democrats during the election solidified Trump’s support among many Republican voters who regarded his rhetorical excesses as evidence of authenticity, undiluted by the normal social constraints that Trump dismissed as “political correctness.” Political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck argue in Identity Crisis, that Trump’s campaign for the nomination “became a vehicle for a different kind of identity politics” than that centered on groups historically marginalized by race, gender, or sexual orientation. It was instead “oriented around white Americans’ feelings of marginalization in an increasingly diverse America.” Meanwhile, as liberal blogger Greg Sargent points out in his chapter in Larry Sabato’s edited volume Trumped, Clinton continued to play the familiar identity politics card. Her tone-deaf answer to Bernie Sanders’s populist proposal to break up “the big banks” was: “Would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”

In contrast, many Trump supporters cheered when he said that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime[,] they’re rapists” and when he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” They nodded approvingly when he declared that in the global war on terror, “Torture works. . . . Waterboarding is fine, but it’s not nearly tough enough.” “I get it,” writes NBC reporter Katy Tur, who covered all seventeen months of the Trump campaign, in Unbelievable. “You can’t tell a joke without worrying you’ll lose your job. Your twenty-something can’t find work. Your town is boarded up. Patriotism is called racism.” Listening to Trump supporters, Tur heard them say, “‘He talks just like us’ . . . over and over again. He’s the rich guy they would be if they were rich.” Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney quote law professor Joan Williams as pointing out that it’s not the wealthy that blue-collar workers resent, as much as they do the mostly Democratic “professionals [who] order them around every day.”

In addition to his unorthodox views, Trump’s voters also valued his experience as a businessman rather than a politician. Nearly every major party nominee for president has been a current or former senator, governor, vice president, general, or cabinet member. In the quarter century after World War II, senators and vice presidents (most of whom were former senators) dominated presidential elections because Cold War–era voters trusted the federal government and valued their experience dealing with national security issues. Then, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the electorate turned to state governors, who were untainted by the incompetence and corruption now associated with a Washington-based political career: Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992, and George W. Bush in 2000.

The ascendant Tea Party movement that helped the Republican Party win control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 was not just anti-Washington but antigovernment in all its forms. Seven current or former Republican governors battled Trump for the Republican nomination, including large- or swing-state chief executives John Kasich (Ohio), Jeb Bush (Florida), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Chris Christie (New Jersey), George Pataki (New York), and Jim Gilmore (Virginia). They all thought, as Christie strategist Mike Du Haime said at the Harvard Kennedy School’s post-election post mortem, published as Campaign for President, that “a strong executive, a governor, was certainly a good profile.” They didn’t realize, according to Ben Carson’s campaign manager Barry Bennett, that in the political environment of 2016, “when the governors were talking about how many jobs they created in their state, . . . they were talking about ‘how good I am at being a politician.’”

None of the governors, including former Maryland Democratic governor Martin O’Malley, came close to winning either party’s nomination. On primary campaign’s eve, 58 percent of Republicans said they would prefer “someone from outside the existing political establishment” to “someone with experience in how the political system works.” As a candidate who had never held public office, Trump appealed to many voters as a complete outsider who would “drain the swamp” in Washington. “The problem with politicians,” he told a rally: “[they’re] all talk and no action. It’s true. All talk, and it’s all bullshit.” He knew politicians could be bought, Trump claimed, because he had bought some of them himself as a cost of doing business. “When I need something from them—two years later, three years later,” he said, “they are there for me.”

Trump’s wealth became a major part of his allure. Other contenders were “controlled by those people,” he averred, referring to wealthy individuals and interest groups: “I’m not controlled. . . . I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using the donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.” He added, “Do you want someone who gets to be president and that’s literally the highest-paying job he’s ever had?” According to Lewandowski in Campaign for President, Trump disdained Romney’s 2012 campaign for pulling into towns “in a Chevy pickup and pretend[ing] he wasn’t as rich as he really is. Trump says, ‘No, no. I’m going to pull up in my 757…and we’re going to have the most expensive cars.’” He bragged that he was worth $10 billion, about three times more than Forbes magazine estimated. He was able to buck Republican orthodoxy on issues like free trade and immigration because “not having donors allowed him the freedom to go and say and do things that others couldn’t say or wouldn’t do,” Lewandowski added.

In addition to being a businessman, Trump was a bona fide celebrity. Even before launching his hit NBC show The Apprentice in 2004, he built a large national audience as a frequent talk-show guest. David Letterman featured him more than thirty times, and he was a regular on Howard Stern’s raunchy radio program. His braggadocious business books, especially Trump: The Art of the Deal, were best sellers. He became a guest battler in pro wrestling spectacles, bragging salaciously that with his “Trump Tower” he would dominate WWE owner Vince McMahon’s “grapefruits.” On television Trump starred in not just The Apprentice but also its successor, Celebrity Apprentice, which aired until he announced for president in 2015. On both shows, Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney point out, Trump “introduced himself to millions as a tough, shrewd businessman that supplicants looked to for guidance and approval.”

Trump also understood something that his rivals and other party leaders did not: not all Republican voters share their consistently conservative ideology. For years, Republican leaders had pursued an agenda that favored free trade, reduced spending on Social Security and Medicare, and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. Many rank-and-file Republicans favored none of these. In parallel 2014 surveys of Republican voters and elites, for example, 62 percent of voters but only 26 percent of elites said that spending on Social Security should be increased. Seventy-two percent of voters said “immigrants and refugees coming to the U.S.” pose a “critical threat” to the country, compared with 22 percent of elites. Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck argue that by vowing to protect Social Security and Medicare, deport illegal immigrants, introduce protectionist trade policies, and ramp up spending on infrastructure programs, “Trump simply met many Republican voters where they were, tapping into longstanding but often unappreciated sentiments.”

Trump’s unconventional background and iconoclastic style struck strong chords with an angry electorate. Remarkably, on Election Day 20 percent of the voters who said Trump lacks “the temperament to serve effectively as president” voted for him anyway, along with 18 percent of those who said he is not “qualified to be president.” So repelled were these roughly 12 million voters by Clinton that they held their noses and cast their ballots for Trump anyway. Although Trump scored the lowest of any candidate in the forty-eight-year history of the American National Election Studies “feeling thermometer” (38 on a 100-point scale), Clinton was second from the bottom, with 44. According to interim Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile in Hacks, Clinton was so “anemic” a nominee, both politically and, at times, physically, that Brazile “nearly replaced her as the party’s candidate for president” with Vice President Joe Biden. How this would have helped the Democrats to win is a mystery. Biden, whose Promise Me, Dad turns his decision not to run in 2016 into a family drama whose chief villain, President Barack Obama, consistently urged him to stay out, was a lousy candidate when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1988 and 2008, never exceeding 2 percent in any primary or caucus. Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney rightly argue that in 2016 the aged, windy, gaffe-prone Biden was, as he will be in 2020, “a terrific candidate only as long as he was not running.”

Other than capitalizing on these elements of his appeal and many voters’ intense dislike of Clinton—her coziness with Wall Street, her misuse of a private e-mail account to send and receive messages that included classified material while serving as secretary of state, her close embrace of race- and gender-based identity politics, and her longtime status as a political insider—how did Trump win?

Geographically, Trump tore a large hole through the Democrats’ “blue wall,” the nineteen states with 242 electoral votes that had voted Democratic in all six presidential elections since Bill Clinton won his first victory in 1992. Three of these states, all of them in the Rust Belt, cast their combined 46 electoral votes for Trump: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—each by less than 1 percent, with Trump’s margin of victory provided by defecting Sanders supporters. Three other states that supported Obama in 2008 and 2012—Ohio, Florida, and Iowa, with 53 electoral votes—also voted for Trump. As Clinton lamented in her postelection memoir, Sanders’s “attacks caused lasting damage. … paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign.”

Sanders’s populist ire was aimed at Wall Street, Trump’s at Washington. But by associating Clinton with both domains, Sanders inadvertently led some who shared his resentment of concentrated power away from her and toward Trump. Unlike Clinton, Unprecedented author Thomas Lake points out, Sanders and Trump “each . . . made the case that he couldn’t be bought.” And throughout the election, the two political outsiders “would act as the left and right speakers of a stereo blaring a chorus on repeat,” note reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, who, in Shattered, covered Clinton’s campaign closely: “Hillary’s a corrupt insider who has helped rig the political and economic systems in favor of the powerful.”

Although Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck show that Trump was already gaining on Clinton before FBI director James Comey’s announcement that the bureau was investigating a recently discovered batch of Clinton’s e-mails just eleven days in advance of the election, Trump made the most of it. Seizing on Comey’s statement less than an hour after he made it, Trump declared: “Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before. We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.” Between then and the election, nearly half of the lead stories on the three broadcast networks’ evening news programs dealt with her e-mails. In truth, it was Comey’s earlier declaration that he would not prosecute Clinton over the emails that did her the most damage. “The FBI director,” Allen and Parnes write, “affirmed she’d done something wrong—just nothing he could pin on her.”

In What Happened, Clinton adds to the list of causes for her defeat the “totally nuts,” “godforsaken Electoral College” and Russia’s efforts on Trump’s behalf. Concerning the latter, political scientists Steven Schier and Todd Eberly point out in The Trump Presidency that although “there can be no doubt that Russian agents interfered in the election[, l]ess clear is whether that interference substantively affected the outcome.” As for the Electoral College, could any defeated candidate’s excuse be weaker? It’s the equivalent of a losing football coach protesting, “But we had more first downs than they did.” Everyone knew at the start of the campaign that a majority of electoral, not popular votes, would determine the winner, and that running a campaign to win California’s 55 electoral votes by a 4,100,000 vote margin, which Clinton did, made far less sense than running a campaign to win the combined 57 electoral votes of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by 170,000 votes, which Trump did.  As Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney observe, “No one knows how the popular vote would have turned out” if both candidates had been competing to win it in the absence of an electoral college.

Others credit Trump’s victory to his more disciplined campaign style as Election Day drew near, as well as to Clinton’s overconcentration on inner cities and university towns. Certainly Clinton’s overweening confidence that she could not possibly lose to someone she disrespected as much as she did Trump clouded her understanding of his support. Completely discrediting her campaign’s “Stronger Together” mantra, Clinton consigned “half of Trump’s supporters” to a “basket of deplorables” filled with people who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic.” As Pollak and Schweikart point out, her comment echoed the “standard left-wing narrative” embodied eight years earlier when Obama referred condescendingly to voters who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Clinton was so certain of victory that she and her husband bought the house next to the one they own in Chappaqua, New York, to host the Secret Service agents who would surround her as president. After a quarter century as first lady of Arkansas and then of the United States, senator from New York, secretary of state, and an extravagantly paid ($20 million in all, by one account) maker of speeches to Wall Street financial institutions, Clinton had lived in a bubble of power for the past forty years.

Among voters, blue-collar whites, who roughly correspond to the category “non–college educated” in polls, tipped the balance to Trump by turning out to vote at a higher rate than in 2012 and giving him 66 percent of their support. As many as 10 percent of the electorate were “Obama-Trump” voters—Democrats who switched parties from 2012 to 2016 not because of race (racists didn’t vote for the first African-American presidential nominee) but because their economic plight seemed to be getting worse and the culture was disrespecting them.

In addition, so great was white evangelical Christians’ concern about Clinton’s social liberalism and the left-wing Supreme Court justices they expected her to appoint that a record 81 percent of them cast their ballots for the thrice-married, notoriously unfaithful, casino-owning Trump. The election was not “for Sunday School teacher or pastor,” conservative Christian leaders like Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. told fellow evangelicals. Asked in 2011 if they thought “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their private life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life,” only 30 percent of evangelicals said yes. Enamored of Trump when asked the same question in 2016, 72 percent answered in the affirmative.

Meanwhile, despite many Republican leaders’ unhappiness, Trump secured a solid 90 percent of GOP voters. Indeed, if the only information one had about the election was the pattern of voting revealed in exit polls, one might well conclude that it had pitted a mainstream Democrat (which was true) against a mainstream Republican (which was not). To be sure, Trump’s unusually great support among working-class whites is what enabled him to tear down the Democrats’ blue wall, but it mostly extended a movement toward the Republican Party in presidential elections that, although accelerated during the Obama presidency, has been under way since Richard Nixon’s victories in 1968 and 1972. The Midwest, which tipped the balance to Trump, has been trending Republican for at least a decade, as evidenced by the party’s strong majority of governors.

Taken together, these aspects of the 2016 election were enough to get Trump elected but augured poorly for his first year as president. His party’s other leaders felt no sense of personal loyalty to him nor he to them. The opposition party was determined to see him fail. Trump earned none of the goodwill from people who voted against him that traditionally sets the stage for a first-year honeymoon. On top of that, as political scientist Stephen Skowronek has pointed out, Trump took office at the same late stage of “political time” as did Franklin Pierce at the tail end of the Jacksonian era and Jimmy Carter in the waning years of New Deal liberalism. Like these two hapless predecessors, Trump faced the challenge of holding together a crumbling party coalition. In his case the coalition included blue-collar Republicans motivated by conservative social views but opposed to free trade and reductions in (some) entitlement programs, as well as white-collar Republicans who were little concerned about social issues but cared deeply about these conservative economic policies. Held together only by their support for lower taxes and a conservative judiciary, the united Republican party government ended its first year with a tax bill, several conservative judges, a president with historically low public approval ratings, and little else to show for itself.