The long wait is finally over. We now know that Republican Donald Trump will succeed Barack Obama, to become the 45th President of the United States. Considering his deep unpopularity, why did Donald Trump win the 2016 US Presidential Election?
This election cycle was perhaps the most bitter in history. The two candidates and their supporters turned increasingly nasty, as polling day grew closer. This situation was compounded by a number of scandals including, most recently, the release of a videotape showing Trump bragging about grabbing ladies by their private parts and the re-opening of the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails, which dented her lead in national polls.
Before the third Presidential debate, Hillary was beating Donald resoundingly. The fallout from the FBI’s decision to re-open their investigation narrowed the former Secretary of State’s lead over her rival, although evidence suggests that even before this event, the race had started to tighten. On Sunday, the FBI confirmed that Clinton did not act criminally, handing a last-minute reprieve to the Democrat. According to the Huffington Post, Clinton’s lead over Trump held steady, at around four points, going into polling day. .
The results started coming in not-long after the polls closed. At first, it looked as though things would play out as normal, with states like New York and Louisiana voting for the party they have backed in the last few election cycles. The night took a sudden turn, however, when critical swing state Ohio went to Donald Trump, signalling a wave.
After Ohio, other key swing states like Florida and North Carolina backed the billionaire. It soon became clear that Clinton needed to win Pennsylvania, as well as Mid-Western states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, to triumph. Eventually, Trump took Pennsylvania and then the Republican won Wisconsin, putting him past the threshold for victory, 270 out of 530 Electoral College votes. As things stand, the BBC writes, Trump has 279 Electoral College votes, with some states e.g. Michigan, yet to announce their results.
Following tradition, Clinton called Trump to concede victory, after it became clear that he had enough Electoral College votes to win. Minutes after Clinton’s call, Trump gave his victory speech, striking a notably-more conciliatory tone that the one he used throughout his campaign. Speaking to his supporters, the President-elect called for people across the US to “come together,” adding that he would be a President “for all Americans.”
Trump’s victory begs the question, how on earth did a candidate who was so unpopular become the 45th President of the United States of America? Throughout his campaign, the GOP candidate called “some” Mexicans “rapists” and “murderers,” insulted women, denigrated prisoners of war and proposed temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country. Shouldn’t Trump’s divisive rhetoric have barred him from the Oval Office?
Donald Trump, ABC’s exit poll analysis shows, is seen unfavourably by 61% of voters. The billionaire’s saving grace, however, was that Clinton was almost as unpopular among voters as he was, with 54% seeing her unfavourably. Meanwhile a majority of voters believe that both Clinton and Trump are neither honest nor trustworthy, at 59% and 65% respectively. But Clinton was marginally more popular among the US electorate, so how did her rival beat the former Secretary of State, to become President-elect Trump?
On the night, CNN’s Vann Jones noted that this contest “was a white-lash against a changing country.” Within a few decades, the US will become a minority-majority nation. Since the election of the US’ first African-American President, whites have increasingly displayed their discomfort with this trend, with many on the right becoming birthers for example. In other words this section of the electorate has increasingly expressed concerns that the US is moving away from Judeo-Christian (i.e. white European) values and Trump capitalised on this trend, promising to restrict immigration and hold back globalisation.
With this strategy, Trump whipped up support among whites, which paid off. According to data quoted by the BBC, the businessman took 58% of the white vote. As whites comprised 70% of the electorate, this was a major asset to Trump and Clinton needed to win minority electorates by very wide margins, to overcome this deficit. Hillary earned 88% of the African American vote, but could not match Obama’s support among this demographic in 2012, which was 93%. Coupled with lower support from latinos, compared to 2012, the white vote held more significance in 2016, securing Trump’s victory.
Trump’s success can also be ascribed to his economic populist policies. During his campaign, the billionaire pledged to overturn global trade agreements such as NAFTA, which many ordinary people feel have taken jobs away from average Americans. The Republican also promised to cut taxes, always a winner and impose high tariffs on Chinese imports, to create a more level playing field for American workers and small businesses.
This message resonated with non-college educated white Americans. The nation’s sluggish economic recovery has primarily benefited the top tenth of the top 1% of society. In contrast many non-college educated whites feel as though they have not benefited at all. This was especially true in majority-white Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, where people feel that the manufacturing jobs that they could once rely on, are slowly being outsourced to countries like China, where companies can access cheaper labour.
The GOP candidate’s economic populism served as a major asset on election day. Trump secured the votes of around 70% of non-college educated white men and roughly 60% of non-educated white women. Due to Trump’s pledge to bring manufacturing jobs back home, he swept to victory in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, which all went Democratic in at least the last two Presidential elections.
Donald Trump won the election because he read the public mood far more effectively than Clinton. The billionaire cast himself as an in-experienced people’s champion fighting against elites like Hillary Clinton, who are career politicians. This struck a chord with non-college educated whites, who feel like they have been left behind by an increasingly globalised society and ignored by the politicians in Washington D.C, who even many liberals view as corrupt. Tapping into this anger, Trump promised to “make America great again” for people who stopped believing that the US could be great for them a long time ago and their thirst for change carried him to the door of the White House.
In this way, Donald Trump – the ultimate outsider, tapped into a rising trend which is reshaping politics not just in America, but all over the world. We saw a similar phenomenon when the UK voted to leave the EU. During this contest, working class Britons struck back against a political elite which they believe doesn’t care about them. Trump’s victory and Brexit should serve as a wake-up call to all of us who want to create a better, more inclusive society. We have a fierce fight ahead of us and in 2016, we lost major ground. By choosing people like Hillary Clinton to be our standard bearers, we convinced some voters that we too are part of the establishment, which they feel left them behind.