How It Happened

Election night, Times Square, New York City, November 8, 2016
Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos
Election night, Times Square, New York City, November 8, 2016

In late September, I ran into Newt Gingrich and, out of curiosity, I asked him how he thought the election would turn out. “There’ll be a surge for Trump at the end,” he said. “There’s only so far that Hillary can go; too many people don’t like her.” I dismissed this as spin, forgetting that for all his erratic nature Gingrich is a bit of a visionary. Until it happened in 1994, no one outside his small circle believed that he could turn the House of Representatives—in Democratic hands for forty years—into a Republican bastion; hardly anyone took seriously the idea that Gingrich, the rowdy back-bencher, could become speaker. How deeply he believed what he told me about Trump’s chances, I didn’t and still don’t know, but I think my reaction suggests how a great many people thought about this election, up until Tuesday evening: no way it could happen. So it wouldn’t.

People looking for “the reason” Clinton failed in her long-planned effort to become the nation’s first female president are looking for the wrong thing. Elections are complicated and a lot of factors come into play, some barely or not at all discernable. Clinton lost her historic race for a combination of reasons, some almost accidental—falling not many votes short in a given state; the unexpected intervention of the FBI, driven by a collection of agents with longstanding hatred of the Clintons.

The polls are taking a beating now and there’ll be studies of what went wrong till kingdom come. Toward the end of the campaign, the one poll that had Trump ahead—USC/Los Angeles Times Daybreak tracking poll, which showed him in front at various times when no one else did, and in the end predicted he would win—was widely dismissed as an “outlier,” since it didn’t conform to the other polls, and what almost everyone else believed. The difference between its methodology and that of the others is that it tried to gauge the respondents’ commitment to the candidate and the certainty that they’d vote. A McClatchy/ Marist poll of likely voters taken on November 1–3 was close to the mark, finding that Clinton led Trump by only one point in a four-way race and by two points when just the two were matched. That on election day Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight also had the race closer than others did led many to assume he was getting it wrong.

But in much of the astonished comment about the outcome, Trump’s victory became inflated beyond what it actually was: this wasn’t the Reagan sweep of 1980. His victory was nowhere near the size of Reagan’s and it had little effect on down-ballot candidates. Clinton won the popular vote but not by an overwhelming number—by the latest count she won 400,000 more votes than Trump, who got fewer votes than either Mitt Romney or John McCain. [By Thanksgiving Clinton’s lead in the popular vote had grown to over 2 million.]

It was the state polls that threw off the predictions for the Electoral College vote, where Clinton lost the race. The actual results in some states reflected what was happening at the national level, a close election: Clinton won Colorado, Minnesota, and Nevada by two points and Trump won Florida by one; Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 30,000 votes. Clinton won New Hampshire by one point. It would appear that far greater resources and experience are poured into national polls than into the state polls. Rural voters in particular, who voted overwhelmingly for Trump, were underrepresented in the state polls (Pennsylvania, for example). From the state polls came the stunning miscalculations that Clinton might get more than three hundred electoral votes, when her actual total was 228 to Trump’s 279. [The final Electoral College margin was 306 for Trump to 232 for Clinton.]

The Latino vote did keep Colorado and Nevada, both of them swing states, in the Democratic column. But despite the apparently dramatic surge of Hispanics voting for Clinton in the early voting, she got a lower percentage of them than Obama did in 2012, while somewhat inexplicably Trump managed to get 29 percent, more than Mitt Romney got in 2012. There might have been something of a backlash to Obama’s recognition of Cuba. Clinton should have been expected to do worse than Obama had among blacks, but in doing eight points worse she was badly damaged.

Then there was the effect of the third parties. According to exit polls, as was feared by the Clinton campaign, nearly 10 percent of millennials voted for third-party candidates. (Bernie Sanders’s efforts to persuade the millennials to vote for Clinton, after having painted her for months as a corrupt creature of Wall Street, weren’t successful enough.) On the reasonable assumption that by far most of those who voted for the third-party candidates would have otherwise gone for Clinton, Gary Johnson, the odd-duck Libertarian, with 3.2 percent of the popular vote, and Jill Stein, of the Green Party, receiving just 1 percent, damaged and perhaps destroyed Clinton’s chances. (Ah, not-so-sweet memories of Florida 2000.) Together they appear to have cost her critical states, though it was Johnson who made the principal difference. The national contest was nearly tied 47.7 percent to 47.4 percent, so Johnson’s and Stein’s combined just over 4 percent tipped the Electoral College Trump’s way.

In Florida, the count as of election night was Trump 49 percent to Clinton’s 48 percent, with Johnson getting more than the difference between the two main candidates, and Johnson and Stein together drawing close to 3 percent of the vote, more than twice that difference. In Pennsylvania, Trump beat Clinton by a mere 67,902 votes, while Johnson got 142,608. In Michigan, Johnson drew more than fourteen times the number of votes that Trump beat Clinton by. And in Wisconsin, the result was 47.9 percent to 46.9 percent in Trump’s favor, while Johnson pulled 3 percent of the vote; Stein also received more votes than the margin of difference between the two main candidates. A CBS News exit poll found that if those who voted for Johnson or Stein had had to choose only between Clinton and Trump they would have supported Clinton by nearly two to one. It’s not a stretch to conclude that, absent the third-party candidates, Hillary Clinton would have won the election.

Throughout the campaign, blinders kept most of us from taking aboard a lot of what we were seeing: Hillary Clinton wasn’t giving people a reason to vote for her. “Stronger together” meant what? It’s been reported that for much of the fall Bill Clinton worried that the leaders of his wife’s campaign were too fixated on their supposedly fearsome get-out-the-vote drive and were failing to craft a coherent message for her, and he chewed on the staff about this. Why Hillary Clinton didn’t develop a message is a puzzle. The reconstructions to come of her campaign should tell us why.

On a different front, we could see that the email server issue was dogging Clinton and we knew that this got at what bothered people most about her: they couldn’t quite trust her; there’d been a slight deviousness about her since her early days at the White House. So when one first heard about the private server, the long-missing billing records from her Arkansas law firm that suddenly turned up in the White House came immediately to mind.

Thus, when the server story hit her, Clinton didn’t have a deep reservoir of trust to draw on—not even much of a shallow one. According to a Pew Research Center poll, when the story broke in March of 2015, about half the country found her honest and trustworthy, hardly a fabulous number but one she never saw again. Three months later, that percentage had slipped to just 37. (For Trump it wasn’t much greater, at 40 percent, but the burden on this matter was on Clinton.) In July of this year, after FBI director James Comey said he wouldn’t prosecute Clinton but also excoriated her for her handling of classified emails, 67 percent of voters—more than two thirds—found Clinton not honest or trustworthy.

In October Trump and his campaign were down in the dumps. Clinton had got a break with the revelation of the Access Hollywood tape, with Trump’s appalling talk about groping women, and by the third week of the month, she had drawn even with him on honesty and trustworthiness. To be considered equal with Trump in being distrusted was actually good news for her, since she’d previously been distrusted by 20 percent more of the electorate. (We failed to notice at the time that a majority also believed that Trump would do better than Clinton in handling the economy.)

Then came FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 letter saying that more emails had been uncovered (though none had been read) that might be relevant to the investigation of Clinton’s private server. Soon after, a survey of four battleground states by the same polling organization, CNN/ORC, found that Clinton now lagged considerably behind Trump in being thought to be honest and trustworthy. (Few of us took notice that the survey also predicted a very tight race in those states.) On election day 60 percent of voters surveyed in NBC’s exit poll said they didn’t consider Clinton honest and trustworthy. I think that this undertow beneath Clinton’s campaign also reflected something else.

That a low estimation of Clinton’s trustworthiness clung to her, in contrast to Trump who lied with almost infinitely greater profligacy, raises questions about the coverage of the two candidates and the relative importance that voters ascribed to their various traits. It was clearly more important to a great many people that Trump’s candidacy promised a break with the past, and that he’d said he would treat the causes of their economic anxiety. Was it also more important to a great many people that Trump was more bellicose about “taking out ISIS” (and that Trump insisted terrorists be called “radical Muslim extremists”)? Or that he was far harsher on immigrants and stated wildly inflated numbers of Syrian refugees that he said Clinton wanted to allow into the country? (On no basis at all, he claimed that she would admit 620,000 Syrian refugees in her first term.) The “moral” of the story may be that if you’re going to lie in the course of a public contest, lie so often that people can’t keep up with you, and they might even see your serial exaggerations and fabrications as part of your charm.

The server underlined another aspect of the Democratic candidate that bothered people—arrogance: people concluded that the Clintons didn’t feel that they needed to play by the same rules other people did. There’s no question that Comey’s sudden intervention in the campaign damaged Clinton. It distracted attention from Trump, where Clinton was trying to keep it, and reminded people why they disliked and couldn’t trust her. Many people have anecdotal evidence of someone who said around that time, “I just can’t vote for her.” The damn spot that the server was on Clinton’s presidential campaign turned out to be deadly.

What had all along been the greatest danger to Clinton was exacerbated by the server: a lack of enthusiasm for her. (I’ve been writing since the fall of 2015 that this is what could bring her down.) Her handling of the emails issue kept working against her (and worried her campaign staff): she started off being dismissive, and then sarcastic: asked in a press conference if she’d wiped her server she replied, “With a cloth?” And her explanations were often legalistic and evasive (“not marked classified at the time”).

The lack of enthusiasm for both candidates, but mainly for Clinton—she got nearly five million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012—resulted in the lowest voter turnout in twenty years, and that, in turn, may have done in Clinton’s candidacy. We can’t know what turnout would have been absent the FBI’s involvement, but it’s clear that many voters simply stayed home. There was a dramatic falloff in Democratic votes from the 2008 election as well as the one in 2012, whereas Republican numbers held steady. And Trump gained the votes of a substantial number of people who’d previously supported Obama—most likely because of his promise to ease their felt economic distress.

Significantly, so-called late deciders went with Trump over Clinton by five points. And while the exit polls indicated that Clinton beat him in union households, they also showed that her margins of victory with these voters were smaller than those of previous Democratic candidates. Clearly, large numbers of workers were attracted by Trump’s promises to renegotiate existing trade deals and to bring American jobs back from abroad. The essential fact is that Trump spoke to the economic anxiety of many in this country (despite falling unemployment rates and slightly increased wages over the month and year before, albeit still low), while Clinton did not. Trump channeled the anger at Washington institutions that particularly the working class felt had failed them, while Clinton came across as the very symbol of those institutions. Though Trump was a wealthy man, his populist message—even the baseball caps—made him seem accessible; Clinton’s wealth—some of it coming from highly paid speeches to Wall Street firms, turned her into the one who was beyond the middle-class workers’ ken. (The Clintons’ greed kept getting them in trouble.)

The most significant among the voting groups in this election was white voters, whom Trump won almost across the board: not just among the working class, as expected, but also among college-educated voters, except for college-educated white women, whom Clinton won by a small margin. Among white men overall, Trump dominated, winning 72 percent of non-college-educated ones and 54 percent of those with a college education. These figures had an important part in Clinton’s losing some critical industrial states to Trump, even if just barely.

For many women voters, culture and class mattered more than gender. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, just 34 percent of women lacking a college education voted for Clinton, as opposed to 62 percent for Trump; whereas Clinton won 51 percent of college educated women, while Trump got 45 percent of them. That Clinton’s gender gave her no particular advantage among women doomed the prospect of our “first female president.” According to political scientist Michael Kesler, writing in The Washington Post, her 12 point margin among female voters was about the same as Obama’s in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, Kesler noted, Trump greatly expanded the Republican margins among men, from 1 and 7 points in 2008 and 2012 respectively, to 12. There was no way Clinton could crash through those numbers to take her expected place in history.

The cultural divide in this election was measured by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, by an innovative method he devised: look at how people voted in the 493 counties that have Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, and in the 184 counties with Whole Foods stores. In 2012 Obama carried 75 percent of the counties that had a Whole Foods and 29 percent of the counties with a Cracker Barrel. But that spread was exceeded this year—in the other direction—with Trump winning 76 percent of counties with Cracker Barrel stores and just 22 percent of counties with Whole Foods.

In an important change from four years ago, only 26 percent of rural voters went for Clinton, in contrast with the 40 percent of them who supported Obama in 2012. Clinton came across to them as an creature from another, urban, world—a wealthy woman who liked big government and didn’t understand them. Her husband knew how to talk to them; he’d grown up around them and he spoke in their idiom. Jenna Johnson, who covered the election for The Washington Post, wrote that it’s not going too far to say that rural voters (presumably white ones) “hate” Hillary Clinton. J. D. Vance, author of the recent and New York Times best-seller Hillbilly Elegy, who grew up poor in Appalachia and went to Yale Law School, has become something of an oracle about the rural poor, a thoughtful one. He uses a critical word in describing how Trump wins the support of so many of his people: relatable. “People who are drawn to Trump are drawn to him because he’s a little outrageous, he’s a little relatable, and fundamentally he is angry and spiteful and critical of the things that people feel anger and spite toward,” Vance has said. “It’s people who are perceived to be powerful. It’s the Hillary Clintons of the world, the Barack Obamas of the world, the Wall Street executives of the world. There just isn’t anyone out there who will talk about the system like it’s completely rigged like Donald Trump does. It’s certainly not something you’re going to hear from Hillary Clinton.”

The election reflected, as Eddie Glaude Jr., the head of Princeton’s African American studies department, put it on Morning Joe the day after the vote, “White America’s last stand.” Minorities are expected to become the majority of this country’s population by 2060, which white supremacist groups, heavily involved in Trump’s campaign, point out. Trump did a good job instilling fear of an America overtaken by immigrants and it didn’t take much imagination to understand his dark prophecies of where, when blacks were also counted, this country was headed. Trump’s presidency won’t be a good time to be poor, especially a black person who is poor. And in Trumpland, with a president who ran a racist campaign, divisions between the races are set to deepen, as already shown in incidents of harassment and violence against minorities since the election.

Trump’s proposals for dealing with the inner cities include nationwide stop-and-frisk policing—so much for local control of police practices. His ideas for education play to those who don’t care for integrated schools and would lessen the power of the teachers unions. His criticism of food stamps, including the usual myths of widespread fraud, plus a Republican Congress, augurs steep cuts in the program; he wants the work requirement for the main welfare program applied to seventy-six other federal aid programs. (The implication that all these are welfare-like programs is misleading.) I should point out that most of Trump’s proposals to deal with the poor and blacks are borrowed from Paul Ryan, the reputed deep thinker about federal policy, including how to “help” the poor. With a like-minded speaker and a Republican Senate and House, Trump is likely to get his way on many of these, or perhaps it should be said that Ryan is more likely to get his, though they may run into stiff Democratic opposition in the Senate.

In her concession speech on Wednesday morning—she just wasn’t up to it in the middle of the night when the results were in—Clinton said, “This is painful and it will be for a long time.” (Standing behind her, Bill Clinton looked stricken.) She probably has no idea how long the pain will last. Richard Nixon’s political hatchet man Murray Chotiner once told me, “I always tell my clients, If you lose, lose big. Then you won’t chew over for the rest of your life what you should have done differently.” The close election is all the harder to shake off. Worst for her, Clinton knew that she herself had to accept a large degree of the blame.

A lot of people in the Clintons’ orbit had been making plans to serve in government again; from time to time informed speculation emanated from the Clinton camp about who were the finalists for which job. But it’s to be Donald Trump’s administration that takes office next January. Shortly before the election there began to be leaks about whom Trump was believed to be considering for top jobs, but within two days of the voting new names were floated. Best, as it always is, to sit back and see whom the new president-elect chooses. A man totally unfamiliar with government has a staggering number of major decisions to make in a very short time. In his meetings in Washington on Thursday with the president and Republican congressional leaders he was given a nearly overwhelming amount of new matters to consider. (His son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had effectively managed the campaign, was by his side.)

When one considers what kind of administration Trump will form, the people he’s had around him in the presidential race and the manner in which he organized his campaign give pause. Trump’s second and final campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, of Breitbart News, pushes the “alt-right” theme of white supremacy and is believed to have been the guiding spirit behind Trump’s chillingly anti-Semetic final campaign ad, which charged that Clinton associated with three people who happen to be prominent Jews: George Soros (“those who control the levers of power in Washington”); Fed chairman Janet Yellen (“global special interests”); and Lloyd Blankfein (“put money into the pockets of large corporations”). It’s hard to see how it could have been more blatant. These weren’t “dog whistles,” they were dogs barking loudly.

Trump’s deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, the guiding spirit behind Citizens United and is an experienced knifer who used to work with Senator Jesse Helms to upset settled foreign policies and strike fear in the State Department, even under a Republican president (Reagan). Trump’s older children, along with Kushner, were highly influential in the campaign and though they may return to the family business (which could cause awkwardness to say the least) they’ll play an important part in his governing: for starters they’ve been named to his transition committee, meaning they’ll have a strong hand in personnel and policies.

Trump has led his followers to expect a lot. He promised to end Obamacare “on day one,” which will be difficult because it was passed by Congress and therefore isn’t his to eliminate. (And President Obama apparently persuaded Trump in their first meeting that the provisions prohibiting refusal to treat pre-existing conditions and allowing parents to cover their children until age twenty-six are highly popular and shouldn’t be eliminated.)

He’s also said that on that busy first day he’d get rid of the Iran deal, which he has called “the worst deal ever negotiated.” He could do that on his own because it was an executive agreement, not a treaty—I’d be surprised if the president hasn’t explained to him that it prevents Iran from making nuclear weapons for at least ten years. Trump has promised to renegotiate trade agreements to get better terms for America, but he might find out that other countries aren’t of a mind to grant the US more than they did in lengthy negotiations. He’s promised to bring back jobs to the US, but he might find that a lot more difficult than he’s suggested. He’s said he’d eliminate pesky regulations—he seems to find most regulations pesky by definition—especially environmental ones, but he’ll find that some of them, such as those aimed at providing clean water and clean air, have more public support than he may know.

So now Donald Trump has won the long contest to be the forty-fifth president of the United States, however unlikely most Americans thought that would be. (And he’s seemed a bit surprised himself.) In probably our most divisive and ugliest election ever, he prevailed in part because he intuited much about the voters’ psyche and he’s an experienced entertainer. His raw canniness helped him mow down a large number of competitors for the nomination and he fought, virtually to the draw, a highly experienced and far better funded general election opponent.

But he did it in enough states to win in the Electoral College; the fact that once again the Electoral College prevailed over the popular vote upsets many Americans, but both sides are on notice that that’s the goal and they conduct their campaigns accordingly. He knew how to appeal to the angry and discontented, who saw in him someone who would “shake up Washington” and deliver on his campaign slogan to “Make America great again.” He’s raised hopes that he can assuage deeply held frustrations. That leaves the ominous question, what happens if Trump fails to deliver to his followers? Who, and what, will they turn to next?


Previous posts in Elizabeth Drew’s series on the 2016 election can be viewed here.