I am writing this on the morning after election day, before I've had much opportunity to digest what just happened. All I can say is ... wow!
Donald Trump defied expectations all along the way. When he announced his candidacy, no one saw him as the ultimate winner. There is even good evidence that Trump himself never expected to win even the nomination when he first announced. He simply wanted publicity.
He defied all predictions when he won the Republican nomination over many more credible opponents who had much better traditional credentials. He managed to defy all conventional wisdom to win the primaries, only to face the conventional wisdom that such a divisive candidate, who could not even unify his own party, could never win the election.
Trump never received the endorsements of most leading Republican politicians. Those he did get were usually qualified and half-hearted. All former Republican Presidents and Presidential candidates boycotted his convention, with the single exception of Robert Dole (who did not even speak a the convention). Candidate Trump had an ongoing open feud with Republican Speaker Ryan. Senate Leader McConnell mostly stayed quiet. Leading Conservative Pundits supported Clinton, some (like George Will) even quit the party over Trump's nomination.
Trump never got massive contributions, raising only a little over $100 million in individual contributions. He contributed another $50 million himself. By comparison, Clinton raised over $350 million in individual contributions. When you consider outside PACs, Clinton had over $200 million spend on her behalf while Trump had only around $60 billion. Final numbers are not in yet, so these may shift somewhat. But it is clear that Clinton outspent Trump by more than 2 to 1. Once again this proves that money is not decisive in politics.
I must admit that I personally scoffed and the Trump campaign's inability to work with the RNC, to do professional poll tracking, or to put together any serious "get out the vote" campaign machinery.
Trump continued to remain behind in the polls on election day. Yet as they received actual voting results, it quickly became clear that Trump was doing much better than expected. Florida and North Carolina, which had been trending Clinton, went for Trump. Virginia, which had been solidly Clinton in all polls, almost went for Trump. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which had been solidly pro-Clinton in all polls did go for Trump. New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota are still too close to call, but it appears Trump may win at least two of those States, which polls all indicated for Clinton. Minnesota is the only State in the Union to have voted consistently Democratic for forty years.
The question that campaign professionals and pundits will be asking for years is how did Trump do it? How did his unconventional campaign lead to victory?
Clinton Could not Unite America
Part of the reason has to be a weak opponent. Hillary Clinton came out of a divided primary, contested up until the Convention. More importantly though, Clinton has been under attack by the "vast right wing conspiracy" for over thirty years. Some will argue the attacks are justified, some not, but there is no doubt that the attacks have had their impact on her reputation. Even many Clinton supporters see her as a deeply flawed candidate.
More than that though, Trump had the ability to motivate white working class voters in a way that no Presidential candidate has since Ronald Reagan. I think when we look closer at the numbers, we will see that this demographic turned out in record numbers, blowing away old state by state models for victory. Personally, I find it ironic that both Reagan and Trump won this group in part based on a message of tax cuts for the rich, meaning the working classes would pay a higher percentage of taxes overall. That said, they seemed to connect with this group on both an emotional level as well as a policy level. Trump's promise to bring back jobs by renegotiating trade deals and expelling immigrants seems to have resonated particularly well in the mid-west, the most important swing-region in modern elections.
Some will credit or blame the victory on October surprises. This election certainly saw its share of those. Wikileaks released information about Clinton's speeches to Wall Street, unflattering strategy emails about the campaign, and other information that further soured voters. Probably most devastating though was the ill timed decision of FBI Directory Comey to announce he had re-opened the investigation into Clinton's private email server. Even though he also announced that he was closing it again a week later, days before the election, it forced the discussion of the final week to be about an issue that had been dragging down Clinton for months.
Trump, of course, overcame October surprises of his own, including the recording where he talked about molesting women, and the numerous women who came forward to confirm his activities. That seemed to have some impact on his campaign, but clearly not a fatal one. Once again, Americans had made clear they just don't care if their President sleeps around.
Long Term Trends
It is too early to assess exactly what factors most contributed to Trump's victory. US voters have consistently rejected leaving either party in office too long. Since WWII, voters have consistently changed the party in the White House every eight years except one (1980). If you exclude Presidents who took office following the death of their predecessor, no Democrat has followed a two term Democrat since Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson way back in 1837. Voters like change and Trump was the change candidate.
A Trump Presidency
Democrats are understandably stunned and some terrified at the notion of a Trump Presidency. I say one has to keep these things in perspective. Historically, much of the country thought the nation was coming to an end when Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan were elected. All of those presidencies worked out well for the country. Many of those presidents did things that the opposition hated, but the nation as a whole continued to grow and thrive. Presidents have a way of rising to the occasion, even if we did not expect it from their earlier behavior.
Sure, there will be some changes that Democrats don't like. Obamacare will almost certainly be repealed and replaced with something (I'm not sure what will replace it, but we're told it's going to be just amazing). There may be some crazy tax cuts for the rich. In the end though, a powerful and stable democracy like the United States will remain much the same. President Trump will lead one branch of government. He still has to work with Congress. Even though there are Republican majorities in both houses, men like Speaker Ryan will serve as a check on any of President Trump's crazier notions. A Supreme Court will also hold back any attempted end runs around the Constitution.
I congratulate President-elect Trump on his surprise victory. May you continue to defy the pundits and have a Presidency worth of our great country.