How Donald Trump Became President
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of theories explaining why Trump won in 2016. Most of them are right.
Narratives are determined based on winners. In 2016, Trump narrowly won the presidency over Hillary Clinton. So narrowly, in fact, that if just 0.06% of voters in certain states changed their votes to Hillary, she would have been president. The popular vote was not nearly as close. Clinton got about 2.9 million more votes than Trump, and had a 2.1% margin of victory.
This article could have very easily been about why Donald Trump lost in 2016. We don’t have to imagine the narrative behind a Hillary Clinton victory; many were written before the election. Clinton’s chances of winning before the election were between 70-99%, according to FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times, and the Princeton Election Consortium. Most voters, including almost half of Trump’s own supporters, expected Trump to lose. The odds were in Clinton’s favor, but Trump certainly had a shot. FiveThirtyEight gave Trump about a 3-in-10 chance of becoming president. Yet it felt like Clinton had a much greater chance of victory. Why was that?
Why did we think Trump couldn’t win?
People aren’t good with percentages. When you hear that something has an 85% chance of occurring, that seems like a sure thing. When The New York Times gave Clinton an 85% chance of becoming president, some voters thought that meant Clinton was expected to win 85% of the vote. If a candidate was predicted to capture 85% of the vote they would almost certainly win the election. A poor understanding of odds and percentages contributed to the perception that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for president. FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times, and other election prediction sites have since changed how they express odds of victory; instead of writing that a candidate has a 60% chance of winning an election, they would now say the candidate has a 3-in-5 chance of victory.
Conventional wisdom also contributed to our perception that Clinton would certainly become president. Trump didn’t talk like a president should talk. He didn’t act like a president should act. It was difficult for many Americans to imagine Donald Trump as president of the United States. Nearly 70% of voters thought Hillary would become president, and almost half of Trump supporters thought he was destined to lose the election. For comparison, 93% of Hillary Clinton’s supporters expected her to become president.
“All the polls were wrong!”
One of the Trump supporters that couldn’t believe Trump actually won is televangelist Jim Bakker. I’ll never forget watching his shocked face exclaiming that “all the polls were wrong!” in one of many infamous Vic Berger videos. That’s how most of us were feeling at the time; all of the polls were wrong! The polls weren’t wrong, though, and every time someone says that I can almost hear the “actually…” coming from FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver.
I personally believed that Clinton had the election in the bag until approximately 12:23 PM on Saturday, November 5th, 2016. Just three days before the election. That’s when I saw this snake chart (or whatever you want to call it) on FiveThirtyEight.com.
I’m not sure why I didn’t think Trump could win until seeing that graphic. I know about odds and percentages. On paper, I knew that there was a decent chance that Trump was going to win. But that graphic made it real to me. “The only thing standing between Trump and the presidency is New Hampshire?! Or Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin?!” If Clinton didn’t take any states from Trump, losing just one of those states would cost her the election.
A Trump victory never seemed more possible. Yet three short days later, I was just as shocked as everyone else when Trump won. Even as the night went on, and a Trump victory looked increasingly likely, I still believed that Clinton would pull it out. I never really believed it was possible for a man like Donald Trump to become president. And I say man because if a woman spoke and acted like Trump she would definitely have no shot at becoming president. I’m not alone; most of the country was in shock that night, including many Republicans. So how exactly did Trump pull it off?
How did Trump win?
Think of the 2016 election as a set of scales, with Hillary’s odds of winning on one side and Trump’s on the other. The scales in 2016 were almost perfectly balanced; less than 80,000 people in three states ultimately determined the outcome of the election. Those 80,000 votes made up less than 0.06% of the 137 million votes cast in 2016. With the scales so perfectly balanced, any one issue can potentially tilt the election towards the other candidate.
Not only can any one issue tilt the election, any one issue did tilt the election. There is no singular reason Donald Trump won, yet at the same time there are many singular reasons that Donald Trump won. The scales were perfectly balanced, and tilting them a little further in Hillary’s direction would have made her president.
I think it’s fair to say that there were many factors going against Hillary and there were many factors in Trump’s favor, and I think the cause of the 2016 election results can be divided into two categories: reasons Hillary lost and reasons Trump won.
Reasons Hillary lost (in no particular order)
1. The “deplorables” comment
I’ve seen speculation that Hillary’s “deplorables” comment cost her the election. It probably did. That one comment represented much of what voters didn’t like about Hillary; she appeared elitist and thought she was better than them. It’s quite possible that if she never said that, some Trump voters never would have voted.
Hillary also lost because she was a woman. 13% of voters believe that men are better suited for politics than women, and most of those voters presumably prefer a man to be president. Democrats really believed that Hillary lost because she was a woman, so much so that they nominated an old white man accused of sexual assault to run for president four years later. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? Or something like that.
3. Her emails
James Comey cost Hillary Clinton the election. In an effort to seem fair and unbiased, the investigation into Hillary’s emails was covered in the media and investigated much more thoroughly than it probably would have been otherwise. Without the focus on her emails, Clinton probably would have won the election. After all, she only needed 0.06% of voters to change their mind.
4. Bernie Sanders
If Hillary ran in the primary unopposed, she probably would have won the general election. Bernie Sanders exposed some of her weaknesses, and some of his supporters didn’t vote for her in November. It’s difficult to fault Bernie Sanders for wanting to make the country a better place, though, and Trump had a horde of Republican challengers and he managed to pull off the victory. Still, it is probably safe to say that without Bernie Sanders running against her, Hillary would have won.
5. She was a boring candidate
Hillary lost because she didn’t generate the same excitement and turnout that Obama did. She ran a traditional campaign that failed to generate energy and excitement like Trump’s campaign or even Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Black voters, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary, turned out significantly less in 2016 than they had in 2012. A more exciting candidate, or even a more exciting running mate (has anyone not from Virginia heard Tim Kaine’s name once since 2016?), would have cost Trump the election.
Obama cost Hillary the election (but not in the way you think). Election cycles tend to swing back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. Hillary was running to succeed a Democrat who had been in office for eight years. Obama was more popular than Trump overall, but was still very unpopular amongst Republicans. If Hillary was running to succeed a Republican president, she probably would have won. Some folks in this country swing back and forth between voting Republican and Democrat, and some voters that cast ballots for Obama in 2008 or 2012 were ready for a change.
Russia has been discussed ad nauseam as it relates to the 2016 election. It is much easier for Democrats to blame a foreign country than it is to blame Hillary or themselves for costing Hillary the election, and they aren’t wrong; without Russian interference, Hillary probably would have become president. A bipartisan panel, chaired by insider trader and Republican Richard Burr, recently confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win.
Reasons Trump won (again, in no particular order)
1. A superior electoral college strategy
Hillary Clinton lost the Wisconsin Democratic primary in April of 2016, and never once visited the state to campaign for the general election. She needed to carry Wisconsin to win the election, but paid it no mind. The states Clinton focused on were close, but not ones that she necessarily needed to win. Trump focused on tipping-point states and didn’t take anything for granted.
2. Energized voters
Trump’s core supporters weren’t just glad to vote for him, they were thrilled. He was coming to drain the swamp. He talked like no other politician, and won voters over who would have otherwise not voted. People were excited for Trump because he was an unknown; with Hillary, voters knew they were getting four or eight more years of the status quo. Trump promised to change the system. He tapped into the frustration that many voters felt - politicians didn’t understand their needs. Trump convinced voters he did, and it helped him become president.
Many evangelical Christians weren’t happy to be voting for Trump. He uses crass language and often makes fun of political opponents. No one is off-limits; he’s guilty of mocking a disabled reporter. He’s sexist and misogynistic, racist and bigoted. Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women. Despite all this, 81% of white, evangelical Christians voted for Trump. 41% of Trump supporters said abortion was “very important” to their vote. Many evangelicals may not have liked Trump, but would rather vote for the candidate that shared their views on abortion.
Trump’s priority is the economy. He’s a businessman, and many voters believed he would be better suited to run the economy than Hillary. He isn’t afraid to give tax breaks to corporations, and all it takes is one glance at his Twitter feed to see that he is focused on the stock market and the economy. 90% of Trump supporters said the economy was “very important” to their vote, compared to just 80% of Clinton supporters. It’s likely his perceived economic acumen led to his victory in 2016.
5. The wall
Trump’s biggest campaign promise was undoubtedly the wall. Surprisingly, a majority of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of border protection, including over 25% of Democrats. Immigration was a much more important issue for Trump supporters; 79% said it was “very important,” compared to only 65% of Clinton supporters. It is likely that Trump’s stance on immigration won over enough voters to win him the election.
6. He is entertaining
Presidential debates unfortunately seem to be more for entertainment than they are for information. Trump was made for television; he is charismatic, confident, and entertaining. Those qualities convinced many voters to overlook negative qualities, such as how often he lies and troubling racist and sexist remarks. Trump likely would not have won the election without his charismatic personality.
Here’s an exercise to prove it: imagine Trump is an uncharismatic, out-of-touch older man who tried to connect with young voters by begging them to Pokémon Go to the polls in 2016. Does he still win the election? Probably not. Our perception of a candidate’s personality can influence our vote more than we’d like to admit.
7. A lack of political correctness
It cannot be overstated how much some voters, especially Republicans, despise political correctness. I don’t think there’s anything Trump is afraid to say, a quality which some people find refreshing. He says out loud what many of his supporters are thinking, and often comes across as racist and sexist. To Trump voters, though, he’s just telling it like it is. He isn’t afraid of offending anyone, especially not liberal snowflakes.
We want simple answers to why Hillary lost. I could write about how sexism cost Hillary Clinton the election and be absolutely right. I could write about how Trump energizing voters carried him to victory and be just as correct. The election was so close that if we took away any one factor that significantly hurt Hillary or one factor that benefitted Trump, we may have a different president right now. There are just as many reasons - if not more, since Hillary won the popular vote - why Hillary should have won and why Trump should have lost as there are the opposite.
Narratives are determined by winners, though, so this article is about how Donald Trump became president of the United States.
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