By Patrick Reddy
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
“Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That ‘maybe it couldn’t,’ but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That ‘cannot be done,’ and you’ll do it.”
– “It Couldn’t Be Done” by Edgar Guest
Donald J. Trump has scored the greatest political upset since Harry Truman’s legendary come-from-behind victory of 1948. CNN reported that most of his staff believed he would lose and only the immediate Trump family predicted victory on Election Day when they voted. He put together a unique coalition of evangelicals in the South, farmers in the heartland and, surprisingly, white workers in the industrial states, running from Western New York to Iowa. He combined traditional Republicans in the rural areas with what used to be called “Reagan Democrats” in the Rust Belt, older white male Democrats of modest means. And perhaps most importantly, Hillary Clinton suffered from reduced margins from black, Hispanic and young voters who were the Democrats’ base. The result was what election guru Nate Silver (who was this century’s best political handicapper) called “the most shocking political development of my lifetime.”
In many ways, the voting patterns were familiar: almost all of the South and Farm Belt went Republican, while much of the Northeast and West went Democratic. The poor and minorities voted Democratic and the wealthy and farmers voted Republican. The cities went Democratic, the farms went Republican and the suburbs were closely divided. (As of this writing, Clinton was ahead in the popular vote, putting her on track to become the fifth presidential candidate in U.S. history to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College.)
But by conventional standards, this was an astonishing election. Trump is the first “pure celebrity” ever elected to national office. Every previous American president has had either government experience or served in the U.S. Army.
According to the networks’ exit poll, voters were distinctly unimpressed with Trump’s personal qualities. More than 60 percent of Americans told the exit poll that they had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, that he wasn’t trustworthy, that he wasn’t qualified to be president, that he didn’t have the right temperament and that his treatment of women bothered them. Granted, these Trump negatives are exaggerated (the exit poll had Clinton winning narrowly), but Trump won in spite of his persona, not because of it.
The only logical conclusion is that older voters so desired change that they didn’t care about Trump’s personal flaws.
With the exception of his border wall that voters opposed by a 54 to 41 percent margin, Trump won on his “hot-button” issues: 63 percent of voters were “bothered” by Clinton’s use of private emails and they voted 70 to 24 percent for Trump.
Another 63 percent thought that the condition of the national economy was poor, and they broke 63 to 31 percent for Trump. And 52 percent of Americans believed that the fight against ISIS was going poorly and they went 70 to 25 percent for Trump. By a 42 to 38 percent margin, voters believed that trade cost more American jobs than were created, Those “protectionists” gave Trump a net five-point national advantage, and that helped tip the balance.
What happened was a huge backlash against political correctness (transgender bathrooms and millionaire athletes denouncing the country), the establishment media (who were almost unanimous in assaulting Trump), the disappointing condition of the country (20 million chronically unemployed men amid a growing heroin problem) and the troubling condition of the world (resurgent Islamic terrorism.)
In no particular order, here were the items that were the making of an upset:
The change factor: Ever since the Iraq War went sour in 2005, over 60 percent of voters have consistently told pollsters that they believed the country was on the wrong track. And voters have consistently acted on that belief, voting for change in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014. Trump capitalizing on that sour mood in 2016 was just the latest example. By a 62 to 33 percent margin, voters thought the country was on the wrong track; they voted 69 to 25 percent for Trump, thus fueling his upset.
The ethnic turnout factor: Due to his charisma and excellent get-out-the-vote operation, Barack Obama received record-breaking support from the nation’s racial minorities: nearly 18 million black votes, over 9 million Hispanics and roughly 3 million Asian/Pacific Islanders. Trump won because he improved from Mitt Romney’s record-low 1 percent of the black vote to about 10 percent. Those black votes lost to Trump counted twice: one out of the Democratic column and one into the Republican camp.
It was easy to predict a slightly lower black turnout also because the excitement of electing the first African-American president could happen only once. Obama carried the black vote by a net 13-point lead nationally. Clinton’s net lead among black voters was “only” 9.6 points, thus erasing almost all of Obama’s national margin of victory from 2012.
Trump appears to have done no worse than Romney with Hispanics and slightly better than Asians, despite his incendiary rhetoric on immigration. Hispanic and Asian turnout was slightly up, but mostly in safe Democratic states like California, Hawaii and New Mexico. But white conservatives increased their turnout by five points and they voted for Trump by 81 to 15 percent.
The “October surprise” factor: Campaigns often turn on unforeseen events like the stock market crash of 2008, the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1980 or Ross Perot’s independent candidacy in 1992. This year, it appears that FBI Director James Comey’s letter in late October that he was considering re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s emails broke her momentum at a crucial time. Prior to that, she had a 4 to 6 percent average lead in the polls. A week later, that lead had dropped to 2 to 3 percent, a fatal decline in an election lost by 1 percent. The exit poll showed that late-deciders broke 49 to 39 percent for Trump, and that sealed the victory.
The “hidden vote” factor: Previous Republican candidates – Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan especially – have run better on Election Day than they did in the polls. Often white male candidates running against women and/or minority candidates will do better than the polls show because some voters are embarrassed to say who they really support. Trump took such a pounding from the establishment media that he was a textbook example of this. Last week, Trump’s campaign manager Kellie Conway asserted that there was a hidden reservoir of Trump support that surveys weren’t detecting. That turned out to be true.
The crumbling “blue wall” factor: All year, Democrats bragged about the “blue wall” of the 18 states plus the District of Columbia that had voted for Democratic nominees at least six times in a row. The Manhattan real estate developer took a wrecking ball to the blue wall, knocking out Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and part of Maine, thus providing his margin of victory in the Electoral College. Some Republican suburbanites crossed over to vote for Clinton, but apparently more white working-class Democrats defected to Trump.
The numbers tell the story: in old industrial areas like Pittsburgh, Erie, Cleveland, Youngstown, Milwaukee and Detroit, Trump averaged a net gain of 12 points – and that tipped crucial Rust Belt states to him. (In Buffalo’s Erie County, the Democratic edge dropped by 11 points compared with 2012). If Clinton had matched Obama in the Northern industrial states, she would have won with 292 electoral votes.
The driving force behind the Trump triumph was the strong feeling among older voters – white voters over age 45 voted 60 percent for Trump – that the country was changing too fast and going too far on social issues and that global trade was also leaving behind too many older workers. Tired of feeling neglected by liberals and the media, they rose up to vote for Trump, perhaps the most dramatic “change agent” ever.
So what happens now? It will be up to President-elect Trump: We sail in uncharted waters. But the problems he will be inheriting are so vast and the country is so divided, he will need much luck and skill to succeed. For the sake of the country, I wish him well.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California and the co-author of “California After Arnold.” He is now working on “21st Century America,” which will be published after the election.