An election that came with a new surprise every day ended with the biggest one of them all, as Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States in one of the biggest political upsets of all time.
Even as national polls tightened in the final days, Trump’s chances of overtaking Hillary Clinton’s Electoral College advantage seemed nearly impossible according to nearly every media model, poll and pundit. FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton a 71 percent chance of winning. The Huffington Post gave her a 98 percent chance. After most states went their expected route as Tuesday night wore on, the key battleground states fell like dominoes one after another for Trump. Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Iowa all turned red — severely narrowing and eventually cutting off any avenue to a Clinton victory.
So how did he do it? How did he sweep his way to the White House against all odds? And why didn’t we see it coming?
That right there is the first reason. No matter how many times we ended up being wrong, we underestimated Trump’s strength time and time again. From the beginning, no one could take him seriously. Heck, on the day he announced his candidacy, my newspaper never even ran a story on it. After joining a list of 16 other candidates, he surged to the top of the polls.
After every controversial statement he said, we thought he was done. Yet he remained. After every back story emerged that would sink any other candidate, he remained. After a movement in his own party spent millions of dollars to derail his campaign, he held firm. After a scathing review and utter dismissal on national TV from Mitt Romney, he didn’t budge. After we thought he could never win a primary, he won the first three in a row. After we thought he could only win so many, he won every state between New Hampshire to Louisiana. After we thought he had a ceiling, he won the New York primary with 60 percent of the vote. After we thought we would have a contested convention, he won the nomination. And after a tumultuous summer, lackluster debate performances and a swath of damaging October surprises, he left Clinton in the dust, causing the Democrats their largest electoral defeat since Mike Dukakis in 1988.
Trump hardly ever faltered because he developed an incredibly large and loyal base. While known for not being specific on policy, it is actually policy highlights that contributed to his success. His main talking point — building the wall — was actually only the fourth biggest issue for voters Tuesday, according to an ABC News poll. While his harsh stance on immigration earned him and a lot of his supporters criticism as being racist, xenophobic and bigots, the issue that won him over with so many Americans was the classic — jobs and the economy — which still ranked as voters’ top issue on Election Day. There are a lot of areas around the country that haven’t shared the fiscal improvement seen nationally that the federal government touts. And those people in those areas came out for Trump.
The economic pinpoint Trump latched onto and didn’t let go of was trade. Trump has been the unchallenged master of blaming trade deals like NAFTA for closing tens of thousands of factories and shipping jobs overseas over the last few decades, leaving the industrial heartland of the Great Lakes in economic shambles. He has often referenced Carrier air conditioner manufacturing leaving Indianapolis and Ford moving their small car production from Detroit to Mexico. While NAFTA is a vastly complicated affair regardimg its effects on outsourcing, 44 percent of Americans say the deal has been bad for the U.S. economy.
Trump’s constant rhetoric on trade deals and manufacturing job losses touched a sensitive nerve with white blue collar workers in some of the hardest hit areas of the Rust Belt. Many white working class counties in the upper Midwest that heavily voted for Barack Obama in 2012 voted for Trump. In Michigan alone, Trump flipped 12 counties that Obama won four years ago.
And let’s remember, Trump is not the only one that capitalized on trade deals. Bernie Sanders was the Democratic champion of Rust Belt blue collar workers. He was the pioneer opposition to Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, an initiative Clinton called the “gold standard” but throughout the campaign said she opposed it. Sanders ended up winning Wisconsin and Michigan in the Democratic primaries, and as NBC’s Chuck Todd said at the time, those losses for Clinton were “not a red light, but a yellow flashing light.” But on Tuesday, the light didn’t just turn red. The road closed. Democrats often refer to the upper Midwest as their “blue wall,” but Trump’s trade message was able to not just crack it, but tear it down. He carried Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — states that Republicans haven’t won in generations. Those states, along with Ohio, are what put him over the top.
While trade served as an engine, Trump’s most obvious characteristic and appeal — that he was a Washington outsider — proved to be the wheels that drove those working class voters to the polls. For years, presidential candidates have thrown around that title, claiming themselves as one. But never holding any political office is as about as outside as you can get.
Again and again in the primaries, polls found voters wanted an outsider. Not because they were dissatisfied, but because they were downright furious at the federal government. They are mad that the U.S. seems to extend its hand to the rest of the world in a heart beat but leaves its own citizens out in the cold. They feel that Washington has asked everything of them, while giving nothing back. They feel that their representatives have spent too much time telling them what to do and too little time listening.
They are “the forgotten men and women” that Trump has talked about — whether it’s Columbiana County, Ohio, where a 42 percent manufacturing job loss in 14 years has left neighboring Youngstown a depressed shell, or McDowell County, West Virginia, where the life expectancy of adult men is on par with Ethiopia. Trump won both of those counties with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Not all of them want to see walls built or entire groups of people banned. They want someone who isn’t part of the system because they are convinced that those who work in the Capitol have become completely disconnected with the struggles that middle class families endure day after day. And Trump’s opponent was everything he wasn’t. He was an outsider; she had been in politics for decades. She was a carefully spoken politician; he held nothing back. He had a populist backing; she was the symbol of the establishment.
To them, Trump was the solution. They voted for change in 2008 with Obama. In 2016, they voted for change again.
Luke Parsnow is a copy editor and page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88