How Trump Won
The Republican nominee put together a coalition of non-college-educated, non-urban voters—and they turned out for him with tremendous enthusiasm.
The places that feel most left behind in a changing America propelled Donald Trump to a stunning victory over Hillary Clinton Tuesday night.
In his unexpected win, Trump mobilized enormous margins among rural and exurban voters, and crushing advantages among blue-collar whites. In several cases, he prevented Clinton from making as many gains among college-educated white voters as seemed possible. That allowed Trump to overcome Clinton’s strong performance among minority voters and college-educated white women.
Trump’s winning map underscored the risk Clinton faced pouring disproportionately so many more resources into her insurance states than in some of the core states in her campaign’s preferred path to 270 electoral college votes. As I noted last week, Clinton invested about $180 million in television ads in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio through the end of October—and yet, in the end, lost all three. By comparison, over that period she spent only around $16 million in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Colorado; the third seemed safely in her hands as the evening progressed, but Wisconsin slipped away and Michigan wobbled, and with them went her advantage in the Electoral College.
Trump held the traditionally Republican states—he won all of the states Mitt Romney won in 2012—and did exactly what his campaign had predicted for months: battered through the Democratic defenses in the Midwest.
At the same time he repelled her push into the Sunbelt. As I wrote on Election Day:
The worst-case scenario for her is that Trump’s blue-collar blitz narrowly pushes him past her in some of the Rustbelt states she needs, while she cannot advance quite enough among minority and college-educated white voters to overcome his non-college-educated, non-urban, religiously devout coalition in Sunbelt states like North Carolina, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, much less Arizona and Georgia. Transitioning between her party’s past and future, Hillary Clinton’s nightmare is that she might be caught awkwardly in between.
For Trump the key to that pincer move was his remarkable success among white working class voters
As polls had predicted for months, the Trump coalition was centered on white voters without a college education. Exit polls posted on CNN.com showed him crushing Clinton among those voters by enormous margins almost everywhere, particularly in the South. Trump beat Clinton among non-college whites by 18 percentage points in New Hampshire, 21 in Colorado, 22 in Arizona, 24 points in Wisconsin, 31 points in Michigan, and 35 points in Missouri. The margin swelled to enormous margins in Southern states: 34 points in Florida, 40 points in North Carolina, fully 64 points in Georgia. Even in states where Clinton ran well overall, like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington, Trump’s margins among blue-collar whites were enormous.
In several cases, those showings represented significant declines for Clinton relative to Obama in 2012. According to the exit polls as of around 10 p.m., her share of the vote among non-college whites, relative to Obama’s showing in 2012, fell 14 points in Maine, 13 points in Michigan, 12 points in New Hampshire, 11 points in Colorado, 10 points in Wisconsin, nine points in Pennsylvania, and six points in Florida. It didn’t change much in key Southern states such as Virginia and North Carolina only because Obama’s number was so low in the first place. The national exit poll, as of 3 a.m., showed Trump beating Clinton among non-college whites by a stunning 39 percentage points—even larger than Ronald Reagan's margin against Walter Mondale during his landslide victory in 1984.
In some traditionally Democratic states, Clinton was able to overcome this surge with strong performances among minority voters and college-educated whites. The exit polls gave her 55 percent of college whites in New Jersey and Wisconsin, 54 percent in New Hampshire, and 51 percent in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Compared to Obama, she improved the Democratic showing among college-educated whites in Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. But in other key battlegrounds like Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Ohio she only essentially matched his performance; in Florida she slipped slightly among the white-collar whites. Overall, the national exit poll showed her improving among college-educated whites over Obama in 2012, but only by three percentage points, and losing them narrowly to Trump. (As a result, the record of no Democrat ever winning most college-educated whites remained intact.) Despite strong performances among minority voters, that left her with too narrow a coalition to withstand the Trump blue-collar surge.
In so many states, the map exposed Clinton with the same risk: death by a thousand cuts. Trump ran up big, sometimes unprecedented margins, in small places in states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio. Steve Schale, a long-time Democratic strategist in Florida, encapsulated the problem Clinton faced in many states when he tweeted: “This is pretty remarkable - in 41 counties in Florida, Trump's share is better than the best share that any R has gotten since 2000.”
In many states the county-by-county results showed a few blue dots in metropolitan areas, surrounded by a sea of red in between. In Pennsylvania, Clinton was leading only in the Southeast corner of the state, as well as Pittsburgh, with Trump romping in between. Wisconsin showed the same pattern of blue dots around Milwaukee and Madison surrounded by a red sea. Northern Virginia, Richmond, and the Norfolk area represented Clinton’s only islands on another red sea that washed across Virginia. Outside of Detroit, the map was almost uniformly red across Michigan, another must-win for Clinton.
In a few areas, Trump also posted modest gains in key suburban counties. For instance, he held Clinton slightly below the Obama showing in Florida’s Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, and Oakland County outside of Detroit, and made bigger gains in Forida’s Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg.
Yet that was not the dominant pattern: results as of about midnight eastern showed he lost ground, for instance, in two of the key suburban counties outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Waukesha and Washington). Clinton improved slightly over Obama in Virginia’s Henrico County (outside Richmond) and Fairfax and Loudon Counties (outside of Washington, D.C.). The big suburban counties outside Philadelphia appeared on track to provide Clinton a substantially larger margin that they did Obama in 2012 (though not quite as much as they did in 2008).
Yet this did not prove enough, in enough places, to withstand the non-college and non-urban surge for Trump. Blue-collar counties in the key Rustbelt states turned sharply toward Trump. In LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Obama won 58 percent of the vote in 2012; Clinton dropped to 44 percent in results as of around midnight; in Racine she fell from Obama’s 51 percent to just 37 percent. Even in Pennsylvania, her vote share in Erie fell to 47 percent, down from Obama’s 58 percent; in Lackawana (Scranton) she dipped to almost exactly 50 percent, down from Obama’s 63 percent last time. In Macomb County outside Detroit, renowned as the birthplace of the Reagan Democrats, Clinton skidded from Obama’s 52 percent to just 41 percent as of midnight.
In an election that became virtually a cultural civil war between two Americas, Trump’s side proved much more enthusiastic and united than Clinton’s. And it has now propelled America into an unexpected, and perhaps, unprecedented, experiment.