There is rarely one single reason why a presidential candidate wins an election. The results are “overdetermined,” as Freud used to say of the content of dreams. And Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton on November 8 was no exception. Clinton’s extreme vulnerability as a candidate suggests that other Republican challengers besides Trump might have defeated her; but Trump was also able to exploit Clinton’s vulnerabilities and appeal to a disenchanted electorate, some of whom had backed Democrats in prior elections, and would not have readily backed another Republican.
Why Clinton was Vulnerable
Presidential candidates from a party that has held the White House for the prior two terms have an uphill battle winning the White House. That was true of Richard Nixon in 1960, Al Gore in 2000, and John McCain in 2008. And that’s the case even when the incumbent president remains popular, as Eisenhower was in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 2000. The reason is that the candidate is burdened by many grievances against the regime in power that have accumulated over the last eight years and that allow the opposition candidate to run as the agent of change. Even though most Americans now recognize the Eisenhower years as a blessing, John Kennedy could still win on a promise to “get the country moving again.”
Trump was able to exploit that vulnerability with his promise to “make America great again.” And it showed up in the polls in the electorate’s desire for change. Nationally, 39 percent of the electorate –the first choice among four options – said “can bring change” was the quality that mattered most, and they went for Trump by 83 to 14 percent.
Clinton was hobbled by the third term curse. If she sought to distinguish herself clearly from President Obama by promising change, she risked aliening his followers; but if she didn’t distinguish herself from his administration, she appeared merely to offer “more of the same.”
In this election, that meant having to bear the burden of accumulated grievances. Chief among those was discontent with the President’s Affordable Care Act, which was seen by many voters as promising benefits to the poor and uninsured but ignoring or raising the premiums or endangering the benefits (in the case of seniors) of everyone else. The 47 percent of voters who thought Obamacare had “gone too far” went for Trump by 83 to 13 percent.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush defied the third term curse, although at the time of the Republican convention that year he was seventeen points behind Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in the polls. Bush, aided by the late Lee Atwater, was able to hold his Republican base (“read my lips; no new taxes”) and distinguish himself very subtly from Reagan with his promise of a “thousand points of light,” while pinioning his hapless opponent, who promised “competence” rather than “ideology,” with ruthless attacks.
This year, Trump proved anything but hapless, and Clinton ran a campaign that sadly recalled Gore in 2000 and Dukakis in 1988. She was unable to distinguish her own approach from Obama’s – particularly on the explosive issues of Obamacare and immigration. She ran an almost entirely negative campaign focused on her opponents’ bigotry, sexism, and bilious temperament. To the extent that she made promises, her campaign consisted of appeals to particular interest and identity groups and of programs that read like the bullet points in an office memo and simply eluded the greater public.
She also had an unfortunate political history. She couldn’t lay aside decades of real or imaginary scandals. And her candidacy was damaged by FBI director James Comey’s statements about her emails, but no more than Trump’s was damaged by the videotapes and other revelations. She made little, if any, effort to speak to and allay the distrust the voters to whom Trump was appealing. They were a “basket of deplorables.” She and her campaign rested their hopes on the theory, popular among liberals, of a “rising American electorate of the young, minorities, and single woman. But her listless campaign failed to attract the same kind of support from the young and minorities that Obama had won in 2008 and 2012. In Iowa, she broke even among voters 18 to 29, and in Missouri lost them. And her vote among Hispanics fell six points short of Obama’s in 2012.
Much of Trump’s vote, as it turned out, was a vote against Clinton rather than for him or it was a vote for him as a generic Republican who would appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court. The 25 percent of voters who chose a candidate because they “dislike their opponent,” went for Trump by 51 to 39 percent. Those 21 percent who thought Supreme Court appointments were “the most important factor” in their vote went for Trump by 56 to 41 percent. In this respect, a ticket of either Marco Rubio or John Kasich might have also defeated Clinton. Rubio or Kasich probably would have done better among college-educated voters and women than Trump did. And any of Trump’s primary opponents, except perhaps Jeb Bush, could have capitalized on the electorates’ desire for change in Washington. Still, there were special contributions that Trump and his campaign made to the majority that he won.
Trump’s Special Contribution
If Trump had filed off some of the rough edges of his campaign after he had won the nomination in May – in particular, his lashing out at critics, like the Iraqi goldstar parents, or Miss Universe – he probably would have done even better than he did, particularly among women and college-educated voters. In Florida, which Trump won and Romney lost, Trump actually did four percentage points worse among white women than Romney did in 2012.
Where Trump excelled was at exploiting Clinton’s vulnerabilities and the electorate’s desire for change, particularly among the white working and middle class. Trump focused the public’s attention on Clinton’s email scandal and on questions surrounding the Clinton foundation and on her ties to special interests in Washington and Wall Street. Trump also proved successful in getting his own agenda across. Trump, like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Bernie Sanders, is a thematic politician. He understands that campaigns have to built around themes (putting people first, compassionate conservatism) rather than programmatic bullet-points or appeals to specific constituencies.
Trump ran a campaign around the slogan “make America great again” and as a populist clash between the “silent majority” and the “establishment.” His proposals were framed by these themes, making it very easy for voters to grasp what he stood for, even if he didn’t spell out his programs in white papers. He highlighted populist and economic nationalist issues that top Democrats and Republicans had shunned, but that in the wake of the Great Recession had great appeal in key battleground states. Trump did six points better among white working class voters than Romney did in 2012.
He attacked the “bad deals” that the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations had made with Mexico, China, and South Korea and the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama, with Clinton’s support, had negotiated. He also attacked companies like Ford and Nabisco that had been encouraged by these deals to move their plants to Mexico or overseas. Indeed, the deals, which had promised to reduce America’s trade deficit and bring new jobs, had cost jobs throughout the Midwest and parts of the South (like North Carolina and its textile and furniture companies) and were highly unpopular among voters there. In Michigan, for instance, 50 percent of the electorate said trade hurt jobs, and 31 percent that it creates jobs; Trump won the 50 percent by 58 to 36 percent. Clinton belatedly attempted to distance herself from these trade deals, but her altered position, given her past stances, was not credible.
Trump also railed against illegal immigration and proposed limiting legal immigration where it might threaten American jobs. That, again, won support among American voters in states where immigrants had in fact competed with unskilled and semi-skilled workers for jobs and had also burdened public schools and hospitals. He also appealed to many Americans’ opposition to the idea of open or loosely restricted borders. Clinton, who was intent on either exposing Trump’s nativism, failed to counter his criticisms of American immigration policy. Instead, she focused on creating a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
The issue proved to be particularly important to Trump’s candidacy. In Iowa, where employers used legal and illegal immigrants to turn a unionized middle class meatpacking industry into a non-union low-wage occupation, Trump won 81 to 17 percent the votes of people who thought immigration was a key issue. In 2012, Obama easily won Lucerne county in northeastern Pennsylvania, but the area, which is now represented in Congress by an anti-illegal immigrant crusader, went to Trump by 58 to 38 percent.
Finally, Trump attacked the lobbyists and special interests in Washington, promising to “drain the swamp.” The fact that as a billionaire he was able to finance his own campaign and therefore claim to be free of donor influence proved to be a boon to his chances, as it had been to Ross Perot in 1992. Even though Trump refused to release his tax returns, and had a history of shady business dealings, voters judged him to be less corruptible than Clinton. Clinton belatedly proposed limiting the influence of lobbyists in her administration, but like her proposals on trade, her stands seemed belied by her own past statements and practices.
Whatever Trump’s ultimate loyalties and convictions, he spoke to concerns about jobs, wages, runaway shops, competition from low-wage labor abroad and from unskilled immigrants at home, trade deals that primarily benefited American companies but not their workers, and the unchecked power of wealth in Washington that had once been the province of labor Democrats and not of Republicans. In the wake of the Great Recession, many middle and working class Americans shared these concerns. According to the Reuters-Ipsos exit poll, 72 percent agree “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful,” 68 percent agreed that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me,” and 54 percent thought “it is increasingly hard for someone like me to get ahead in America.”
Will Republicans now become the Trump party and hew to his agenda, which alienated the Republican business class and power-brokers in Washington? Will Trump be able to achieve a semblance of bipartisan unity and, as he promised, end the gridlock in Washington? Much will depend on how Trump reconciles what he said and promised on the campaign trail with what he actually does as president. While there is no question that his stands on immigration, runaway shops, and trade had great popular appeal in the election, his actual proposals on these matters will be difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Deport 11 million illegal immigrants? Put selective 35 percent tariffs on particular companies that move their plants out of the US? Threaten China with a 45 percent tariff? Repeal and replace Obamacare without throwing 20 million people into emergency rooms? Appointing protégés of the late Justice Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade?
Trump is a strange duck. While some of his stands on trade, immigration (without the incendiary rhetoric), infrastructure spending and burden sharing by American allies go back decades, his opposition to abortion or to mandated universal health insurance appear to have been adopted in order to win the Republican nomination. If Trump can find a way to keep Republicans in line on Medicare and social security (which he promised to protect) and compromise with the Democrats on Obamacare– and George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan showed that a Republican president can get a Republican Congress to agree even on “big government” proposals – Trump could have a successful presidency. And his majority in Washington could last four years, or even more, given that Republicans have an extremely favorable playing field in the 2018 Senate elections.
But if Trump tries to govern like he campaigned, he will split his own party, and spark a revolt among the opposition that could produce chaos in the country. Which Trump will appear remains to be seen, but for the moment one can only hope that it is the conciliator of his victory speech, and not the incendiary agitator of his campaign that will enter the Oval Office next January.
*John B. Judis is Editor-at-Large for TPM the author of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics.