Election Day was an ugly victory for racism, sexism, and bigotry over harmony, inclusion, and decency. But the exit polling and electoral returns show that Donald Trump owes his improbable win less to prejudice and intolerance than to visceral populist anger that went unnoticed or unheeded by far too many Democrats.
First, the numbers. Despite Trump’s overt sexism and racism, he managed to win over many women and Latinos. White women, for example, voted for Trump over Clinton by a ten-point margin, according to CNN’s exit polling. Depending on which exit poll you believe, Trump may also have won anywhere from 19 percent to an astonishing 29 percent of the Latino vote, despite his virulently anti-Latino rhetoric. Clinton’s supposed bulwark among college-educated voters also failed: White college graduates backed Trump by a 4-point margin, including 45 percent of college-educated white women.
It shouldn’t surprise us that women voted for Trump as strongly as they did: White women also voted for Romney and McCain by similar margins. But Clinton also underperformed Obama’s 2012 showing among Latino women by eight points. Clinton’s gender-based appeal not only backfired among men, but fell flat among many women. In 2016, the suburban, mostly white women Clinton tried hard to court seemingly made their decisions based on other factors.
And race? Per The New York Times’s exit poll, Trump outperformed Mitt Romney among all racial groups surveyed. Most shockingly, Trump gained fewer percentage points among whites than among other blocs of voters. Trump won only 1 percent more white voters than Romney, but bested him by 7 points among blacks, 8 points among Latinos, and 11 points among Asian Americans. These are not the numbers you would expect from a win driven primarily by white supremacist backlash.
The electoral data also debunk the notion of a purely bigotry-based backlash. Trump won the Rust Belt, and with it the presidency, by carrying huge swaths of rural and small-town America whose voters had twice cast ballots for Barack Hussein Obama. The prevailing theory that Obama’s eight-year presidency generated a racist backlash doesn’t hold up, given that the same white voters who twice elected him this year abandoned Hilary Clinton.
Sexism may well have helped elect Trump, but that doesn’t explain why a large number of educated, unmarried women voted for him. Moreover, sexism didn’t seem to hurt the four women of color elected to the U.S. Senate, and the significant victories that female candidates enjoyed in both congressional and state and local races, including a surprise upset in California’s 44th district. By contrast, centrist Democratic white men, like Senate hopefuls Evan Bayh in Indiana, and Florida’s Patrick Murphy went down in flames. If this was an election dominated by sexism, that didn’t show up down-ballot.
Rather, the most telling number this year was voter income—and yes, economic anxiety. Partly because of their support from minority voters disadvantaged by institutionalized racism, Democrats do still win overall with low-income voters. But the key lies in the difference between 2016 and 2012: Trump did better with this bloc than Romney had in 2012. Despite several unconvincing and contorted analyses suggesting that Trump’s voters did not suffer from economic hardship, in the end Trump enjoyed a 16-point advantage over Romney among those earning less than $30,000 a year. He also performed 8 points better than Romney among those making $30,000 to $50,000 annually. Clinton, by contrast, performed better among wealthier voters than Obama had, with those in the $100,000- to $200,000-a-year income bracket shifting 9 points in her direction.
Predictably, Trump also won over the anti-free trade crowd. While opposition to free trade deals has long been winning territory for liberals and disaffected independents, CNN’s exit polling shows that Trump led with free trade opponents by 35 points. Clinton, in the meantime, won free trade enthusiasts by similar margins. This undoubtedly hurt Clinton with Rust Belt independents and with rankled Bernie Sanders primary voters.
And then there’s voter turnout. Despite Clinton’s much-vaunted turnout operation, Democrats simply did not have the enthusiasm to vote that they had in previous years, for whatever reason. Regardless of what may have driven Trump voters emotionally, overall turnout was down, particularly among core Democratic groups. Trump received 1.2 million fewer votes than Mitt Romney and 300,000 less than John McCain, but Clinton received a full 10 million fewer votes than Obama had in 2008. Nor can that be blamed on Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders supporters, as Democratic turnout appears to have suffered across the board, including among such core Democratic constituencies as African Americans. We’ll save speculation on why for another day, but the downturn can hardly be blamed on bigoted backlash.
No matter voters’ motives, Democrats also simply misread demographic trends. Despite the fact that the emerging Democratic coalition is numerically ascendant, there are still too many older white voters in the Rust Belt, and not enough younger voters of color in the Sun Belt to guarantee Democrats the presidency based on a coalition of educated and minority voters. To overcome Republicans’ appeal to white identity politics, Democrats must broaden their coalition with universal appeals to economic equity.
Finally, it’s worth noting that liberal populist ballot measures won big in much of America, including in red and purple states. Paid sick leave laws passed in Arizona and Washington state. New minimum wage laws were enacted in four states (Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and Washington state), even as seven states loosened marijuana laws. South Dakotans passed a cap on interest rates on payday loans. Gun control measures passed all along the West Coast, and came very close to winning in Maine. Californians enacted a wide array of progressive reforms via ballot initiative. It’s clear that there is still a hunger for issue-oriented progressive politics in America.
But it was Trump, not Clinton, who capitalized on much of voters’ populist sentiment. That Donald Trump’s policies on finance and energy don’t match the “bring our jobs back” populism on which he centered his campaign isn’t surprising: Trump has been a successful con artist his entire life, and most voters don’t delve into an election’s policy details. Most only knew that Trump promised to “make America great again,” while Clinton, despite her gender, seemed to symbolize the status quo.
Yes, the anti-establishment rage that gave rise to Trump was stained with ugly bigotry that will damage the nation for years to come. And Clinton’s racial unity message may have stirred white fears that it would come at their expense, with little in return. But that’s not the whole story of this election. Trump won in part because Democrats at the highest levels failed to understand the mood of the electorate, and now the entire country is paying the price.