The 2016 election: A post-mortem

By Marty Rochester

We are all still recovering from the shock of the 2016 presidential election. Virtually nobody, including the leading political scientists in the country, predicted the outcome that saw Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. We are left with deciphering the meaning of the election, both explaining how it could have happened and guessing what it portends for the future.  

First, let’s look at the raw numbers. For only the fifth time in American history (it happened most recently in 2000), the candidate who won the most popular votes failed to get a majority of electoral votes and thus was denied the presidency. Clinton edged out Trump in the popular vote total by roughly a million votes of the over 120 million votes cast, but Trump received the necessary 270 electoral votes to win.

The reigning guru of political prognosticators, Nate Silver, had forecast the night before the election that Hillary had a 71 percent chance of winning, predicting she would do so comfortably by almost 4 percentage points and get over 300 electoral votes.  As inaccurate as his prediction was, it was better than most of his rivals, who had envisioned an even worse Republican downfall.  

Exit-poll data showed deep divisions based on race, gender  and education, as was expected:  

• Men preferred Trump by 12 percentage points (53 percent vs. 41 percent), while women preferred Clinton by the same margin (54 percent vs. 42 percent).

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• Trump received 58 percent of white votes, while 88 percent of blacks, 65 percent of Hispanics and 65 percent of Asians voted for Clinton. 

• Trump attracted the least educated (no college) voters by a margin of 9 percentage points, while at the other end Clinton had an advantage of 11 percentage points among those completing postgraduate work with advanced degrees. 

• Trump appealed to older voters, holding an edge of 9 points over his opponent among those 45 years of age and older, with Clinton advantaged by 18 points among those 18-29 and 8 points among those 30-44.

• Trump won a majority of the Protestant and Catholic vote (58 percent and 52 percent), while Clinton got 71 percent of the Jewish vote.

• Trump and Clinton were roughly even in the suburbs, with Trump dominating in rural areas and small towns by a margin of 28 points and Clinton dominating in the large cities by a margin of 24 points. 

• Clinton enjoyed a 12-point advantage among voters whose income was under $30,000 and a 9-point advantage among voters in the $30,000-$49,999 range, while Trump enjoyed a slight advantage among all other income groups, including middle- and upper-income voters.

What doomed Clinton — surprising many and accounting for pollsters having egg on their faces — was the relatively low turnout, especially among the Democrats’ core constituencies, as women, African-Americans and Hispanics, and young people were not as energized as they had been for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. 

It was not just the latter groups not showing up at the polls in the same numbers as the previous two elections. Every racial group voted more Republican than they had in 2012. Most telling, Trump outperformed Clinton among whites, both those without a college degree (where he had an overwhelming 39-point advantage) as well as college graduates (where he still enjoyed a 4-point margin). One should not be too quick to attribute Trump’s victory to racism, however, because, as one my colleagues said, “Trump owes his victory to whites who voted for Obama in 2012.”   

Female voters were a special disappointment to Clinton. She not only lost many votes among low-educated working-class women, but she failed to get the votes she needed among suburban college-educated women. In a historic election that offered the opportunity to elect the country’s first female president, there was a gender gap, but it did not prove decisive.

So what should we make of all this? How did Trump manage to win despite a campaign that defied almost every rule of American politics: the fact that he had a bare-bones “ground game” and campaign organization, spent much less money than Clinton, suffered constant trashing by the mainstream media, exhibited unusually impolitic, abrasive behavior, and alienated large voting blocs with comments widely construed as misogynist, racist and just plain lewd and crude, with an “unfavorable” rating of 68 percent?  

Was it just that, as Clinton suggested, he was able to bank on millions of “deplorables” voting for him? Or did she and others miss a powerful message he offered even as many tried to kill the admittedly flawed messenger?   

I would argue that it was a combination of economics and culture that got Trump elected. He managed to tap into two strong currents of contemporary American politics, forces that are finding parallels in Europe as well: left-wing populism as represented by Bernie Sanders and right-wing populism as represented by the Tea Party. 

Regarding left-wing populism, even Michael Moore, in a video that went viral, made the case for Trump as a voice of the blue-collar worker in Michigan and elsewhere, whose economic concerns had been largely ignored by intellectual, media and political elites. As for right-wing populism, those same elites had been even more dismissive of rural America and less-educated Americans, ridiculing them as obsessed with “god, guns and grits.” 

If the former were opposed to NAFTA and free-trade deals they saw as contributing to unemployment, the latter were opposed to seismic culture shifts that seemed to threaten traditional values, including patriotism, family, church and other institutions. 

Of course, many in the right-wing populist camp (the so-called alt-right) are bigots – anti-Semites, Islamophobes, homophobes, racists and sexists – but surely not all of them. Most had legitimate concerns about borders, security, national identity, the excesses of political correctness and other issues. 

But the Democrats themselves were open to criticism for encouraging an alt-left, such as a Black Lives Matter platform that was downright racist, not only in its treatment of Israel but in its overall tone. 

While Clinton’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together,” she could not even bring herself to say on the campaign trail that “all lives matter.”  

It is hard to predict how Trump will govern. My guess is he will be not nearly as much a loose cannon as president as he was as a candidate. Fears of him resembling Hitler are absurd, if only because of the checks and balances in our political system. The biggest potential impacts will be in the area of  U.S. Supreme Court appointments, where there are likely to be several vacancies soon, and health care, where Obamacare is likely to be overhauled. 

There is some question where both parties go from here. If the parties are principled and smart — if they wish to not only move  the country forward but also win elections in the future — then they would do well to reduce polarization and gridlock and seek the middle ground between the extreme left and extreme right. 

In a Jewish Light commentary in September 2015, I suggested that what the New York Times had just celebrated as a “Liberal Spring” (the triumph of several liberal causes) might well “be followed by a Conservative Fall, perhaps in November 2016” (due to liberal overreach). It appears I out-predicted Nate Silver. Then again, I never imagined Trump would be the GOP standard bearer.