The mechanics of Trump's victory

In the greatest electoral upset in American history, Republican businessman Donald Trump cruised Tuesday to a dramatic victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It was a victory that defied all predictive election modeling and conventional wisdom, catching the political establishment and global markets by surprise. His coattails stretched long, an unexpected down ballot boon for Republican majorities in the U.S. congress and governors’ mansions across the country.

But a look at where Mr. Trump won helps explain why his electoral college margin was so wide. He carried three battleground states—Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio—and separately cracked Secretary Hillary Clinton’s firewall in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In a dizzyingly comprehensive election postmortem Wednesday, Dentons’ public policy and regulation practice dissected the mechanics of Trump’s stunning victory.

2016 was a change election.

2016 was less about Republican versus Democrat and more about outsider versus insider. The billionaire businessman who never before held elected office rebuked the Republican establishment and promised dramatic change. In doing so, Trump tapped into deep economic grievances and concerns about immigration and domestic terrorism. As demonstrated by Senator Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the Democratic primary, this populist call for change wasn’t limited to the Republicans. It was impossible for Secretary Clinton to represent change in a change election.

Trump appealed to working class voters.

As evidenced by his wins in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Trump tapped into working class voters, many disgusted with the status quo. Trump’s message that Washington is broken and not working for the people carried him through the Republican primary and Tuesday’s election. While President Obama received about 33 percent support from white men without a college degree, Clinton received just over 20 percent support in this demographic group according to an Associated Press study. The Clinton voter of the 2008 primaries became Trump voters in 2016 — and their concentration in tipping point states carried a significant impact.

Rural versus urban demographic trends.

The vote breakdown by county in Pennsylvania and other Rust Belt states demonstrates that Trump’s working-class, antitrade message appealed in the geographies hit hardest by the decline of manufacturing jobs. For example, Secretary Clinton won Philadelphia and its collar counties by over 450,000 votes but could not overcome Trump’s strength in rural parts of Pennsylvania. This trend was replicated in traditional Democratic strongholds throughout the Midwest.

Secretary Clinton underperformed with key demographic groups.

Secretary Clinton consistently underperformed President Obama’s strength with his winning coalition of college educated women, minorities, and young voters. While Clinton bested Trump by 13 points among women, this margin was no better than Obama’s margin in 2008 or 2012 among this same group. Trump, on the other hand, logged support from 70 percent of white men without a college education, besting Mitt Romney’s showing by 10 points.

Republicans “came home.”

Whether because of the plea by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, or the longstanding animus of many Republicans towards the Clinton brand, in the final analysis the party faithful surged towards Trump in the closing weeks of the campaign. Trump successfully solidified his base, and did exactly what every pundit said was necessary to win—expanded his reach.

The 51-page report, which includes a face book of incoming congressional freshman, forecasts the policy contours of President-elect Trump’s administration and the new Congress. Get it here.

Subscribe and stay updated
Receive our latest blog posts by email.
James Richardson

About James Richardson

James Richardson is a strategic communications counselor with 15 years’ experience advising presidential candidates, Global Fortune 500 executives, national nonprofits, and sovereign governments on strategic communications and reputation management. He helps lead Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs practice.

Full bio