On Election Night 2016, Donald Trump shocked America, and the world, by becoming the 45th President of the United States. The real estate mogul weathered a series of controversies, including calling Mexicans rapists, openly mocking a disabled reporter, denigrating a Gold Star family, and boasting of grabbing women’s genitals, to win the Electoral College by a relatively comfortable margin.
The Electoral College
So what the hell happened? There are several explanations for how Trump managed to do the unthinkable, culminating in one of the most surprising wins in modern presidential history.
As most students of American civics know, voters throughout the United States are not voting for the actual president; rather, they are voting for “electors,” who then pledge to vote for a given candidate on behalf of the voters in their state.
In 2012, Barack Obama managed to win 332 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206 electoral votes, combining a handful of electoral vote-rich Western states with New England, Northeastern, and Rust Belt states (along with Virginia and Florida.)
Four years later, Trump managed to wrest six key states from the Democrats: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, and Florida. None of the first three of those states had gone for a Republican since the 1980s.
White men & women in America
President Obama won election and re-election in part because enough white voters backed his candidacy, in some areas by double digits.
The same numbers did not hold true for the Democratic Party in 2016. According to exit polling, 58% of white voters cast ballots for Donald Trump, compared to only 37% for Hillary Clinton; by comparison, Barack Obama claimed 39% of the white vote in 2012, which may have been responsible for Trump’s margin of victory.
One of the biggest stories coming out of the 2016 election is just how off the polls were – and just how often.
Throughout the Republican primary season, pollsters and prognosticators routinely dismissed Donald Trump’s chances at prevailing in the nomination fight.
In the aftermath of Trump clinching the nomination, famed polling guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight attributed the error to him and his site “basically acting like pundits, but attaching numbers to our estimates.”
The polling errors in the run-up to the general election were far more serious. While some prognosticators, including Harry Enten, Silver’s FiveThirtyEight colleague, assessed that Trump was a simple polling error away from victory, other polling aggregates such as Pollster and the RCP average had Clinton achieving a resounding victory.
(Note: Clinton did still wind up winning the popular vote, albeit by a razor-thin margin.)
The reasons for the discrepancy between the national and state polls and the final outcome will be unpacked over the coming weeks and months.
But one thing is for sure: For better or worse, Americans will be living with the outcome of this election for a long time to come.