Here are the five results from the national exit poll that surprised us most, and what they mean about the electorate that voted Tuesday.
- Clinton underperformed significantly among Democratic-leaning groups
Clinton fell significantly short of expectations across a range of demographic groups that helped elect Barack Obama twice, indicating the base may be less committed to the party than assumed. Compared to Obama, the exit poll showed Clinton won six percentage points less support among racial and ethnic minorities (from 80 in 2012 to 74 percent this year), even as this group grew as a share of the electorate. This includes a striking five-point drop in support among Hispanic voters compared with Obama (71 to 66 percent), with Trump’s 28 percent support one point above Mitt Romney’s 27 percent support from Latinos in 2012.
Union households were another significant source of weakness for Clinton. While union households are a shrinking share of voters nationwide (exit polls suggest 18 percent of the electorate, the same as 2012, but down from 26 percent as recently as 2000), a Democratic presidential nominee hasn’t fared so poorly among this group since 1980. Clinton won the group by a relatively narrow nine percentage points. Obama won this group by 18 points in 2012 and 20 points in 2008. Overall, while voters from union households were 19 percent of Clinton voters, they were nearly as strongly represented among Trump supporters (16 percent).
- Republicans rejected their leaders and united behind Trump
Despite a fractured GOP leadership, the party’s rank and file supported Trump at just as high a rate as Democrats backed Clinton and nearly as strongly they backed Romney in 2012. Fully 88 percent of Republicans supported Trump, compared with 93 percent who backed Romney in 2012. A similar 89 percent of Democrats backed Clinton this year.
Pre-election polls showed signs that Republicans were coalescing around Trump in the final months and disapproving of GOP leaders who refused to campaign for him, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. But while Trump won the primary with plurality support and many leaders called on him to drop out after a video showed him making lewd comments about women, the exit poll showed that very few Republicans abandoned him.
- White college graduates did not reject Trump after all
White voters with college degrees have voted Republican in every election in exit polls since the 1980s, but polls this year found this group was particularly averse to Trump’s candidacy, seeing him as biased against women and minorities, not having the right temperament for president and unqualified for office. Many pre-election polls showed white college graduates on pace to support a Democratic presidential nominee for the first time, including the last Post-ABC Tracking Poll which found Clinton leading by nine points with the group.
Yet the exit poll found Trump topped Clinton 48 to 45 percent among white college grads, a smaller margin than Romney’s 14 point victory but an advantage nonetheless among a group that could have sunk his candidacy. Clinton did win white women with college degrees by a seven-point margin, but this again was smaller than many surveys found in the closing weeks.
- Trump’s winning coalition looks exactly like some Republicans have feared
After Romney’s 2012 loss, prominent Republicans called on the party to broaden its appeal to younger voters and racial and ethnic groups, after another election where nearly 9 in 10 of Republican voters were white (87 percent).
However, Trump’s winning coalition looks a great deal like Romney’s did four years ago. Fully 87 percent of Trump’s supporters were white, while seven percent were Latino, two percent black and two percent Asian. Over half are male (53 percent). Some 46 percent of Trump voters were white men while 41 percent were white women.
Trump’s voters were, on average, older: Over six in 10 Trump voters were over age 45 (63 percent), compared with 52 percent of Clinton backers. And a majority of Trump supporters lack a college degree (55 percent), while 54 percent of Clinton supporters are college graduates.
Put simply, Trump’s coalition is dominated by a swath of demographic groups that make up a shrinking share of the electorate. In the long-term those shifts spell trouble for Republicans, but Trump’s election proved that demographics were not destiny in 2016.
- Voters didn’t like Trump or his major policy proposals
Pre-election polls found Trump was the least popular president since polls had been conducted and that Americans widely rejected his major policies. But Tuesday’s results show an electorate that embraced Trump despite large misgivings about his personality and policies, rejecting Clinton and the direction Obama’s policies.
Trump wins with a favorability rating among voters of 38 percent, and an unfavorability rating of 60 percent. Over six in 10 voters said he doesn’t have the temperament to be president. Over six in 10 say he can’t be trusted. A significant minority of Trump’s own supporters criticized the candidate on these fronts. Fully 26 percent of Trump voters said he doesn’t have the right temperament to be president, and 22 percent said he is not qualified for the job.
The electorate as a whole rejected two of Trump’s main policy platforms, with seven in 10 voters saying they preferred a path to legal status for illegal immigrants than deportation, and a smaller 54 percent majority saying they are opposed to building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
To the extent voters wanted anything from a candidate, they wanted someone who could bring change: 39 percent said it was their top priority, more than experience (22 percent), judgment (20 percent) or empathy with their situation (15 percent). The large 69 percent majority are dissatisfied or angry with the way the federal government is working, nearly half think Obamacare went too far, and just over half think the United States is doing poorly in the fight against the Islamic State.
These sentiments were one thing that unified voters who supported Trump despite reservations. Among Trump supporters who said he doesn’t have the right temperament to be president, 88 percent said they are dissatisfied or angry with the federal government, 71 percent said they want a candidate who will “bring needed change” and 94 percent said Clinton is not honest and trustworthy. Trump voters who said he lacks the qualifications to be president were similarly critical of Clinton — 92 percent said she is also unqualified — while 77 percent of this group said the next president should move policy in a more conservative direction and 55 percent said international trade takes away U.S. jobs.
In contrast to the ambivalence of some Trump supporters about his candidacy, large majorities of groups that supported Clinton say they fear him taking office. Two-thirds of African Americans say they’re scared about Trump becoming president, as are 59 percent of Democratic men and 72 percent of Democratic women. Perhaps surprisingly, 40 percent of immigrants to the United States say they are scared about a Trump presidency, only slightly higher than the 37 percent among voters overall.
The mishmash of fear and concern hammers home what Trump overcame in his victory, as well as the difficulty he may have uniting Americans behind his presidency.