Viewed through any conventional lens, President-elect Donald Trump’s candidacy was improbable from start to finish. Today, two things about his victory seem to be in sharper focus: one, that Trump’s victory might best be understood as the success of the country’s first independent president, and second, that the Trump coalition may be even more uniquely his than President Obama’s has turned out to be.
Think again about how he prevailed. There are a handful of major events during a general election that give the nominees a chance to showcase themselves, their judgment and their vision. One is the selection of a running mate. Another is the staging of the conventions. A third is performance in the debates. Hillary Clinton did better than Trump on all three tests, though Trump’s team believes the debates did not fall so decisively in her favor.
Then there are the other factors that go into producing a successful candidacy. These include resources, the operations and mechanics of campaigning, and the skill with which candidates avoid mistakes and deal with the unexpected setbacks.
Clinton raised more money than Trump. She had a larger number of paid staffers on the ground in the battleground states. She ran more television ads by far. He created needless controversies throughout the general election, while her problems were far fewer. Only in the final days did he seem surer of himself.
In other words, Trump came out the loser on virtually every aspect of how campaigns are usually evaluated. Yet today he is staffing his administration and Clinton is still absorbing the brutal shock of having lost a race she believed was hers.
Trump owes his success in part to the fact that he ran for president in an environment that favored change over the status quo. But his luck or genius goes beyond that. It has long been noted that the conditions have existed for an independent candidate to run a serious campaign for president. The level of dissatisfaction with Washington, the anxiety over the economy and the generally sour mood about the future provided the foundation for a campaign by someone from outside the system, who is tied to neither political party and with a promise to shake things up.
What has stood in the way of people running as an independent is that winning the presidency in a system that so clearly favors the two major parties is something of a hopeless cause. That’s a big reason former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg decided not to run several times when he seriously explored the idea.
Trump took the elements of an independent candidacy — the lack of clear ideology, the name recognition of a national celebrity and the personal fortune needed to fund a presidential campaign — and then did what no one seemed to have thought of before. He staged a hostile takeover of an existing major party. He had the best of both worlds, an outsider candidacy with crosscutting ideological appeal and the platform of a major party to wage the general election. By the time he had finished, he had taken down two political dynasties: the Bush dynasty in the primaries and the Clinton dynasty in the general election.
All through the campaign, one big question was whether 2016 would produce a new electoral map. Mostly this was an outgrowth of the idea that demography is destiny. This was shorthand for the hope among Democrats that changing demographics — rising numbers of Hispanics in particular — along with a growing proportion of the population with college degrees would move some states from red to purple and others from purple to blue.
One example was the way the Clinton team saw Virginia and Colorado as two states that had moved toward the Democrats during the Obama years and now were securely in the party’s column. They also saw an opportunity to win in Arizona this year and believed that Georgia would soon become a true battleground. Even bright red Texas looked more in play during the early fall.
The flip side of this “demography is destiny” concept was that, for a time, the Republicans might have their best opportunity to change the map by focusing on a handful of Northern industrial states, all of which have older, whiter populations and lower percentages of college graduates.
But with the exception of Ohio, those states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — were all part of what the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein long ago dubbed the “Blue Wall.” The phrase was shorthand for states that as of 2012 had voted Democratic in six consecutive presidential elections. Despite the demographics, it seemed that wall would be too high an obstacle for Trump to surmount in this election, even though his messages on trade and immigration were tailor-made for voters in that region.
What happened was that this map of a new America came true only in part. Trump converted the portion of the map that was suddenly hospitable to his message, and Clinton failed to win the states that someday might lean more Democratic. The northern map was riper for picking by Trump — barely, given the tight results in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — than the southern map turned out to be for Clinton.
For Republicans, the fact that Trump won the presidency while losing the popular vote should remain a concern. It was the second time in five recent elections that the GOP has gotten to the White House with fewer votes, as Clinton probably will emerge with a clear plurality and a raw vote margin significantly higher than Al Gore in 2000.
An analysis by Mark Gersh of the National Committee for an Effective Congress looked at the vote in 14 swing states vs. the rest of the country. Trump won the popular vote in those 14 states and got 142 of his electoral votes from them. In the other 36 states, he lost the popular vote by an even larger margin. He found the votes where he needed them. She did not.
How did he do it? Take a look at Ohio. For years, the state has been a classic bellwether and, in the three previous elections, ground zero in the battle for the White House. This year it went to Trump by 8 points and shifted from its historical norm by the biggest margin in more than half a century.
Mike Dawson, an expert on election statistics in Ohio, did an analysis of the vote last week for the Columbus Dispatch. What he found was that Trump’s percentage was higher than that of Mitt Romney in 2012 in 83 of the state’s 88 counties. Trump’s percentage in rural southeast Ohio was the biggest since Herbert Hoover in 1928. In the Youngstown area, once reliable Democratic turf, Trump got 52 percent of the vote compared with 39 percent that Romney got in 2012.
Ohio was not unique. Similar patterns existed in the other Northern industrial states. Yet in the three formerly blue states that Trump converted, Clinton might have won had she not suffered erosion among African American voters — one key portion of the Obama coalition — or prevented more white, college-educated voters from moving away from her and returning home to the GOP, the group her team saw as a key element of a new Clinton coalition.
Trump redrew the map just as he redrew the rules for running a campaign. For those reasons alone, and despite all the controversy of his campaign and the earlier personnel appointments, he ought not to be underestimated and/or seen through conventional lenses.
A personal note: We said a sad but joyful farewell this week to Gwen Ifill, the co-anchor of the “PBS NewsHour” and the moderator of PBS’s “Washington Week.” She was both colleague and friend, and one could not have asked for anything better in both. She broke barriers and earned through hard work and strength of character every journalistic award and accolade that came her way.
She was a mentor and role model for scores of journalists — some younger, many her contemporaries. She was the best of friends, loyal and vibrant and loving. And she had the greatest smile imaginable. She will be long remembered, and neither the light of her smile nor the example she provided all of us will ever be extinguished.