As Americans adjust to the idea of President Donald Trump, many are looking at the electoral process to ask how this result came about. The 2016 American presidential election has been characterized as like none other in the nation’s history. In some senses the election was unique; for instance, Donald Trump will be the first President to assume office without ever having held a public office or having served in the military. His style is like none other in the modern era, with historians claiming that Andrew Jackson’s election of 1828 was the only close parallel to a President thumbing his nose at conventional mores and manners. But in other ways, the election of 2016 repeats some themes that are common in the American electoral process.
First, let’s review the results. Donald Trump won an improbable victory over Hillary Clinton, defying the predictions of virtually every political pundit. He won a clear majority in the Electoral College. The final result will probably be 306-232 in the Electoral College, though some recounts remain possible. Secretary Clinton, however, won a plurality of the popular vote, leading Mr. Trump by approximately 400,000 votes out of more than 120,000,000 cast, approximately 0.2%. This election marked the fifth in American history—and the second in the last five presidential elections—in which the popular vote winner lost the election. The Electoral College gives more power to smaller states than larger states, and it gives more relative power to voters in states with competitive results than it does to those in states dominated by one party. To illustrate, Mr. Trump won Wisconsin by 30,000 votes, while Secretary Clinton won Maryland by 400,000 votes; yet each won 10 Electoral Votes, which are determined by the size of the states’ congressional delegations, not their vote total.
While Democrats picked up two seats in the United States Senate and about 10 (some races are still under recount) in the House of Representatives, the Republicans remain in solid control of both chambers of the legislature. Early expectations are that they will push through proposals by President-elect Trump with which they agree, e.g. repealing or at least fundamentally reforming the Affordable Care Act, while they may spend more time finding a common position on other items, e.g. tax reform.
Like most American elections, this one was determined in the so-called swing or battleground states, the roughly ten to fifteen states that are most hotly contested. Like most American elections in recent years, citizens tended to vote along party lines. Mr. Trump received 90% of the votes of Republican citizens; Secretary Clinton, 89% of the votes of the Democrats. Most citizens supported congressional candidates of their party. All of this follows the familiar pattern.
Why then the surprise? What was different? When political scientists predicted the result of this election before the nominees were known last April, using familiar models based on the state of the economy and presidential popularity, they predicted that the Republican candidate would win. Americans tend not to elect the candidate of the party of an incumbent President, unless the economy is robust and citizens are optimistic. But then Mr. Trump was nominated—and these same political scientists changed their predictions. How could the citizens vote for someone who was saying and doing things so out of line with the norm?
The answer is that they could. They could because the driving force in the vote was a desire for change, a desire expressed most strongly by white, non-college-educated voters (males more than females, but women as well) who have felt that the government has not been paying attention to them. These are the voters whose jobs have been compromised by NAFTA; these are the voters who see that the Democratic Party seems to care more for African-Americans, Hispanics, and immigrants than for them. They were mad; Mr. Trump spoke to their anger. And they supported him.
At the same time, the voters who had twice elected President Obama did support Secretary Clinton, but not as strongly. She won the African-American vote, but by 5% less than he did. She won the Hispanic vote, but by 3% less than he did. Neither of these groups turned out in as large numbers as they had four and eight years ago. Secretary Clinton won the women’s vote, but only by 1% more than President Obama had. In short, those groups supporting her did not vote as strongly for her, nor did they turn out in as great numbers, as did the groups supporting Mr. Trump.
What does this mean for the future? Frankly it is too early to tell. If Mr. Trump governs as he ran for office, the United States may be in for a rough ride—and many citizens fear that. But if he moderates his tone, acts presidential, works with respected leaders in Congress, we may be in for a period of changing policies, but not fundamental changes in how we are governed.
One final thought: Secretary Clinton demonstrated the strength of American democracy for all of the nation and the world to see in her concession speech on 9 November. She acknowledged disappointment but stated that she would support President-elect Trump, and called on her supporters to wish him luck and hope for his success. That acceptance of the result of an election—even an unexpected loss in which the popular vote winner did not emerge with the prize—demonstrates a recognition of the importance of our process, a recognition that gave legitimacy to American elections in 1800 and has continued to do so every four years since.
Featured image credit: American Flag by Etereuti. Public domain via Pixabay.