As dusk etched itself across a frosty Californian sky and the long queues of hooded voters finally melted away, there was no portent of what the night would bring. But soon enough, trends from the east and Midwest, where polling had ended hours before, started trickling in. Surprise gave way to disbelief, and ultimately to shock, as the unthinkable came to pass: Donald Trump, a real estate tycoon and reality TV star with a gift for confrontation and bombast, a man who bragged about evading taxes and spoke lewdly of women, was elected to be the 45th president of the world’s most powerful nation.
No one had expected the night to unfold in this manner. Not the numerous journalists and pundits in New York and Washington DC, who had kept reassuring the nation that it was to have its first woman president in Hillary Clinton. Not Nate Silver, the psephologist who had accurately predicted President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories. Perhaps not even Trump himself, who had kept saying the election was rigged in favour of Hillary and that he won’t concede defeat even if he lost. As it turned out, he didn’t have to.
What happened? The story must partly be told through numbers, because the devil, in this case, lies in the decimals. But behind the numbers lies the story of a broken nation, disillusioned of its leaders, uncertain of its direction, hanging on to a shrill, orange-tinted promise of ‘greatness’.
Hillary lost because, quite simply, the ground shifted from beneath her feet. At least five states that had voted for the Democratic Party in 2012 turned Red, according to exit polls based on which state results were called. The most significant of these shifts happened in Florida. This southern state has often been make-or-break for candidates—so much so that the outcome of the 2000 election was not known for more than a month because of a dispute over the Florida vote. This time around, the result was close, but not in doubt—Trump won by a 1.4 per cent margin.
Other key shifts took place in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. Along with Florida, these states made up for a total of 83 electoral votes—just under a third of the 270 required for victory. Pennsylvania had voted for every Democratic candidate since 1992. Rather fittingly, it was the calling of the Pennsylvania result that officially put Trump across the finish line.
While these geographic voting trends were unexpected, demographic patterns were more startling. Despite Hillary being the first woman candidate in history from the two main parties, white women voters favoured Trump over her by 53 to 43 per cent. With white men supporting Trump, and in even greater proportion, the Republicans cornered the bulk of the white vote. Although US demographics are changing, whites still comprise 70 per cent of the electorate; Trump’s strong showing among white men and women saw him through.
While voters with graduate and postgraduate degrees mostly supported Hillary, Trump’s populist posturing and anti-tax stance won him the support of both less educated and more wealthy voters. More than half the electorate without a college degree polled Red, as did people with annual incomes above $50,000.
Hillary performed much better among minorities—Blacks, Hispanics and Asians—polling 88 per cent, 65 per cent and 65 per cent of their votes respectively. This translated into a 51 per cent margin over Trump in these communities. But while the numbers seem substantial, they do not compare with the support Obama received from these communities in 2012—a margin of 61 per cent over his rival. It particularly hurt Hillary in battleground states such as Florida, where she lost by a slender margin despite Hispanic voters making up a substantial segment of the electorate.
Another significant factor was the time when voters made up their minds. Those who decided whom to vote for in the past two months mostly favoured Trump, while a small majority of voters who decided before September chose Hillary. This suggests that the controversies Hillary got embroiled in lately marred her chances—perhaps definitively.
The biggest of these was, of course, the e-mail server scandal. Hillary’s use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state—jeopardising the security and confidentiality of thousands of government documents—has remained a source of concern all through her campaign. It reared its head again two weeks before D-Day when FBI director James Comey announced he was looking into it all over again.
Just prior to that came the leak of Hillary campaign chair John Podesta’s e-mails, courtesy WikiLeaks. The correspondences suggested that the Hillary campaign may have tilted the Democratic primaries with the support of supposedly ‘neutral’ Democratic Party officials and ‘autonomous’ mainstream media outlets. They also indicated possible corruption and misdemeanour in the handling of campaign donations. Instead of addressing the concerns raised by these e-mails, the Hillary campaign accused WikiLeaks of working for Trump and spread stories about a Russian conspiracy to derail her presidential bid.
Hillary’s flip-flop on several issues all through her public life have made her appear untrustworthy—these controversies hit where it hurt the most. On election day, a whopping 61 per cent of voters said they did not find her honest and did not trust her. A similar percentage said Trump was untrustworthy as well. But crucially, voters who thought both were untrustworthy were more likely to vote for Trump. The e-mail server scandal, with the charge that Hillary had lied about it to the public, and the damaging evidence of Podesta’s correspondences deflated her supporters while convincing fence-sitters to vote for Trump.
These trends may tell the story of the final days of the campaign trail, but the antecedents of the Democratic loss and the Republican victory go back further. To understand what happened on November 8, one has to look through at least eight years in time. The election of Barack Obama as the first Black president was supposed to have ushered in a ‘post-racial’ era in the US—in which racial differences had not simply been overcome but race had ceased to matter. Yet, that election gave way to perhaps the most hyper-racist period since the civil rights movement half a century ago.
The political reaction to Obama’s election was the emergence of the Tea Party, a group of far-right politicians who were determined not to allow a Black man to run the country and hijacked the Republican Party and its agenda to do so. Under their influence, opposition to Obama became the Republican Party policy, leading to such crises as the 2011 deadlock over budget spending cuts, which threatened to shut down the US government.
As partisanship became more rabid in the chambers of Congress, the force driving it—racism—became more brazen. There began a series of unprovoked fatal shootings of Black youths by white police officers and self-appointed vigilantes around the country, almost all of which went unpunished in courts. More than 100 such shootings were reported in 2015, or two per week. It led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which called for an end to such violence, but was itself viewed as ‘extremist’ or even ‘terrorist’ by many white people. Racism and violence appeared to have come full circle this summer, when Black youths shot dead police officers in separate incidents in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
Trump’s emergence as the Republican presidential nominee earlier this year was seen as the culmination of deteriorating race relations in urban America—coupled with the sense, especially among rural whites, that an America ruled by Obama was not the America they were born in or cared about. As a political outsider, Trump built his campaign around seemingly outrageous xenophobic positions, such as building a wall to keep out Mexicans and prohibiting the entry of all Muslims into the country. He never offered a coherent programme of action on any issue, but that seemed to matter little. Many Republican leaders shied away from supporting him publicly, but Trump touched a nerve in his audience that had been made raw by the vitriolic politics of the same politicians.
What is not as commonly acknowledged is that Hillary’s nomination by the Democrats was also a fallout of the same racially charged atmosphere. For a long time now, garden-variety liberal Americans have become so caught up in the politics of symbols and identity that they seem to care little about real social progress. This has allowed right-of-centre politicians to coopt their constituency by talking the liberal talk while doing very little for them. Obama, for instance, has curtailed civil liberties, burdened the poor with the cost of bailing out corrupt corporations, deported more immigrants than any other president in history and launched more wars and drone strikes than his predecessor George W. Bush. But he is viewed as a doyen of American liberalism.
By all accounts, Hillary is even more of a warmongering corporate stooge. She has stood against gay rights, promoted pro-business and anti-worker free trade policies and, as first lady in the 1990s, supported bills that threw unprecedented numbers of Blacks in jail and poor women off welfare. Yet, liberal Americans were willing to nominate her as the Democratic Party candidate over someone like Bernie Sanders, who has championed liberal policies throughout his career, but tried to build his campaign on a meaningful programme of economic justice, instead of pandering to identity politics. Minorities in particular were unwilling to side with Sanders.
Ironically, the argument many Hillary supporters supplied was that her pragmatism—read lack of idealism—gave her a more ‘realistic’ chance of defeating Trump. In the end, her pragmatic opportunism and no-holds-barred approach to politics killed liberal enthusiasm about voting for her. Only 17 per cent of voters said they would be ‘excited’ by a Hillary victory.
As the election night wore out and a new day broke over the horizon, Americans woke up to an uncertain future. Their greatest fear now is how their country would heal after the most bitter election cycle in recent history, a tale of two acerbic campaigns that widened already deep social fractures, and how the poor and minorities would fare under an administration led by a tax-evading xenophobic billionaire.
By Saif Shahin in Ohio