clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Trump won, explained in 727 words

Evan Vucci/AP Photo
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

As the United States wakes up to a world in which Donald Trump has become the president-elect of the United States, many people are wondering — what the hell happened?

Trump’s victory came as a shocker to the commentariat because he defied the polls, which understated his support in most states and especially underestimated his strength in the key Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

But while the race might be covered as a sweeping triumph for Trump — somewhat fairly so, as he is going to be the next president — it also was an extremely tight race that he only just edged out.

Trump currently trails in the popular vote, and he only won the Electoral College because of very narrow victories in a few states. So it is not necessarily that the American people as a whole swung toward Trump — Hillary Clinton’s national coalition was about the same size.

However, this is an utterly devastating result for the Democratic Party nonetheless, handing over unified control of the federal government to Republicans, who already dominated in the states. And Trump pulled this off due to his strength among white voters.

Nationally, Trump’s win was a narrow one

The technical reason Trump won the presidency is that he won very narrow victories in just a few key Rust Belt swing states.

Pennsylvania appears to be the state that put him over 270 — he’s currently holding a 1.1-point lead there. But he also won Wisconsin for good measure (by about 1 point), and currently holds a very narrow lead in Michigan too (0.3 points).

If the remaining uncalled states (Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Arizona) end up with the same leader they’re currently reporting, Trump will finish with 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232. That is a bigger Electoral College victory than George W. Bush ever won, but it’s smaller than both of Barack Obama’s wins.

Furthermore, while it’s clear that Trumpism has more legs than anyone thought, when making broad, sweeping conclusions about what the “American people” believe, it’s important to keep in mind that Clinton actually leads in the popular vote at present (albeit by a very small margin, and it’s not finalized yet). Nationally, each candidate got a bit under 48 percent of the popular vote — they’re about evenly matched.

But the geography and math of the Electoral College ended up working to Trump’s benefit. The white working-class voters who strongly backed Trump are overrepresented in Electoral College math, while Clinton’s nonwhite and urban backers tend to be packed into a few key states. If results in just Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan all shifted just 1.2 points, Clinton would have eked out a narrow victory. But they didn’t.

Functionally, though, this is an utterly devastating result for progressives and the Democratic Party

The problem for Democrats is that absolutely none of our political system is based on what the “national electorate” thinks. We are the United States, and we therefore have a political system based on 50 separate states.

And in the states, the past six years of elections have left the Democratic Party a smoking ruin.

In 2017, Democrats will control 47 or 48 Senate seats, between 191 and 197 House seats, and 16 or 17 governorships.

This all flows from the fact that Democrats have increasingly put all their chips on nonwhite voters and millennials, an electorate that doesn’t reliably turn out for them in midterm years (and perhaps in presidential ones either, judging by this result), while increasingly alienating white voters.

The US is growing increasingly diverse, but white voters still make up more than 60 percent of the population and an even greater share of the electorate, particularly as far as state elections go.

So while the Democrats did indeed see increasingly diverse states like Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas shift several points toward Clinton this year, it simply wasn’t enough. There are so many white voters in those states that a candidate who wins them overwhelmingly will continue to have the edge. Take Florida, where an apparent surge in Hispanic turnout ended up being dwarfed by a surge in rural white turnout.

So the bigger picture is that if Democrats can’t figure out how to better appeal to white voters, they seem set to become the nation’s opposition party for some time to come.

Watch: It’s on America’s institutions to check Trump