Astounding. That’s the best word to describe the tumultuous election night and the (to most people) surprise victory of Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton hoped to win with votes of Northeasterners, including those who have moved south along Interstate 95 to North Carolina and Florida (44 electoral votes). Instead, Trump won with votes along the I-94 and I-80 corridors, from Pennsylvania through Ohio and Michigan to Wisconsin and Iowa (70 electoral votes).
This approach was foreseen by RealClearPolitics analyst Sean Trende in his “Case of the Missing White Voters” article series in 2013. Non-college-educated whites in this northern tier, once strong for Ross Perot, gave Barack Obama relatively high percentages in 2008 and 2012. Many grew up in Democratic union households and were willing to vote for the first black president.
Now they seem to have sloughed off their ancestral Democratic allegiance, much as white Southerners did in 1980s presidential and 1990s congressional elections. National Democrats no longer had anything to offer them then. Hillary Clinton didn’t have anything to offer northern-tier non-college-educated whites this year.
It didn’t help that Clinton called half of Trump supporters “irredeemable” and “deplorables” and infected with “implicit racism.” They may have been shy in responding to telephone or exit polls, but they voted in unanticipatedly large numbers, at a time when turnout generally sagged.
At the same time, Clinton was unable to reassemble Obama’s 2012 51 percent coalition. Turnout fell in heavily black Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee. Millennial generation turnout was tepid, and Trump carried white millennials by 5 points. Unexpectedly, Trump won higher percentages of Hispanics and Asians than Mitt Romney did in 2012.
Trump’s surprise victory, owing much to differential turnout, resembles the surprise defeats, defying most polls, of establishment positions in 2016 referendums in Britain and Colombia. In June, 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union — the so-called Brexit, opposed by most major-party leaders and financial elites. In October, 50.2 percent of Colombia’s voters rejected the peace plan with FARC terrorists negotiated by their president.
In both cases, the capital city’s metro area and distinctive peripheries — Scotland, the Caribbean coast — voted with the establishment. But the historical and cultural hearts of these nations — England outside London, the central Andes cordillera in Colombia — rejected and defeated the establishment position.
Something like that seems to have happened here. If you take the pro-establishment coasts — the Northeast except Pennsylvania, the West Coast — the vote as currently tabulated was 58-38 percent for Clinton. That’s similar to Obama’s 60-38 percent margin in these states in 2012.
But the heartland — roughly the area from the Appalachian ridges to the Rocky Mountains, with about two-thirds of the national vote — went 52-44 percent for Trump. Trump didn’t do much better than Romney, who got 51 percent there. But Clinton got only 44 percent of heartland votes, down from Obama’s 47 percent. The Republican margin doubled, from 4 to 8 percent.
British elites responded to Brexit with scorn for their heartland’s voters. Those voting for Brexit were “poorly educated, nativist, unsophisticated, racist and unfashionable.” You can hear similar invective hurled by American coastal elites (though not, to their credit, Clinton and Obama) at their fellow citizens beyond the Hudson River and the Capital Beltway. “Deplorable” is the least of their insults.
They take glee in noting that Trump ran behind previous Republican nominees among college graduates but well ahead among non-college-educated whites. There’s an echo here of Rush Limbaugh’s scorn for “low-information voters.” But the people who complain about less educated whites voting as a bloc have no complaints about the even larger percentages received by the candidates they favor from black voters. The better approach is to show respect for each voter’s decision, however unenlightened you may consider it.
Trump’s victory undercuts crude projections based on the sophisticated analysis of journalist Ron Brownstein and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg — namely, that increasing percentages of nonwhites and millennial generation voters will result in an “ascendant” majority producing inevitably Democratic victories. In a closely divided country, election victories are contingent on issues, events and candidates’ characteristics.
It would be a mistake also to suppose that Trump’s Electoral College victory means that Democrats are doomed to defeat because they lost their hold on non-college-educated whites this year. That depends on decisions and events that have not yet occurred.