How did Donald Trump Become President?

Chapter 1 – “How did Donald Trump Become President?”
- Mike Ras, Senior Counsel

I must confess that I was like a lot of Canadians who watched the U.S. Presidential election over the past six (plus!) months and thought it was all very entertaining, somewhat horrifying to watch but, in the end, mostly a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton would win and life would return to normal the day after the election.

Then everything changed.

On November 9, the world woke up to the reality that the world’s oldest democracy, largest economy and a world superpower would be handing over the reins (and the nuclear weapons codes) to a reality TV star who regularly – and with some alacrity – said crazy things on Twitter just to get attention.

Since then, as our company name suggests, we have been looking into the “How?” and “Why?” of Trump’s victory and, perhaps most importantly, what it could mean to the Canadian economy and our own future and we have some surprising conclusions.

Let’s start with the “How”.

Let’s start with the election map.  

We’ve all seen this graph which shows state by state where Donald Trump won – the red states – and where Secretary Clinton won – the blue states.  Donald won the heartland and the “battleground” states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Clinton won the traditional Democratic states like California and New York.  And this is critical because, as we all know, it’s not the popular vote that matters.  It’s the electoral college.  In fact, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote – and by the time all the votes are counted from absentee and write-in ballots, it could be a win of nearly 2 million votes and yet, it’s also a decisive loss … as Donald calls it – an “easy win” for him. 

This is the story we all know, but it’s worth looking a little deeper because it tells a fascinating story that should be troubling to both Democrats and Republicans and gives us some hints as to where politics and policy is going in the next few years. 

This is a county-by-county heat-map that shows the margin of victory.  The darker the red, the more Trump won; the darker the blue, the more Clinton won by. It shows that Clinton’s vote was concentrated in fewer and fewer places and she lost the traditional democratic territory around the Great Lakes and through the deep south. 

And to see how stark these losses were, check out the electoral maps in 2008 (Obama’s first) and 1992 (Bill Clinton’s first).

If my numbers are correct, Secretary Clinton won just 478 of 3,144 counties – just 15%.  That is astounding!  And the trends over the last 20 years have been in the wrong direction for the Democrats.  They are losing more and more of the U.S. and marginalizing their vote into fewer and fewer places. Those places are highly concentrated and populated, but they are bubbles of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago.  This election was a story of rural vs. urban (as this graph shows – the more rural the county, the more likely they were to vote for Trump; the more urban, the more likely to vote for Clinton).

But again, that’s also not the full story …

This election is also the story of Obama to Trump switchers. Yes, you read that right.  A large part of the reason that Trump won can be found in those voters and counties that were rock-solid Obama supporter in the last two elections who switched their vote to Donald Trump. 

This graph shows that of the 700 counties that voted for Barack Obama twice – in 2008 and 2012 – 209 of them flipped to Donald Trump and you can see by this graphic where they are concentrated:  the upper mid-west. (Now go back to look at the electoral college maps above.)  It seems the closer a voter was to the Canadian border, the more likely they were to abandon the Obama coalition to join Trump … I’m sure that’s just a coincidence!) 

 It’s this next graph that I think tells us the most about the election and what happened.  And it’s bad news for both the Democrats and Republicans. This shows that Trump didn’t “win” so much as it shows that Hillary lost. 

The skew of the x-axis exaggerates the visual a bit (it wouldn’t be quite so dramatic if the x-axis started at zero), but nevertheless, this graph shows that Obama was able to mobilize over 8.4 million more voters in 2008 than Hillary was able to find in 2016.  Eight million!  And the trend line is going the wrong way for Democrats.  If Secretary Clinton had been able to turn out some, if not all, of the Obama coalition this election wouldn’t have been close! 

As an aside, one commentator I read did an analysis which showed that if 107,000 voters spread between Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – states that hadn’t gone Republican in decades, but turned red this time – those states would have remained Democrat and Hillary Clinton would have had enough Electoral College votes to hold onto the Presidency.  In short, the votes were there for her to find. 

 The trend line is also not that great for the Republicans. In fact, it should make them downright nervous.  The Republicans have identified their vote and turned them out – and that’s it.  They are not growing their voter pool in any significant way.  They lost some middle-class voters (mostly college educated women, I suspect) but gained poorer, white-working class voters in traditionally Democratic areas in the U.S. mid-west.  All in all, their pool is pretty much the same and is, in fact, shrinking.  Donald Trump got 500,000 fewer voters than Mitt Romney, who wasn’t exactly a candidate who appealed to the working class in union towns of the Midwest himself!  (And didn’t Trump call Romney a “loser”?  Oh well, Romney is now being considered for Secretary of State, so what the hell and facts be damned.)

 I shouldn’t say that the Republicans have entirely abandoned their efforts to reach out and grow their base.  I heard a great story watching CNN one early morning on the weekend following the election where the Republican’s Director of African American outreach (must be a lonely job!) was being interviewed.    He told the story of how the Republicans organized in African-American barbershops in cities across the key battleground states.  Yes, that’s right – the barber shops.  These were the places where only black men went.  These barber shops were sanctuaries for African-American men to get together and chew the fat.  In 2008 and 2012, every one of these barbershops had a Barack Obama poster and Obama himself did a number of campaign events in barber shops.  He got his haircut in cities across the U.S four times a week!  The Obama campaign made a conscious effort to organize in these barber shops because they recognized the value of thought-leaders and community influencers.  Classic communications strategy. 

In this election, there were no posters for the Democrats.  No one from Hillary’s campaign organized in these barbershops.  The Republicans saw an opportunity.  They came in and bought lunch; they bought coffee and they sat down in these barber shops and they started to change minds.  The message they used was “hey, what the hell have you got to lose?  You didn’t get anywhere economically with Obama, why not try an outsider?”  That message – “what the hell have you got to lose?” – was repeated by Trump on the campaign stump and most of the media wondered what the heck he was doing.  Most observers thought it was Trump showing again that he had no idea what he was talking about or how to campaign.  Why was he even spending a breath on courting the African-American vote, let alone with such a blunt and obtuse message?  Crazy like a fox, he was. 

The numbers show that some of these African American men turned their vote and cast a ballot for Trump.  The overall rate of African-American votes for Trump was 8%, but among black men it was 13%.  So, clearly a few of these men voted for Trump, but they didn’t tell their wives or girlfriends or mothers – or pollsters.  They just turned out to vote.  13% doesn’t sound like much, but going from 8% to 13% probably translates to a few hundred thousand votes in key battleground states … and remember that if 107,000 votes in 3 states had switched, Hillary could have won. 

If only she had gone to the barbershops …

 One last comment on this chart is that it goes a long way to explain why nearly every poll got it wrong.  Pollsters sample based on historic trends, so they try to get samples of people who have voted in the past.  That means most pollsters had dramatic over-samples of Democrats in their pools. These Democrats might have shown a preference for the Democratic candidate, but the pollster never asked whether they would actually go out and vote.  Hence the disconnect between the polls and the final result.  I have no doubt that a much larger plurality of American’s would have preferred Hillary Clinton for President … they just didn’t show up!

So, that’s the “how”. The mechanics of the Trump coalition and how he became the U.S. President-elect.  Next, let’s look at the “why”.