How Donald Trump won the US presidency

Despite winning at least a million fewer votes in the 2016 presidential election than Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States of America in January 2017. How this happened and what it means, especially for the Middle East, is worth examining.

To understand American politics it is crucial to know that the US is, in reality, a federal not a highly centralized state. Power is deliberately dispersed across 50 states, which each play significantly independent roles in shaping the country’s future.

A reasonable analysis of American institutions and society by someone from outside the United States might read something like this:

The US is a country with an archaic set of political institutions that, at almost every level of government, privilege those who live in rural and less populated areas. These areas are home to a significant number of white working class evangelical Christians for whom social as well as economic issues have great importance. There are important differences within each of these categories, but their intersection in rural and semi-suburban America provide them with disproportionate political power. Elite divisions have been reproduced among the larger electorate, such that the urban centers of the West Coast and the Northeast are a consistent base for the Democratic party and the less urban South, Inter-Mountain West and the lower Midwest are reliable supporters of the Republican party.

Trump will become president despite winning fewer votes than Clinton because the US has an electoral system that reflects the views of the men who wrote the constitution, who were uneasy with direct democracy. The American president is elected indirectly. Voters may vote for a presidential candidate, but in reality they are selecting members of an “electoral college.” Each state gets an elector for every member of congress they have. The House of Representatives reflects the population, but every state, regardless of its population has two, and only two, senators. Sparsely populated, often rural, states therefore are over-represented when a president is chosen. Trump, for example, won 13 electoral votes by winning Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming with just under a million individual ballots. Twice that number of ballots in the state of Massachusetts only got Clinton 11 electoral votes. Clinton’s majority of the ballots cast was not spread across the states in a way that would give her a majority in the Electoral College.

This is the second election since 2000 when the popular majority failed to translate into a majority in the Electoral College. The first was the year George Bush defeated Al Gore. For many Americans this suggests, as Donald Trump argued four years ago, that the Electoral College is the enemy of American democracy.

The most important underlying reality of the 2016 election is that Trump relied on what in India would be called the Republican vote bank. His total vote of just under 60 million was nearly identical to John McCain’s 2008 total (60 million) and Mitt Romney’s (61 million). Clinton’s 61 million was considerably lower than Barack Obama’s nearly 66 million votes in 2012 or the 69 million votes he won in 2008.

Trump’s victory lay in winning five states that had previously voted for President Obama: Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida. But even this victory was extremely narrow. The shift of 115,000 votes out of more than 10 million in these states alone would have given the Electoral College majority and the presidency to Clinton. Majorities in these five states had voted for Obama in the 2012 election and it was widely presumed Clinton would also get their support. Wisconsin, long a bastion of progressive Democratic politics, was believed to be part of Clinton’s “firewall” of protection. Many more people are registered as Democrats than Republicans in these states.

While there are states such as California and Massachusetts that are generally reliable for the Democrats in elections, the assumption that many states in the Midwest were also in this category was a big mistake. Thus Clinton did very little campaigning in Wisconsin, based on the erroneous assumption that it was a safe state. In the end, Trump won Wisconsin over Clinton by about 27,000 votes. Trump’s vote was nearly identical to Romney’s, and Clinton’s votes were nearly a quarter of a million votes shy of Obama’s 2012 total. Had all these Obama voters come to the polls and voted for the Democrats again, Clinton would have beaten Trump. She would have beaten Trump even without the votes that went to third-party candidates.

The US is a country with an archaic set of political institutions that, at almost every level of government, privilege those who live in rural and less populated areas

Why these voters failed to show up is a matter of contention. One possibility is voter suppression. In 2016, Wisconsin voters, for the first time ever, had to bring a state-issued identity card in order to vote. Because American citizens are not routinely issued such documents by the state, obtaining them can be expensive and time-consuming. Courts have ruled that such requirements may be unconstitutional and do discourage some voters, especially poorer voters and members of minority groups, who would be more likely to vote for Clinton. In North Carolina, a Federal court invalidated one such law because it racially restricted the right to vote. Trump won North Carolina, but it was a state that Republicans had already won in 2012.

Another possibility is that Clinton was personally unable to generate the kind of enthusiasm that buoyed Obama in 2008 and 2012. Clinton is not a good public speaker and she has been the object of fierce attacks on her integrity for decades. In the absence of powerful organizations that get people to the polls, American politicians increasingly rely on the spontaneous response of voters to candidates. Clinton was, in this view, unable to motivate sufficiently large numbers of Democrats to go to the polls.

A last argument asserts Clinton’s loss was the result of her policy positions. Many supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, who competed with Clinton for the Democratic nomination, argue this. Sanders, who is a more dynamic public personality than Clinton, espoused more radical policies than she did. His proposals for free college education and free healthcare attracted significant support from younger voters in the spring, and his supporters believe Clinton’s failure to adopt such policies placed her at a disadvantage to Trump. This argument would be more convincing if Clinton were competing with Trump for former Obama voters, but the relative stability of the Republican vote suggests this is not the case. It could be a reason why some voters chose to sit out the election, as quite a few did. In Michigan, for example, we know that 87,000 voters cast ballots without a vote for president.

Trump relied on what in India would be called the Republican vote bank. His total vote of just under 60 million was nearly identical to John McCain’s 2008 total (60 million) and Mitt Romney’s (61 million). Clinton’s 61 million was considerably lower than Obama’s nearly 66 million votes in 2012 or the 69 million votes he won in 2008.

Examining Clinton’s popular majority alongside her loss in the Electoral College within a historical context argues for yet another possibility that is far less favorable to Sanders and his supporters: The US is a country with a significant political division that has been hardening for the last two or three decades. Today, there is a relatively permanent group of about 60 million people who will vote Republican no matter who the candidate is, and there are probably just slightly more who will reliably vote Democratic. The Democratic voters form majorities in the West Coast states and the Northeast, while the Republicans dominate the more sparsely populated middle and south of the country. From this perspective, the 2008 election was anomalous because the threat of economic disaster and unpopular wars overseas brought people who do not usually vote to the polls in search of safety, not change. Clinton’s loss was due to an accumulation of problems like this, each small in and of themselves, but cumulatively sufficient to defeat her.

Despite claims that he was a candidate for change, Trump is more likely to opt for stability

If Clinton’s loss was primarily due to her inability to re-create the coalition of voters that Obama energized, who were her voters and who were Trump’s? Clinton’s core voters were African-American, Latino, women, and those who earn less than US$50,000 a year (the working poor in today’s American economy). Large majorities of voters in each of these categories voted for Clinton. In almost every category, there is a noticeable decline in the proportion that voted for Clinton as well as their participation in voting overall.

Trump’s core voters are older white men without a college education, rural voters, and evangelical Christians. Although his voters are often described as members of the white working class, their average income is significantly higher than the median income for Americans. The hardest core support for the Republican Party and Trump may well be at the intersection of these categories: white evangelicals who live in rural areas, and who, within the American system of politics, have disproportionate power. Trump’s aggressive, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric during the election, as well as his dismissive attitude toward women, appears to have energized this group further. A smaller majority of white women also voted for Trump.

Trump’s most flamboyant campaign promises are well known. He promised to build a wall on the US border with Mexico, to deport undocumented immigrants, to exclude Muslims from entering the US and to allow Russia a relatively free hand to pursue its support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Less well known outside the US is his promise to appoint a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Republican legislators refused to consider a proposed replacement by President Obama, and Trump has issued a list of 20 conservative legal figures from whom he said he would select a nominee. This will likely be accomplished fairly quickly and will give conservative Republicans effective control of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

Internationally, Trump is likely to pull back from any engagement in Syria that opposes Assad. He seeks, as did the early Obama administration, rapprochement with Russia. He is far more likely to indulge Vladimir Putin’s military adventures outside Russia — in the Ukraine and Syria. He is also likely to be far more favorably inclined toward Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi than President Obama was. Despite claims that he was a candidate for change, Trump is more likely to opt for stability.

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Ellis Goldberg