On November 8th 2016 election day dawned in America with many, including Donald Trump himself, believing that he’d lose and Hillary Clinton would win and make history. As the night wore on and bled into the wee hours of the morning of Nov 9th 2016 in a seismic shock to American politics Donald Trump was declared the 45th President Elect.
While one part of America let out a primal scream of joy of having staved of the forces that threatened their “way of life” another part of America watched in bewilderment wondering, “how did this happen in America?”
Confession, I voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and in my opinion Donald Trump is not only unqualified to be President but he threatens the very idea of a pluralist and egalitarian society. Trump’s appeal, I’ve always reiterated, should never be glossed over as anti-establishment without mentioning the demagoguery that undergirded his campaign starting with the ugly and racist birther conspiracy against Barack Obama.
My objective here is to outline how Trump won in 2016, rather shortly, and why he lost in 2020. Also, we are witnessing a rare and very disturbing spectacle of a sitting American president who, having lost the election, is seeking to not just discredit the election but is actively working to overturn the verdict of a democratic exercise. What kind of long term effect will Trump leave, beyond the current attempt to discredit and overturn the election, on American politics?
Was the 2016 election won by Trump or lost by Clinton?
Instead of framing the 2016 election as Hillary Clinton’s loss if we framed it as ‘How Trump won in 2016?’ then we would re-orient the discussion in a completely different manner. A short overview.
The electoral map shows Obama support literally halving or worse in 2012 compared to his 2008 run. Noticeably Pennsylvania, with African-American dominated large cities like Philadelphia saw a real decline in support. What Florida was to the 2000 race Pennsylvania was to the races in 2016 and 2020. Trump, in both races, had no plausible route to the presidency without Pennsylvania and in that scorching battleground state the ground was shifting towards GOP even in Obama’s hey day.
(Table Sources from Wikipedia. See references)
James Carville, legendary political analyst, memorably characterized Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in the middle”. Pennsylvania provides the perfect lens to capture the Trump win in 2016. While Black vote dipped significantly, by an alarming 6 points (59.6% in 2016 vs 66.6% in 2012), Hillary matched the black vote, it should be noted, with John Kerry. Naturally Obama’s historic candidacy drove Black voters in record numbers to match White voters in 2008 and exceed in 2012.
|Florida||Obama 2.8%||Obama 0.88%||Trump 1.2%||Trump 3.36%|
|Michigan||Obama 16.47%||Obama 9.5%||Trump 0.23%||Biden 2.78%|
|Ohio||Obama 4.59%||Obama 2.9%||Trump 8.13%||Trump 8.0%|
|Pennsylvania||Obama 10.32%||Obama 3.2%||Trump 0.72%||Biden 1.16%|
|Wisconsin||Obama 13.9%||Obama 6.94%||Trump 0.77%||Biden 0.63%|
Too much is made of Hillary losing the Black vote without contextualizing her as a White candidate. Not to mention that other factors played into the Obama coalition not turning up for Hillary.
Even as Black voter turnout declined White voter turnout surged to 2008 levels surpassing the dip in 2012. Trump stood to benefit. Trump’s racism predated 2016 election to a long history. It is intellectually dishonest to ignore the racial appeal of Trump.
Known as the Central Park jogger case an attack on a white woman escalated into racial conflict when 5 Black and Latino men were charged of the crime. Trump released a full page ad in New York Times calling for the death penalty. “Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police” said the ad in all capital letters. The five accused were wrongly convicted and were exonerated in 2002 based on DNA evidence. They had served, on average 6 years before being paroled and later exonerated.
Asked about his role in the publicity of the trial in 2019 Trump, by now President, used his famous formulation to equivocate on racism. “You have people on both sides of that”. Referring to white supremacists in a riot in Charleston, VA Trump had said the same.
A Reuters/IPsos poll of 16,000 voters in June 2016 about racial attitudes had important data points. “Nearly half of Trump’s supporters described African Americans as more “violent” than whites. The same proportion described African Americans as more “criminal” than whites, while 40 percent described them as more “lazy” than whites”. To these voters Trump, unlike McCain and Romney, was a god send.
Americans loved to hate the Clintons and especially Hillary Clinton. To understand the sexism that Hillary faced it’d be instructive to watch the documentary “The People Vs O.J. Simpson”. Every sexist attack and mischaracterization that the lead prosecutor Marcia Clark faced was lived by Hillary too. Not to mention the radioactive racial politics depicted in the documentary.
“Fear of losing status, not economic anxiety”
“Fear of losing status, not economic anxiety” was a key motivating factor for voters say studies in the post-2016 election. Trump, popular narrative said, catered to the disaffected millions who felt left behind in a world of globalized economic treaties and foreign competition. Too many analysts shied away from stating the obvious that economic anxiety was a veneer to a darker truth, fear of loss of status by White voters.
The 2016 GOP candidate list featured a wide spectrum of Republican ideology ranging from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz, John Kasich and others. Despite or because of such a wide field Trump who had a committed base broke through and became the nominee. Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” was a verbal slap to the Obama era, the nation’s first Black president.
Diana C. Mutz conducted a study and concluded, “It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel. It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all”.
“Dr. Mutz noted two reasons for skepticism of the economic anxiety, or “left behind,” theory. First, the economy was improving before the 2016 presidential campaign. Second, while research has suggested that voters are swayed by the economy, there is little evidence that their own financial situation similarly influences their choices at the ballot box.” Note, that many voters who actually depended on Obamacare voted for Trump, who promised to upend Obamacare.
Summarizing for a New York Times article, in 2018, Dr. Mutz said, “It used to be a pretty good deal to be a white, Christian male in America, but things have changed and I think they do feel threatened”.
Thomas Edsall who teaches political journalism at Columbia University and writes for New York Times also, in Dec 2020, concurred in his column, “Rising anxiety over declining social status tells us a lot”. “In politics, status competition has become increasingly salient, prompting a collection of emotions including envy, jealousy and resentment that have spurred ever more intractable conflicts between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives”.
Research, cited in an article in Vox, in January 2017, by “Political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta puts the blame back on the same factors people pointed to before the election: racism and sexism”. “Sexism and racism correlated much more closely with support for Trump than economic dissatisfaction after controlling for factors like partisanship and political ideology”.
A corresponding survey by Five Thirty Eight points to how Republican voters carried more racial and gender resentment than Democratic voters did.
2020 and the Warning from Arizona Republic Editorial of 2016
Arizona went blue in 2020 and elected Joe Biden. How did it happen? The editorial by Arizona Republic, in 2016, offers clues. More importantly it presages the conduct of Trump in office and his post-election craziness now.
The Arizona Republic, published since 1890 and had never endorsed a Democrat for the Presidency, in its editorial endorsing Hillary Clinton, positively, had written ominously, “Trump responds to criticism with the petulance of verbal spit wad… When the president of the United States speaks, the world expects substance. Not a blistering tweet… Trump’s long history of objectifying women and his demeaning comments about women during the campaign are not just good-old-boy gaffes… They are evidence of deep character flaws. They are part of a pattern…stunning lack of human decency, empathy and respect”
A stunning aspect of 2020 election was Arizona turning blue. But, the Arizona Republic warned 4 years ago:
“What’s more, Arizona went down the hardline immigration road Trump travels. It led our state to SB 1070, the 2010 “show me your papers” law that earned Arizona international condemnation and did nothing to resolve real problems with undocumented immigration.
Arizona understands that we don’t need a repeat of that divisive, unproductive fiasco on the national level. A recent poll shows Arizonans oppose both more walls and the mass deportations Trump endorses.”
Trump said he could be “presidential” if he chooses to and not be the brash candidate that voters see on the campaign trail. Fat chance. The candidate we see is the president we get. Trump voters and many others, post-election, trotted out excuses like, “take him seriously not literally”. A presidential candidate should be taken seriously and literally.
How The Electorate Voted? Biden Scores in Suburbs and Wins
Even after GOP got a drubbing in the mid-term elections David Graham, writing for The Atlantic in November 2018, cautioned that “Trump is the Favorite in 2020”. The economy was roaring and rarely has a sitting president ever been defeated. The last sitting president who lost a re-election was George H.W. Bush in 1992 and that too after GOP had held the presidency for 12 years.
It is entirely possible that if the election had been conducted in Dec 2019 instead of November 2020 that Trump may have easily won re-election, albeit, again only via the electoral college and not the popular vote. In an election conducted amidst a pandemic that cost thousands of lives and a nation torn apart by racial conflagration even what mattered to voters was partisan. Voters for Trump and Biden had very different set of concerns.
New York Times exit polling (see below) shows that the economy, at 35%, remained the chief concern for 35% of the voters while racial inequality (20% of voters) and Corona virus (17% of voters) were second and third. Of 5 issues Biden led Trump on 3 issues. (Numbers in blue indicate support for Biden and red for Trump)
CNN exit polling tracked the shifts amongst voters in 2020 compared to 2016. While Biden had softer support amongst colored voters than Hillary Clinton did he closed the gap with the crucial segment of male White voters. Trump marginally increased his support amongst Black and Latino males. Explanations for this increase in support for Trump amongst non-White males ranged from being drawn to Trump’s machismo and possible reaction to Kamala Harris on the ticket. Losing the White male vote was crucial for Trump.
The pattern repeats in shifts of voters along educational criteria. Biden ran lower margin with colored voters than he did with White voters but closing the gap with white voters, larger segment of voters, especially in crucial battleground states, delivered the election to Biden.
Five Thirty Eight blog ran a column cautioning that even a man as nominee by Democrats will still face tough challenge against Trump given Trump’s machismo that has an allure for males, across races. Males who identified themselves as “completely” masculine disapprove of Trump’s handling of Corona virus crises by a very small margin unlike those who considered themselves less masculine or the women voters. (Graphic from Five Thirty Eight)
The real coup-de-grace that delivered the presidency, besides colored voters and women, were particularly votes from suburban counties. Brookings Institute analyzed exit polls and declared, “Biden’s victory came from the suburbs”.
“Large suburban areas in 2020 registered a net Democratic advantage for the first time since Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. This is significant because more voters reside there than in the other three categories. In terms of aggregate votes in these large suburban counties, there was a shift from a 1.2 million vote advantage for Trump in 2016 to (at last count) a 613,000 vote advantage for Biden—a nearly 2 million vote flip. In addition, Biden benefited from more modest Republican margins in small metropolitan areas. These advantages for the President-elect were even greater in key battleground states”.
A key component in the suburbs going blue is Trump losing with white women voters. Five Thirty Eight pointed to the changing trend. Alarmed that he’s losing the suburban white women vote Trump, at a rally, railed that he had saved “your damn neighborhood”. The not so subtle racial dog whistle was about his administration undoing Obama era rules to create affordable housing in affluent suburban neighborhoods. Affordable housing invariably catered to Black and Hispanic citizens.
The Scrambled Electoral Map and Narratives Messed
Trump caused a political earthquake in 2016 by blowing up the Democratic Blue Wall in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Heading into 2020 Democrats fretted that Biden could be defeated by a softer support amongst Hispanics than even Hillary got. As seen above Biden won PA by running up the suburbs and narrowing the White vote. That pathway helped Biden deliver a bigger bi-coastal earthquake in essaying his win.
Biden won Georgia, which had not voted for a Democrat since 1992, and delivered a blow to GOP and Trump in the redoubtable South. And he did it with a bi-racial woman running as his vice-president.
An article pointed out the revolutionary nature of the win, “the predominantly white enclave of Sandy Springs, whose white leaders vowed in the 1960s “to build up a city separate from Atlanta and your Negroes””. What changed, besides the demographics of the state itself with influx of Asian-Americans and charged up to vote Black voters? White voters were turning progressive. Five Thirty Eight notes, “the counties north of the city of Atlanta—Cobb, Gwinnett, the upper part of Fulton—were no longer homogeneous conservative strongholds.”
Arizona, on the West Coast, delivered another blow to GOP and Trump. Arizona, home to the most important ideologue of Republican Party and Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, and senator John McCain now has two Democratic senators and voted to turn the state blue. Demographic changes driven by migration into the state, led by Hispanics and a surge in strong support from Native Americans helped put the state in Biden’s column. This, too, is a significant win. Trump, notoriously disparaged Arizona senator and one time prisoner of war, John McCain and then, pandering to racist xenophobia, pardoned convicted sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Texas tempted the Democrats with hopes of turning blue and delivering a crippling blow to GOP and Trump but it stayed reliably red but it did so importantly by turning up the Hispanic vote for Trump. Democrat strategies of treating ethnic minorities as monoliths met its limits notably amongst Hispanic. Venezuelan and Cuban Hispanics delivered Florida for Trump. In Texas the Tejanos, who don’t like to be called Hispanic, delivered a crucial county for Trump. Not all Hispanics consider immigration to be a top concern. To many Trump’s economic message and especially his clamor to avoid COVID shutdowns, hat devastated livelihoods, echoed with many minorities. Whether it is Asian-American or Hispanic the alarm bells for Democrat one size fits all approach will not work.
So what does all this mean for 2024? At this point we cannot really say much but alarm bells are ringing for both party. The GOP certainly cannot rely, for one more election cycle, to depend on White vote. They also will lose with a Trump like candidate. Democrats, meanwhile, need to realize that flaunting ‘progressive’ slogans like ‘New Green Deal’, ‘Defund the Police’ etc. really scare the voters and that’s while they defeated Trump they could not only not flip the senate but also saw their House majority whittled down dangerously. If anything the American voter is saying be careful of going too far.
In a normal year and a normal presidency that’s where we should stop but we live in the age of Trump and we’ve to tarry a little longer dear readers.
Trump’s Assault on US Elections
Nearly 158 million voted in 2020, a record, over the nearly 130 million in 2016. In 2020 both the winner and loser got the first highest and second highest votes, respectively, in a US presidential election. Biden, according to Popular Vote Tracker by Cook Political report (see below), got 81 million votes and Trump got 74 million votes. Third party candidates were effectively sidelined. Trump did not just lose but lost decisively to Biden and ironically Biden’s electoral college vote of 306 was what Trump got in 2016. And Trump, in 2020, got 232 to Hillary Clinton’s 227 in 2016. In 2016 as soon as the networks called the election in the wee hours of the Wednesday Hillary Clinton made the call she thought she’d never have to make, conceding to Donald Trump. Trump then took to the stage and celebrated his win. Obama, eager to protect the traditions of democracy, promptly invited Trump to the White House and transition started right away. Of course they were patriotic and decent citizens unlike Trump.
Preparing for a pandemic states ensured that mail in ballots, usually a side show, became the primary voting method. However, in many states the infrastructure to count mail in ballots is very manual and in states like PA mail in ballots are counted ‘after’ election day in-person voting. On election night Trump led Biden by nearly 600,000 votes but as mail in mail in ballots were counted, agonizingly over the next 4 days, Biden surged and finally led Trump by 80,000 votes in PA, more than what Trump’s margins in 2016 was. Trump yelled ‘FRAUD’ and launched the most unprecedented and treasonous assault on American democracy.
Trump’s lawyers filed nearly 50 cases in battleground states and lost all but one where they got a notional victory on a minor issue that had little impact on the result. Most lawsuits were thrown out by judges, including those appointed by Trump. A Pennsylvania judge and a Trump appointee noted, “Voters, not lawyers, choose the president”. In Georgia another Trump appointed judge noted that if the lawsuit was allowed to proceed it “would breed confusion and potentially disenfranchisement that I find no basis in fact or in law”. Finally the Supreme Court, where one third of the judges are Trump appointees, refused to even hear the lawsuits.
These attempts by Trump were in no way analogous to the Bush v Gore of 2000 when the presidency hung on 500 votes in one state and dispute was about repeated recounts. Bush’s own lawyers, Ted Olson and James Baker, disavowed any comparison to 2000.
Trump, unlike Bush or Gore, was alleging, without any evidence. widespread fraud, even in a state like Michigan where Biden won by 150,000 votes. “Stop the Steal” became a new slogan as Trump’s supporters stormed vote counting centers and later, more alarmingly, electoral vote certifications. Trump himself, unprecedented for a presidential candidate, let alone a sitting president, lobbied directly with certifying officials and state legislatures to overturn the elections. More disgustingly national GOP leadership played along as a sitting President threatened American democracy.
Finally the courts and state GOP leadership in key positions held the line and American democracy survived. Question is what if the margin was narrower and what if it came down to one or two states? Can the republic and its system withstand another Trump? That’s a scary thought.
‘America, We’ve a Problem’ – The Future
Thomas Edsell’s column, “America, We’ve a Problem”, quotes Eli Finkel, “a professor of psychology at Northwestern” and researcher on political sectarianism, that the real danger is not Trump but, the GOP who “exhibited such fealty along the way, including a willingness to cripple the founding document they claim to view as sacrosanct.
To be sure, in any closely fought election feelings are raw and 2020 was not the first year that aw electoral college members being threatened or election officials facing death threats but this is the first time that such acts were egged on by a sitting American president and, as usual, with racial dog-whistles.
While it is fair to despair if Trumpism would survive longer than we’d like I remain unconvinced that it’d be so. America, trust me, has seen worse. Anyone remember the 60s when the country saw a President assassinated, a Civil Rights icon assassinated, students shot on campus, race riots were the norm, the Democratic party convention erupting in riots in a major US city, the President covering up a break in of the opposing party’s offices and eventually resigning? Part of the reason why Trump’s supporters have found it easy to support him is that his bark is often worse than his bite but his assault on elections is possibly the worst. Even that led to greater transparency. The electoral college certification, a boring ritual, was live telecast on news sites and was watched for any usurpation of democracy
Here’s a silver lining. Asked, in a CNN exit polling, if “racism in the US is: the most important problem or a minor problem”, amongst those who thought it to be an important problem nearly half are Trump’s voters.
Edsell, concluded his column writing, “One question that will be answered over time is whether Trump will continue to be uniquely gifted in putting a match to the gasoline. Or has the political, cultural and economic mix become so combustible that any spark can set it off regardless of which party or person is in office?”
A new President awaits to be inaugurated and Christmas is upon us, making the lines of W.B. Yeats, apt coda to this article. “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Only time can tell us.