From the day he said he would run in June 2015, pundits thought Donald Trump's campaign for president was a joke. In mid July, Trump received the Republican party nomination at their convention in Cleveland, and as of 2:35 a.m. November 9th, 2016, Trump is the president-elect of the United States.
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Trump predicted a Brexit-like surprise, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, he was correct.
From the beginning of September, the race fluctuated between Clinton leading by a wide margin and Trump closing the gap. Trump's October surprise – the release of a tape from 2005 in which he claimed to be able to sexually assault women with impunity because he's famous – brought him back to lows he hasn't seen since the end of the Democratic convention in July, and his debate performances did nothing to help his position in the polls.
Clinton's October surprise came on the 28th when FBI Director James Comey said the agency had new emails that could change the direction of the case. The emails in question came from the laptop of disgraced Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner who was being investigated for alleged sexual communications with a minor. Then on Sunday, November 6th, Comey told lawmakers that after reviewing the emails in question, the FBI hasn't changed its original opinion that Clinton did not break any laws.
Trump went from looking unelectable (the Washington Post announced in mid-October that "Trump's chances of winning are approaching zero") and causing "down ballot" Republicans to worry about their own chances to being a radical agent of chance who rode a wave of voter unrest to the highest office in the land.
Pollsters and poll aggregators predicted a Clinton win on election day. By the time polls opened on the East Coast, FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton a 70% chance of winning, the Upshot at the New York Times gave her a 84% chance, and the Huffington Post predicted Clinton had a 98.2% chance.
Trump claimed throughout the campaign that the support he saw at his rallies was not being reflected at the polls and that he would turn out a record number of white voters who were alienated from the political process. According to exit poll data from NBC, Trump won white voters without a college degree 65% to 29%. White voters with a college degree went for Trump 47% to 46%. The only group of white Americans who on average didn't vote for Trump college educated white women who voted 51% to 43% for Clinton. It is notable, however, that 43% of college educated white women did vote for Trump, which means having a college degree only gives you 11/9 odds of voting for Clinton.
Trump's performance in the presidential debates were seen by Clinton supporters as being abysmal, but Trump supporters, though disappointed at first, thought their candidate held his own in the second and third debates.
Trump's support among Republicans who are not part of his base (non-college educated whites and college educated white men) eroded following his refusal to say he would accept the election's results if he did not win. Though these voters may not vote for Clinton, they will probably not go to the polls, which will hurt the chances of other Republicans running for national and even state-wide office.
In the last two weeks of the campaign the 37 states and the District of Columbia that have early voting showed an edge for Democrats, according to U.S. News & World Report. In the past, early voting has benefited Republicans because the people who vote early tend to be overseas military and older voters, who have in previous elections been more reliably Republican constituencies.
Trump also started to give press conferences at his resorts as speculation about a Trump TV network spread across the internet, leading some observers to opine that his real end goal – leveraging the campaign for his celebrity projects – had been revealed.
The Final Debate
The final debate on October 19th was the most policy-focused forum to date. Clinton and Trump sparred over their attitude toward Supreme Court picks and immigration before arguing over the economy. The biggest surprise of the evening was Trump's refusal to say he would accept the outcome of the election if he lost.
Immediately following the debate a Fox Now instapoll had Trump winning the debate by three points, though most pundits, including Shep Smith of Fox News, thought Trump had lost the debate. During the debate, Trumps odds on OddsChecker also improved slightly to an 18% chance of winning.
Aside from points Trump may have scored on Clinton over the Clinton Foundation accepting foreign donations and damaging revelations about the internal working of her campaign and her speeches to investment bankers divulged this week by Wikileaks, Trump's lack of coherence over the details of his policy proposals and his inability to keep Clinton on the defensive over her insider style of politics led media observers to conclude he had missed his last, best opportunity to pick up voters. (See also: Clinton Mulled Apple, Starbucks, Coke CEOs as VPs.)
The hoped for general election pivot finally died during the debate. Trump's accusation that Clinton is not merely a political opponent but a criminal, and more importantly, his refusal to accept the democratic process of voting – which is the foundation of U.S. government – showed he doubled down on a "base only" strategy that appeals to the 33% to 45% of Americans who feel profoundly alienated from the democratic process but ignores undecided voters. His performance in the debate did little to stop the defection of Republicans who still believe in the fundamental health of the U.S. political system, and made his only hope of winning his ability to turn out every one of his supporters on election day.
Tape Gate and the Second Debate
After the first presidential debate, Trump’s poll numbers rose briefly and then started to decline in October. From a high of 45 points on October 2nd, he had lost 2.1 points going into the weekend of the second debate.
The Friday before the Sunday of the second debate, David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post published a story with video of Donald Trump making remarks about his ability with women, caught on a hot mic as he was being interviewed by Billy Bush who at the time was a reporter for Access Hollywood. Trump apologized for what he called “locker room talk,” but the story dominated the news cycle up to Sunday’s debate.
Meanwhile, his support among Republican Party leaders started to erode between the revelation of the tape on Friday and the debate on Sunday. Between the release of the tape on October 7th and the debate on October 9th, fifty-one prominent Republican publicly broke with Trump.
Before the debate, Trump held a controversial press conference with several women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, including one woman who accuses the former president of rape, and Trump promised to bring up the Clintons’ sex lives at the debate itself. The debate itself was perceived by media watchers to be a sufficient performance by Trump, who, even if he didn’t “win” restored the confidence of his most hard-core supporters that he would fight to the end.
Trump hit Clinton hard on Benghazi and the deleted emails on her private server, but Clinton held her own and scored points by getting Trump to tacitly admit he hasn't paid federal income tax since the mid-nineties. (See also: The Second Presidential Debate: Here's What You Missed.)
The First Debate
By the evening of the first presidential debate on September 26th, the probability that Trump would take the White House was at an all-time high: According to FiveThirtyEight, he reached 45.2% -- his highest showing in the polls since he briefly led Clinton at the end of July.
At the debate Clinton appeared to be prepared and measured in her attacks on Trump while Trump was appeared uneasy, shifting on his feet and sniffling. When Trump tried to attack Clinton for taking time off the campaign trail to prep for the debate, she shot back, "Yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president."
Clinton’s preparation and Trump’s lack thereof caused Trump to miss opportunities to drive home his criticisms of Clinton’s shifting stance on trade, particularly the TPP, and her misuse of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. On the other hand, Clinton set Trump up for criticism on his treatment of women by citing the case of Alicia Machado who Trump had called Miss Piggy and compared to a domestic servant.
After the debate, media consensus gave Clinton the victory, though not by a wide margin. Trump seemed to make matters worse for himself, however, when he doubled down on his criticisms of Machado on social media and Fox and Friends. (See also: NAFTA, Trickle-Down, Trump's Wealth: Debate Questions Answered.)
The Promised Pivot and the Convention Bump
At the end of May, Trump was expected to change his tone and "pivot" from a strategy to win primaries to a general election strategy. Presumably, he was going to soften his tone on immigration and race, but as the days ran out in June, no change appeared in the candidate. This may have been because of Cory Lewandowski's "Let Trump be Trump" strategy. When Trump started to fall behind Clinton in polls in mid-June, however, Lewandowski's role was reassessed by the campaign, and on June 20th he was let go.
Paul Manafort, who was brought onto the Trump campaign earlier in the year, was made the campaign manager in late June. His mission has been and will continue to be turning Trump toward the general election. Part of the mission will be getting Trump out of his fundraising deficit. Since the beginning of the campaign, Trump has relied more on his social media talents and eanred media. (See also: Trump Fundraising Falling Well Short of Clinton.)
Trump's choice of Mike Pence for Veep has also been attributed to Manafort's efforts to bring Trump into line with mainstream Republicans. So far it appears as though Manafort's strategy is to make the parallels between the summer of 1968 and 2016 stronger, branding Trump as the New New Nixon and making the election about "law and order" issues.
Ted Cruz's speech at the convention on July 20th stirred controversy when the former candidate refused to explicitly endorse Trump for president. Cruz's admonition that citizens should "vote their conscience" echoed the language that the #NeverTrump movement used to argue delegates should not vote to nominate Trump, and many commentators speculated Cruz is betting on a massive Trump loss in November that will position Cruz for a run in 2020.
Without a doubt, the convention boosted Trump. The first night's theme – "Make America Safe Again" – resonated in the polls and in the media after two tumultuous weeks that saw the killing of two African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota and eight policemen in Dallas and Baton Rouge. After a brief scandal involving Melania Trump's speech, some of which was copied from Michelle Obama's convention speech in 2008, news around the convention has focused on Ted Cruz's refusal to endorse Trump and stories that Trump's children approached Ohio governor John Kasich to be Trump's running mate.
However, the post convention euphoria has worn off and Trump is starting to look like a beaten man.
Terrorism and "Make America Safe Again"
In the early morning hours of June 12th, Omar Mateen, an American citizen born in New York whose parents are Afghani, entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida armed with an AR-15 assault weapon and a handgun. He killed 49 people and injured 53 in the most deadly mass shooting in modern America. That afternoon, Trump tweeted, "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism."
Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
On Monday morning, Trump appeared on Fox & Friends, the Fox Network's weekday morning news show. Speaking to the question of terrorism on American soil, Trump said of president Obama, "Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart or he's got something else in mind," the presumptive Republican nominee told Fox & Friends Monday morning.... He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands. It's one or the other."
At a rally in New Hampshire later that day, Clinton gave a foreign policy speech which served as a critique of Trump's response to the shooting: “We should be intensifying contacts in those communities, not scapegoating or isolating them," she said. “Inflammatory, anti-Muslim rhetoric and threatening to ban the families and friends of Muslim Americans … from entering our country hurts the vast majority of Muslims, who love freedom and hate terror.”
Trump responded that evening at a rally in New Hampshire saying, “The only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here." Drawing what he hoped was a bright line between his own policy and Clinton's, he continued, “Clinton wants radical Islamic terrorists to pour into our country. They enslave women and they murder gays. I don’t want them in our country."
President Obama also weighed in on the tragedy and used it as an opportunity to criticize Trump saying, "If there's anyone out there who think we're confused as to who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we've taken off the battlefield ... the intelligence and law enforcement officers who have spent countless hours disrupting plots and protecting all Americans – including politicians who tweet. And appear on cable news shows." Obama's intention, to interpret Trump's criticism as the most crass fear-mongering and fundamentally racist, was part of the Democratic strategy of the week before in the case of Judge Curiel that appeared to have lowered Trump in national polls. But a Bloomberg poll on June 15th that showed Clinton with a significant lead over Trump also showed he beat Clinton by five points on the question "Please indicate whether you think the phrase, 'would combat terrorist threats at home and abroad' better describes Clinton or Trump."
Terror and global tensions have continued to plague international relations. In the week leading up to the Republican National Convention, Europe was rocked by a terror attack in Nice that killed 84 people, and the following day over 250 people died during an attempted military coup in Turkey. Trump, in true Trump style, used the attacks to jump on the liberal left claiming the attacks were the fault of the U.S. Democrats: "We're seeing unrest in Turkey, a further demonstration of the failures of Obama-Clinton."
Domestic problems also have escalated as the summer wears on, drawing parallels in the media to the summer of 1968. Two ambush-style attacks on police that appear to be in response to recent killings of African-American men by white police officers continues to divide the nation. Trump has used the two attacks to hammer at the idea that weak, liberal leadership has led to a breakdown in American society. In a Facebook post, Trump wrote, "we grieve for the officers killed in Baton Rouge today. How many law enforcement and people have to die because of a lack of leadership in our country." In response, the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton called the attack an "assault on all of us."
The theme of the first day of the Republican convention in Cleveland was "Make America Safe Again," which resonated with party members after weeks of violence and protests. Former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani drew enthusiastic applause for his emotional speech in defense of police saying "“When they come to save your life, they don’t ask you if you’re black or white — they just come to save you!” David A. Clarke Jr, the sheriff of Milwukee County, Wis. and an African-American harshly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and defended the police forcefully saying, “ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make something very clear: Blue lives matter."
The selection of Mike Pence as Trump's running mate appears to have been calculated to bring the Republican party together and close the rift between Trump and the #NeverTrump adherents. Pence, the Governor of Indiana has spent over fifteen years in politics, the majority of them in congress. He is an evangelical Christian with strong conservative views that don't seamlessly mesh with Trump's; for instance, Pence is a staunch right-to-lifer who signed a law in March banning abortions when the fetus has a disability.
Pence and Trump also have had divided views on international matters. Pence voted to send troops to Iraq, a war that Trump was against, and when Trump called for all Muslims to be banned from America, Pence called the claim "offensive and unconstitutional." Pence and Trump also differ on trade: Pence has been an advocate for free-trade, something Trump has strongly denounced.
Despite some differing views, the appointment of Pence to Trump's campaign has been well received. He is well liked in the Republican ranks, and his soft-spoken demeanor should help balance out Trump's theatricality.
Harry Enten, senior political writer and analyst at FiveThirtyEight, said in the podcast "Pence Fever!" that the selection of a vice presidential running mate and the party convention has historically given a candidate a three to four point boost in the polls, and this appears to have been the case. Trump's choice of Mike Pence, governor of Indiana, was welcomed by Republican party members as a nod to the conservative base, though it also brought controversy given its haphazard announcement and ridicule when the logo was likened to a symbol of a sexual act.
The General Election
On May 26th, the Associate Press reported that Trump had gained the required delegates to win the nominating vote making him the official Republican 2016 candidate. At a press conference that day, Trump said Clinton "can't close the deal" and offered to debate Bernie Sanders for $10 million dollars, as if a political debate were a prize fight. Sanders never took the bait, and following the primaries in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota and North Dakota, the point was moot as Clinton became the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party.
At the end of March, Trump hired veteran campaigner Paul Manafort to put his organization on more professional footing. Up until then, Trump's campaign had been managed by Corey Lewandowski, a relative unknown on the national political scene who met Trump at a rally in New Hampshire in 2014. Lewandowski's strategy during the primary was "Let Trump Be Trump," a slogan Lewandowski reportedly kept on a white board in his office. Following Trump's primary victory, establishment Republicans reconciled themselves to the candidate hoping he would "pivot" toward the general election and tone down some of his incendiary comments about racial and religious minorities and women.
They were disappointed, however, just over a month before the primary when Trump called ABC News reporter Tom Llamas who was questioning him about donations to veterans a sleaze. Then on May 27th at a rally in San Diego, California, Trump attacked federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, who recently issued a ruling against Trump University, saying Curiel is "a hater of Donald Trump," and Curiel, "happens to be, we believe, Mexican." Judge Curiel was born in Indiana to Mexican parents. Rather than apologize for the veiled racism of his comments, Trump doubled down on his accusation of the judge's illegitimacy first in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on June 2nd and then again with Jake Tapper of CNN on June 3rd, saying Curiel should recuse himself from the bench because his Mexican heritage clouds his objectivity.
Heading into the Republican convention in Cleveland, the fissures in Trump's campaign between Manafort, whose job is to keep Trump on script and Lewandowski who wants to "Let Trump Be Trump," may undermine a newly empowered Hillary Clinton.
The Inevitable Trump
Through the beginning of March, Cruz appeared to be pacing Trump in the primaries, winning Kansas, Idaho, Maine and Wyoming by significant margins. The Ides of March put an end to all hopes that Trump would fade before the convention, however. The front-runner swept four of the five states voting, including Florida by 29 points; that led Rubio, who had made Florida his last stand, to drop out of the race. Only Ohio went for another candidate, Governor Kasich, whose popularity in the state is enormous.
Though Cruz supporters enjoyed flickers of hope when he won Utah on March 22 and Wisconsin on April 5, Trump destroyed his Republican rivals in New York on April 19, winning 60% of the vote and carrying every county in the state but one. That county, Manhattan, went to Kasich. Cruz, perhaps due to his disparaging comments about "New York values" earlier in the race, only convinced 14.5% of the state to vote for him.
In the April 26 "Acela Primary," Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania voted for Trump by margins that beat his previous wins. Cruz ran third in four of the races, and Trump beat him by an average of 43 points. Kasich, who had a better showing than in previous primaries, only garnered 5 of the 118 delegates up for grabs and was mathematically eliminated from becoming the nominee.
Only two days earlier, Cruz and Kasich's campaigns had made headlines by promising to help each other win Indiana, Oregon and New Mexico. The strategy was meant to deprive Trump of a simple majority of pledged delegates in hopes of forcing a second vote at the convention. Almost as soon as it was announced, however, the deal seemed to fall apart when Kasich told reporters that if voters in Indiana wanted to vote for him, they should do so. Cruz took the bold (some observers said "desperate") move to announce Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, as his running mate. In a press conference just before the primary, Cruz called Trump a "pathological liar," "utterly amoral" and "a serial philanderer" in a last-ditch effort to convince the voters to reject Trump.
On May 3, Indiana sealed the Republican nomination for Trump, giving him 53.3% of the vote and all of its 57 delegates. Cruz, facing cries of "no!" and tears from his supporters, dropped out of the race that night, saying:
From the beginning I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory. Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed. Together, we left it all on the field in Indiana. We gave it everything we’ve got, but the voters chose another path. And so with a heavy heart but with boundless optimism for the long term future of our nation, we are suspending our campaign.
After hearing that Cruz had suspended his campaign, Kasich also thought better of spending more time and money in a losing fight and also dropped out. His decision left Trump the Republican's presumptive nominee for president in 2016.
For decades, the Republican party was famous for its discipline, but from the beginning of 2016, some Republicans started to say publicly they might not vote for Trump if he became the party's nominee. Freshman Republican Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska was one of the first when he tweeted:
If @GOP no longer works--to defend life, religious liberty, 2nd Amendment, etc–then people should stop supporting until party is reformed.
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) February 29, 2016
On March 2, a group of 121 Republican foreign policy experts signed an open letter explaining their opposition to Trump saying, "We have disagreed with one another on many issues, including the Iraq war and intervention in Syria. But we are united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency." Among their list of objections to Trump were, "His vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle," and "He is fundamentally dishonest."
On March 3 Mitt Romney, who was the Republican nominee in 2012, said at a speech in Salt Lake City, "If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospect for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished." That same day, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain said Trump is "dangerous" for foreign policy.
At his own press conference, Trump dismissed Romney as a “failed candidate,” “a choke artist” and “a loser.” That evening in Detroit, Trump's relentless assault on the establishment continued when he called Rubio "Little Marco" and defended an implied attack on his manhood from Rubio (Rubio said Trump's hands are small) saying, "He referred to my hands; if they're small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee."
On March 17, a group of notable conservatives including blogger Erick Erickson, columnist Quin Hillyer and former George W. Bush adviser Bill Wichterman met at the Army and Navy Club in Washington D.C. to propose an anti-Trump "unity ticket" and called on "all former Republican candidates not currently supporting Trump to unite against him and encourage all candidates to hold their delegates on the first ballot.” Their aim was to deny Trump the necessary number of pledged delegates to win the nomination on the first vote at the party's convention, which, due to the complex parliamentary rules of the convention, could release pledged delegates to vote for whomever they wanted.
Meanwhile, Romney led other members of the party, including influential conservative journalist William Kristol, in working to find a third party candidate to run in the general election. Though some names were floated, like Sasse, Kasich and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, by mid-May Romney was reported to have given up the search.
Long Odds for The Donald
When Trump announced his candidacy at Trump Tower in New York City on June 16, 2015, the initial reaction of the press on both the left and right ranged between bemusement and disbelief. Leon Neyfakh remembers, "The guy was a novelty act, we thought – a narcissistic dingbat who was going through the motions of running a political campaign in service of nothing more sinister or consequential than promoting his big dumb brand." Few in the commentariat believed Trump could get far after launching his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and insisting he would slap a 35% tariff on Ford cars made in Mexico. And yet, other than a brief surge by Ben Carson, Trump led in the polls up until the important Iowa caucus, which Senator Ted Cruz won by 3.3% of the vote. (See also: Stocks, ETFs to Watch if Donald Trump Becomes President.)
Trump's loss in Iowa became the first of many events pundits seized on as evidence that Trump's candidacy was about to go down in flames. Unfortunately, his resounding 20-point win in New Hampshire (Ohio governor John Kasich came in second with 15.8% of the vote, and Cruz came in third with 11.7%) upset that attempt to narrate Trump's end. Particularly disappointing to observers were the poor results for former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, the two establishment favorites, who only garnered 11% and 10.6% of the New Hampshire vote, respectively.
Trump gained momentum in early 2016 by dominating televised debates and unequivocally "winning" on social media. Trump's intuitive understanding of Twitter in particular allowed him to dominate the news cycle and suck air from his competitors' campaigns. At the Republican debate in Greenville, South Carolina on February 13, Jeb Bush openly attacked Trump, saying, "While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe." Trump shot back "The World Trade Center came down during your brother's reign. Remember that?" The Iraq war was a topic other Republicans wouldn't touch, and initially Trump's critics thought it would alienate the Republican base. To the contrary, his supporters praised him for being a straight talker. Immediately after the debate, Trump attacked Bush on Twitter saying:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2016
Meanwhile, an accusation Trump made the previous summer, that that Bush was "low-energy," had gained enough traction to define the candidate. Bush dropped out of the race after the debate in Greenville and a week before the Super Tuesday primary on March 1st. But Trump's ability to skewer Republican pieties, from sacrosanct policies to party elders, continued to be a strength. After Bush endorsed Cruz, whose popularity among party elites was only marginally greater than Trump's, Trump easily painted Cruz with the brush of both "the establishment" and being a loser by association.
Low energy Jeb Bush just endorsed a man he truly hates, Lyin’ Ted Cruz. Honestly, I can’t blame Jeb in that I drove him into oblivion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2016
At the Republican debate in Houston on February 25th, Rubio took the lead in attacking Trump from the position of the establishment candidate. But Trump easily deflected Rubio's jabs by reminding the audience of Rubio's frightened performance in the New Hampshire debate on February 6: "I watched him melt down on the stage like that, I've never seen it in anybody…I thought he came out of the swimming pool."
Trump won seven of the 11 contests on March 1, also known as Super Tuesday, and 254 pledged delegates. Cruz and Rubio traded second and third place in several states, but Rubio only won Minnesota. Direct dismissal of Trump's candidacy turned into worried talk among Republican party regulars that Trump had to be stopped.
Demographics and Destiny
According to a national NBC/WSJ poll taken in April, 69% of women, 79% of Latinos, and 88% of African Americans are negatively disposed toward Trump. Moreover, Clinton wins those groups by wide margins: women choose Clinton over Trump by 15 points, Hispanics by 37 points and African-Americans by a staggering 75 points. Consequently, the largest obstacle for Trump in the general election is demographics.
The U.S. electorate has changed dramatically since Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980. That year 88% of voters were white and 51% were men. Of those groups, 56% of whites and 55% of men voted for Reagan. In 2012, only 72% of voters were white, and women had surpassed men at the polls, 53% to 47%. The share of the Hispanic vote increased fivefold from 1980 to 2012, from 2% to 10%, and the share of African-American voters increased by 3%. Mitt Romney won 59% of whites and 52% of men and still lost to Barack Obama by a wide margin.
At the same time, other kinds of political identity have waned in the last 40 years. In the mid-20th century, voters might find their political identity as union members, Daughters of the American Revolution or Veterans of Foreign Wars. Most of those party-affiliated identities have been replaced by race and gender identities. The Democrats' coalition of the Roosevelt years brought together southern farmers and northern union members; in 2012 the Obama coalition was made up of college-educated young people, women and non-whites, while Republican voters were overwhelmingly older, white and male. Given the fundamental shift in who the voters are, it seems a candidate like Trump who openly insults women and minorities would have a tough time getting enough white men to carry the election.
But demographics are not destiny, and the New York Times's political blog, The Upshot, has argued that older, less educated, white voters may be more important in 2016 than previously assumed. After looking at the Current Population Survey and data compiled by Democratic data firm Catalist in addition to exit polls from 2008 and 2012, Nate Cohn concludes that "demographic shifts played a somewhat smaller role in Mr. Obama’s re-election than the postelection narrative suggested. Even if the electorate were as old and as white as it was in 2004, Mr. Obama would have won, because of the gains he made among white voters in states like New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa."
Probability and Contingency
The raw numbers only tell half the tale, however; this is partly because presidents are not popularly elected, as some people were shocked to learn when Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 only to lose to George W. Bush in the electoral college. Winning the presidency is a state-by-state game. NPR has worked out the possible scenarios for either a Trump or a Clinton win, and the odds are slightly, but not overwhelmingly, in Clinton's favor.
One assumption that must hold true for Clinton to win is that her own natural base of women and minorities will get at least some support from white men who identify as Democrats. If she does, states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan will be in her column on November 8. States like Florida, Arizona and Virginia that have a long history of social conservatism and a Republican voting record may flip to the Democratic column due to sizable gains in the Hispanic and Asian population. This way of analyzing the race reduces uncertainty to quantifiable probabilities, and the probabilities appear to favor Clinton.
But demographics are not necessarily determinative, and Trump's combined ability to shift his message to suit his audience and his undeniable skill in making his opponents' weaknesses the center of conversation, make this election more contingent than many pundits are willing to acknowledge. Nate Silver, who gained fame by correctly predicting Obama would win in 2012, has written a long self-critical analysis of his inability to predict that Trump would dominate the Republican race, in which he makes two important points about the difficulty in predicting this contest's outcome.
First, the determinants of an election are split between "fundamentals" and "sentiment." The former is evidence based on prior behavior, usually grounded in social facts like demographic identity and the state of voters' satisfaction with the economy. The latter is the mood or zeitgeist that makes improbable events – like Trump gaining the Republican nomination – upset conventional wisdom and possibly rewrite the rule book on what's normal. When observers are biased towards fundamentals, they sometimes discount sentiment as mass illusion and false ideology. A famous example is Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Observers with this bias risk not seeing a sentiment-based shift in the fundamentals that Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift.
Second, historical events are not the same as natural events that the tools of natural science, like probability modeling, were designed to analyze. Though some, perhaps most, historical events, seem (like the weather) to follow the causal logic of nature, other historical events are unpredictable black swans. During the 20th century, social scientists and economists dismissed the probability of black swans, believing that with enough information uncertainty could be eliminated and risk quantified. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, however, social scientists have had to do a lot of soul searching over the possibility that some historical events might be beyond the reach of rational prediction.
The Bottom Line
The 2016 campaign season has already been the most unusual in recent memory. Both Clinton and Trump have historically high negative favorability ratings. Visceral disgust is energy-intensive, and elections where both candidates are unpopular are often marked by low voter turnout. When only the most passionate voters make it to the polls, outcomes are far more obscure.
If Trump is able to pivot away from the racist, misogynist persona that won him the primary contest and appeal to Hispanic and female voters who feel they too have missed out on the Obama recovery; if he is able to paint Clinton as a candidate without ideas or convictions; if he is able to convince passionate Sanders supporters that he is the only candidate to stand up to the neo-liberal new world order, he may be able to win his seat in the White House. We'll only know for sure on November 9th.
This post has been updated throughout. Greg DePersio, Aaron Hankin and David Floyd contributed reporting.