Election 2016

Trump Didn't Win Because He's Trump. He Won Because Clinton Is Clinton

While many will call this a mandate for Donald Trump, it's better read as an anti-mandate for Hillary Clinton.


Jens Kalaene/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

The bottom line of the 2016 presidential election is that black, Hispanic, and millennial voters just didn't vote for Clinton, or vote at all, in the numbers that were expected nor the number she needed to counter the older, whiter fan-club of Donald Trump.

Exit-poll data is far from precise, but it does at least give us an informed idea of why things went the way they did. And all signs indicate that it wasn't some radical realignment of voting blocs nor new and unique conditions that drove Donald Trump to victory. Like so many GOP leaders before him, Trump's support was derived largely from older, white, and middle- to upper-class voters, with young people, non-whites, and working-class voters overwhelmingly choosing Clinton. But Clinton couldn't get as much support from these groups as she needed to counter the predictable wave of older, white voters for Trump.

Across every key Democratic demographic, Clinton's numbers were down compared to Barack Obama's in 2012. According to CNN exit polls, 88 percent of black voters chose Clinton this year, while 93 percent of black voters went with Obama in 2012. Black voters also made up less of the total electorate this year—12 percent, down from 13 percent.

Latinos, too, showed less enthusiasm for Clinton this year than they did for Obama, who won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, compared to 65 percent this year for Clinton. And Asians were also less Democrat-positive in 2016, with 65 percent choosing Clinton this year, compared to 73 percent for Obama four years ago.

Among millennials, there wasn't any more love for Trump than there had been for Mitt Romney. But young voters did show less love to Clinton than they did when it came to Obama. CNN's polls showed Trump and Romney captured the same percentage of 18- to 29-year-old voters—37 percent—but Obama won 60 percent of this age group in 2012 while Clinton got just 55 percent this year.

And while 52 percent of Americans who earn less than $50,000 per year voted for Clinton (compared to just 41 percent for Trump), Obama fared better among low-income voters in 2012.

Meanwhile, slightly higher percentages of some key Democratic demographics went for Trump than did for Romney in the last go-round. While Romney got 27 percent of Latino voters, Trump got 29 percent. While Romney got 7 percent of black voters, Trump got 8 percent.

Trump also pulled from working-class, non-coastal, and non-urban white voters who had been Obama supporters. Anecdotally, some of these voters are drawn to Trump's anti-politically correct attitude, while some are drawn to his anti-free trade, anti-globalist rhetoric, and others just like that he's not a woman and/or makes bigotry cool again. But considering this group was largely age 45 and up, and did vote Obama in 2012, the explanation is certainly more complicated than that they're simply all racists, or rebelling against being called racists by college kids and Twitter feminists, even if white identity-politics and culturally reactionary signalling shouldn't be discounted entirely among narratives of economic concerns and more non-specific political hopelessness.

While women were supposed to be especially appalled by Trump, and aligned with Clinton in sisterhood, she pulled slightly less of the female electorate than did Obama in 2012: 54 percent versus 55 percent. Forty-two percent of women in 2016 backed Trump according to exit-poll data, while Romney got 44 percent of women voters.

By all early indications, Trump won by winning exactly the Republican status quo; Clinton lost by failing to capture enough of either her party's traditional base or the coalition of young and non-white voters that proppelled Obama to power. While many will call this a mandate for Trump, it's probably better read as an anti-mandate for Clinton. For all the irregularities of Trump's campaign and character, he hasn't forged radically different demographic ground here than did Romney or other Republicans (something that, alas, doesn't bode well for GOP reflection and reform). And for all Clinton's potential power as the first female candidate, she could have won by simply hanging on to Obama's status quo.