Once regarded as a joke candidate with policies ranging from the absurd to the offensive, Donald Trump yesterday entered the White House for the first time as President-Elect of the United States. His remarkable ascendancy to the office of the President of the United States has belied pundits from all political persuasions, almost all of whom believed that his appeal was limited to a significant, but ultimately not an election-winning bloc of disenfranchised white, working-class voters.
The narrative that Trump is the voice of an increasingly alienated working class has been persuasive throughout the election. However, it is not one that is borne out by figures emerging from the exit polls. Despite Trump’s overtures to working class and disadvantaged voters, Clinton actually won a greater share of votes from Americans with a yearly income under $50,000. Trump won more votes than Clinton from voters in all income bands above $50,000 and actually performed strongest with voters on median incomes.
The starkest divide between Clinton and Trump voters was not class, it was race. Trump won 58% of the white vote to Clinton’s 37%. He even won a 52% share of the vote among white women, despite widely derided remarks about women that leaked in the run-up to the election.
It would be easy therefore to conclude that Trump swept to victory on the back of racial division excited by his controversialist posturing on issues such as immigration. However, such a view assumes that Trump awoke something latent in America – that this is something new.
When the 2016 vote share for each racial group in America is compared with equivalent data from the 2012 election, it is striking how little has changed. Counterintuitively, given his targeting of Mexican immigrants, Trump actually achieved a better voter share amongst Hispanics than Mitt Romney in 2012 (Trump won a 29% share compared to Romney’s 27%). Trump also performed marginally worse with white voters (58% to Romney’s 59%).
Sadly America has always voted along ethnic lines, and this election has been no different. The real story this time is voter turnout.
Despite being one of the most controversial election races in recent memory and a record number of voter registrations, turnout did not reach expected levels. Early indications suggest that turnout was around 55.6%, lower than in the 2012 election. Before the election, Reuters’ polling director, Julia Clark, predicted that Clinton would win comfortably if turnout reached 60% while Trump would win easily if turnout was as low as 50%, a logic which has ultimately been vindicated with Clinton narrowly winning the popular vote with a turnout just over 55%.
Trump won because Clinton’s vote did not show up. Part of Trump’s success can be attributed to an insurgence of white voters without a college degree, a group that normally votes in low numbers but turned out for Trump in unusually high numbers, particularly in the Rust Belt states. However, most of Trump’s core voter demographics – the white middle classes and older voters – were historically more likely to turn out and vote anyway.
Ultimately, Hillary Clinton failed to inspire. It is particularly telling that Clinton was unable to achieve a higher share of the vote than Trump amongst white women, a demographic to which she herself belongs and which should have been an easy win in light of Trump’s widely reported historic misogyny. Clinton was unable to convince voters to turn out to vote against a man who promised to build a wall along the Mexican border; ban Muslims from entering the country; and unilaterally withdraw from NATO.
Many pundits attribute Trump’s victory to anger, to a widespread rage against the political establishment. But this is not the whole story. It was disillusionment and apathy, not anger, that handed Trump the keys to the White House.