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Trump wins the presidency: What went wrong?

By Alex Mitchell

Section: Opinions

November 11, 2016

Donald Trump’s upset victory on Tuesday shocked campus and much of America. Students cried in classes. People took to social media to vent their frustrations. In the SCC, a safe space was established for those who felt affected by the election. People are reeling, and with good reason. Brandeis students disproportionately go into fields like public health, scientific research and governmental work, fields that will likely shrink under a Trump presidency. Many of us are watching our future plans evaporate before our eyes.

Like many Brandeis students, this week has been hard for me. The thought of a Trump presidency sickens me, and I fear for the safety of my friends. While the tone of this article may seem detached or insufficiently emotional, I am trying to treat the problem with the seriousness it deserves. I have always believed in solutions-based approaches to problems, and while many may seek to wallow in the misery of this new era, I for one am more concerned with understanding how Trump’s victory occurred, why it surprised us and how to prevent it in the future. With that caveat in mind, let us look at the data.

As indicated by her popular vote victory, Clinton lost several states by very few votes. Wisconsin, Michigan and Maine’s second district were lost by less than a single percentage point, and Pennsylvania was lost by less than 1.5. All of these states have voted Democrat in every presidential election since the 1980s. Had turnout and Democratic support been even a little higher in the traditional Democratic bastions, Clinton could have carried these states easily. Looking closer, we find that these states all have similar demographics. We find larger numbers of low-education whites in rural areas surrounding medium-sized cities with large numbers of ethnic minorities. Past Democrats have built coalitions between both groups in these states and won by impressive margins. Last Tuesday, low turnout and unexpectedly high support for Trump in cities, combined with defections of Obama voters in less urban areas led to a surge that turned the rust belt red. Counties that voted for Obama swung wildly to Trump, with some districts moving twenty or thirty points, suggesting many Obama voters switched to Trump.

Clinton’s low support among religious voters, who are strong in rust belt states, may explain this phenomenon. Donald Trump’s behavior during and before the campaign was deplorable, but that was not enough to turn off Christian, so-called “values” voters, on election day. Trump’s comments about sexual assault, his affairs with married women and his attempts to get his mistress to have an abortion could have nailed the lid on the coffin of his presidency. Evangelical and Catholic leaders denounced Trump, and gave Clinton an opening. Strangely, she refused to capitalize on this weakness. In contrast, Trump, who otherwise played a weak “ground game,” reached out to religious leaders of all faiths to apologize, formed committees to drum up support in these groups and emphasized religious values in his speeches. Clinton did none of this, and it may have cost her dearly. It should be noted Trump’s success among religious voters is not confined to Christians. Among those who identify as religious “others” (not Christian or Jewish), Trump outperformed Mitt Romney by 12 points, the largest shift of any religious demographic. This trend is especially troubling, given that Muslim Americans, who largely opposed Trump, make up a large fraction of this demographic.

White Catholic voters, often considered the prototypical swing voters, also went for Trump. Interestingly, in July, polls showed as many as 55 percent of white Catholics planned to vote for Clinton. On Election Day, that number had dropped to 39 percent, the lowest fraction any Democratic presidential candidate has ever scored. Clinton’s aggressive pro-choice messaging and the fallout from the Podesta email scandal (which was widely covered in the Catholic press) likely contributed to her loss here. White Catholics make up a sizable fraction of the electorate in the rust belt, and in losing this demographic, Clinton severely narrowed her path to the White House.

Trump seized the presidency by going after some of the most critical elements of the Democratic coalition in the rust belt. His courtship of Evangelical and Catholic groups combined with Clinton’s refusal to engage with them cost much of her potential support, especially in battleground states. Trump attacked a weak flank in the Democrats, the working class voters whose lives seem to be steadily declining despite the recovering economy. Clinton failed to either recognize or capitalize upon Trump’s weaknesses among religious voters, which he eventually patched over. When we sit down to lay out a strategy to take back Congress in 2018, we will need to be aware of these mistakes, and take steps to prevent a similar disaster during the next election.

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