2016 Presidential Election Analysis: The Trump Cards

The Clinton campaign was long on plans but short on sound bites. The Trump campaign was just the opposite.

On December 1, the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump presidential campaign staffs met in a forum at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government to review and analyze the results of this year’s presidential election. This forum which has been held at Harvard after every presidential election since 1972 is usually quite collegial in nature.

This year it was any thing but as Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton campaign communications director, and Kellyanne Conway, Trump campaign manager, engaged in a “shouting match”.

Palmieri precipitated the combative confrontation by accusing the Trump campaign of “providing a platform for white supremacists.” She continued to state, “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”

After that, Conway disputed Palmieri’s accusations in a testy exchange - near the end of which Palmieri clarified, “I’m not saying that’s how you won but that’s the campaign that was run, yes.” Conway countered, “We flipped over 200 counties that President Obama won…” adding, “How about you had no economic message.”

Even though Palmieri and Conway disagreed they both made some valid points during their disputation. The Trump campaign did not win because of building a “platform for white supremacists” and the Clinton campaign lost, in part, because of not being able to prevail in “counties that President Obama won.”

There are many reasons that Trump won the Electoral College vote by a relatively narrow margin and that Clinton lost in spite of winning the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes. At this point in time - too close to the heat of certainly the most contentious campaign in our life times - possibly those least able to engage in an objective and detached assessment in order to identify the underlying or root causes for the outcome are the staff closest to and most responsible for the conduct of the campaign for each candidate.

Over the next few years and perhaps decades, there will undoubtedly be detailed academic studies and books written on what transpired in the confusing and confounding presidential election year of 2016. Here is our quick take and initial analysis on the cards that were played – or not – that gave the victory to President-elect Trump. In this year’s presidential contest:

  • Antipathy trumped anger
  • The back roads trumped the beltways
  • The outsiders trumped the insiders
  • The message trumped the material
  • The media trumped itself
  • Fake news trumped “real” news
  • Chaos trumped order

Antipathy Trumped Anger

In our opinion, the single biggest determinant for the way this election turned out was the lack of turnout. Only approximately 55+% of the eligible voters cast ballots. This was the lowest turnout since the Bush-Gore contest in 2000 (turnout = 56.6%). According to CNN, the turnout in 2012, 2008 and 2004 was 60.0%, 63.7%, and 62.2% respectively.

Pew research conducted prior to the election showed that many of the voters who planned on coming to the polls were angry. In the past, those who stayed away might have been labeled alienated or estranged from the political or governmental process. Those who didn’t vote this time went beyond alienation to antipathy – a complete aversion and dislike for things political.

What is even more disturbing than the low turnout is that it appears that there were a number of voters who voted on Election Day but did not cast a vote for president.

It is not unusual for there to be a “fall-off” in down ballot races. It is unheard of at the top of the ticket. Combine this phenomenon with the non-voters and antipathy ruled the day in the presidential election in 2016. If there had been anywhere near a normal turnout, there most probably would have been a different outcome.

The Back Roads Trumped the Beltways

One of the frequent media comments after the election was that Clinton won in the coastal states and that Trump carried the day in the interior of the country. While this observation is true in general, it misses the real point.

The truth is that the Republicans tended to control in rural areas in red and blue states across the entire country and the Democrats tended to control in the more urban areas and college towns. For example, in the blue state of Illinois which has 102 counties, 91 counties went for Trump and a mere 11 went for Clinton.

One of the keys to the Trump victory is that the rural areas turned out big time in the rust belt states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania – the urban areas not so much so. Reince Priebus, the RNC party chair, helped put together the strategy and tactical action plans that brought these folks from the back roads and blue highways out in sufficient numbers to trump the folks from the beltways and Clinton and the Democrats in this election.

The Outsiders Trumped the Insiders

Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sander’s surprising performances during the Republican and Democratic primaries demonstrated that 2016 was going to be an unusual election year. Their populist appeal – although to different constituencies – in the primaries set the stage for the outsiders to vanquish the insiders.

It is ironic that Trump - an insider if there ever was one - through a feat of legerdemain was able to channel and claim the mantle of the outsider and change master. Nonetheless, he did so and attracted a broad swath of voters who were fed-up with business and politics as usual.

It is instructive to note that even though Sanders aligned himself closely with Clinton after she won the Democratic nomination and the Democratic Party platform was made much more progressive in response to Sander’s popularity that did little to sway a fairly large percentage of his supporters. In surveys before Election Day, 15% of Sanders supporters said they would support Trump and as many as one-third said they would not vote for Clinton.

The message from those Sanders’ backers was clear. They saw Clinton as the ultimate insider and even though she might have been a change agent at one point in her career, the establishment and elitist baggage she collected later in her career prevented them from embracing her candidacy.

The Message Trumped the Material

The Clinton campaign was long on plans but short on sound bites. The Trump campaign was just the opposite.

In 2016, as in most presidential election years, the stronger message and the stronger messenger won the day. Make America Great Again may not have been as compelling as Change You Can Believe In. But, it was definitely more aspirational and inspirational than I’m with Her or Stronger Together.

In the election post-mortems, numerous analysts attributed part of the Clinton campaign loss to the failure to establish a convincing, compelling and consistent message box that cut across voter groups. The focus on kids and families was important but did not resonate with the multitude of voters whose principal concerns were economic uncertainty and future security.

The Media Trumped Itself

Early on in his efforts to gain the presidency, most of the media did not take Trump’s candidacy seriously but they gave him an incredible amount of uncritical air and print time. He was the beneficiary of a free pass.

Recently, aides to Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio accused CNN of helping Trump to win the primaries through “biased coverage” because of the attention it devoted to covering him and his pronouncements. (This is an interesting perspective in that later in his campaign for President Trump singled out CNN as being unfair in its coverage of him.)

By the time the mainstream media began to be more critical and analytical in covering Trump’s campaign to win the Republican nomination and then the presidency of the United States, it was too little too late. Trump had gained center stage and he was not going to be upstaged.

He used his position in the bully pulpit of his own and the media’s making to continue to dominate news cycles. He used his rallies to denigrate and discredit the media and to make the fourth estate the enemy of the people – at least in the minds of his supporters

Combine this with the media’s insatiable appetite and unending coverage of Clinton’s e-mail problems, the wiki-leaks disclosures, substantial reporting on the findings of some public opinion polls that were highly suspect in terms of their design and the reliability and validity of findings, add in opinion pieces and editorials against Trump, and it becomes apparent how the media trumped itself with a large segment of the voting public. In spite of frequently outlandish and incredulous statements, Trump became the victim instead of the victimizer.

Fake News Trumped “Real” News

Much has been written about how fake news through social media and alt-right outlets, helped feed the Trump candidacy with various constituencies. But, the primary source of fake news during the primaries and the race for the presidency was not these outlets but the Trump tweet machine.

Trump in a stroke of brilliance made his tweets his means of communicating with his supporters during the campaign and continues to do so as President-elect.

Forget the alt-right. Trump is the alt-media. Depending on whose numbers one is looking at Trump currently has somewhere between 12 million to 16+million Twitter followers. And, they consider his comments the “truth” even when there is absolutely no shred of evidence to support them

As one example of Trump’s reach, shortly after it became apparent that he would take a drubbing from Hillary Clinton in the popular vote count, even though Trump had won the Electoral College vote, he sent out a tweet with the absurd assertion that he had actually won the popular vote as well but that millions of illegal votes were cast in the blue states thus giving Clinton the popular vote. The mainstream media reported this fake news as “real news” – although its veracity was called to question by some.

Chaos Trumped Order

During the presidential race, the press frequently reported on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Clinton campaign in contrast to the disorganized and frequently reorganized Trump campaign. The underlying assumption was probably that order would produce a win and that disorder would produce a loss.

As we all know, that’s not what happened and not what was predicted. What happened did not seem possible. It did not seem logical. It did not seem rational. In fact, for many it seemed unbelievable Nevertheless, it occurred.

That’s because politics and the election process takes place in a chaotic rather than a deterministic system – a system in which small changes and variances can change the trajectory or the outcome of things.

In chaos theory, working with mathematical models, rounding off of variables can dramatically change predictions on things such as weather conditions. Like the weather, the political process takes place in a dynamic rather than a static system.

Feelings can influence behavior as much and many times more-so than facts. Facts can speak for themselves but they frequently speak to themselves. Feelings, on the other hand, can be amplified, magnified and intensified through the use of facts and/or fictions.

In this election cycle, a master manipulator amplified, magnified and intensified the feelings of an ignored segment of the voting populous thus creating chaos. That chaos was sufficient to trump order in the places where it mattered. It blew holes in the Democrat’s blue wall and enabled carrying the essential battleground states.

As we said at the outset of this blog, this is our analysis of the reasons that are top of mind for us as the trump cards in this election. There are areas that we have not discussed such as: the impact of FBI Director Comey’s statements; the low turnout of people of color for Clinton as opposed to Obama; why some people of color supported Trump; why Clinton lost the vote of white working class women; and, why white college-educated males went for Trump. In addition to the points we have enumerated, all of these factors played some role in the final electoral results. We are confident other commentators will address their significance in their analyses.

In conclusion, the major lessons we take away based upon our analysis are:

  • Polls do not vote people do
  • America does have a “rigged” political system that needs to be fixed (See our blog on this posted shortly after the November 8 election.)
  • Our American democracy is at risk and needs to be revitalized (See our next blog for our thoughts on this.)

Near the end of the constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well Doctor – what have we got a republic or a monarchy? Franklin replied, “A republic – if you can keep it.”

We have kept that republic now for nearly 230 years since Franklin’s observation. As we move into 2017, we need to come together to do the work that will be required to keep our America a republic for another 230 years.

We need to do this not as Republicans or supporters of Donald Trump nor as Democrats or as supporters of Hillary Clinton but as concerned citizens who are committed to moving America forward rather than backward.

We’ve got a new deck of cards and will be dealt new hands to play. They may not be the cards or hands that many of us expected or wanted. But, by staying involved and in the game, we can determine America’s trump cards for the future.

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