U.S. Election: What do the exit polls tell us?

There is a lot of things Donald Trump hasn’t done: release his tax returns, retract racist and misogynistic statements, explain his secret plan to defeat IS once-and-for-all and how he’ll get Mexico to pay for that wall after all. He has, however, passed 270 Electoral College votes and therefore done enough to become the 45th President of the United States.

After a long night confounding predictions, the second major defeat for the polling industry in 2016 after Brexit, Trump bested Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton to become President-elect.

In the immediate aftermath there has been a rush to explain how and why Trump prevailed. These have included, but are not limited to, lower African-American turnout, Clinton losing votes to third party candidates and the emergence of the long prophesised and disruptive ‘silent majority’.

We are yet to receive final data, as several states haven’t been confirmed yet. This post attempts to examine, in brief, some of the factors leading to Trump’s victory.

First, I want to begin with a general overview of the election.

In total 231,556,622 voters were eligible to participate.

46.9% of those eligible didn’t cast a ballot.

Of those who did, 25.6% voted for Hilary Clinton and 25.5% for Donald Trump.

Despite winning the popular vote, Clinton lost the election as she failed to reach the 270 Electoral College vote threshold.

This is the fourth time in American electoral history a candidate has won the popular vote but will not assume the office of President of the United States.

In 1876, Rutherford B.Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden; Benjamin Harrison defeated Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland in 1888; and most famously, George W.Bush received roughly half a million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000.

The result may re-open debate about the value of the Electoral College and whether the U.S should revert to a purely popular vote majority system.

Secondly, I want to address the expectations of the Clinton campaign before the polls opened to provide a foundation against which to judge the final results.

The strategy employed to launch HRC to the White House was to maintain the electoral coalition successfully built by the Obama campaign.

Obama’s electoral coalition consisted of young, college educated and minority voters. By appealing to these demographics Obama was able to win victories in states such as Virginia and North Carolina – traditionally Republican but having purpled in recent years – and put them in play for the longer term.

As a result of Trump’s offensive rhetoric towards minorities and women, the conventional wisdom dictated that Hilary would benefit from an increased turnout among these demographics. This would build on her pre-existing support from minority communities alongside the belief that the chance to elect the first female President, symbolically breaking the glass ceiling, would motivate women to her cause.

14674735211.jpg Indeed, nationwide demographic trends indicated positive potential. The electorate eligible for the 2016 election was the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. Close to one-in-three (31%) eligible voters were Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Native American or from another racial or ethnic minority. This represented a three point increase from 2009’s 29%.

There were 10.7 million more eligible voters this year than in 2012, with more than two-thirds of this net growth coming from racial and ethnic minorities (7.5 million voters). While new citizens contribute to this number, it primarily emanates from the large representation minorities have among young people who had turned 18 between the elections.

The Obama campaign had built a formidable get-out-the-vote effort, specifically targeting African American communities, reinvigorating African American voting rates. In fact during the Obama campaign African Americans voted at a higher percentage than white Americans, bucking historical trend.

Reduced turnout from the African American community was anticipated, however it was felt that increased Hispanic and female voting would prove a remedy.

Some polling agencies felt it was possible for Hilary to pull off an historic landslide on the basis of this coalition.

So, what happened?

The Clinton campaign failed to build this coalition and the expected gains from women and Hispanics didn’t materialise.

Gender.png Overall Clinton secured 54% of total female voters. However she ceded 42% to Trump, a figure much higher than expected.

Breaking the figure down by race helps explain Clinton’s weak spots.

Contrary to expectations, a majority of white women (53%) voted for Donald Trump.

This could have been remedied if Clinton received the wave of support expected from minority voters. However, compared to Obama, she underperformed.


Clinton secured 88% of the overall African-American vote, dropping five percentage points against Obama’s 2012 record of 93%.

Moreover, despite Trump’s poisonous rhetoric towards Hispanics, Clinton lost 6 percentage points (65%) of the Latino vote compared to Obama (71%). Donald Trump actually improved upon Mitt Romney’s take of the Latino vote, rising two percent to 29%.

Reduced turnout also affected Hilary’s vote share. The overall vote share of African-American and Latino voters dropped against 2012 levels. African-Americans constituted 13% of the vote in 2012, but dropped to 12% this year. Meanwhile the Hispanic vote dropped one percent on 2012 figures to 10% of the total voting population.

Despite early optimistic pronouncements regarding early voting demographics, and Hilary’s clear lead among early voters, not enough turned out on election day.

Clinton did receive 51% of the vote among college educated white women, the only white demographic in which she was the victor, however this was a further underperformance on expectations.

Once the female and minority faction of the coalition faltered, Clinton’s path to the White House was difficult. She was reliant on white and younger voters.


age But again, Clinton failed to inspire the heights of Obama’s achievements in 2008 and 2012. Among the younger demographics, she achieving 55% of the vote compared to Obama’s 60%.

Especially telling was Clinton’s failure to win a majority of young white voters. White 18-29 year olds settled on Trump (48% to Hilary’s 42%). In a demographic often typified by liberalism, she didn’t elicit great excitement.

Trump’s Strength’s:

the-new-yorker-who-is-donald-trump.jpgAmong the 58% of white voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump, 39% of those were college educated white males.

Trump’s strongest performance was among non-college educated whites, receiving 67% of the combined vote: 72% of men and 62% of women, scoring a major victory.

income In line with historical voting patterns Trump scored a majority among voters earning over $100,000 per year.

However his victory over Clinton among voters earning $50,000-$99,000 was a surprise, as this traditionally middle class group has benefited from Obama’s economic gains.

What else? Looking to the future:

There is further data available that demonstrates some important trends in this election and looking forward to 2020.

As Clinton’s platform was effectively a third Obama term, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that voters who felt the country was going in the right direction overwhelmingly supported Clinton (90%).

Moving to economic concerns, a majority of voters who felt that the next generation of Americans would be worse off in the future went for Trump (63%). This highlights a theme of this election, the desire shake up the status quo in view of what they consider to be a decrease in quality of life and economic prosperity.

Next gen expectations.png

The electorate sharply divided over issues. Those who prioritised foreign policy and the economy voted in favour of Hilary Clinton. However those who identified immigration and terrorism as the most important issues followed Trump.


An interesting trend for future elections is the impact of urbanisation as an indicator of partisan allegiance.

Those living in cities with populations larger than 50,000 people voted 59%-35% in favour of Hilary Clinton. Meanwhile Trump led among suburban (50%) and small city or rural area dwellers (62%). Full data on rural voter participation may provide the key to understanding the communities activated to vote by the Trump campaign.


Challenging the third party narrative:

One theory making the rounds is that the vote share of third party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein contributed to Hilary’s defeat. The effect of third party candidates on the Democratic Party have been a concern since Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2000 drew voters from Al Gore. To investigate this, we will examine five states that voted for Barrack Obama in 2012 but flipped to Trump at this election.


In 2012 Barrack Obama marginally clinched the sunshine state 50% to 49.1% against challenger Mitt Romney.

This time around Trump took the state 49.1% to Clinton’s 47.8%.

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson took 206,007 votes while Green Jill Stein took 64,019.


Hypothetically, if it had been a straight shoot out between Trump and Clinton and the voters motivated by Johnson and Stein voted for Clinton, she would have taken the state.

However the likelihood of this is minimal. Johnson represents a libertarian ideological position that more at home within the Republican Party and it is highly debateable they would have turned out for Clinton ahead of Trump.

If Clinton were to have claimed only Stein’s voters, most likely to switch to the Democrats rather than the Republicans, she would still have fallen short of beating Trump.

Florida was extremely close. However it is not possible to say conclusively that third party candidates damaged Hilary significantly in the state. White rural voters turned out in higher numbers than predicted and their swung to Trump seems to have been decisive.



2012: Incumbent President Obama took the state 52% to 46.2%.

2016: Trump majority 51.8% to 42.2%

In Iowa there were a plurality of third party candidates diluting the vote, however none made significant inroads.

Even if the cumulative number of votes attained by third party candidates were added to Clinton’s total, again unlikely for ideological purposes, she still wouldn’t have won the state.



2012: Obama won the state 50.7% to 47.7%

2016: Trump 52.1% to 43.5%

Johnson took 3.2% of the vote, while Stein claimed 0.8%.

Even if the combined vote of both candidates were added to Clinton’s total, she still would have lost the state.


Pennsylvania .png

2012: Obama victorious 51.9% to 46.6%

2016: Trump 48.8% to 47.6%

Johnson claimed 2.4% and Stein 0.8%.

If all third party votes were transferred to Clinton she would have secured the state and its 20 electoral votes.

If all of Stein’s voters had opted for Clinton she would have received 2,893,617 votes, leaving her 68,236 votes short of victory.



2012: Obama won 52% to 46.2%.

2016: Trump triumphed 47.9% to Clinton’s 46.9%

Johnson took 3.6% of the vote and Stein 1.1%.

If all third party candidate votes were transferred to Clinton she would have taken the state and its ten electoral votes.

The conclusion drawn from this is that, at best, Clinton could have won two of the key states that swung to Donald Trump at this election. The supposition is built on the shaky imagination that all third party voters would have transferred to Clinton, which is far from certain. In the case of the 2016 election, the impact of third party candidates was negligible compared to Nader’s effect in 2000.

The narrative to suggest the blame for Clinton’s defeat lies at the feet at third parties is inaccurate and obscures proper examination of the reasons for her failure.

Why Trump and not Clinton:

In summary, Clinton failed to secure her base and drive the turnout equal to Obama. In trying to capture the same coalition he did, it was essential she met his figures and held steady among white Democratic voters. She did not. Support for Democrats has become more entrenched than before in areas such as California and New York. The party lost essential portions of the white vote and with it went the Midwestern states it requires to win elections. As identified by Five Thirty Eight, if just one in every one hundred Trump voters tipped to Clinton, she would have secured 307 Electoral College votes and carried Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. Demographic changes are heading in the Democrats favour; States such as Arizona, North Carolina and Florida are turning purple and in the near future will likely turn blue. However the party cannot simply wait for that to happen. A long process of introspection will have to focus on how the party can consistently turnout high levels of support among minorities; the college educated and try to recapture some of the lost white working class vote.

Trump built an electoral coalition of older, whiter, more rural and populist voters, and it was enough to see him through. Despite the increasing diversity of the American electorate, it was the white vote that won it for Donald Trump.

It has demonstrated in stark terms the division of America, not only ideologically but also geographically. The country is split between the cultural ‘elites’ in urban coastal cities and the rest of the country. It is an area with little available data to explore presently, but rumblings over rural voters dissatisfaction with ‘latte drinking elites’ hints at a cultural tension underpinning parts of this fracture.

Trump managed to merge a series of groups we have seen before into one campaign. His campaign bore hallmarks of the unrepentant extremism of the Barry Goldwater right, including the easy references to using nuclear weapons, remnants of the white nationalist, segregationalist sentiment of George Wallace, and the anti-NAFTA crusaders who voted for Ross Perot in 1992.

On the one hand the vote is an assertion of a form of white nostalgia and the desire to return to another time. A time when things had greater certainty for them, when culture and society wasn’t changing so quickly and didn’t challenge power structures they have long dominated. For many, a time ‘when men could be men’.

But his campaign wasn’t just discrimination. He built an effective electoral coalition due to his opposition to free trade and globalisation. He capitalised on working class and middle class white voters who haven’t seen economic benefits for a long time, and feel as though they have seen their industries and job opportunities disappear. It is this message that drew some of those voters initially expected to go with Clinton. Whether they believe Trump can genuinely remake their economic power, or whether they are lashing out against an entrenched elite is to be determined. But Trump, himself the purest embodiment of a politico-economic elite, offered them empowerment and a change from the present status quo that Hilary Clinton is also a breathing avatar of. These voters haven’t reaped the benefits of globalisation and weren’t prepared to vote for a candidate burdened by it. Trump’s success was also a rebuke to the Republican mainstream, which has at its core a belief in free trade and globalisation.

A Trump Administration:

Despite the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency residing in the hands of the Republicans come January; it might not be totally smooth sailing. Traditional Republicans will struggle to accommodate Trump’s calls for big infrastructure projects, but will love his tax cuts and his willingness to put another Scalia on the Supreme Court.

There may be tension, but it is unlikely to be a conciliatory agenda. There is enormous appetite on the right to roll back legislation enacted during the Obama presidency, particularly Obamacare and financial sector reform. The large spike in share values of private healthcare, pharmaceutical and financial service companies hints at the moneymaking opportunities ahead of them.

An emerging trend among analysts and talking heads is to speak positively about the restraints the office will place on Trump and his pledges. He has been urged to modify and his victory speech gave the impression of a man prepared to at least appear as though he is governing for all Americans. But his campaign has reawakened dark forces in American political culture. He catalysed and traded on racism, sexism and demonisation for his campaign’s benefit. More tellingly, he failed to push back on the increasing violent language and action evident among his supporters. For the extremists that Trump has brought into the fold, this election is a vindication of their beliefs. After many years in the wilderness – their numbers dwindling and increasingly isolated – they will look to assert themselves with swelling confidence and urgency, proliferating as they do.

Just as eight years ago optimistic liberal and moderate Americans, enthused by the very existence of Obama and his pledges of hope and change, yearned to undo the Bush years, so will Trump’s supporters seek to extricate the type of America Obama stood for. There hunger to remake America. Among them, the white nationalists will feel this is their moment.

All graphics in this post are from the New York Times exit poll data.

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