Despite Hilary Clinton getting more votes than Donald Trump (about 1-2% more, close to the three-point lead predicted by pollsters) she failed to win the Electoral College votes needed to secure the presidency (not predicted by pollsters).

But how did this shock election come about? What is it about Trump and his campaign that managed to transform a relatively disliked property developer and reality television star into the ‘leader of the free world’?

Back in September Clifford Young, who leads our political research in the US, conducted an in-depth analysis of the drivers of public support for Trump.1 It showed Trump’s support was nativist, anti-immigrant and ‘America first’ in nature. Trump’s supporters saw all the ills of the world through the prism of immigration, and its perceived negative impact on their lives. Trump, in turn, offered himself as a solution to this problem – promising to build a wall along the border with Mexico, deport illegal immigrants, put the US Muslim population on a register and bring manufacturing jobs back to America.

Of course, this nativism trend is not new, or confined to the United States. Our research shows this anti-immigrant rhetoric is partly just a symptom of a more profound problem – long-term stagnation in real wages, blamed on globalisation and migration (technology may also have a hand in it for industrial jobs). Only 37% of Americans believe that globalisation is good for their country,2 and there is no country on earth that believes immigration is good for them. From this perspective, Trump, Brexit and the rise of insurgent, right-wing parties in Western Europe can all be understood in economic terms – immigrants are perceived as the cause of long-term economic uncertainty.

Nativism is certainly not the only driver of support for Trump. The belief that ‘the system’ is broken was important as well. During his campaign Trump said American cities, the healthcare system, the Republican party, schools and even the election itself were all broken, rigged or disastrous,3 and offered himself, of course, as the only solution to fix them.

The idea of a broken system resonates with many small town Americans who feel shut-out of the American Dream – the system has failed, and has failed them. While a lack of experience in public office might have been considered a hindrance, in this case Trump played it as an advantage – he was not tainted by the cronyism and corruption he claimed were endemic in the nation’s capital. Instead he promised to “drain the Washington swamp” – proposing a five-year ban on officials who leave the White House or Congress and wish to become lobbyists, a “lifetime ban” on executive officials lobbying for foreign governments, and a “complete ban” on foreign lobbyists who wish to fundraise in US elections.



Apart from Trump’s appeal, there was also Clinton’s failure. Perceived as the product of the elite, she failed to connect with core Democrat voters, many of whom simply didn’t bother voting at all, compared to 2012 or 2008. Her position as part of a political dynasty was perceived as ‘more of the same’ for those who hadn’t seen their conditions improve.


The lower than average turnout in key swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and the ‘rust belt’ Midwestern states also helped Trump. These areas were all hard-hit by the recession and have not experienced the green shoots of recovery experienced in urban areas. Historically, low turnout has favoured the Republican party, and it did in 2016. At the time of writing, votes were still being counted, but turnout appeared to be down by 2-4 million votes on 2012. As with Brexit, discussed elsewhere in this year’s Almanac, accurately predicting turnout is proving to be one of the most challenging aspects of political polling today – particularly when behaviour changes radically from one election to another.

In his victory speech at the Hilton Midtown in New York, Trump pledged to be the “president for all Americans”. It seems he has a tough battle ahead of him – the vocal protests around the country in the wake of his victory are evidence that many Americans do not view him as their Commander in Chief. The road may not be much smoother among his supporters – having rode to victory on outlandish promises to fix the system and “make America great again”, President-elect Trump now needs to deliver.


Image credit: Gage Skidmore via

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