Publication of Hillary Clinton’s book “What Happened?” has reignited debate over why and how Donald Trump managed to win the 2016 election. How did a billionaire, reality TV star with no political experience and a campaign in a seeming state of constant chaos defeat one of the most experienced, well known, and well-funded political dynasties in America (two dynasties if you include his defeat of Jeb Bush in the GOP primary)?
Though there is no shortage of theories, including several offered by Ms. Clinton, it is worth considering the possibility that the outcome of the election was rather conventional and predictable — even as it featured an unconventional and unpredictable campaign.
Recent decades have witnessed a collapse in confidence in government and recurrent populist uprisings in America. The Ross Perot candidacy in 1992, the Republican “revolution” of 1994, the Democratic sweep in the 2006 midterms, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the Republican resurgence in 2010 are great national examples of a frustrated electorate lashing out at a system they believed had forgotten them. In many respects, Mr. Trump’s victory (and the strength of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary) was just another manifestation of these populist uprisings. Though few predicted that Donald Trump would win, the signs of a victory like his were there for years.
The populist uprising explanation for Mr. Trump’s victory finds considerable support in election exit polls. On Election Day 2016, fully 69 percent of voters were either dissatisfied with or angry at government; Mr. Trump won 58 percent of them. A plurality of voters, 48 percent, wanted the next president to be more conservative than Barack Obama; Mr. Trump won 83 percent of them. A clear plurality, 39 percent, said the quality that mattered most to them in a new president was that he/she can bring change; Mr. Trump won 83 percent of those voters. Fully half of all voters said government already does too much as opposed to too little, and Donald Trump won 73 percent of them.
Given her resume, Ms. Clinton had no choice but to be the establishment candidate. In the midst of that populist ire, she ran as the candidate of Mr. Obama’s third term. She wrapped herself in the cloak of the Obama agenda. She did all of this in a year when most voters did not want the establishment to win. Neither candidate was viewed as honest or likable, and most voters were not happy with the choice presented them in 2016. In a rather telling finding, fully 60 percent of voters said Mr. Trump was not qualified to be president. Yet he still managed to win 20 percent of those folks; 2016 was an election based on discontent and frustration, not qualifications and temperament.
Though Ms. Clinton and her supporters have offered myriad explanations for her defeat — from Russian interference, Wikileaks, James Comey’s decision to reopen the investigation into Ms. Clinton’s e-mail server, and misogyny — exit poll data suggests that Ms. Clinton lost for many of the same reasons that prior candidates have lost. On Election Day, over two-thirds of the electorate were either dissatisfied with or angry at the federal government. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate said that the American economy was in poor shape and that the country was headed in the wrong direction. Mr. Trump carried those voters by wide margins. Those feelings of discontent were very similar to the sentiments that led to John McCain's defeat by Barack Obama in 2008. No extraordinary factors needed.
The size and scope of what happened in November 2016 points not necessarily to a realignment in American politics, or to a result influenced by nefarious forces, but to a systemic and recurring reaction by an upset and frustrated electorate. It was the manifestation of years, in fact decades, of rising levels of discontent by a growing number of disaffected voters. And into the midst of that discontent entered two immensely unpopular candidates for president. One, a former senator, a former secretary of state, a former candidate for president, the spouse of a former president, and the heir apparent to an outgoing two term president, was the embodiment of the very political establishment that populist uprisings rail against. The other candidate … wasn’t. And that is “what happened” on Election Day 2016.
Todd Eberly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. This essay was adapted from his forthcoming book with Steven E. Schier, “The Trump Presidency: Outsider if the Oval Office,” to be published on Oct. 15 by Rowman and Littlefield.