The Hankyoreh, December 4, 2016
I was obviously badly mistaken in my assurances that Donald Trump would not win the election. Why was I so wrong?
First, everyone should know that most voters did not support Donald Trump. While some votes are still being counted, Clinton has a lead in the nationwide popular vote of more than 1.8 million or roughly 1.5 percentage points. When the final numbers are in, it is quite likely her margin will exceed 2.0 million votes.
Trump will still win because he had more electoral votes. These are awarded as winner take all on a state by state basis. This means that Clinton effectively wasted huge numbers of votes by running up large margins in the biggest states, while Trump won a number of states by very small margins.
Putting this issue aside, Trump managed to do much better than the polls had predicted in a number of key industrial states. As a result he was able to win several large states, like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, which had voted twice for President Obama and were thought to be safely in Hillary Clinton’s column.
Part of the story is that her support was down somewhat from President Obama’s among African Americans. While she still won the African American vote by an overwhelming margin, a substantial number of African Americans who came out to vote for Obama chose not to support Clinton.
But the more important part of the story is that Trump managed to have an unexpectedly large victory among white working class voters. These are defined as whites without college degrees. Obama lost this group by a substantial margin in both his campaigns, but exit polls showed Clinton losing to Trump among these voters by an even larger amount of almost 40 percentage points. Her margins among African Americans and Hispanic voters were not large enough in the key states to overcome these huge margins.
It seems this deterioration was not picked up in polls in part because many Trump voters were not people who usually vote. Polls typically weed out people who are not considered likely to vote, usually by asking respondents if they voted in prior elections. It appears that many people who did not vote in 2012 or 2008 came out to vote for Trump. He appealed to many white working class voters in ways that previous Republican nominees had not.
To some extent this greater appeal may have been attributable to his willingness to more openly embrace racist, xenophobic, and misogynist views than his predecessors. Republicans have often made racially loaded comments, but few would go as far in saying things like a judge could not be impartial in a court case because he had Mexican ancestry. Many explicitly racist groups openly embraced Trump’s candidacy.
However part of Trump’s appeal with the white working class was undoubtedly due to the fact that he promised to improve their economic plight. He promised to bring back manufacturing jobs that had been lost due to the growth of the trade deficit in the last two decades. He also promised to bring back coal mining jobs, which he claimed were lost due to environmental regulations.
Unfortunately for the working class people who supported him, the agenda Trump has put forward offers them little basis for hope. While he may be able to engineer some reduction in the trade deficit if he focuses on currency values, it is unlikely that many of the new manufacturing jobs will be located in the communities that lost them. Even in a best case scenario, we are unlikely see the return of more than one-third of the six million manufacturing jobs that have been lost since 2000.
As far as the coal mining jobs, there is little hope of anything except the most trivial job gains. The problem is that these jobs were not actually lost because of environmental regulation. They were lost because of increased productivity which drastically reduced the demand for mine workers. In more recent years the major cause of job loss in coal mining has been the availability of cheap natural gas obtained from fracking. Trump actually proposes to further ease restrictions on fracking which will make the prospects of the coal industry even bleaker.
In fact, Clinton clearly had the better agenda for working class voters. She proposed paid family leave for parents of young children or for those caring for sick family members. She also supported assistance with child care costs and free college for children from working class families.
Unfortunately few working class people ever heard about this agenda. Part of the problem was the media coverage of the campaign. It gave an enormous amount of attention to Clinton’s improper use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state. This and other minor scandals dominated the newspaper and broadcast coverage of the campaign, with economic issues almost completely ignored.
However Clinton also bears some of the blame. Her own ads largely focused on attacking Trump’s character rather than highlighting her stands on issues. This made it easy for Trump to paint her as the ally of Wall Street and the supporter of trade deals that sent jobs overseas.
It is difficult at this point to know how Trump will govern since so many of his campaign pledges were contradictory or impossible. He also has the problem that his business empire creates massive problems of conflicts of interest. Unlike every past president over the last half century, he does not plan to put his assets in a blind trust. For my column next month I may have a clearer of what a Trump presidency will look like.