Trump Wins by Breaching Democrats’ ‘Blue Wall’ in Rust Belt

Energized working-class whites topple an increasingly diverse and urbanized coalition.

Supporters of Donald Trump react as they watch the election results on Tuesday in New York.
AP Photo/John Locher
Ronald Brownstein
Add to Briefcase
Ronald Brownstein
Nov. 9, 2016, 8 p.m.

Two Amer­icas col­lided in the pres­id­en­tial race, and the side that was genu­inely pas­sion­ate about its cham­pi­on walked away the nar­row win­ner.

Don­ald Trump, the bil­lion­aire pop­u­list, mo­bil­ized ar­dent sup­port from the groups most un­easy about the eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al, and demo­graph­ic trends re­mak­ing Amer­ica. Hil­lary Clin­ton, in turn, pos­ted sol­id, but not re­sound­ing, mar­gins among the groups that have most wel­comed those changes. That slight im­bal­ance al­lowed him to breach the Demo­crats’ “blue wall” at its weak­est point—the blue-col­lar Rust Belt—and rumble to vic­tory. A polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist might say she fell vic­tim to asym­met­ric­al mo­bil­iz­a­tion.

Trump’s vic­tory was fra­gile and deeply con­tested. Trump did soundly de­feat her in the states each side treated as the biggest battle­grounds: Flor­ida, North Car­o­lina, and Ohio. But as I write, Clin­ton has passed him in the na­tion­al pop­u­lar vote, and seems likely to stay ahead giv­en that most re­main­ing votes are in West Coast states she won. The key to his win was break­throughs in Rust Belt states Clin­ton had thought safely in her corner: Pennsylvania and Wis­con­sin, and per­haps Michigan de­pend­ing on the fi­nal count. At best, he will win each of those states by mar­gins of about 1 per­cent­age point or less. (She held Min­nesota by a sim­il­arly nar­row mar­gin.)

Yet all of that and a dime, as people used to say, would get Clin­ton on the sub­way. To the as­ton­ish­ment of old-school re­port­ers, new-age data journ­al­ists, poll­sters in both parties, and to a large ex­tent each cam­paign, Trump will take the oath next Janu­ary. I count my­self among those not smart enough to see this com­ing.

As I wrote last week, there were some rumbles that Clin­ton’s team had taken too much for gran­ted by pour­ing so much ef­fort in­to Ohio, Flor­ida, and North Car­o­lina, three swing states she did not need to win—and ul­ti­mately did not. The price of that em­phas­is was ex­traordin­ar­ily little at­ten­tion to Michigan and Wis­con­sin, which she did need to win, and also did not. The pres­ci­ence prize may go to Brent McGoldrick, cofounder of the Re­pub­lic­an voter-tar­get­ing firm Deep Root Ana­lyt­ics, who told me just days be­fore the vote: “This strategy does leave her ex­posed, par­tic­u­larly in Wis­con­sin.”

Yet that ex­plan­a­tion doesn’t fully ex­plain the out­come. Clin­ton also lost in Pennsylvania, which she pur­sued with enorm­ous re­sources, in­clud­ing an un­pre­ced­en­ted fi­nal week­end bar­rage that de­ployed to the state such stars as Bruce Spring­steen, Katy Perry, and Pres­id­ent and Michelle Obama. More drove this res­ult than tac­tics.

The trig­ger was a genu­ine so­cial up­heav­al: a mass up­ris­ing by the GOP’s “co­ali­tion of res­tor­a­tion.” Those are the older and blue-col­lar whites, evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans, and non­urb­an voters who in polls have con­sist­ently ex­pressed both the most eco­nom­ic pess­im­ism and cul­tur­al un­ease about a chan­ging Amer­ica. Though oth­er data sources may even­tu­ally dif­fer, Tues­day’s exit polls did not find that these voters stormed the bal­lot box in un­usu­ally large num­bers; in fact, the exits showed the white share of the total vote con­tinu­ing its dec­ades-long de­cline as Amer­ica di­ver­si­fies.

In­stead, those who did vote stam­peded to Trump in in­sur­mount­able num­bers. In par­tic­u­lar, Trump beat Clin­ton among white voters without a col­lege edu­ca­tion by an as­ton­ish­ing 39 per­cent­age points—a mar­gin lar­ger than Ron­ald Re­agan’s against Wal­ter Mondale in his 1984 land­slide. Trump not only beat her by nearly 50 points among blue-col­lar white men, but by al­most 30 points among non-col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men. (Trump is pres­id­ent largely be­cause white work­ing-class wo­men gave him double-di­git mar­gins in key states—a de­vel­op­ment that may oc­cupy gender-stud­ies schol­ars for years.) Sim­il­arly, Trump cap­tured more than three-fifths of rur­al voters na­tion­wide; in the de­cis­ive Rust Belt states—Wis­con­sin, Pennsylvania, and pos­sibly Michigan—Clin­ton suffered death by a thou­sand cuts, as Trump im­proved over Mitt Rom­ney’s 2012 per­form­ance al­most every­where out­side the biggest cit­ies.

Clin­ton could not quite off­set this surge with a counter-mo­bil­iz­a­tion of the Demo­crats’ com­pet­ing “co­ali­tion of trans­form­a­tion” re­volving around minor­ity voters, mil­len­ni­als, and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, most of them liv­ing in ma­jor met­ro­pol­it­an areas. With all those groups, Clin­ton pos­ted ad­vant­ages that were sol­id, but not quite as large as preelec­tion polls pre­dicted. Like­wise, in most met­ro­pol­it­an areas, she de­livered en­tirely re­spect­able mar­gins. But in the de­cis­ive states, she didn’t grow enough to off­set Trump’s non-metro wave. In the places that mattered most, one side was just more de­term­ined to win.

By dis­lodging Pennsylvania, Wis­con­sin, and pos­sibly Michigan, Trump shattered the blue wall—the 18 states (plus the Dis­trict of Columbia) with 242 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes that had voted Demo­crat­ic in each elec­tion since 1992. If Clin­ton had de­fen­ded the blue wall through the Rust Belt, she would have won, be­cause the four di­verse Sun Belt battle­grounds (Vir­gin­ia, Col­or­ado, New Mex­ico, and Nevada) that she cap­tured would have pushed her past an Elect­or­al Col­lege ma­jor­ity. Yet even with her wins in those four states, Clin­ton ul­ti­mately stumbled between the party’s past and fu­ture: While Trump toppled heav­ily blue-col­lar Rust Belt states that stand as the last monu­ments to the Demo­crats’ earli­er work­ing-class-based co­ali­tion, Tues­day made clear the party’s new co­ali­tion of minor­it­ies and white-col­lar whites has not yet grown large enough to re­li­ably hold be­hemoth Sun Belt battle­grounds such as Flor­ida and North Car­o­lina (much less Ari­zona or Geor­gia), es­pe­cially against a Re­pub­lic­an surge in those states’ own sub­stan­tial blue-col­lar and non­urb­an pop­u­la­tions.

The res­ult is a genu­ine hinge point in Amer­ic­an his­tory, as con­sequen­tial as it was unanti­cip­ated. If Clin­ton had won, and swept in a Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate, the party would have ob­tained a Su­preme Court ma­jor­ity for the first time since 1971. In­stead, Re­pub­lic­ans can now re­in­force the con­ser­vat­ive Court ma­jor­ity for years ahead.

In fact, the GOP will now con­trol all the key levers of power in Wash­ing­ton. It will have the ca­pa­city to up­root many of Obama’s sig­na­ture achieve­ments, in­clud­ing his health care and cli­mate-change plans and the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar deal. Demo­crats will be com­pletely ex­cluded from power, even though it ap­pears likely they will have won the pop­u­lar vote for the sixth time in the past sev­en pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, a streak un­matched since the mod­ern party sys­tem began in 1828.

On is­sues from im­mig­ra­tion to crim­in­al-justice re­form to gay rights, both Obama and Clin­ton have un­re­servedly linked their party to the pri­or­it­ies of an in­creas­ingly di­verse and urb­an­ized Amer­ica. But that co­ali­tion could not quite match the surge from an older, pre­pon­der­antly white Amer­ica that ap­peared to many (in­clud­ing me) too nar­row to win the White House any longer. A slim Trump vic­tory driv­en by voters who feared that Amer­ica’s best days are in the past has now plunged the na­tion in­to a bra­cingly un­cer­tain fu­ture.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Backtracks on Putin's "Incredible Offer"
2 days ago
Russians Refer to "Verbal Agreements" with Trump
3 days ago

"Two days after President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, Russian officials offered a string of assertions about what the two leaders had achieved. 'Important verbal agreements' were reached at the Helsinki meeting, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, including preservation of the New Start and INF agreements," and cooperation in Syria.

Trump Was Shown Proof of Russian Interference Before Inauguration
3 days ago

"Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election. The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation. Mr. Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing. But ever since, Mr. Trump has tried to cloud the very clear findings that he received on Jan. 6, 2017, which his own intelligence leaders have unanimously endorsed."

Trump: High IQ People Loved the Putin Meeting
3 days ago
Comey Says to Vote Democratic This Fall
4 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.