POLITICAL CONNECTIONS

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
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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.

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