In an election filled with surprises, understanding how Donald Trump won the presidential election is critical. And in poring over the exit polling, there are numerous counterintuitive findings that explain why Trump proved to be a lot more acceptable than his detractors acknowledged. In the spirit of Against the Grain, here are the 10 most surprising findings from the data.
1. The Republican Party united behind Donald Trump—more so than Democrats united behind Hillary Clinton. For all the expectations that he would be hamstrung by the outspoken anti-Trump faction of the GOP, he ended up winning 90 percent of Republican voters—not far from the 93 percent Mitt Romney carried in 2012. Clinton, by contrast, won just 89 percent of Democrats—3 points worse than President Obama’s share in 2012. The late-developing Republican support for Trump, which few pollsters saw coming, contributed to his surprisingly solid 47 percent of the vote.
2. White women swung to Trump at the end. Trump won white women by a whopping 10 points (53 to 43 percent), smashing the conventional wisdom that his candidacy would fuel a historic gender gap. In fact, Clinton performed only 1 point better than President Obama among white women—who were supposed to be a critical part of her base. It’s why she didn’t net more votes in affluent suburbs that she won in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
3. Nonwhite voters preferred Trump to Romney. The most stunning finding from the exit polling was that Trump won a slightly larger share of the African-American vote (8 percent) and Hispanic vote (29 percent) than Romney did in 2012. And among African-Americans, turnout dropped from 2012.
4. The revenge of blue-collar voters. Trump won an astonishing 71 percent of noncollege white voters, an even bigger showing than Reagan achieved in his 1984 landslide reelection. This allowed Trump to sustain losses among affluent college-educated white voters. Onetime Democratic strongholds in the Rust Belt—like Youngstown, Scranton, and Johnstown—turned deeply red. Notably, these working-class Midwestern whites gave President Obama widespread support and his margin of victory just four years ago.
5. There was a Comey effect, though it probably didn’t tip the race. National polls showed Trump losing among affluent white voters, who typically vote Republican but were unnerved by the GOP nominee. Yet Trump still managed to carry college-educated whites by 4 points. If any group was persuaded to vote against Clinton because of FBI Director James Comey’s revelations, it would have been this one.
6. Trump won 10 percent of Obama supporters. Consistent with public polling, Obama’s job approval was 53 percent in the exit poll. But Clinton, his chosen candidate, lost one out of 10 Obama supporters. It was a rebuttal to those who claimed they heard a dog whistle of racism in Trump’s campaign.
7. There were limits to Obama’s personal popularity. Despite the president’s solid approval rating, a 48 percent plurality of voters wanted the country to move in a more conservative direction—20 points higher than those who wanted the next president to “continue Obama’s policies.” Trump carried 83 percent of these voters. He even carried voters who wanted to move in a more liberal direction.
8. The military leadership is wary of Trump, but veterans supported him overwhelmingly. Trump won 61 percent of military veterans, 2 points higher than Mitt Romney’s share in 2012. Clinton warned that he was temperamentally unsuited to have access to the nuclear codes and reminded voters about his acidic attack on John McCain’s military service, but these attacks largely fell on deaf ears.
9. Trump got a larger share of the Jewish vote than Bush and McCain. Even though Trump faced criticism for not condemning anti-Semitic supporters on social media, he won a larger share of the Jewish vote (24 percent) than either George W. Bush in 2000 (19 percent) or John McCain in 2008 (22 percent). Two reasons: Obama’s Iran nuclear deal was deeply unpopular with Jewish voters concerned about Israel’s security, and Trump’s embrace of his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, probably allayed fears that he was a secret bigot.
10. There was minimal split-ticket voting. At first glance, it looked as if there was no split-ticket voting in Senate races. The swing states that voted for Trump also reelected GOP senators. The two that didn’t (New Hampshire and Nevada) voted for Democrats. But in a couple of states, there was notable divergence between certain voting groups. Sen. Pat Toomey overperformed Trump in the Philadelphia suburbs and lagged behind him in rural areas. And Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida won a resounding victory by outperforming Trump among Hispanics.