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Wednesday, 08 February 2017 15:40

Ask Scott: How did Trump Win?

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This question comes to us by Facebook. 

Q.  I've been curious about the USA presidential election. Why did part of the Americans tend to support Mr. Trump? And what's actually matter with Secretary Clinton's email for the USA? Since I'm going to take the college entrance exam, still wondering about how Americans looked for the election. Hope to know more about it. -- Miffy in Hsinchu, Taiwan

A. Miffy, these are some great questions; thank you. In fact, your questions are so great, many Americans are still wondering the same thing! You asked two questions, but they are interrelated.

(Shockingly, some people since the election have been so unwilling to come to grips with Trump's win, they actually begged the electors to ignore the election results for their state, and not vote for Trump in the Electoral College. This video, which was widely viewed in December 2016,  shows some entertainment personalities pleading for the electors to ignore the actual election and vote for someone else to be president.)

First, let's discuss the election and why some Americans supported Donald Trump.  Frankly, if you ask different Americans this question, you may get different answers, because of the responders' varying viewpoints.

However, this is my explanation. 

Trump's win was a HUGE surprise for many people. Most polls for a long time had indicated Clinton would win, and win big.

To show you what a surprise, this short video shows many entertainers, comedians, reporters and political figures all saying that Trump had no way to win, taken from the years, months, and even just days before the election. The video ends with CNN commentator (and no Trump fan) Wolf Blitzer on election night, calling state after state for Trump. Watch the video here. 

But this is not the first time there has been an upset in the race for the White House. In 1948, Democrat President Harry Truman was widely unpopular. He never had the gravitas of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, and his salty tongue and short temper rubbed many people the wrong way. In fact, the 1948 polls showed Truman losing big to his Republican rival, Thomas Dewey. This picture, showing a beaming Truman holding up a newspaper claiming he had lost, has become a famous image from US politics. 

This video shows a collection of news commentators explaining how Trump had no way to win: even in the weekend before the election, many polls showed Clinton ahead. 

In fact, this article from a highly-regarded political website said that Trump would probably NOT pull off a Truman-like surprise win. Wow, were they wrong. 

There are several reasons for Trump's surprise win.

1. Unreasonable expectations: Let's go back to 2008. President won huge that year in what is called a "wave election."  Candidate Obama made huge promises. This video even shows one excited supporter claiming "I won't have to sorry about putting gas in my car, I won't have to worry about paying my mortgage...."  In other words, it seems as if she thought, with Obama in the White House, he would take care of her and all her problems would be over. There were stories about people passing out at Obama rallies, because they were so overcome by emotion. It was almost as if some people thought Obama were some kind of God-like figure. It was just wild. So, with hopes that high, it is reasonable that many later became disapppointed when Obama did not deliver a utopia

 By 2016, the hyped-up optimism from 2008 had gone flat for most Americans. In fact, a whopping 70% of Americans believed "our country is on the wrong track." Normally, when high numbers agree with that belief on a poll, the party in power gets booted out. In contrast, when fewer than 50% believe that, the party in power stays in power.

2. Democrat overreach: This also goes back to 2008. In that "wave election," not only did the Democrat Party win the White House (with Pres. Obama), but they also made HUGE gains in the US Congress. For example, the US Senate only has 100 seats (two per state), but by the summer of 2009, the Democrats had a whopping 60 of those 100 seats. In other words, by controlling the Executive and Legislative branches, the Democrats were able to push through most all of their goals. Republicans could complain, but were essentially powerfless to stop anything. As a result, the Democrat leaders probably became overconfident and pushed through many ideas and programs that many Americans found extreme, and in some cases, offensive; so, starting with the next election, in 2010, and followed in 2012 and 2014, Republicans gradually picked up seats, and 2016 was a part of that bigger trend. Many are shocked to learn that the Democrats have lost hundreds of offices all across the US during the Obama years, putting them at their weakest point since the 1920s! This NPR article explained the trend even BEFORE Trump won in 2016.

3. Fed-up people/Undecided voters: Many voters did not like EITHER candidate, so they voted for the one they hated LEAST.  I was watching NBC News elections returns that night of  Nov. 8, 2016. One survey reported 60% of voters did not like Trump, but 54% did not like Clinton either. And since most surveys have a "margin of error" of 3-4 %, that means both candidates were equally unpopular.  Interestingly, of the 18% of voters who did not like EITHER candidate, they voted for Trump 2 to 1. That's why many people called this a "Rejection Election." Many are upset with how the US and its government has been running, and are mad at both the Democrat AND Republican Parties, so they saw a vote for Trump as a chance to "drain the swamp" and make big changes in Washington. Plus, since Trump was an "outsider" with no political experience, they saw him as the man to clean-up America's political mess. Many saw the June 2016 Brexit vote as a sign that Trump might win later that year. With Brexit, you had most of the media and political elites wanting and predicting that most Brits would vote to remain in the EU. However, in a huge surprise, many voters in England's industrial heartland voted to leave, thus making the Brexit vote successful.  

4. Scared people: In addition to many voters being angry, disappointed, and/or disgusted in 2016, many were also scared. Many find life in modern America frightening today: people worry about job losses, economic problems, drugs, terrorism, expensive healthcare, bad schools, crime, out-of-control and out-of-touch government, lack of morals, corruplt culture, national debt, illegal immigration...the list goes on and on. When Trump spoke again and again about "make American great again" and "build the wall," he spoke to the fears that millions of Americans had. Furthermore, since economic anxiety has been running high since around 2007, many saw the successful businessman and rich man Trump as the right person to fix America's financial woes. Many powerful voices in the media, education, Hollywood, and the Democrat Party laughed at Trump's promises, but they are not laughing now. Speech writer for President Reagan, Peggy Noonan, predicted and explained this trend nine months before the election in her article, "Trump and the Rise of the Unprotected." Basically, she said some Americans had safe, comfortable positions in 2016: politicians, professors, reporters, entertainers. Though powerful and with big voices, they are a tiny minority. In contrast, millions of American live in fear and feel vulnerable: factory workers, single parents, farmers, recent college grads with no decent job, retirees, etc. Those "unprotected" millions felt betrayed by the status quo and, when they heard Trump promise to fight for the little guy, they took him at his word.  

5. History lessons:  The past is also a guide. Whether times are good of bad, the party that has held the White  House for eight years almost always loses. Many people chalk it up to plain-old human nature. After many years of the same thing, most people just want a change. In fact, in all of US history, there have been only two times when a party held the White House for eight years and then the vice president won it on his own to keep it for a third term.  The first time was in 1836, when Martin Van Buren followed Andrew Jackson, and the second (and only other) time was 1988, when George Bush Sr. followed Ronald Reagan. (Al Gore came close in 2000-- as vice president following Bill Clinton's eight years in office,  Gore won the popular vote but lost the crucial electoral college, and thus lost the election.) (The aforementioned Truman was also a similar example: After FDR's thirteen years in office, Truman became president upon Roosevelt's death in 1945, and barely won his won reelection in 1948.) 

It's interesting: in the months before the election, I cannot remember ANY time a news reporter or commentator mentioned this historical fact. However, on the morning after the election, I heard the news anchor on National Public Radio (NPR) mention this case, almost as if he were desperately trying to explain how Trump had won. 

6. Two Americas: On election night I was watching the returns on NBC, and one commentator, groping to explain Trump's surprise win, put it this way: "We have overlooked rural America, the Heartland. Rural America just screamed, 'Listen to us!'"   Many people for years have said there are "Two Americas," and that is partly true. (Some wise guys say, "Of course there are two Americans: North America and South America!")   But seriously: The USA has the coastal areas: mainly the East Coast from Washington DC up along the Atlantic coast to New York and Boston, and then we have the Pacific Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oregon, and Washington State. These areas are largely the "influence makers" in the US: Washington is the political capital; New York is the financial and news capital, Los Angeles (with Hollywood) is the entertainment capital, and much of the rest of western California is the cultural capital. (This is because many ideas, fads, and trends start in California and gradually, often with constat pushing from Hollywood, spread across the USA.) But even though these coastal regions have outsized voices and influence, they are relatively small in population, and tiny in land area.  In contrast, much of the US landmass lies between the two coasts. Though not as glamorous, rich, or influential as the coasts, many see this area as the "real America," the "Heartland" of the USA. Some disparagingly call it "Flyover Country," because they just see it as the big but boring area you have to "fly over" when you travel between two coasts. However, in the 2016 battle between the "Flyover Country" vs. the Coastal Elites, almost the entire middle chunk of the country howled with a vengence, and gave the election to Trump. 

This state by state map shows the results. However, this county by county map shows even more clearly how most Democrat voters are clustered along the coasts, while Trump carried the vast majority of the land mass. (To be fair: much of the middle of the US has a sparse population, while most big cities--with big populations--are near the coasts.)

7. Clinton overconfidence: Hindsight is 20-20, but looking back, we see that Clinton and her allies were overconfident. They seemed to have this mindset: "Once Hillary's name is on the ballot, most ALL of America's women will automatically vote for her, just because she's a woman. Plus, since her husband was president for eight years and she was set to win in 2008, until Obama came out of nowhere and took it away from her, it's her turn. She deserves it." Many call this an "entitlement mentality." Example: the US state of Wisconsin is, historically, a heavily Democrat state. The number of times Hillary Clinton campaigned there in 2016? ZERO! Why? She thought she "had it in the bag." I guess she thought, since she had a "D" behind her name, she would win Wisconsin automatically. But, she did not. She was the first presidential candidate since 1972 to not campaign there at all.

Clinton's last-scheduled rally of the campaign was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a swing-state. But as that rally was ending, and with polls still tight in many places, they made a last-minute decision to add a rally in North Carolina, around midnight, in hopes of putting the Tarheel State in her column.  After the election I saw a photograph of President and Mrs. Clinton on their plane bound to North Carolina, all smiles and celebratory champagn glasses in hand. For me, that picture was the perfect metaphor for the election; one is to celebrate after the victory, not before. 


At the end of the day, Trump won by carrying three states that had voted Democrat for years: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He won each of those three narrowly, but since the Electoral College is "winner take all," those three states put him above the 270 mark and put him in the White House.

In the days before the election, most news reports and polls still showed Clinton winning comfortably. However, I remember hearing new stories just in days before the vote that said Trump was campaigning in Michigan and Wisconsin.

"Michigan and Wisconsin?" I thought. Either he's crazy, or else his polls are telling him something the news people don't know. In other words, Michigan and Wisconsin have voted Democrat for president for decades, so if he was truly going to lose there, visiting would be crazy, because he should visit "battleground" states instead, like Florida or Ohio. However, his last-minute decisions to go there showed that he thought he actually had a chance to win them, which in fact he did. 

(As we now know, Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. This was the fifth time this has happened in US history. By racking up huge margins in California and New York State especially, Clinton garned almost three million more votes than Trump did.  However, other than being an historical oddity, this is not very important, because the US Constitution says a candidate wins by getting the most electoral votes, not popular votes. Plus, since California and New York have voted Democrat for president for decades, Trump did not even bother to campain or advertise in those states. Also, there are probaly untold Republican voters in those two states who did not even bother to vote, since their vote would be practically "wasted" in these winner-take-all states. Interestingly, in late April 2017, just as Trump reached the end of his first 100 Days in office, a new poll said that, if the November election were held today, Trump would still beat Clinton, in not only the Electoral Colege, but the popular vote as well.)


Now, to your second question, about Secretary Hillary Clinton's emails.

Barrels of ink have been written about this, but in a nutshell:  First, when Hillary Clinton was US Secretary of State (a highly powerful and prestigious position), she set up a home-made email server and ran many of her emails through it. This was stricly illegal. As a high-ranking US government official, she was supposed to conduct all her email business through her official, State Department email address. No one can read Clinton's mind, but many suspect she used her personal email for official business, so she would better be able to keep some of her messages secret. In other words, government emails can someday be made public, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). However, if she could put her emails on a private server, then she could keep them from ever becoming public. Imagine if a public official had some sensitive, work-related paper documents that could someday be embarrassing if made public. Would it be fair if that official simply took all the documents home and stored them in old shoe boxes? If a reporter or someone else wanted to use FOIA to see them, imagine if the official said, "no, those papers are in my basement at home in shoe boxes, so you can't see them, because they belong to me now." Of course that would be nonsense. Those documents would still be official, despite being stored in a private basement. What's more, official papers stored in a home could be stolen or damaged by a fire or flood. High-security documents need to be handled securely, whether on paper or email.

Second, as Secretary of State, many of her communications were top-secret and highly sensitive. So, by putting them on a "home-brew" server, they could be easily hacked by foreign governments, and the US FBI director later said yes, they probably were hacked by foreign, unfriendly governments. (To be fair: the US spies on other countries too, friend and foe. It's part of the international scene.)  So, being so careless with top-secret emails not only jeopardized US national security, it also endangered US agents or our informants overseas. If hostile governments or groups could find out who are agents are, they could easily jail or kill our helpers. So, the lax security around emails could actually mean life or death for some people who trusted us enough to work with the US government. 

Third, the FBI investigated Clinton's email scandal and said she had been basically careless and sloppy, but had had no "bad intent," so they let her off without legal punishment. Clinton getting off "scot-free" also angered many Americans. There have been other government officials or military servicemen and women who had been careless or dishonest with classified material at other times...and they went to jail. So Hillary getting off without punishment furthered the perception that many Americans had: there is a serious double-standard in the US. Laws (and punishments) apply only to the "little people," while powerful folks like the Clintons could break the laws any way they wanted, and always walk away untouched. 

Fourth, when the private email server became public news, she was seen as being dishonest about it. She said she had used her personal emails just for things like her daugher's wedding plans, etc, or it was "more convenient" for her to use her personal emails because it was "too confusing" to go back and forth between two devices and two email accounts. (On a person note: even when DreyerCoaching was quite new, I asked a friend to set up a business email account for me, so I would segregate the more important business items there and not get them mixed up with personal messages. So, I thought, if fledgling merited a dedicated business email, surely the US Secretary of State should conduct business with an official account.)

 Simply put, many people thought of Hillary Clinton as basically dishonest. Going into the election, I heard one NBC poll that claimed "just 11% of Americans describe Hillary Clinton as 'honest and trustworthy.'"  So, this email issue just furthered that suspicion. If she had been dishonest about some vague business dealings or financial issues, that would be hard for many people to understand. But since email is now such a common and popular technology, it is something that almost everyone can understand and relate to. At the end of the day, Trump's repeated references to "Crooked Hillary" stuck and took their toll. Election 2016 is history, and Donald Trump sits in the White House, while the Clintons are in an early (and unwanted) retirement. 


Do you have a question about the English language or life in the USA? Contact Scott, and maybe your question will be the subject of his next post!

Read 7386 times Last modified on Tuesday, 08 August 2017 21:17
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

1 comment

  • Comment Link Mark Spangler Friday, 28 April 2017 02:01 posted by Mark Spangler

    This is an excellent analysis of what might be the biggest upset in US Presidental Election history. Mr. Dreyer points out many things that made this election unique. I read a lot of political commentary, and this might be the best commentary about this fascinating race that I have read. Mr. Dreyer obviously has a wealth of knowledge about US history and politics, and it shows in this blog post. If I were teaching a civics or government class at the secondary level, or even at the collegiate level, Mr. Dreyer's article would be required reading for my students- it's that good.


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