How and why did Donald Trump become president of the United States? When he launched his candidacy in June 2015, and for a long time thereafter, Trump’s election to the presidency seemed the longest of long shots. Hitherto known as a businessman and television celebrity of malleable (but generally liberal) political views, he joined a crowded field of seventeen contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.
Trump was not alone in never having served in public office (this was also true of Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson), but at the end of his seventh decade, he seemed the furthest from public affairs, in both knowledge and experience, of all the candidates running in either major party. Yet in a campaign that broke all the rules and shattered people’s expectations, Donald Trump became the forty-fifth president.
How this surprise came to pass is the subject of Defying the Odds, by political scientists James W. Ceaser, Andrew E. Busch, and John J. Pitney, Jr. It’s the seventh in a series of presidential election books begun after the 1992 election by Ceaser and Busch, who have been joined by Pitney since the book on the 2008 race. The series has been popular with political scientists teaching courses on American elections, and with good reason. Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney are astute election analysts, knowledgeable about American history, institutions, and principles. They write clear prose, with due attention to both trees and forest.
Americans and Outsiders
Looking back at the elections they’ve covered in their series, and at the longer sweep of electoral history, the authors observe that a “split between insiders and outsiders has repeatedly cropped up in American politics.” From Andrew Jackson to William Jennings Bryan, from Huey Long to George Wallace, from Jimmy Carter to Jesse Jackson, from Bill Clinton (despite his elite education) to Ross Perot, anti-establishment candidates have been hardy perennials in the country’s political life. A few have even become president, but usually such outsiders come up short of their ambitions.
2016 brought us two strong outsider candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders was driven by an ideological fervor that he was able to reproduce in a surprising number of people, given that his brand of socialism normally has a very narrow appeal. Trump by contrast was a pragmatist, shifting and unpredictable, who “did not draw from any consistent philosophy.” What could account for the strength these two unorthodox candidates displayed over the weeks and months of their campaigning?
The electoral environment of 2016 had something to do with it. As Charles Murray has shown in Coming Apart, the economic and social divide between those with a college education and those without it has been widening for some time. Most recently, the Great Recession of 2008-09 “slammed working class communities,” with lingering effects. And Barack Obama’s presidency, heralded by many at its beginning for promising to heal the country’s divisions, turned out to exacerbate them instead.
The Clinton Nomination
Hillary Clinton, who by 2016 was as “establishment” a figure as any politician in the country, would thus have to face two outsider challengers, first for the nomination of her own party and then in the general election. And she would have to convince an electorate that was in an increasingly anti-establishment mood. In the end, she was able to beat only one of the outsiders.
How did Clinton defeat Sanders, who seemed to have all the energy of the party’s most ideological (as well as youngest) voters? In some respects her successful nomination campaign was propelled by brute force—more money, a larger organization, the assiduous courting of the party leaders who serve as convention “superdelegates,” a focus on the caucus states where (unlike primary states) ground-level organizing makes the difference, and a reliance on the African American vote.
In the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, which both have few minority voters, Clinton narrowly won the former and lost the latter. A comeback in the Nevada caucuses set her up for a decisive win in eight out of twelve contests on “Super Tuesday.” Afterward, her nomination was effectively inevitable because of the Democratic Party’s proportional allocation rules. As the authors explain, “once one candidate builds up a sizable lead in delegates, it is very hard for rivals to erase it.”
Yet Sanders had given her a good run for her money, and Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney conclude that he “lost the nomination but won the party.” Sanders generated tremendous enthusiasm, raised “more than $200 million, mostly online via small donations,” and finished with much higher favorability ratings from Democrats than did Clinton. His followers would only support Clinton if she and the party platform moved in his direction—that is, leftward—a move that would have questionable value in the general election.
Much of Clinton’s difficulty putting Sanders behind her had nothing to do with his strengths. Her own past and present shadiness caused her low poll ratings on trust and likability. The revelation that, as secretary of state, she had used a private email server, rather than the legally required government system, had not inspired the public to trust her more. But in a Democratic Party whose ranks of credible alternatives had been thinned by losses under Barack Obama, Clinton had the inevitability of the “who else have we got?” candidate.
The Trump Nomination
Donald Trump had a very different set of problems to overcome to win the Republican nomination. In contrast to the Democrats, the GOP had a “deep and talented” field of contenders for its nomination. If Trump seemed at first to be the least credible of the seventeen candidates, he quickly proved to be the one with a solid base in the Republican primary electorate. That base was never more than a plurality until near the end of the intraparty contest. But while pundits often proclaimed that his support had a ceiling, it would have made more sense to see it as a floor on which he could build, if he could only outlast his rivals and avoid the consolidation of other GOP voters into a “not Trump” base supporting just one of the others.
Against most expectations, including perhaps even his own, Trump did outlast them, while the damage they did before they exited the race was mostly to one another. “Ultimately,” the authors write, “winning the ‘not Trump’ primary proved so difficult that no one did.” The campaigns of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in particular deserve more study, to understand where and why they worked and did not work against Trump. The nominee was fortunate in his adversaries, in the timing and geography of the primary calendar, and in the structure of the GOP nomination process, which lacked the Democrats’ superdelegate contingent.
While his rivals were eliminating each other and leaving him standing, Trump himself was “committing a series of blunders that would likely have sunk any other candidate.” Yet the qualities that made many people recoil from him were inseparable from those that made him successful with others. Trump’s “demotic rhetoric” was deployed to good effect on issues like trade and immigration, and for voters sick of political correctness, he was a breath of fresh air, though for others the breeze often carried unpleasant odors.
In short, Donald Trump was a package deal: along with the “Make America Great Again” nationalism and the informality and the impulsive boldness came the insults, the open invitation to charges of racism and sexism, the vulgarity of a rich man with no taste or manners, and the seemingly bottomless lack of curiosity about public policy. If you were stirred by the man’s call to patriotism and his common touch, maybe you could talk yourself into discounting his obvious defects.
The Election: Who, How, and Why?
After a roller-coaster ride in the primaries, and abortive attempts (mostly just talk) to derail Trump at the GOP convention, this became the question of the general election: which of the two least-liked major-party nominees in history would stumble over the finish line into the presidency? Crooked Hillary or The Donald?
In order to understand that home stretch of the race, Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney separate the “fundamentals” of the electoral environment from the “contingencies.” The fundamentals included the state of the economy, the sitting president’s approval ratings, the relative identification of voters with the two parties, and the electorate’s mood for change. The first two suggested a close election, the third a Democratic advantage, and the fourth a Republican one.
As for the contingencies, these included the shape and cohesiveness of campaign organizations (Clinton’s a well-oiled juggernaut, Trump’s lean and volatile), the relative levels of financial support (a Clinton advantage throughout), and the strategic choices of the two campaigns. As to this last, Clinton’s campaign pursued a popular-vote victory, “assuming that . . . the Electoral College would take care of itself. Trump’s planners crafted an electoral vote strategy.” Both, in the end, got the victories they pursued and no more than that.
Along the way was the most entertaining and disheartening campaign of modern times. Gaffes, leaks, scandals, FBI interventions, and bruising debates were the order of the day, and Clinton held on to a persistent lead, albeit never over 50 percent. On the night of November 8, that lead held for her, but was not distributed in the right places. With about three million more votes than Trump nationwide—but an advantage of 4.3 million in California alone—Clinton lost in the electoral college, with 227 votes to Trump’s 304 (each losing a few votes cast by “faithless electors”).
Trump “flipped a total of six states from blue in 2012 to red in 2016 (Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin).” How did he do it?
His strength with working-class white voters is a partial explanation, not a complete one. Trump also did better than expected—and Clinton, worse—among women. He also slightly outperformed Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign among racial minorities, and lost no ground among young voters, while Clinton slipped badly compared to Obama’s past record. The authors think it worth considering whether the results in 2008 and 2012 were all about an “Obama coalition” rather than an enduring strength of the Democratic Party.
That’s how Trump won, but what about why? Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney observe that “a change election was prepared in deep wells of public opinion,” as Obama’s second term came to a close. For voters who cared about national security, the Supreme Court, illegal immigration, law and order, and religious liberty, the advantages were all in Trump’s direction. His “theme of nationalism and citizenship” resonated strongly with such voters as well.
But was the race uniquely Trump’s to win? The authors doubt it: “it is far from clear that no other Republican candidate could have won as Trump did, via the Rust Belt.” In fact, they conclude that “Trump underperformed the models” crafted by political analysts to predict the election’s outcome. Given his chaotic candidacy, one might even say it was Clinton’s race to lose; her people certainly thought so, right up until she did just that.
An Uncertain Future
Now six months into Trump’s administration, it is hard to stop watching his often antic performance as president and look back with any serious reflection on the structures that brought him there. Something seems to have gone seriously awry in the GOP selection process, but with Trump in the White House, probably considering a run for reelection, what Republican has the stomach for proposing reforms in that process? The new president had, if anything, negative coattails (the GOP lost seats in both houses of Congress), so what will be the Trump effect on the conservative ideology of the party?
The Democrats, for their part, must soberly consider that “Barack Obama’s legacy was shattered.” How do they regroup in a way more productive than crying “resist!”?
From a still higher altitude, the authors ask about the fate of our constitutionalism and of our political culture. If “Donald J. Trump was, in many respects, a one of a kind in American politics,” nonetheless he could still also be “the first of a new type.” Are we in for more demotic rhetoric, more government by presidential diktat, more divisive politics, more insular “cocooning” by voters who see, hear, and exchange ideas only with others who are most like themselves?
Who knows? Meanwhile, our wild ride continues, and Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney give one of the best accounts of the track just behind us.
Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.