How did Donald Trump, the worst major-party nominee in memory, get elected president of the United States? What were his voters thinking? A lot of theories and accusations are flying around, but many don’t square with the best available evidence: surveys of voters as they left their polling places. Unlike pre-election polls, which missed many voters, exit polls by definition are a survey of the electorate. So, with an understanding that exit polls can have biases or errors of their own, let’s take a hard look at the data.
1. Did the FBI decide the election? On Oct. 28, FBI Director James Comey said the FBI might have found new evidence in the probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails. On Sunday, he said the FBI had examined the evidence and found no reason to reopen the inquiry. That’s a nine-day stretch. The exit poll asked people when they had finally decided for whom to vote, and the first options on the list were “in the last few days” or “in the last week.” Six percent of voters said they had decided in the last week but not in the last few days, and Clinton lost these voters by 12 percentage points. So she lost 1 percentage point of the total vote during that time, and we can’t be sure how much of it was due to the FBI. The total effect of Comey’s letter is unclear, but it seems small.
2. Did the debates help Clinton? Not as much as pundits expected. I thought Clinton’s superior preparation, demeanor, truthfulness, and wisdom were obvious in these debates. Press accounts largely agreed. But voters didn’t see it that way. In the exit poll, 26 percent of voters said the debates were the most important factor in their decisions, and Trump lost these folks by only 4 percentage points. Reporters and voters don’t seem to be judging debates by the same criteria.
3. Hunger for change trumped other considerations. The exit poll asked voters, “Which one of these four candidate qualities mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?” The options were “has the right experience,” “has good judgment,” “cares about people like me,” and “can bring needed change.” Fifty-six percent of voters picked one of the first three categories, and Clinton won these voters handily. But 39 percent of voters picked the fourth quality—“can bring needed change”—and Trump got 83 percent of those votes. The “change” factor overrode everything else.
4. Dislike of Trump wasn’t enough to sink him. Each candidate won virtually all the voters who had a favorable opinion of that candidate. Clinton’s favorable rating was higher, so she came out ahead. But 18 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of neither candidate, and those voters broke for Trump, 49 percent to 29 percent. That made the difference. Given a choice between two candidates they didn’t like, they picked the outsider.
5. Bad temperament wasn’t enough to sink Trump. Forty-three percent of voters said Clinton lacked “the temperament to serve effectively as president.” A much higher number, 63 percent, said the same of Trump. That was expected to be a big advantage for Clinton. But while Clinton won only 5 percent of the 43 percent who flunked her temperament, Trump won 20 percent of the 63 percent who flunked his. So Trump came out well ahead. Many voters saw that his temperament was bad, but voted for him anyway.
6. Nearly half of Trump’s voters admit his treatment of women was troublesome. Fifty-five percent of Trump voters said his “treatment of women” bothered them not much or not at all, but 45 percent said it bothered them “a lot” or “some.” The 45 percent weren’t saying that his sexism didn’t exist. Nor were they saying that it didn’t trouble them. They were saying that other factors, to them, were more important.
7. Trump did surprisingly well among groups he was thought to have fatally offended. He got 8 percent of blacks (Mitt Romney got only 6 percent in 2012), 29 percent of Latinos (Romney got 27 percent), and 41 percent of moderates (Romney also got 41 percent). Trump trailed Clinton among women by 12 percentage points, but that wasn’t much worse than Romney, who lost them by 11 points. Trump also got 31 percent of voters who said they hadn’t been born as U.S. citizens. These figures complicate the theory that racism and sexism carried Trump to victory.
8. Trump’s voters didn’t support deportation. They agreed with him about building a wall on the Mexican border. But when they were asked whether “most illegal immigrants” should be deported or “offered a chance to apply for legal status,” 53 percent chose legal status.
9. Terrorism was a crucial factor. The exit poll asked, “Which one of these four issues is the most important facing the country?” Sixty-five percent of voters picked the economy or foreign policy, and these voters went for Clinton. Thirteen percent picked immigration, and those voters went for Trump. The backbreaker was the fourth issue, terrorism. Eighteen percent of voters picked that issue, and they broke for Trump, 57 percent to 39 percent. That gap, fatally, cost Clinton slightly more than 3 percentage points of the total electorate.
10. Trump’s voters are headed for disappointment. Many analysts think this electorate was driven by anger. That’s not quite true. Only 23 percent of voters said they were angry about the way the federal government was working. Trump won 77 percent of their votes, but that wasn’t enough to match Clinton’s advantage among the 29 percent of voters who said they were satisfied with, or enthusiastic about, the way the government was working. What tilted the election was the 46 percent of voters who said they were “dissatisfied but not angry.” They went narrowly for Trump, 49 percent to 45 percent. These people, having voted out one party based on disappointment but not anger, might do so again in four years if Trump can’t help them much more than President Obama did.
In fact, there’s already a sign of trouble in the Trump coalition: 17 percent of voters said the next president should change from Obama’s agenda to “more liberal policies,” and 23 percent of those voters cast ballots for Trump. That’s 4 percent of the electorate. When these folks see Trump applying conservative policies, they’re likely to be disappointed. Maybe even angry.