Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
Donald Trump's victory was surprising and, to those of us who failed to predict it, downright abnormal. Yet sift through the still smouldering data and you'll find an election that was in many respects quite normal.
According to the exit polls, 88 per cent of avowed Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton and 89 per cent of avowed Republicans for Mr. Trump. Those leading Republicans who had repudiated Mr. Trump ended up with elephant egg on their faces. It's a two-party and highly partisan country. (Mr. Trump triumphed among independents, 46 per cent to 42 per cent.)
There was not, overall, any popular upsurge for Mr. Trump. He received about as many votes as Mitt Romney in 2012. Mr. Trump's votes were just better distributed. He lost Romney voters he could afford to lose (in no-hope states like California and New York, for example). He won Obama voters that Ms. Clinton couldn't afford to lose, in the "Blue Wall" states of the industrial Midwest, in Iowa and in North Carolina. The surge of white working-class support for Mr. Trump, in urban and rural areas alike, was indeed crucial to his victory.
Was this then the decisive factor in the election? Well, not exactly. It was necessary for a Trump win, but not sufficient. He still had to do better with black and Hispanic voters than Mr. Romney.
He did. With Barack Obama off the ticket – and Ms. Clinton on it – higher percentages of both groups voted Republican last month. Black voters helped Mr. Trump even more by staying home. In crucial Michigan and Wisconsin, Ms. Clinton received an estimated 129,000 fewer of their votes than Mr. Obama, more than Mr. Trump's combined margin of victory in the two states.
In so close an election presenting a puzzle of so many bits and pieces, we can't point to any one as decisive. Each, like a winning basket at the buzzer, is so only in the context of all the others, any of which can therefore claim to be as decisive as it. (The first basket counts as much as the last.) It just happened to add up to a narrow Trump victory, in the Blue Wall states and overall.
Yet here's something that's particularly intriguing even if it we can't brand it decisive. In exit polls, 18 per cent of voters identified themselves as negative toward both major party candidates. Political scientist Michael Barone calls these "double negative" voters.
Even so, 78 per cent of them reported having voted for one of the two – again, it's a two-party country. What's surprising is how they divided: 49 per cent for Mr. Trump, only 29 per cent for Ms. Clinton. Mr. Barone calculates that had these voters divided evenly, Ms. Clinton would have won the swing states and therefore the election. (In general, just a 1-per-cent shift of the vote in her direction in each of the 50 states would have gained her an easy Electoral College victory.) So with a plurality of other voters supporting Ms. Clinton, it was voters who strongly disapproved of Mr. Trump who pushed him over the top.
Why did these doubly disenchanted voters break so strongly? We'll never know what coursed through their minds. Mr. Barone figures that Mr. Trump was the change candidate, and "double negative" voters craved change.
This seems as plausible a speculation as any. You couldn't find a candidate more synonymous with the status quo than Ms. Clinton. And voters were dissatisfied with it. Yes, Mr. Obama enjoyed 55-per-cent approval on the eve of the election. Yet at the same time, 70 per cent of the public declared themselves unhappy with the government. (And only 39 per cent supported Mr. Obama's sole major legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act.) So yes, it was a "change year" and Mr. Trump eked out a victory in an election that could have gone either way.
This isn't to minimize Donald Trump's achievement in winning a contest so many thought beyond his reach. The first of the many victims of his victory was smugness; now he must avoid it himself. He faces daunting challenges (including many of his own making). Job one for him is to reassemble the American people. While he's nothing if not a performer, to divide and conquer came easily to him. Now he must step up to his most demanding role, that of becoming someone he has never shown himself to be.