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The morning after the presidential election in the United States, observers on both sides of the deep political chasm of American politics are asking themselves the same question: What just happened?
In the run-up to Election Day, Democrats and Republican experts alike were predicting a Clinton victory. For the political and pundit classes, even those on the Republican side, the alternative seemed but a slim possibility. Apparently the American electorate saw things differently.
Once again, observers failed to grasp the power of the evangelical voter—as did many who belong to that group themselves. According to a Fivethirtyeight.com analysis of exit polls, evangelicals were among the strongest demographic groups for Trump, favoring him over Clinton 81 to 16 percent. That would be the widest margin a Republican presidential candidate has earned among voters since George Bush, a self-avowed evangelical, won re-election in 2004.
Evangelicals may have turned the election in Trump’s favour. Not only are they a sizable group, making up 20 percent of registered voters, according to the Pew Research Center, but they are a potent force in key swing states, such as Florida and North Carolina. Exit polls show that 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump.
And while evangelical leaders may have been divided over the Trump presidency, evangelical grassroots voters felt they had nowhere else to go. Mallory Quigley, Communications Director for the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that promotes pro-life candidates, said that the canvassers working for her group in the months before the election encountered a lot of voters who were choosing Trump because of his pro-life stance, particularly in Florida. Abortion has traditionally been a litmus test issue for evangelicals, who tend to be single-issue voters.
“Many evangelicals, whether ‘Never Trump’ or willing to support Trump, are ultimately shaped by a core set of convictions,” John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told the Associated Press. “They are still going to be – for good or for bad – one-, two- or three-issue voters primarily. I think that persists.”
In this presidential cycle, evangelicals were also deeply concerned about the vacancy on the Supreme Court, fearing that a Clinton presidency would mean tipping the balance in favor of liberals.
Trump’s victory also speaks to a substantial underestimation of the depth and intensity of anger and disaffection among voters, primarily among the white working class. These voters are the American manifestation of the same force seen in many geopolitical events, such as the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the increasingly strong showings of far-right parties in Europe.
Trump may be inexperienced, but his supporters didn’t seem to care. In a nation where income inequality has been steadily increasingly since the 1970s (the US now ranks in the bottom 30 percent of countries in terms of equal income distribution), Trump’s voters felt neglected by a system that seemed to ignore their needs in favor of protecting its own interests, as seen in the fervour of the intense but short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement.
Trump spoke directly to those voters’ fear and anger. Left behind in an era of globalization and a changing economic landscape, they lived with the economic insecurity that came from being less well-off than their parents, rendering Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan particularly resonant.
Trump was an outsider, and a financially successful one to boot. Clinton, on the other hand, for all her experience, was the consummate insider, the embodiment of everything those voters wanted to reject.
The sentiments behind the rise of Bernie Sanders were the same ones that drove people to the polls for Trump. At the end of the day, Clinton failed to convincingly address them. The characteristics that Trump’s detractors despised him for—his brashness, his bluntness and his crudeness, were precisely what drew the disaffected to him. He was, in their view, speaking truth to power. He gave voice to their rage and their forbidden sentiments.
Trump energized white working-class voters as few recent candidates have. In Iowa, for example, white men chose Trump over Clinton 62 to 31 percent, according to an NBC exit poll. And in Wisconsin, which hasn’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan took it in 1984, white voters with no college degree ticked the Trump box on their ballots 63 percent to Clinton’s 32 percent. Again, there, religion played a role as well: Trump scored a 71 to 24 percent win among white evangelicals, according to ABC exit polls.