Who Elected Donald Trump? It Wasn't the Russians

Looking forward to the inauguration of the new president, and to the peaceful transfer of power the event is meant to signify, I wondered who these people are who so oppose Mr. Trump that they will be demonstrating against him this inaugural weekend.  I was inspired to revisit the exit polling data, to gain a more granular understanding of the election results, and I was pleased to discover therein an important truth.  Of course, the accuracy of exit polls can be influenced by voters who report a choice or a characterization of themselves that is not true, but it's our most thorough insight into the electorate and the choices made.

The list below identifies meaningful categories of voters who, according to an analysis of CNN exit poll data (24,558 respondents), supported Mr. Trump.  They are ranked in order of importance to the total vote based on weighted net margin.  The first two categories listed can be regarded as decisive in the election – both provided a favorable outcome to the president-elect. 

The repeal of Obamacare has been an important issue for the Republican Party since the law's passage in 2010 and has been a big issue in elections since then.  It is likely the most important factor accounting for Republican gains in Congress during the Obama presidency.  That issue favored Trump in the November election by a margin of 1.3 points.

Immigration has been Mr. Trump's signature issue, from the very beginning of his campaign.  While his policies on immigration remain somewhat inchoate, the public knows his leanings on the subject.  In this election, native-born citizens favored Trump by 4 points, while naturalized citizens favored Clinton by 33 points.  Given the overwhelming proportion of the former in the polled electorate (91%), this issue cut in favor of Trump by 0.7 points and can be seen as a proxy judgment on the politics of immigration.

In comparison, Hillary Clinton did not promote any signature issues in her campaign.  Her focus was on Donald Trump himself – she advanced and relied on her view that he is unfit for the office.

Unlike the first two categories, the others listed were not decisive in the election.  While Trump had the support of the several cohorts listed, the complement (or opposite) to those chose Hillary Clinton, resulting in a small net margin in her favor (ranked in order of significance to the total).  Taken together, the other categories may help us characterize Trump voters, but they are not the defining elements of his victory.

Donald Trump was supported by voters who:

  1. thought Obamacare went too far,
  2. were natural-born citizens,
  3. were Christians,
  4. doubted Hillary Clinton's honesty,
  5. were white,
  6. had an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party,
  7. were either Republican or independent,
  8. were over the age of 40,
  9. were male,
  10. were veterans,
  11. were dissatisfied or angry with the federal government,
  12. were concerned about Supreme Court appointments,
  13. resided in suburban or rural communities,
  14. were married,
  15. were most concerned about the ability to bring change, and
  16. had an income in excess of $50,000.

Interpreting the data in light of recent events, it is fair to conclude that the purported Russian meddling in the election did not determine the outcome.  Assuming that the DNC hacks were indeed perpetrated by Russian agents, the information disclosed in the leaked emails called into question the integrity of the party leadership and of some members of the press.  While Trump won the votes of those with a low opinion of the Democrats, those votes were outweighed by those with a favorable opinion of the party, resulting in a 1.3-point net margin in Mrs. Clinton's favor.  Russian hacks did not swing a majority to Trump.

Of course, Hillary Clinton's honesty and email problems figured prominently in the campaign, but they do not appear to have been decisive (nor were they the result of Russian meddling).  The overwhelming majority of voters (63%) were bothered by the private email issue, and Trump won those voters by a wide margin – 45 points.  But the voters who were not bothered by the emails (36%) favored Mrs. Clinton by an even wider spread, 85 points.  Thus, the issue was not decisive in Trump's favor – it fell to Clinton's advantage by a net 2.3 points.

Given the breakdown of the polling data, it seems fair to conclude that the election was decided on two big issues: Obamacare, foremost and most clearly, and immigration.  Issues of character and personality, which the anti-Trumpers claim as their greatest concerns, were not the decisive factors, nor were culture or demographics.

We experienced a historically unusual election, one fought by two candidates individually disliked by much of the population.  The Republicans and Trump overcame that handicap because they made Obamacare and immigration their leading (though not only) issues.  Hillary Clinton stuck with her argument that Donald Trump is unfit to serve as president. 

Based on the rhetoric in the press and social media in advance of the inauguration, the demonstrators mobilizing this weekend seem to be stuck in the view of Trump on which Mrs. Clinton campaigned.  Perhaps they are also agitated now by fear of changes to come, recognizing now that there were indeed issues at play in the election, that their candidate lost, and that elections have consequences.

Americans lived through a long and intense campaign, novel in many ways.  The people recognized the deficiencies of both candidates and chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.  Analysis of the exit polling data shows that the choice was made on how the candidates stood on Obamacare and immigration.  That is a legitimate choice to have been made.  The Republicans won on real issues.  That is the true history of the 2016 election.