Kerwin Swint: A boorish ‘Donald the Celebrity’ inoculated ‘Donald the Politician’

Kerwin Swint is a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University, specializing in campaigns and elections, mass media, and political history. He’s turned this assessment of Tuesday’s presidential vote:

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton is a historic upset win that will have ramifications for years to come. The implications for American politics and for our international partners are potentially vast. He did it by successfully tapping into a significant anti-establishment, anti-globalist anxiety that has been building among middle class and working class Americans for years. It can also be seen partly as a repudiation of Obama-era policies, including the Affordable Care Act.

Kerwin Swint

Kerwin Swint

So what happened? The answer comes in three parts:

No. 1: This was a “change” election all along. It’s very difficult, almost unprecedented, for a political party to win three presidential elections in a row. Aside from FDR’s four wins (1932-1944), the only modern instance of this happening was the GOP, from 1980 to 1992. Americans have tended to grow weary of one party controlling things for too long. Also significant are survey findings that over 60 percent of voters believe the country is on the wrong track. This is a recipe for the “out” party to take back control of the White House. Indeed, exit polls on Tuesday night found that one of the most significant issues voters had on their minds was which candidate was more likely to bring needed change.

No. 2: The unique nature of Donald Trump as a candidate. Love him or hate him, we’ve simply never seen a candidate like him in the 200-plus year history of this country. Before running for president, he was primarily known as a celebrity — first as a flashy, media-savvy business titan, then as a flashy, media-savvy TV personality. As a presidential candidate he was able to don the “outsider” label because he wasn’t known as a politician. In a very important sense, he became to many voters the anti-politician politician. And he was someone willing to take on the political establishment, even the establishment of his own party.

 And then there is his style. He’s brash, he’s loud, he’s boastful, and he has, shall we say, a “colorful” past. In a strange way, this inoculated him from some of the conventions and traditions of campaign communication. He said and tweeted things that were understood as insulting, racially and culturally insensitive, even boorish. But to many voters, that was just Donald being Donald. He got away with things that would have brought down other candidates. “The Donald” got a pass.

No. 3: Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate. In a change election, she reeked of the establishment, the status quo, business as usual. There is a reason that Bernie Sanders did so well in the Democratic primaries. That, coupled with her long history of controversies and scandals (real or imagined), severely limited her appeal to a large cross-section of voters. This was amplified by the email controversy and FBI Director Jim Comey’s soul-searching melodrama. In the end, the simple truth is that not enough voters liked her or trusted her.

The truth can be seen in the numbers. Clinton underperformed Obama’s vote totals with African-Americans and with Latinos. She won females, but not in large enough numbers. And most importantly, she lost the Rust Belt. She could have survived losing Florida, North Carolina, and even Ohio. But when the numbers from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania came in, it was clear that it was over. Large numbers of voters in those states, (Democratic, blue states), voted for clear change. And in 2016 that meant voting for Trump. For context, the last Republican presidential candidate to win any of those states was George H.W. Bush in 1988. 

“Brexit” also deserves a brief mention. The pollsters missed on that one too. It’s a different situation, but there are also some obvious parallels: economic anxiety, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-globalism, and anti-establishmentism.

In every presidential election the candidates and their surrogates always say that it is a crucial election, or “this is the most important election of our lives.” This time they could be right.

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