Nobody saw it coming. Not the media. Certainly not Hillary Clinton. Not even Donald Trump’s team of data scientists, holed up in their San Antonio headquarters 1,800 miles from Trump Tower, were predicting this outcome. But the scientists picked up disturbances–like falling pressure before a hurricane–that others weren’t seeing. It was the beginning of the storm that would deliver Trump to the White House.
Flash back three weeks, to Oct. 18. The Trump campaign’s internal election simulator, the “Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory,” showed Trump with a 7.8 percent chance of winning. That’s because his own model had him trailing in most of the states that would decide the election, including the pivotal state of Florida–but only by a small margin. And in some states, such as Virginia, he was winning, even though no public poll agreed.
Trump’s numbers were different, because his analysts, like Trump himself, were forecasting a fundamentally different electorate than other pollsters and almost all of the media: older, whiter, more rural, more populist. And much angrier at what they perceive to be an overclass of entitled elites. In the next three weeks, Trump channeled this anger on the stump, at times seeming almost unhinged.
“A vote for Hillary is a vote to surrender our government to public corruption, graft, and cronyism that threatens the survival of our constitutional system itself,” Trump told an Arizona crowd on Oct. 29. “What makes us exceptional is that we are a nation of laws and that we are all equal under those laws. Hillary’s corruption shreds the principle on which our nation was founded.”
He had an unwitting ally. “Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s message,” says Steve Bannon, his campaign chief executive officer. “From her e-mail server, to her lavishly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, to her FBI problems, she represented everything that middle-class Americans had had enough of.”
Inside his campaign, Trump’s analysts became convinced that even their own models didn’t sufficiently account for the strength of these voters. “In the last week before the election, we undertook a big exercise to reweight all of our polling, because we thought that who [pollsters] were sampling from was the wrong idea of who the electorate was going to turn out to be this cycle,” says Matt Oczkowski, the head of product at London firm Cambridge Analytica and team leader on Trump’s campaign. “If he was going to win this election, it was going to be because of a Brexit-style mentality and a different demographic trend than other people were seeing.”
Trump’s team chose to focus on this electorate, partly because it was the only possible path for them. But after Comey, that movement of older, whiter voters became newly evident. It’s what led Trump’s campaign to broaden the electoral map in the final two weeks and send the candidate into states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan that no one else believed he could win (with the exception of liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who deemed them “Brexit states”). Even on the eve of the election Trump’s models predicted only a 30 percent likelihood of victory.
The message Trump delivered to those voters was radically different from anything they would hear from an ordinary Republican: a bracing screed that implicated the entire global power structure–the banks, the government, the media, the guardians of secular culture–in a dark web of moral and intellectual corruption. And Trump insisted that he alone could fix it.
In doing so, Trump knit together a worldview, frequently propounded by Bannon, that the U.S. was on the cusp of joining the right-wing populist uprisings that have swept across Europe. It was Trump who featured Nigel Farage, the champion of the United Kingdom’s Brexit campaign, at a Mississippi stadium rally and Trump who became the American embodiment of that sentiment. “It was basically the game plan from the very first day I arrived,” says Bannon.
Trump’s election represents a jarring realignment of American politics. It delivered a rebuke to GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, even as it cast Democrats into the wilderness. It could render large swaths of the GOP agenda inoperative. But we really don’t know yet.
The firm called these Trump supporters “disenfranchised new Republicans”: younger than traditional party loyalists and less likely to live in metropolitan areas. They share Bannon’s populist spirit and care more than other Republicans about three big issues: law and order, immigration, and wages.
They also harbored a deep contempt for the reigning political establishment in both parties, along with a desire to return the country to happier times. Trump was the key that fit in this lock. “Trump is fundamentally a populist,” says Bannon. “He’s the leader of a populist uprising. But he’s also an enormously successful entrepreneur who succeeded in real estate, media, and branding.” The voters who elected Trump, he says, wish to partake in this story of American success but not destroy the American system of government. “This is not the French Revolution,” says Bannon. “They destroyed the basic institutions of their society and changed their form of government. What Trump represents is a restoration–a restoration of true American capitalism and a revolution against state-sponsored socialism. Elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to the working- and middle-class Americans.”
According to Cambridge’s analysis, these Trump backers subordinate the standard conservative Republican priorities, especially social and cultural issues such as abortion and guns, which Trump largely ignored during the campaign, and cutting Social Security and Medicare spending, which he vowed to preserve. Trump got elected by outlining a worldview that reflects these priorities–even though many of them are sharply at odds with those of Ryan and the Republican leaders that Trump has displaced.
It remains a mystery how Trump will govern. No president in living memory has as little political experience or has put forward fewer details of the policies he intends to pursue. But it’s possible to see in Trump’s coalition of voters and the issues they care about the broad contours of a new Republican politics that’s more populist, more rural in its character (and less beholden to Wall Street), and oriented toward a class of Americans–not all of them conservatives or even Republicans–whose concerns weren’t addressed by the Democratic and Republican parties that both crumbled on Nov. 8.