The Improbable Demographics Behind Donald Trump's Shocking Presidential Victory


n an election so ugly and so close, one is reluctant to proclaim winners. But it’s clear that there’s a loser — the very notion of the United States of America.

Instead we have populations and geographies that barely seem to belong in the same country, if not on the same planet. The electorate is so divided that many states went for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton by lopsided margins. The Northeast was solidly Democratic, with Clinton winning New York, Massachusetts and Vermont with three-fifths of the vote or more. Washington, D.C., heavily black and the seat of the bureaucracy and pundit class, delivered an almost Soviet-style 93% to 4% margin.

On the other side were a series of states where Trump won just as easily, including Tennessee and Kentucky, with three-fifths of the vote, and West Virginia, by a margin of two-to-one  – higher than those attained by 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Much of the rest of the map has followed the usual patterns: Democratic domination of Illinois and the West Coast, while Republicans held the South. Where the election was decided was in previous battleground states: Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.

The Revolt of Middle America

America is a nation of many economies, but those that produce real, tangible things — food, fiber, energy and manufactured goods — went overwhelmingly for Trump. He won virtually every state from Appalachia to the Rockies, with the exceptions of heavily Hispanic Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, and President Obama’s home base of Illinois.

Some of his biggest margins were in energy states — Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Wyoming, North Dakota — where the fracking revolution created a burst of prosperity. Generally speaking, the more carbon-intensive the economy, the better the Republicans did. Many of his biggest wins took place across the energy-producing regions of the country, including Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, Wyoming, Idaho, and especially West Virginia, where he won by a remarkable margin of 68% to 27%. The energy industry could well be the biggest financial winner in the election.

The Green Trap

Clinton’s support for climate change legislation, a lower priority among the electorate than other concerns, was seen as necessary to shore up support from greens threatening to attack her from the left. Yet the issue never caught on the heartland, which tends to see climate change mitigation as injurious to them.

This may have proven a major miscalculation, as the energy economy is also tied closely to manufacturing. Besides climate change, the heartland had many reasons to fear a continuation of Obama policies, particularly related to regulation and global trade, which seems to have been a big factor in Trump’s upset win in normally moderate to liberal Wisconsin.

Trump either won, or closely contested all the traditional manufacturing states — Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and even Michigan, where union voters did not support Clinton as they had Obama and where trade was also a big issue. Trump did consistently better than Romney in all these states, even though Romney was a native of Michigan. Perhaps the most significant turnaround was in Ohio, which Obama won with barely 51%  of the vote in 2012. This year Trump reversed this loss and won by over seven points.

Agricultural states, reeling from the decline of commodity prices, not surprisingly, also went for the New Yorker.

Premature Epitaphs For The White Voter

Race, as is often the case, played a major role in the election. For much of the election, commentators, particularly in the dominant Eastern media, seemed to be openly celebrating what CNN heralded as “the decline of the white voter.” The “new America,” they suggested, would be a coalition of minorities, educated workers and millennials.

To be sure, the minority share of the electorate is only going to grow — from less than 30% today to over 40% in 2032 — as more white Americans continue to die than be born. Just between 2012 and 2016, the Latino and Asian electorate grew 17% and 16%, respectively; the white electorate expanded barely 2%.

In Colorado the new minority math was seen, with a strong showing among Latinos, the educated suburbs around Denver and millennials.

That may be the future, but now is now. Exit polling nationwide showed Trump won two-to-one among people without a college degree, matched Clinton among college graduates, losing only those with graduate degrees, a group that has voted for the Democrats since 1988.

But there’s simply more high school graduates then those with graduate degrees. And for now there are a lot more whites than minorities. As we look into the future, these groups will fade somewhat but right now they can still determine elections. Nowhere is this clearer than in Trump’s decisive win in Florida, a state that is home to many white retirees, including from the old industrial states.

Latinos may be the one group in the “new America” that made a difference for Clinton, not only in Colorado, but also in Nevada. Republicans paid a price for Trump’s intemperate comments on immigration and about Mexico.

They also made states like Texas and North Carolina closer, and may have helped secure Clinton’s win in Virginia. In contrast, neither African-Americans or millennials seem to have turned out as heavily, both in numbers and percentage terms, as they did for President Obama. Trump appears to have made some modest gains with both groups, contrary to the conventional wisdom.

Class Warrior

Class has been a bigger factor in this election than in any election since the New Deal era. Trump’s insurgency rode largely on middle- and working-class fears about globalization, immigration and the cultural arrogance of the “progressive” cultural elite. This is something Bill Clinton understandsbetter than his wife.

Trump owes his election to what one writer has called “the leftover people.” These may be “deplorables” to the pundits but their grievances are real – their incomes and their lifespans have been decreasing. They have noticed, as Thomas Frank has written, that the Democrats have gone “from being the party of Decatur to the party of Martha’s Vineyard.”

Many of these voters were once Democrats, and feel they have been betrayed. And they include a large swath of the middle class, whose fury explains much of what happened tonight. Trump has connected better with these voters than Romney, who won those making between $50,000 and $90,000 by a narrow 52 percent margin. Early analysis of this year’s election shows Trump doing better among these kind of voters.

At the same time, however, affluent voters — those making $100,000 and above — seem to have tilted over to the Democrats this year. This is the first time the “rich” have gone against the GOP since the 1964 Goldwater debacle. Obama did better among the wealthy, winning eight of the 10 richest counties in 2012. In virtually all these counties, Clinton did even better.

What does this mean for America’s traditional middle class, whose numbers have been fading for a generation? Long the majority, notes Pew, they are no longer, outnumbered by the lower and upper classes combined. Yet like the Anglo population, in this election what’s left of America’s middle class has shown itself not ready to face the sunset.

Now What?

Given the unpredictable nature of Trump, it’s hard to see what he will do. Although himself a businessman, he was opposed overwhelmingly by his own class. Clinton won more support from big business and the business elite. If you had a billionaire primary, Clinton would have won by as much as 20 to 1.

Initially many of those business interests closest to both Obama and Clinton — Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood — will be on the outside looking in. Their advantages from tax avoidance could be lessened. Merger-mania, yet another form of asset inflation, will continue unabated, particularly in the tech and media space.

The clear challenge for (I can’t believe I am writing these words) President Trump will not be so much to punish these enemies, but to embrace those people — largely middle class, suburban, small town and white — who are not part of his world, but made him President. If he embraces his role as a radical reformer, he could do much good, for example with a flatter tax system, restoring federalism, seizing the advantage of the energy revolution and reviving military preparedness.

The question is whether he will, or is capable, of doing these things. A Hillary Clinton administration would have been safer, and predictable, but it would not have addressed the very things that made Americans turn to this bizarre political poseur. Now it’s up to Trump to live up to his promise to restore the country’s self-confidence, and, for the rest of us, to make sure he does it in accordance with the Constitution and basic decency.

This piece first appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Joel, this has kinda been bothering me since the post-election narrative emerged about "left-behind" voters voting for Trump.

Illinois, mainly but not exclusively Chicagoland, lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs between 2000-2015 alone. You've written similar things about Los Angeles. Every time I see stats like this it's in the context of "that's what you get with Democrats" or "thank a union" or the more diplomatic "hostile business climate." Does anyone really believe things are peachy in Cleveland, better in Detroit than in Decatur? All these places voted for the Democratic candidate.

The media and politicians have been brushing off consolidation, outsourcing and interstate poaching for decades as it's sapped our great Northern industrial cities. Remember Reagan's "South Succotash" comment? Now we're feeling small-town America's pain because, pick one, the residents are a bit more "apple-cheeked" or because they vote Republican. We talk about them as victims of larger trends and corporate greed in a way we don't talk about post-industrial urbanites.

So I guess my question is, what about the left-behinds in urban areas who voted for Clinton? Why don't we, why can't we ever talk about them in the same way as Trump's backers? And don't tell me they've been redirected into new opportunities not available to small-towners, the East Side of Chicago still hasn't recovered from the steel mills closing 30 years ago.


It amazes me that after 8 years of an Administration that openly, proudly seeks to punish its enemies while being egged on and cheered on by the Media, Kotkin mounts the pulpit and commands Trump not to punish his political enemies! That after 8 years of an Administration that openly, proudly ignores and even disparages the Constitution, Kotkin mounts the pulpit to suggest that it is Trump who needs to be held to observance of the Constitution.