In August of 2016, while sitting in a TV studio on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, conservative journalist and author John Stossel asked me how I had felt about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“I’m not sure it’s going to happen,” I said, “but I feel like it’s possible because I feel like there’s a big change in the country.”
“What do you feel is the reason behind this big change?” Stossel pressed.
“Part of it is the candidates. Trump is definitely appealing to a lot of people who feel like they’ve been left behind by the system,” I replied. “Hillary Clinton may be the candidate of the status quo, and Trump is the anti-establishment candidate, so there’s that. But I think another big reason Trump won is because of the way the media covered the campaign.”
Trump’s campaign, and the media’s coverage of it, was unique in many ways. He broke many of the rules of politics and media relations that have held true since the Civil War. But perhaps most strikingly, Trump refused to play by the old rules, and that is exactly what made him a dangerous candidate.
“Trump is a political genius,” Stossel said. “He completely shattered the traditional landscape of American politics. And I have to give Trump a lot of credit because he knew how to beat the system.”
For years, American politics has been dominated by both political parties. But in the 2016 election, the two-party system cracked, and a political outsider defeated the sitting Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. Today, we examine the key factors that helped lead to Donald Trump’s upset victory.
Trump’s Campaign Was An Electoral College Thumping
With just a few weeks until Election Day, the fate of the United States was uncertain. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were in a dead heat. According to the polls, the contest was too close to call. So, as is customary in such a situation, we heads of the electoral colleges met to cast their ballots and choose who would become the 45th President of the United States.
In theory, the election was a straightforward choice. But in reality, it was anything but. For years, the electoral college had functioned as a rubber stamp, and this election was no different. Trump won 184 electoral votes to Clinton’s 165, giving him a slender victory (0.55 percent) and denying Clinton the presidency.
What happened? How did a Republican candidate for president defeat the sitting president’s wife? How did a man who had never held elected office prevail over a seasoned Washington insider? Why did so many Americans reject the conventional thinking and choose Trump?
Media Didn’t Give The Nominee A Fair Shake
In the 2016 election, neither candidate was subjected to relentless, brutal criticism in the media, which is something of a modern day phenomenon. Indeed, the Media Research Center found that, during the three days before the election, Clinton received just 16 minutes of prime-time coverage on the three major networks, compared to Trump’s 44 minutes. On the evening of the election, the networks finally gave Trump some coverage, but it was a far from even-handed presentation.
That evening, while Clinton was campaigning in Florida, ABC cut away from her and went to Trump in New York, where he was holding a press conference. The next morning, Twitter lit up with complaints from viewers that they didn’t see Clinton’s speech at all, but only Trump’s comments from the night before.
On the Sunday before the election, three NBC News programs (Meet the Press, Tim Russert and PoliticsNation) featured interviews with Trump, while three CBS News programs (60 Minutes, Face the Nation and The Talk) covered Clinton. And then on Election Day, as the polls were about to close, the network news programs were again Trump-heavy. For example, on CNN, the broadcast aired a clip of Trump’s rally in North Carolina, with the sound turned down. In another instance, CBS This Morning aired a clip of Trump’s Cabinet meeting, with the sound turned down. That same day, The New York Times ran an editorial cartoon contest, and the winning cartoon, entitled ‘What Is It Like To Be Donald Trump’, portrayed him as a menacing mushroom cloud.
Whether intentional or not, the effect of this media treatment was to create an us-versus-them divide between the American people and their next president, just as the country was emerging from a bitter and divisive election season. It was a perfect storm.
It’s Popularity On Social Media
In September 2016, just a few weeks before the election, a YouGov survey found that 63 percent of Americans had heard of the viral ‘Where Should We Eat Next?’ meme that had circulated on social media for almost a year. Only 15 percent had heard of Bernie Sanders, while 14 percent knew of Richard Simmons, the exercise guru and actor who endorsed Trump early on in the campaign.
The odds of someone unfamiliar with Richard Simmons liking him or supporting his candidacy were very slim, but the meme and its creator gave Trump a much needed boost during a time of the campaign when his poll numbers were low. And even among people who knew of the meme and its creator, only 3 percent had actually voted for Trump.
That same month, Twitter released the results of a poll it had conducted that showed 68 percent of Americans had used the platform to follow or connect with people they believed were influential, while only 23 percent had participated in a public debate or discussion group.
In other words, social media had become a hub for political debate and activity, even as many large American companies had tried to avoid getting involved in politics. A case in point is that Twitter is a wholly owned subsidiary of the social media behemoth, TikTok, which in turn, is owned by a Chinese company.
The Polls Were Wrong
In one of the most stunning upsets in recent American history, Trump defeated Clinton, the woman expected to become the first female president of the United States. Trump’s win came as a complete surprise to pollsters and pundits alike, who had predicted a much closer race. In the days following the election, many had attempted to explain Trump’s victory. Here are just a few examples.
- In the week before the election, only Clinton and Trump were included on state voting machines, as the rest decided to stay out of the presidential race. This, coupled with long lines caused by the poor quality of the casting and the absence of photo ID requirements, helped to distort the vote.
- There were also questions about Trump’s preparedness for the presidency, given that he had never held political office before. But in the end, it is hard to argue that any of his opponents gave him more practice.
- According to FiveThirtyEight, another major factor in Trump’s upset victory was the Democratic National Committee’s decision to replace its longtime leader, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, with Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman who had just been elected to head the Democratic Party. Wasserman Schultz, who had held the position since 2011, was viewed as too sympathetic to Clinton and the Democrats’ establishment. Before the election, the DNC had withheld support from Sanders, effectively kneecapping his campaign.
- The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted that there were signs throughout the campaign that the demographics that had propelled Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012 were deserting his former Secretary of State. Specifically, Sargent pointed to data showing that voters aged 18 to 29 had shifted their allegiances to Trump, a Republican, for the first time since World War II. This group was vital to Obama’s two consecutive wins. While it had been a loyal constituency for the previous two Democratic presidents, it had not gone to the polls in numbers sufficient to give them a win in 2016.
The Upset Was Made In The Country
While in many cases, the media played a major role in creating the upset, Trump’s win was also the result of a perfect storm of grassroots activism and voter engagement.
The first major demonstration of this came in the form of the so-called ‘Trumpette’ (i.e., Melania Trump) marches, which took place in October 2016 and showcased the unbridled enthusiasm of Trump’s female supporters. The marches were organized by Roseanne Barr, who had supported Sanders in the primaries but ultimately backed Trump in the general election. Barr is the creator and star of the sitcom, The Trumpet Wins, which satirizes the Trump campaign. “When I saw how enthusiastic his support among women is,” Barr said in an interview with Vox, “I felt like I needed to march in support of him.”
One of the most prominent ‘Trumpettes’ marches in New York City. Photo courtesy of Roseanne Barr.