On the eve of Election Day in 2016, Donald Trump made a characteristically boastful statement about his base of support.
Trump credited himself with building “the single greatest movement, politically speaking, in the history of this country.”
The next day, the American electorate seemingly proved his point. Voters defied the polls and sent Trump, a willfully crass New York mogul with no governmental experience, to the White House.
The funny thing about Trump’s 2016 triumph, however, is that it had none of the earmarks of a movement election.
All appearances aside, Trump didn’t win by building a huge grassroots following.
In fact, he got less than 26 percent of all eligible voters, a smaller percentage than the two previous Republican presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom lost in decisive fashion.
Trump benefited not from an excited electorate, but from a depressed one.
Even though his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, received nearly three million more popular votes than he did, enough traditional Democratic voters were turned off by the options they had been given to stay home. That lack of enthusiasm enabled Trump to win by default in the critical swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Trump’s movement primarily was built after he became president, when millions of people who voted for him grudgingly in 2016 turned into deeply committed followers.
I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had over the past couple of years with Trump loyalists who voted for him in 2016 either because they hated Clinton or they figured they’d roll the dice with a non-politician. It was only after the election that many of these voters came to believe in Trump as a great leader.
As his following intensified, however, Trump’s electoral fortunes diminished.
Over the past four years, his party lost its majority in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, and Trump became only the third elected president in the past 85 years to get voted out of office.
The ironic turns in Trump’s fortunes are dissected in a 27-page 2020 campaign postmortem, written by Trump’s chief pollster, Tony Fabrizio, and released last week by Politico.
The postmortem attempts to explain how Trump pulled off the remarkable feat of generating nearly 12 million more votes than he did in 2016, while losing five key states he won in that first election.
Fabrizio’s report is based on exit-poll analysis of voter behavior in 10 swing states (including Texas) that Trump carried in 2016. In 2020, Trump held five of those states. The other five (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) flipped to Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
One of the most telling pieces of the report concerns self-identified independent voters.
In the five election-deciding states that flipped from Trump to Biden, independents made up 28 percent of voters.
In 2016, Trump won the independent vote in those states by 10 percentage points. In 2020, he lost independents by nine percentage points. Given the thin margins in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, that 19-point swing basically decided the election.
Trump’s loss of support was primarily among white men, and largely concentrated among the youngest and oldest segments of the electorate.
Trump’s rabidly enthusiastic rally crowds probably convinced him that his downplaying of the COVID-19 pandemic — and his eagerness to fully re-open the economy — put him in tune with the mood of the country.
In fact, however, Fabrizio’s report indicates that a strong plurality of voters across the 10 swing states viewed the coronavirus as the most important issue in the country.
More than 70 percent of voters in those states approved of the job performance of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading epidemiologist, and a frequent target of abuse among Trump’s most ardent backers.
More than 75 percent of voters in these 10 states supported a public mask mandate, a policy prescription that Trump generally treated with derision. Among swing-state voters who considered the pandemic to be the most important issue, Biden beat Trump by 45 percentage points.
Trump’s relentless disregard for the truth also did him no favors at a time of national crisis. Only 41 percent of voters in the five swing states that flipped from red to blue regarded Trump as trustworthy.
Fabrizio’s report tells the story of a president whose cult of personality couldn’t help him overcome the basic laws of political gravity. The more he stirred up his base with red meat, the more he convinced his devotees that the election was a crusade with near-religious implications, the more he scared off everyone else.
As his base grew bigger and more intense, so did his opposition. For Trump, an enthused electorate meant defeat. Apathy, it turns out, was his best friend.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @gilgamesh470