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A '50-50 election' swayed by turnout, identity and reaction to change

Nov. 16, 2016

Last week's election shocked pundits and much of the American public, with billionaire reality TV host and political novice Donald Trump defeating former senator and first lady Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

But maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise, according to IU Bloomington political experts. Clinton won the popular vote by an estimated 1.5 percentage points, within the possible range predicted by polls. Trump tipped a few swing states and won the Electoral College, 290 votes to 228.

Bernard Fraga


"The Republicans just got over the top in a number of states, but this was not an overwhelming result," said Marjorie Hershey, professor of political science. "This is a 50-50 election. There's just no other way to describe it."

IU political scientists Hershey and Bernard Fraga, as well as Paul Helmke, a professor of practice in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, are among the experts who have been sifting through the results -- and who will continue to do so as more information becomes available.

"The dust hasn't settled yet," said Fraga, assistant professor of political science. "We don't have great data yet on exactly who turned out and who didn't."

Hershey said early results suggest the major parties' coalitions remained largely the same as in previous elections, with white voters in rural and suburban areas voting Republican and racial and ethnic minorities and urban liberals learning Democratic.

"The real key here was turnout," she said. "The coalitions of the two parties remained very similar. But the part of the Trump coalition made up of people without college degrees turned out in larger proportions than was the case during the Obama years."

Along with strong turnout for Trump, exit polls indicated the Republican candidate didn't do as badly as anticipated with women and young voters.

"The classic Trump supporter was a white, working-class male," Fraga said. "But there were many more Trump supporters who were women and young people than anyone could have expected -- or than the Clinton campaign expected."

Marjorie Hershey


One post-election narrative is that voters wanted change after eight years of Democrat Barack Obama in the White House. As Helmke pointed out, it has been rare for the same party to hold the White House for more than two successive terms.

But looked at another way, Hershey said, the outcome was a vote against change.

"We have had a tremendous amount of social change in the past 30 to 40 years," she said, including same-sex marriage, transgender rights and increased concern about minorities, women and other groups. Trump's victory, she said, "didn't happen because it was inevitable. It happened because there was a push, and when there is a push, there's going to be a push-back."

Fraga said Trump was able to marry voters' discomfort about social change with a growing, worldwide anti-establishment and anti-globalist mood exemplified by the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the rise of nationalist parties in Europe.

"Trump was able to ride that," he said. "He was able to present himself as the champion of the anti-establishment, anti-free-trade segment of the Republican Party, and he really presented Hillary Clinton as more of the same."

And that message resonated with many voters who blamed the loss of secure, high-paying factory jobs on rising trade with Mexico, China and other countries, said Helmke, a former mayor of Fort Wayne. You could see it on election night, he said, when formerly Democratic states broke for Trump.

"If states are going to break, often they break the same way," he said. "That happens every election cycle. If you do better than expected in Ohio, you do better in Pennsylvania and Michigan."

Trump also did better than expected in Indiana, winning 57 percent of the vote to Clinton's 38 percent. Hoosiers are known for ticket splitting, but Trump's coattails carried the GOP to big wins in races for governor and U.S. Senate, which were predicted to be close.

"I think this year was more of a wave election for Trump that swept through the state and swept the Republicans in at all levels," Helmke said. "When there's a big wave, there's no way the Democratic candidates survive in that situation."

paul helmke


What happens after Trump takes office? Hershey predicted Republicans, who also control the Senate and House, will move quickly to implement their priorities, including repealing the Affordable Care Act and rolling back Obama's initiatives on environmental protection and human rights. If it's true to form, she said, the 2018 midterm election could produce a reaction against the Republicans, so they may work fast.

And while many Republican office-holders distanced themselves from Trump during the campaign, there's likely to be a honeymoon period now that he has been elected. That's especially true since GOP insiders were recently wringing their hands over whether the party had a future.

"Donald Trump showed a path forward for the Republican Party," Fraga said. "Trump is going to not only enact his agenda but might just reshape the Republican agenda in his image."

But the Trump agenda may still be a work in progress. He has called for deporting all immigrants in the U.S. illegally and also for focusing on those who have criminal records. He advocated a "complete and total shutdown" of Muslims entering the country and later opted for "extreme vetting" of Muslim refugees. He is said to plan a special session of Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act but also says he wants to keep some parts of the health care law.

"You get the sense Trump doesn't really care about the specifics of the Republican platform, and his positions change," Helmke said. "It's like a spin-the-dial presidency. We really don't know what it's going to be like."

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