How did Donald Trump win — and pull off the biggest upset in American history

How did Donald Trump win — and pull off the biggest upset in American history
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

When Hillary Clinton looked for a venue to host her election night celebration, her campaign found what they must have assumed would be perfect. A convention center enshrined in glass, glittering along the banks of the Hudson River in New York City. 

Every poll, projection and gut feeling said Clinton could become America's first female president. And on Tuesday night, the campaign believed Clinton would figuratively shatter the glittering glass ceiling in America's largest city. 

But hundreds and thousands of miles away, Donald Trump supporters proved their strength. By the millions, they answered the clarion call of their candidate. Trump voters turned blue states red. They defied pollsters, pundits and politicians who squawked for months about how Trump could never capture the White House. 

Mere blocks from Clinton's celebration headquarters, Trump, another New Yorker of far greater wealth than his opponent, watched vote tallies signal what Americans came to understand throughout the night: Trump, the barking underdog, would become president.

We do not know what Trump thought as he watched the results from atop Trump Tower. But at least some part of the real estate mogul and reality TV star must have asked the same question other Americans asked Tuesday: How could this happen?

The answer was in front of us all along. 

The media.

There are several reasons Trump was victorious. But Trump's endless time on television undoubtedly helped his bid to run the free world. 

From the outset, Trump made it clear his campaign would be won or lost through the airwaves. Between the beginning of 2015 and March of this year, Trump earned $2 billion in free television appearances, with the vast majority of that coming after he announced his run for president in June of last year. That was more than twice what Clinton drew. 

Much of that coverage was deservedly negative. Yet it gave rise to a new group of talking heads, like Jeffrey Lord, who began spinning every fact in Trump's favor. Every attack on Trump's rhetoric, no matter how incorrect or incendiary, became balanced by the views of a Trump supporter. CNN went to arguably extreme limits to appear fair to Trump and accommodate his views, even hiring the Republican's former campaign manger while he remained on Trump's payroll.

People gather in California to watch the first presidential debate.
Source: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

Online, Trump also generated massive traction. He consistently saw more articles that mentioned him than Clinton or his opponents. And while many of those articles were negative, they continued to boost his candidacy. 

Sustained waves of negative media attention seem like they should hurt a presidential campaign. But Trump turned his constant media attention into a boost for his base. Part of his argument that the election was "rigged" — a statement he has likely rethought — cited a media he described as elite and supportive of Clinton. Trump supporters began to buy that narrative. That meant no matter how damning, these voters eventually tuned out most or all negative media coverage of their candidate.

Combine that with the fact 87% of conservative Republicans believe news organizations "tend to favor one side." Trump combined a mistrust on the media with assurances to his supporters that negative media coverage aimed to tear him down. 

"Woman" does not guarantee "women."

The morning after the election, Clinton's team expected to be touting the emergence of the "Clinton coalition." Barack Obama twice won the White House with a mix of young, minority and subsets of white voters that delivered him strong electoral victories.

The narrative out of this election could not be more different. While the way voters broke along the lines of race, age and political ideology were important, no data point was more striking than Trump's victory among white women — that is, his ability to keep Clinton from running up the score with her pitch to shatter the glass ceiling. 

Hillary Clinton supporters cry at her campaign's celebration venue on election night.
Source: Frank Franklin II/AP

National exit polls showed Clinton won women by 10 percentage points, a smaller margin than Obama's 12-point victory with that group four years ago. Those exit polls showed Trump also won white women by 10 points and white men by 32 points.

Headed into election day, Clinton pitched her candidacy to women as an opportunity to make history and shatter the ultimate glass ceiling. But 2016 proved running a woman does not necessarily deliver women.

Other demographic trends to follow: White voters backed Trump by a slightly larger margin than they backed Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump drew the support of 29% of Latino voters, a far higher than expected level of support. And the Republican won independents by 6 points.

The polls were wrong. So wrong.

The number of Americans truly shocked by tonight's result may be difficult to quantify. But it's likely the most loyal checkers of FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times and other election projection gurus that feel confused, if not betrayed, by where they felt the race stood as the polls closed Tuesday. 

For weeks, FiveThirtyEight, the Times and others used pre-election polls to project who would win. Among the big league election analysts, FiveThirtyEight was the most conservative. The website pegged Trump's final chances at victory at around 28% on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Times gave Trump a 15% chance of victory. The Huffington Post and Princeton Election Consortium gave him 2% and 1% chances of victory, respectively.

The final RealClearPolitics average of national presidential election polls gave Hillary Clinton more than a 3 percentage point lead. Donald Trump ultimately won the popular vote by at least a point.
Source: RealClearPolitics/Graphiq

A key reason many have asked "How could this have happened?" comes from the fact we put so much stock in these projections. But as FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver warned Tuesday morning, this year's polling was volatile, particularly at the end. 

The number of voters who loathed both candidates was historically high. The number of undecided voters was also high. Surges in early voting among white and independent voters made election results difficult to predict. Silver also said he worried pollsters were "herding" their results to match each other at the end of the race, possibly showing a larger Clinton lead than most polls bore out.

But these concerns alone cannot explain how Trump beat poll averages in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin by 4 and 9 points, respectively. Pollsters either under-sampled likely Trump voters or failed to take them into account at all. In yet another election surprise, Trump's assertions that the polls were "rigged" may have been true. 

Do crowds matter more than a ground game? 

Trump loves his crowds. In fact, each time the Republican holds a rally, he makes sure to note the "thousands and thousands" of people gathered to see him speak. 

Trump's argument that large crowds demonstrated he would see significant support on election day was largely dismissed. Romney, and even Walter Mondale, touted large rallies at the end of their campaigns as evidence their candidacies were surging. Both lost by larger-than-expected margins. 

Donald Trump supporters at one of his rallies.
Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images

And while Trump's large crowds may have been more of a predictor of support than was widely acknowledged, what makes his win even more incredible is his lack of a ground game. Early in the general election campaign, Clinton had already built a national staff ten times the size of Trump's. And up to election day, Trump relied more on state Republican parties and the Republican National Committee to get out the vote instead of coordinate those activities through his campaign. 

The conventional wisdom, reenforced by Obama's data and ground game driven victories, was that Trump's failure to organize would lead to defeat. Clearly, the Republican found a way around conventional wisdom. 

Voters are angry, frustrated. Particularly Trump supporters.

For months, surveys, interviews and anecdotes told America's leaders that the electorate was angry. A seething, at times ugly, frustration with the political system drove Senator Bernie Sanders to nearly conquer the Democratic presidential nomination. And of course, these feelings helped the next president.

But Tuesday's exit polls revealed deep divisions in America that undoubtedly fueled Trump's rise. 58% of Trump supporters said they were angry / dissatisfied with the federal government. 65% of his supporters said international trade "takes away U.S. jobs." And 83% of Trump voters said the candidate quality that mattered most was an ability to "bring change."

What Trump supporters told Washington on Tuesday: We don't like you, we don't trust you and we want to change you.