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National Politics|By Charlie Cook, November 15, 2016
This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on November 11, 2016

If there is a contradiction in Tuesday’s presidential-election results, it’s that Americans desperately wanted change even as they felt things seemed to be changing too fast. Donald Trump didn’t get elected because voters saw him as a safe choice. When exit polls asked whether they felt Trump and Hillary Clinton were qualified to be president, 52 percent said Clinton was and 47 percent said she was not; 38 percent said Trump was qualified and 60 percent felt he was not. When asked whether each candidate was honest and trustworthy, 36 said that Clinton was, 61 percent said she was not. For Trump, 33 thought he was honest and trustworthy, 63 percent indicated he was not. Many voters were troubled by Trump’s unorthodox campaign style, and his statements and actions related to women, minorities, and people with disabilities. His debate performances underscored many of these reservations. Yet enough voters so desperately wanted change that they were willing to put aside these concerns and roll the dice on really big change.

At the same time, there seemed to be a feeling that government and politics used to be responsive to people but no longer were, and that the economy used to work for the average man or woman but no longer did. When one set of politicians was thrown out of office, their replacements behaved the same way. People worked harder and harder but weren’t getting ahead. When Trump kept saying “the system is rigged,” it hit a responsive chord with Americans who think the government and economy are working for some people but not for them. This feeling became so strong that they were willing to take a gamble on Trump. After all, how could he do any worse?

Of course, this election was not simply a referendum on Trump; it was also about Clinton. A recurring pattern was that when the spotlight focused exclusively on either Trump or Clinton, that candidate’s numbers invariably dropped. Voters didn’t particularly like either of them. The exit polls showed that just 38 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Trump, with 60 percent holding an unfavorable view. Clinton’s favorables were 44 percent, and her unfavorables were 54 percent. Trump represented change, even though the change that many wanted was a return to the way things used to be. But he seemed like a better bet than Clinton, who stood for the status quo.

Just after the election, a Clinton backer asked me what she or her campaign could have done differently. My immediate response was that she could have used the State Department’s email server while she served as our top diplomat. The emails became a symbol of someone who played by her own rules and seemed to have something to hide. The whole pneumonia episode in September was the same way. There would have been no harm in admitting that she had put off going to the doctor and that the doctor said she had walking pneumonia and needed a couple of days rest. Too many Americans are convinced that their leaders don’t play straight and always have something to hide.

Just as soccer moms became a focal point in American politics a few years ago until they were replaced by millennials, the focus in this campaign shifted to blue-collar whites, many of them in rural and small towns. We saw extraordinary levels of turnout among voters who increasingly felt left behind or ignored. Over and over, we heard voters saying that the political process is not working or at least not working for them, and that the economy is not working, certainly not for them. They feel ignored or misunderstood, invisible people in flyover country.

After the GOP loss in the 2012 presidential election, newly minted Republican National Chair Reince Priebus commissioned a report, promptly labeled an autopsy, of what went wrong. It found that the Republican brand was becoming badly damaged among both minority and younger voters. A similar autopsy, if Democrats did one, would likely conclude that working-class white voters in rural and small towns, once a central part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, were fleeing the party in droves. Democrats became so enamored with the narrative of a new and more diverse America that they didn’t realize that the country wasn’t changing as much or as fast as they thought.

My National Journal colleague Ron Brownstein has written and argued persuasively about an inversion that is taking place in American politics with working-class whites migrating from the Democratic to the Republican Party. At the same time, many upscale and highly educated whites were no longer simply voting their economic self-interest; they were taking positions on social and cultural issues and on the environment that were almost the polar opposite of what working-class whites favored. Democrats were becoming a party of minorities and upscale liberals, and Americans who didn’t fit those two categories were voting with their feet, moving to the GOP. In part they moved because the GOP was no longer the stodgy, country-club Republican Party of old but rather a more populist, working-class party.

As we keep poring through the election results and exit polls, we will come to better understand the specifics and nuances of what America was trying to tell us, both those who did vote as well as those who chose not to. Political leaders, as well as the establishment and the elites, will need to come to grips with Trump’s constituency and the rising tide on the other side of the populist spectrum represented by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Their priorities depict a different America, and their voices need to be heard and understood, as jarring as they may be.