This was a change election. If that 39 percent figure for “most important candidate quality” doesn’t seem all that large, consider that the largest quality in 2012 (“vision for the future”) got only 29 percent and the largest in 2008 (“can bring change”) got 34 percent.
That’s right: This was more of a change election than even 2008.
And Trump won change voters by 69 points. That was slightly less than the margin by which Barack Obama won those voters eight years ago (80 points). But it was the only one of these four categories he led in; heck, it was the only one he even came close in. That, clearly, is the biggest reason voters gave him the nod over Hillary Clinton.
What kinds of changes were they looking for? Here’s what we see about issues from the exit poll:
- Fighting terrorism was tops. A majority of voters (52 percent) said the fight against ISIS is going badly vs. 42 percent who said it’s going well. Trump won the first group by about the same percentage as Clinton won the latter. Trump did far less well on the question of foreign policy more generally, losing those voters 60-34. That suggests Trump’s comments that called NATO and other U.S. alliances into question weren’t as well-received.
- Immigration came next. Of the voters who said that was their top issue (13 percent of the electorate) Trump won 2-to-1. It’s clear, however, that these voters represent the minority viewpoint when it comes to solving this issue: Seventy percent said illegal immigrants should be offered legal status vs. a quarter who said they should be deported; Clinton won the first group, Trump the second. And the idea of building a wall across the entire southern border lost by 13 points (54-41) with Clinton winning the majority viewpoint and Trump the minority.
- Trade also came up big. The electorate was roughly split as to whether international trade creates jobs (38 percent) or takes them away (42 percent). Trump won the latter group by a larger margin (65-31) than Clinton won the former (59-35).
- Finally, the Supreme Court played a far larger role than usual, no doubt the result of the vacancy created earlier this year by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. A startling 21 percent of voters called appointments to the high court “the most important factor” in their vote (compared to just 7 percent eight years ago). Trump won these voters 56-41; Clinton won all other groups on this question.
If you’re looking for a mandate — and with Trump likely clearing 300 electoral votes while the GOP against all odds held onto the Senate and lost very few seats in the House, I think the president-elect has one — those are the makings of it. Trump has to fight ISIS in a way that Americans deem more successful. He has to settle the immigration issue in a long-term way, though he should be cautious of overreaching given his solutions didn’t garner majority support (this may be a place where his reputed prowess at deal-making has to come into play). He has to make trade deals more palatable to American workers, again keeping in mind the country as a whole may be reluctant to see drastic change there. And he has to make solid, conservative appointments to the Supreme Court.
I should add here that, in addition to what the specific exit-poll data says, the “change” Trump was hired to make also includes a fundamental shift in the relationship between the government in Washington, D.C., and the governed. As he said in his victory speech early this morning, his campaign was “a movement comprised of Americans from all races, religions, backgrounds and beliefs who want and expect our government to serve the people, and serve the people it will.” There are a great many people in this country who believe the ruling class has been serving itself, not the people. That is the biggest, if least specific, change Trump has to bring about.
That’s more than enough to fill an agenda for the early Trump administration. If he handles those things well, the GOP’s electoral prospects in 2018, when Democrats will have to defend a number of vulnerable seats (although Republicans must guard against the usual midterm backlash against the president’s party), mean he could receive a further mandate to do more.