Summary of the 2016 Presidential Race

How Donald Trump Beat the Odds and Got to the White House

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Murse, Tom. "Summary of the 2016 Presidential Race." ThoughtCo, Apr. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/2016-presidential-race-4135399. Murse, Tom. (2017, April 4). Summary of the 2016 Presidential Race. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/2016-presidential-race-4135399 Murse, Tom. "Summary of the 2016 Presidential Race." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/2016-presidential-race-4135399 (accessed September 24, 2017).
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton appear at a town hall debate in October 2016. Brooks Kraft/Getty Images Contributor

The 2016 presidential race concluded on the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, with the election of Republican Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer, businessman and reality-television star, defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York and secretary of the Department of State under President Barack Obama. 

Trump was widely portrayed as the underdog right up to Election Day given his lack of political experience — he had never before served in elected office — and polls that showed he was trailing Clinton badly in key battleground states.

Trump, however, stunned the American political establishment and observers around the world by leading a voter revolt against the Beltway elites he railed against on the campaign trail. 

Trump won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote, becoming only the fifth president to get to the White House without winning the popular vote. The only other modern president elected with fewer actual votes than his challenger was Republican George W. Bush in 2000, who carried 30 states and 271 electoral votes to defeat Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore.

Issues in 2016 Presidential Race

The 2016 president race was decided by working class white voters, including women who tend to vote for Democrats and were expected to side with the first female presidential nominee from a major party. Those working class white voters felt left behind by the modest economic rebound from The Great Recession and voted for Trump because of his promise to renegotiate trade deals with countries including China and levy stiff tariffs on goods imported from these countries.

Trump's position on trade was seen as a way to stop companies from shipping jobs overseas, though many economists pointed out taxing imports would drive up costs to American consumers first.His message resonated with white working-class voters, especially those who live in former steel and manufacturing towns.

"Skilled craftsmen and tradespeople and factory workers have seen the jobs they loved shipped thousands of miles away," Trump said at a rally near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Voters also distrusted Clinton because of the many scandals surrounding her during her tenure as secretary of State and first lady to President Bill Clinton. Clinton could not escape criticism of her use of a personal email account during her time as secretary of State, which appeared to be in violation of the Federal Records Act, a 1950 law that mandates the preservation of most records related to conducting government business. 

Late in the 2016 presidential race — many called it the October Surprise of 2016 — the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced unexpectedly it was conducting a review Clinton's emails, an unprecedented move that enraged her supporters and threw the contest with Trump into doubt. FBI Director James Comey made the announcement 11 days before the 2016 presidential election, a move many critics said cost Clinton votes. Comey later said the email contained no new information. Still, the damage was done, and the disclosures only served as a reminder of the scandal-ridden Clinton years in the White House.

Vice Presidential Running Mates in 2016

Trump chose as his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a former member of Congress known as a "​conservative's conservative." In choosing Pence, the Trump campaign sought to portray the Republican ticket as the "law and order candidates," drawing a stark contrast between themselves and an opponent they portrayed as untrustworthy. "What a difference between crooked Hillary Clinton and Mike Pence ... He's a solid, solid person," Trump said in introducing Pence.

Clinton chose as her running mate Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. Kaine was a Democratic Party insider who was seen as a safe pick, one who would help deliver the swing state of Virginia to Clinton, just as a did for Obama in 2008. Kaine is a Harvard Law School graduate who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and previously was governor of Virginia.

Key Dates in the 2016 Presidential Race

Here are some of the most important developments during the 2016 presidential election.

  • April 12, 2015: Clinton announces her candidacy, stating: “Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion.” 
  • June 16, 2015: Trump announces his candidacy, stating: "We need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again. We can do that."
  • July 22, 2016: Trump accepts the Republican Party's nomination, stating: "My message is that things have to change, and they have to change right now."
  • July 26, 2016: Clinton accepts the Democratic Party's nomination, stating: “Standing here as my mother’s daughter, and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come. When any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone.”
  • Nov. 8, 2016: Trump wins the presidential election, stating: "Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream."

Polls in the 2016 Presidential Races

Polls consistently showed Clinton leading Trump in the national popular vote. In the spring of 2016, when the primaries were still ongoing, Clinton was leading Trump in a then-hypothetical election race by double digits, between 10 and 11 percentage points. 

Clinton's popular vote narrowed and expanded following the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But Trump never led the national popular vote, according to an average of all reliable surveys compiled by RealClearPolitics.

Those national polls turned out to be accurate; Clinton did win the popular vote. But statewide polls failed to gauge the surge for Trump in the final days of the 2016 presidential race. In Pennsylvania, for example, most polls had Clinton holding a solid lead, but Trump won by a narrow margin. Polls conducted in Michigan, too, had Clinton up by more than 3 points, but Trump narrowly won that state.

Pollsters have said their surveys failed to detect a late surge for Trump, and that many Trump supporters who were skeptical of political polls and the media refused to participate, suppressing the Republican's performance in their results.

Spending in the 2016 Presidential Race

Spending in the 2016 president race totaled nearly $2.7 billion, according to projections from the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. That includes spending by the presidential candidates and their campaigns, political parties and independent interest groups trying to influence federal elections. That's actually a decline from the $2.8 billion spent in the 2008 president race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

Federal Election Commission data show the presidential candidates raised about $1.5 billion; Clinton led the pack with $564 million. Trump raised about $333 million. Super PACs raised about $615 million. 

Electoral and Popular Vote Results of the 2016 Presidential Race

Trump won 306 electoral votes to Clinton's 232 electoral votes. Though Trump's win was stunning to many, it is not considered a landslide. In presidential elections, a landslide election is one in which the winning candidate secures at least 375 or 70 percent of the 538 electoral votes in the Electoral College.

While Trump won about 57 percent of the electoral vote, he captured less than 46 percent of the actual votes cast. Clinton won the popular vote with 65.9 million or 48 percent of the the votes cast to Trump's 63 million. Trump won 31 states in all to Clinton's 19 states. He won a handful of big battleground states that hadn't been captured by a Republican presidential nominee in years, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Michigan.

"This mismatch between the electoral and popular votes came about because Trump won several large states (such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) by very narrow margins, gaining all their electoral votes in the process, even as Clinton claimed other large states (such as California, Illinois and New York) by much wider margins," wrote Drew DeSilver of the Pew Research Center. "Trump’s share of the popular vote, in fact, was the seventh-smallest winning percentage since 1828, when presidential campaigns began to resemble those of today."

The biggest surprise of the 2016 presidential race was Trump's ability to recapture key states that had tended to vote for Democratic nominees in the previous president election including:

  • Pennsylvania, where Trump won by less than 1 percentage point to take the state's 20 electoral votes. 
  • Florida, where Trump won by a little more than 1 percentage point to carry the state's 29 electoral votes.
  • Ohio, where Trump won by about 18 percentage points to carry the state's 18 electoral votes.
  • Michigan, where Trump won by less than 1 percentage point to carry the state's 16 electoral votes.
  • Wisconsin, where Trump won by less than 1 percentage point to carry the state's 10 electoral votes.
  • Iowa, where Trump won by about 9 percentage points to carry the state's 6 electoral votes.

The 2016 Presidential Primaries 

While Clinton's candidacy was years in the making — she began laying the groundwork for 2016 when she dropped out of the Democratic primaries against Barack Obama — Trump's candidacy for the White House was quickly dismissed as a lark. He began amid the largest field of presidential hopefuls in 100 years; 17 candidates were seeking the Republican presidential nomination at one point.

The unsuccessful Republican candidates were:

  • Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor.
  • Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon.
  • Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor.
  • Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas.
  • Carly Fiorina, a former business executive.
  • Jim Gilmore, a former Virginia governor.
  • Lindsey Graham, a U.S. senator from South Carolina. 
  • Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor. 
  • Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor. 
  • John Kasich, the Ohio governor.
  • George Pataki, a former New York governor.
  • Rand Paul, a U.S. senator from Kentucky.
  • Rick Perry, a former Texas governor.
  • Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida.
  • Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
  • Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.

Clinton struggled to close her party's presidential nomination. Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders drew large crowds during the party primaries because of his passionate speeches about income inequality in the corrupting influence of money in the American political system. Where Clinton's campaign suffered from a lack of enthusiasm among young voters, Sanders was benefiting from a similar youth uprising that Obama experienced in 2008. 

The unsuccessful Democratic candidates were:

  • Lincoln Chafee, a former governor of Rhode Island.
  • Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor.
  • Martin O'Malley, the governor of Maryland.
  • Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont.
  • Jim Webb, a former U.S. senator from Virginia.