How Donald Trump Won the Presidential Election

9 Reasons Trump Beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential Race

Donald Trump Victory Party
Donald Trump holds an election night victory party in New York City early on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Voters and political scientists will debate how Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. The businessman and political novice stunned the world by winning a presidential election most analysts and voters believed had firmly been in the hands of Hillary Clinton, who had far more experience in government and had run a more orthodox campaign. 

Trump ran his campaign in the most unconventional of ways, insulting large swaths of potential voters and shunning the traditional support from his own political party. Trump won at least 290 electoral votes, 20 more than the 270 needed to become president, but got more than 1 million fewer actual votes than Clinton did, reigniting the debate over whether the U.S. should scrap the Electoral College.

Trump became only the fifth president to be elected without winning the popular vote. The others were Republicans George W. Bush in 2000, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Federalist John Quincy Adams in 1824.

So how did Donald Trump win the presidential election by insulting voters, women, minorities, and without raising money or relying on support from the Republican Party? Here are 10 explanations for how Trump won the 2016 election.

Celebrity and Success

Trump portrayed himself through the 2016 campaign as a successful real-estate developer who created tens of thousands of jobs. "I’ve created tens of thousands of jobs and a great company," said during one debate. In a separate speech, Trump proclaimed his presidency would create "job growth like you’ve never seen. I’m very good for jobs .In fact, I will be the greatest president for jobs that God ever created."

Trump runs dozens of companies and serves of numerous corporate boards, according to a personal financial disclosure he filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics when he ran for president. He has said he is worth as much as $10 billion, and though critics suggested he is worth much less Trump projected an image of success and was one of the most well known brands in the county.

It also didn't hurt that he was host and producer of NBC’s hit reality series The Apprentice.

High Turnout Among Working-Class White Voters

This is the big story of the 2016 election. Working class white voters—men and women alike—fled the Democratic Party and sided with 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.


Trump promised to essentially lock down the borders to prevent terrorists coming in, an appeal to white voters who were not necessarily worried about crimes being committed by undocumented immigrants by jobs being filled by them. "What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers. We have a lot of these people, probably two million, it could be even three million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate," Trump said. Trump's position contrasted starkly with Clinton's position on illegal immigration.

James Comey and the FBI's October Surprise

A scandal over Clinton's use of a personal email server as secretary of State had dogged her through early parts of the campaign. But the controversy appeared to be behind her in the waning days of the 2016 election. Most national polls in October and the first days of November showed Clinton leading Trump in the popular vote count; battleground-state polls showed her ahead, too.

But 11 days before the election, FBI director James Comey sent a letter to Congress stating he would review emails found on a laptop computer belonging to a Clinton confidant to determined whether they were relevant to the then-closed investigation of her use of the personal email server. The letter cast Clinton's election prospects into doubt. Then, two days before Election Day, Comey issued a new statement that both confirmed Clinton did nothing illegal but also brought renewed attention to the case.

Clinton directly blamed Comey for her loss after the election. "Our analysis is that Comey’s letter raising doubts that were groundless, baseless, proven to be, stopped our momentum,” Clinton told donors in a post-election telephone call, according to published reports.

Free Media

Trump didn't spend a whole lot of money trying to win the election. He didn't have to. His campaign was treated by many major media outlets as a spectacle, as entertainment instead of politics. So Trump got lots and lots of free airtime on cable news and major networks. Analysts estimated Trump had been given $3 billion of free media by the end of the primaries and a total of $5 billion by the end of the presidential election.

"While 'free media' has long played an important role in our democracy by fostering political discourse and disseminating electoral information, the sheer enormity of coverage on Trump puts a spotlight on how the media may have influenced the course of the election," analysts at mediaQuant wrote in November of 2016. Free of "earned media" is the widespread coverage he received by major television networks.

He also spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money, mostly fulfilling a vow to finance his own campaign so he could portray himself as being free from ties to special interests. "I don't need anybody's money. It's nice. I'm using my own money. I'm not using the lobbyists. I'm not using donors. I don't care. I'm really rich." he said in announcing his campaign in June 2015.

Hillary Clinton's Condescension Toward Voters

Clinton never did connect to working class voters. Maybe it was her own personal wealth. Maybe it was her status as a political elite. But it most likely had to do with her controversial portrayal of Trump supporters as deplorable.

"To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it," Clinton said just two months before the election. Clinton apologized for the remark, but the damage was done. Voters who were supporting Donald Trump because they were fearful over their status in the middle class turned solidly against Clinton.

Trump running-mate Mike Pence capitalized on Clinton's mistake by crystallizing the condescending nature of her remarks. "The truth of the matter is that the men and women who support Donald Trump's campaign are hard-working Americans, farmers, coal miners, teachers, veterans, members of our law enforcement community, members of every class of this country, who know that we can make America great again," Pence said.

Voters Didn't Want a Third Term for Obama

Regardless of how popular Obama was, it's incredibly rare for presidents from the same party to win back-to-back terms in the White House, partly because voters become fatigued by a president and his party by the end of eight years. In our two-party system, the last time voters elected a Democrat to the White House after a president from the same party had just served a full term was in 1856, before the Civil War. That was James Buchanan.

Bernie Sanders and the Enthusiasm Gap

Many—not all, but many— supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders did not come around to Clinton after she won the brutal, and what many thought , rigged, Democratic primary. In a scathing criticism of liberals Sanders supporters who didn't support Clinton in the general election, Newsweek magazine's Kurt Eichenwald wrote

"Awash in false conspiracy theories and petulant immaturity, liberals put Trump in the White House. Trump won slightly fewer votes than Romney did in 2012—60.5 million compared with 60.9 million. On the other hand, almost 5 million Obama voters either stayed home or cast their votes for someone else. More than twice as many millennials—a group heavily invested in the “Sanders was cheated out of the nomination” fantasy—voted third-party. The laughably unqualified Jill Stein of the Green Party got 1.3 million votes; those voters almost certainly opposed Trump; if just the Stein voters in Michigan had cast their ballot for Clinton, she probably would have won the state. And there is no telling how many disaffected Sanders voters cast their ballot for Trump."

Obamacare and Health Care Premiums

Elections are always held in November. And November is open-enrollment time. In 2016, as in previous years, Americans were just getting notice that their health insurance premiums were rising dramatically, including those who were purchasing plans on the marketplace set up under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Clinton supported most aspects of the health care overhaul, and voters blamed her for it. Trump, on the other hand, promised to repeal the program.

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Murse, Tom. "How Donald Trump Won the Presidential Election." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, September 8). How Donald Trump Won the Presidential Election. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "How Donald Trump Won the Presidential Election." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).