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Why Trump Won (From Someone Who Was There)

11/15/2016 06:22 EST | Updated 11/15/2016 06:22 EST
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FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump casts his ballot, in New York. The U.S. approach to Asia faces a major overhaul when Donald Trump takes office, but what will take its place? A new report warns of a leadership vacuum and even a nuclear arms race if the U.S. withdraws from a region threatened by a provocative North Korea. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

I have just returned from a ten-day pre-election tour through the U.S., hosted by the State Department. I watched the results come in from Cleveland, Ohio, after stopping first in D.C. and New Orleans.

Being there left me reasonably well-positioned to try to answer the big question on many people's minds -- why did Trump win?

First, though, a few points as background.

There are, as one speaker pointed out to us, many paths to Trump. This is probably always true for political candidates, and truer the fewer candidates there are. However, it is particularly true when the actual nature of a candidate is so hard to pin down. What Trump will actually do remains a real mystery, and different people got to voting for him by assuming he'd do different kinds of things.

Secondly, it's worth underlining that any post-election analysis should never assume that the winner did everything right, or that the loser did everything wrong. Trump did a lot of things wrong that hurt his campaign, and winning does not vindicate all his choices, morally or strategically.

On to the substance.

Trump won for two principle reasons. Republicans 'came home;' and, Trump made additional gains in key states because of the narrative he built around trade and manufacturing.

Many traditional, conservative Republicans were naturally suspicious of Trump. Whether you are an economic conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative, or some combination thereof, there are things about Trump to make you raise your eyebrows.

Most of the Republicans I spoke with did not seriously believe he would implement or try to implement his full agenda. But in the end, even many of those who could not bring themselves to publically endorse him still voted for him.

He was better than the alternative, he was their guy, he was teachable/controllable, he would surround himself with the right people, and various other such suggestions were cited as the basis for their support.

For Evangelical Christians, I think there was a particular willingness to take him at his word on his apology after the release of the Access Hollywood tape. They believe in forgiveness and redemption. I think many Christian voters believed that indeed the campaign had changed him.

Of course, being a forgiving person does not mean believing every shyster who promises that they have changed; but, I think many believed (or wanted to believe) that a genuine transformation had taken place.

For whatever set of reasons -- wishful thinking, an identification of real synergies, or just a strong desire to stop Clinton -- the vast majority of Republicans 'came home' and voted for their candidate.

There are many roads to Trump -- and partisanship was one of them.

Secondly, Trump's anti-trade message and promise to bring back jobs to certain economically depressed areas resonated enough in key battlegrounds and historically safe Democrat states. Democrats in Ohio expected Trump to win there, even if they expected him to lose overall.

Trump ended up taking Ohio, but surprisingly also Wisconsin and Michigan. Those states had not gone Republican since the 1980s (84 for Wisconsin, 88 for Michigan).

This obviously spells trouble for Canada, since swing voters in key states have now been convinced that trade deals are the cause of their economic struggles, and since these voters now make up a critical part of the Trump coalition.

It may be difficult to maintain a political coalition which includes these voters AND traditional Republicans, although the Democrats have something of the same divisions when it comes to these issues.

Canada will still have many allies on these issues, but it will be a challenging road ahead.

Many people are asking what the Trump win means for bigotry in the US, and in politics in general. While bigotry likely motivated some Trump supporters, I do not see much evidence that it was an important factor in his win.

In Louisiana, the southern state we visited on our election swing-through, Donald Trump received about 58% of the vote. David Duke, former (and unrepentant) 'Imperial Wizard' of the Ku Klux Klan, was also on the ballot, running for Senate -- he got 3%.

That is still alarmingly high; however, the gap between Trump and Duke suggests that, even in the south, the vast majority of Trump supporters were looking for something other than white nationalism.

What is the lesson for Canada's Conservatives in this? Given the strong negatives around both U.S. presidential candidates, I suggest not electing a leader too much like either of them.

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