What Happened Election Night? Three Things.

As America’s pollsters and data mavens sift through the wreckage of the 2016 campaign, there is one question on everyone’s lips: what happened?

The results are not all in yet, but looking at the data through the American Communities Project suggests a three-part answer.

One, Donald Trump bumped up the votes and margins from reliably Republican areas, particularly in rural locales, Rural Middle America, Working Class Country, Graying America and Evangelical Hubs, many of which are losing population.

Two, Hillary Clinton did not get the turnout she needed from the urban centers, the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, even as she improved on Barack Obama’s margins.

Three, Trump flipped a lot of Obama voters in the blue-collar Middle Suburbs, based heavily in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Those three things together explain how the president-elect did what many thought was impossible as he captured the electoral votes he need to win. Herewith, a more in depth look at all of them. Use the map below to see where these communities are located.

Donald Trump’s Grand Army of Rural America – Four types of county showed Trump did something truly remarkable on Election Day: Rural Middle America (in royal blue on the map), Working Class Country (dark blue), Graying America (gray) and Evangelical Hubs (purple).

The results so far show those four county types together produced 500,000 more votes more votes than they did in 2012, even as many were losing population. And in each of them Trump improved on Mitt Romney 2012 margins by 10 points or more.


Vote tally increase 2016-2012

Margin difference Trump vs. Romney

Population since 2010

Graying America


+10 points


Evangelical Hubs


+12 points


Working Class Country


+17 points


Rural Middle America


+17 points


When you add them up, those are big differences and they showed in the key states where Trump won and where there was also a sizeable bump in votes cast: Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Look on the map above and you can see how important those county types were in western North Carolina, in the “T” in Pennsylvania and throughout Florida.

There are 27 Graying America counties in Florida. The total vote was up in 25 of them. There are 33 Rural Middle America counties in Pennsylvania, the vote total was up in 28 of them and in all cases the increases outpaced population changes. Vote tallies were up in 13 of 15 Evangelical Hub counties in North Carolina and in all those, the vote increases outpaced population changes

Going into the election there were many questions about whether Trump could inspire rural white voters to show up at the polls. The numbers suggest he not only brought those voters in those places out, he increased Romney’s already sizable margins in those places.

Hillary Clinton’s Low-Energy Metro Vote – Going into the 2016 campaign, the ACP suggested Democrats had one very big advantage, strength in urban America. The 2016 results through today show that, in terms of vote margins, that strength held. Clinton got a bigger share of the vote from the Big City counties (pink) and the Urban Suburbs (dark orange).

Her problem in the data came in turnout. The Big Cities and Urban Suburbs produced far fewer votes than they did in 2012, at least in the data through Monday.


Vote tally decrease 2016-2012

Margin difference Clinton vs. Obama

Population since 2010

Urban Suburbs


+2 points


Big Cities


+4 points


This is a very important second piece of the puzzle to Trump’s win.

Clinton won the Urban Suburbs by more than 18 points, compared to Obama’s +16 points. She won the Big Cities by roughly 35 points, compared to Obama’s +31 points. Together that should have been enough for her to win in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

But the decrease in the number of votes in those places wound up being a big hit for her to take, when combined with the first point of increased margins and votes from rural counties

Some analysts have noted Clinton’s problems may have come from a decline in the African American vote. There is some evidence for that. For instance, the vote tallies so far show a decline in numbers from the counties the ACP calls the African American South – votes tallies there are down by about 280,000 so far.

But in these Big Cities and Urban Suburbs some of the vote decline may also come from white, upper-income voters in those counties. A precinct-level analysis may help some out those questions.

The better measure on turnout, however, may be this.

Since 2010, the Big City and Urban Suburb counties have added more than 7.4 million people. They are the heart of growing, urban America. If the vote tallies in in these counties continue to be down from 2012 (or even flat) when all the numbers are in, that is a big indictment of the Clinton campaign’s failure to bring out its base.

Trump’s Blue Collar Suburb Swing – If journalists are searching for the thought-to-be-elusive Obama/Trump voter, they will likely find a lot of voters that fit that description in the Middle Suburbs (light orange).

These counties, many based near large cities, have slightly above average population density, average median household incomes and large white, non-Hispanic populations. And the vote in them shifted sharply in 2016, giving Trump big margins, even as their vote tallies did not rise.

Clinton 2016

Trump 2016

Obama 2012

Romney 2012

Vote change 2016-2012

Margin difference Trump vs. Romney

Middle Suburbs







In 2012, Romney nipped Obama in these counties by two points. Trump beat Clinton by 14 points in them. And since the vote tallies in those counties was essentially flat – they were down by about 21,000 votes – these places were home to many vote flippers, Obama/Trump voters.

Because of those individual changes, Trump flipped a lot of these counties. Obama won 32 of the 77 Middle Suburb counties. Clinton won only 13 of them.

It helps to think of the Middle Suburbs as the home of the Reagan Democrats: counties largely scattered around the Industrial Midwest, once full of manufacturing jobs now trying to find their place in a changing global economy.

These are not necessarily the rural, hardscrabble communities that are struggling to stay afloat in the new economy, but they don’t have the jobs and opportunities they once did. And it seems they were receptive to a candidate promising to shake up the status quo in Washington.

Together these three reasons give us a good sense of how Trump won the presidency when few said he could.

These aren’t the only reasons, of course. There are still votes trickling in and each one of these answers raises other questions: How did Trump get the numbers he got out of rural America; what got those voters to the polls? Why did the big metro areas not come out for Clinton? What was it that sold the Middle Suburbs on Trump?

And there are the bigger questions to think about. How sustainable is the current Trump coalition and how replicable are the 2016 results? How will Trump deliver on the promises he has made to his voters – and what happens if he doesn’t?

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