How Trump Became President

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, it’s a good a time to have one last look at how he got here.

The election results have been trickling in and are now close to final. Viewed through the prism of the American Communities Project, they show four decisive factors that led to Trump’s surprise win.

1.     Trump’s surge of rural voters was real. As the press and analysts have retraced their steps to see how they miss Trump’s surprise win, this factor has been the most frequently cited. And the numbers support this conclusion.

In four county types Trump improved on Romney’s margins by double-digits – Aging FarmlandsWorking Class CountryRural Middle America and Evangelical Hubs. In a fifth type, Graying America, he improved on Romney’s performance by 9 points.

County Type

(Color on map)

Trump Victory Margin

Romney Victory Margin


Aging Farmlands

(Light blue)

54.5 points

37.2 points

17.3 points

Working Class Country

(Dark blue)

46.2 points

29.4 points

16.8 points

Rural Middle America

(Royal blue)

28.5 points

12.3 points

16.3 points

Evangelical Hubs


50.5 points

39.4 points

11.1 points

Graying America


22.2 points

13.2 points

9 points


Even with Hillary Clinton doing well in big urban centers, that was a lot for her to overcome. Furthermore those county types made up big chunks of some important swing states. Look at Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

2.     Clinton did very well in urban areas, but not well enough. This is the other side of Trump’s rural surge. Clinton actually did very well in the Big City and Urban Suburb counties. She beat Obama’s 2012 margins in those places.

County Type Clinton Victory Margin Obama Victory Margin Increase
Big Cities (Pink)

35.5 points

31.1 points

4.4 points

Urban Suburbs  (Dark orange)

18.7 points

16.3 points

2.4 points

Considering the larger populations of those places, those numbers went a long way to helping Clinton match Trump’s gains and helping her win the popular vote. But she needed to do better and fell short on two points.

First, the vote increases she got out of the Big Cities did not keep up with their population growth. Those counties produced 2 million more votes in 2016 than they did in 2012, but their population grew by 2.5 million. Some of that difference may due to be a decline in turnout from African Americans which is apparent in some counties.

Second, Clinton got better margins out of those counties than Obama but not larger percentages of the vote. She did better because Trump did worse than Romney in 2012. In other words, she didn’t improve on Obama’s level of support. If she had gained from Trump’s losses in these places, she might have won in November.

3.     Trump outran his population problem. Many of the places where Trump won were rural and had slow population growth or even declines, but Trump was able to beat those changes.

In four rural county types where Trump did especially well, there was a vote increase greater than the population changes of those places. In two of them, there were increases in votes cast even as population declined.

County Type

Vote Increase 2012- 2016

Population Change 2012- 2015

Vote Versus Population Difference

Working Class Country




Rural Middle America




Evangelical Hubs




Graying America




The numbers suggest that Trump activated new voters in places where he needed them. In some states such as Pennsylvania and Florida the vote increases he got out of these places were crucial to his win.

If Trump can keep those voters engaged, they could become a powerful part of a larger remaking of the Republican Party.

4.     The Return of the Reagan Democrats. While a lot of attention has been focused on the new voters Trump brought out, the voters he flipped are at least as important. You can see those voters in older aging suburbs throughout the Industrial Midwest.

Trump did much better than Romney in these counties, called Middle Suburbs in the ACP. Romney won them by 2 points in 2012, but Trump won them by more than 13 points.

County Type

Trump Margin

Romney Margin


Middle Suburbs

13.4 points

1.9 points

11.5 points

These counties are scattered around Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin (in light orange on the map) and they are bases of the blue-collar votes in those states: Luzerne County in PA, Stark in OH, and Macomb in MI.

Those counties, and others like them, helped with Ronald Reagan the White House. They voted for Bill Clinton in the 90s and for Barack Obama. Trump brought them back into the GOP fold in 2016.

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