Nov 9th 2016, 8:37BY J.A. | WASHINGTON, DC
WHEN Barack Obama proffered his election-day olive WHEN Barack Obama proffered his election-day olive branch to a divided country on branch to a divided country on November 8th, it sounded rather trite: “No matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning.” But in the dark of a night that, state by state, delivered a coruscating verdict on Mr Obama’s legacy and elected Donald Trump to the White House, those words started almost to feel optimistic.
Most pundits had predicted a comfortable victory for Mr Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Opinion polls put her around four percentage points ahead, and her paths to the necessary 270 electoral college votes looked easier and more numerous than the narrow way Mr Trump seemed to have mapped for himself. Early voting returns, which suggested a heavy turnout by Hispanics, whom Mr Trump has frightened and offended, seemed to confirm that advantage. So did the first exit polls in the dozen or so battleground states, some of which contained snippets to suggest voters considered Mr Trump unelectable. Polls for ABC News suggested 61% of voters considered him unqualified to be president; only 34% said he had the right personality and temperament. But they went ahead and elected him anyway.
As polling stations closed in a slow ripple across America, east to west, television networks began calling a predictable roster of results based on exit polls and early voting. Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey stayed blue; Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee remained red. But then Mr Trump changed the script by taking an early lead in a trio of important swing states, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, which he never lost. Along the way, Mrs Clinton suffered a scare in Virginia, where she had won or tied 86 of the past 91 polls, before being saved by a late surge of support from the state’s northern suburbs of Washington, DC. Yet by the time results started coming in from right across the Midwest the electoral trajectory seemed clear.
Mr Trump tore through the Rust Belt states, such as Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin, turning red a swath of states that had not voted for a Republican presidential nominee in decades—including Pennsylvania, which last voted Republican in 1988, and Wisconsin, which had been blue since 1984. Mrs Clinton had hardly bothered to campaign in Wisconsin, where almost every poll gave her a solid lead.
There was a consistency, too, in what was fuelling Mr Trump’s success. The Republican did better than his immediate predecessors in places with large concentrations of whites, especially in rural and semi-rural counties, and among men. Exit polls suggested he won the votes of 60% of white men and 52% of white women. He won whites without a college degree by 39 points—his predecessor Mitt Romney won them by 26 points when losing to Barack Obama in 2012. In Florida this outperformance allowed him to do better than Mr Romney had in 51 of the state’s 67 counties.
Meanwhile, Mrs Clinton fared worse than Mr Obama in almost every voter group. She led with non-whites by some 50 points; Mr Obama beat Mr Romney by 61. She won 54% of younger voters (almost 10% of whom voted for a third-party candidate), while Mr Obama had won 64% of them. Most conspicuously she did far less well in the major urban centres where Democratic voters are congregated than Mr Obama had. In Philadelphia, where Mrs Clinton held a massive rally on November 7th, at which her husband Bill, Mr Obama and his wife Michelle, and Bruce Springsteen all performed, she won 46,000 fewer votes than Mr Obama had in 2012. Hate Mr Trump as they did, many of Mr Obama’s voters, it seems, just could not bring themselves to vote for the unexciting and reviled alternative that Mrs Clinton presented them with.
The repercussions of Mr Trump’s victory will be enormous—they seem to grow bigger with every passing second of contemplation. Mrs Clinton ran a lavishly funded and highly professional campaign, using the sophisticated voter identification and mobilisation methods perfected by Mr Obama. Mr Trump raised less money, had little organisation to speak of in many states, and relied largely on social media and an outsized reality-television persona to push his authoritarian and protectionist agenda. He was endorsed by only a tiny handful of newspapers and tipped for success by almost no serious pundit. Barely anyone gave him a chance. Yet, soon after the results started flooding in, his eventual victory hardly looked in doubt.
It is one of the most dramatic electoral upsets America, or anywhere, has ever seen. America’s next president will be a man who led a racist campaign to discredit the incumbent, Mr Obama. While campaigning, he abused women, the disabled, Hispanics and foreigners. He advocated using torture, and nuclear bombs, said his opponent was corrupt and possibly a murderer, and swore that, if elected, he would lock her up. Almost half of American voters have now given Mr Trump an opportunity to follow through on that threat. Who knows; perhaps he will.