Donald Trump, who spent much of the past four years as a historically unpopular president, lost his bid for re-election Tuesday. His approval rating hasn’t approached 50 percent since he took office, and neither did his share of the vote this year.
In an era of deep national anxiety – with stagnant wages, rickety health insurance and aggressive challenges from China and Russia – voters punished an incumbent president who failed on his central promise: “I alone can fix it.”
Since he rode down the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy five years ago, Trump has frequently looked like a man for whom the normal rules of politics did not apply. He won a shocking upset in 2016, which lent him an aura of invincibility. Pundits started to doubt much of what they had previously believed.
But as Trump seethed – and tweeted – in defeat late Tuesday and President-elect Elizabeth Warren celebrated, the arc of the Trump story is starting to make more sense than it has for much of his chaotic presidency:
The normal rules of politics do apply to Trump, after all.
Four years ago, he became the fifth man to win the presidency while losing the popular vote. Now he becomes the fourth of those five – along with John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin Harrison – to serve only a single term, and to be unpopular during most of it. The exception is George W. Bush, who benefited from being a wartime president.
In hindsight, the extraordinary nature of the circumstances that propelled Trump in 2016 have become obvious: the unpopularity of his opponent, Hillary Clinton; the help from Russia; the late involvement of James Comey, the then-FBI director who now hosts an ABC talk show; and Trump’s razor-thin victories in several states.
Without that good fortune this year, Trump still won about 90 percent of self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning voters. Yet it was not nearly enough.
“Trump said he was going to fix things, and he didn’t,” said Kevin O’Reilly, 54, of Manchester, New Hampshire, who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, Trump in 2016 and Warren this year. “I don’t think he really cares about the middle class. He cares about himself.”
Exit polls showed disillusionment across the swing states that Trump won four years ago and lost this year, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In a sign of the country’s changing political map, he held on to Ohio and Iowa, two relatively old and white states – but became the first Republican since 1992 to lose Georgia.
Huge margins among women were central to the victory of Warren, who will become the country’s first female president. “I’m just tired of him,” said Jennifer Diaz, a 47-year-old from Cobb County, Georgia, outside Atlanta.
Heading into the campaign, Trump’s advisers believed they had two major advantages: the economic growth of the past four years and the undeniable liberalism of Warren and her running mate, former Attorney General Eric Holder. Neither panned out as the Trump campaign had hoped.
For one thing, solid GDP growth – similar to the rate during Obama’s second term – has not translated into middle-class income gains. Average income growth, post-inflation, has hovered near zero since early 2018. (In August, Trump became the first president since Richard Nixon to force out the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accusing the agency of releasing “fake news” on wages. Outside economists said the charge was false.)
Warren’s liberalism, meanwhile, did make some voters anxious, exit polls showed. But most swing voters do not follow the minutiae of policy debates, and many simply decided that she understood their problems better than Trump.
She and Holder consciously borrowed from the populist strategy of Obama’s 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney. Rather than emphasize Trump’s personal behavior, as the 2016 Clinton campaign did, they cast him as a greedy billionaire who corruptly used the presidency to enrich himself further. They also largely ignored Trump’s repeated criticisms of the ongoing NFL national anthem protests.
The Democrats paired their message with broadly popular economic proposals: tax increases on the rich, expanded Medicare and child care, free community college and – highlighting an unfulfilled Trump promise – an infrastructure program. Budget watchdogs said the Warren agenda would increase the deficit. Many voters, evidently, did not care.
A final vote tally will not be available for weeks, but The New York Times’ “election needle” projects Trump to win 46.1 percent of the popular vote. If that holds, it would be nearly identical to his share in 2016. This year, however, third-party candidates won fewer votes, and Warren is on pace to clear 50 percent.
From the start of Trump’s meteoric political career to the end, he never enjoyed the support of most Americans.
David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times. © 2018 New York Times News Service