Rebovich event gives first-person account of election
By Shanna O’Mara
On Nov. 8, Americans crowded around their televisions, radios and smartphones to witness history in the making. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was battling Republican Donald Trump for colors on a map and residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Several polls throughout the summer and fall predicted Clinton to claim the Oval Office and beat out her businessman competitor. However, as votes poured in that memorable Tuesday night, the collected numbers told a different story.
MSNBC host and political correspondent Steve Kornacki spoke at a Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics on Dec. 1 in the Cavalla Room, recounting the night he covered the election that shocked the world.
Throughout the evening, he and other political analysts followed the “narrow path” Trump could take to win the presidency.
“If Donald Trump was going to win, it would be with heavy support from blue-collar white voters,” Kornacki said. “The question was: Could he drive up enough support from blue-collar white voters without alienating other voters in equally large numbers?”
With the nonwhite population growing in the United States, many experts predicted Trump’s struggle to gain enough momentum on Election Day.
“There were plenty of reasons to suspect, based on the way this campaign went, that he would do worse than [2012 Republican nominee] Mitt Romney did with these [nonwhite] groups,” Kornacki said. Clinton was expected to perform just as well, if not better, than President Barack Obama did during his 2012 race.
Although Trump ultimately lost the black vote to Clinton 88-8, she won by “seven points less with the group that makes up more than ten percent of the overall electorate,” according to Kornacki, who noted that Obama won this sector 93-6.
Many also expected Trump to lose the Hispanic vote by a tremendous margin after his comments about Spanish criminal activity and building a wall along the American-Mexican border, but he shocked people by only losing that vote to Clinton 65-29, compared to the 2012 outcome of 71 for Obama and just 27 for Romney. Trump also lost the Asian vote 65-29, finishing two points ahead of Romney in the last election.
“This is not a moment of great triumph for the Republican Party in terms of winning over nonwhite voters, but they did better than anybody thought they were going to do,” Kornacki said.
Kornacki said his media team and many others covering the presidential race focused on the crucial outcome in the Rust Belt, the region along the Northeastern border, along the Great Lakes and into the Midwest including states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“Every time we got a poll, particularly out of one of those states, this is what I was looking for,” he said. “Is there a sign that Donald Trump in the poll in Pennsylvania is doing something that all the Republicans in the past 30 years who failed to win Pennsylvania weren’t doing? Is he running closer to Hillary Clinton? Is the gap closing? Every poll in Pennsylvania, right until the end, looked like every poll in Pennsylvania in a presidential race going back to 1992.”
With Clinton ahead by five to seven points throughout the night, there was little concern that she’d lose the 20 electoral votes from the state. Another 10 electoral votes were up for grabs in Wisconsin, and Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee was keeping a close eye on those. Every two weeks, the school would release a poll tracking the candidates’ success in that state.
“Was this going to be the poll that showed Donald Trump was within a point, within two points, was tied, that this blue-collar strategy was working in the Rust Belt?” Kornacki asked himself. “We were not seeing it. We only had a couple of Michigan polls at the very end. There was some evidence that he was doing better with blue-collar voters there than previous Republicans, but it did not look like he was going to win the state.”
As the hours passed by and the exit poll results trickled in, Kornacki concluded that the predictions of Clinton’s win seemed accurate.
“The exit polls that we got at five o’clock looked exactly like all the polls leading up to Election Day,” he said. “It looked like Hillary Clinton was ahead in Pennsylvania. It looked like Hillary Clinton was ahead in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Florida by a couple of points, in North Carolina, even in Ohio. We were thinking that we were on our way to the result most people expected.”
He even noticed a more impressive trend in favor of the former secretary of state and first lady than he had seen for President Obama during his second-term campaign.
“The turnout looked like it was on pace to eclipse what we had in 2012,” Kornacki said, citing larger numbers for Clinton in Florida than Obama had received. “So, we’ve had months of polls that say Hillary Clinton has clear advantage in the Electoral College. We’ve got exit polls between five and seven [o’clock] that say, ‘Yep, those polls leading up to the election, that’s about right.’ And now we’ve got early returns in Florida that say, ‘Yep. Hillary Clinton is hitting the numbers she needs to hit in the areas she needs to hit them.’”
As he stood by the MSNBC information board, Kornacki saw a 110,000 vote gap in Florida between Clinton and Trump, with the former host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” behind and no large area left in the state to make up ground.
“Two minutes later, I walked back over to the board,” Kornacki said in a tone of utter disbelief. “We got an update on Florida, and that 110,000 vote Clinton lead was down to 4,000 votes.”
The tables had turned on Clinton, as Trump began soaring ahead in several states. He closed a six point gap in North Carolina then took the lead in Virginia despite growing Democratic populations outside of Washington D.C. and in suburban areas around Richmond.
He also ultimately won Pennsylvania with 49 percent of the vote compared to Clinton’s 48.
“I never realized that that many traditionally blue counties [in Pennsylvania] ended up going red and how the four counties in the Philadelphia area were always solid Democrat but so many people in this election voted Republican for the first time since 1988,” Kimberly Ortiz, senior journalism major, said.
Trump won the overall white vote 58-37 but only won the white college graduate vote 49-45 because of a consistently offensive message that primarily upset suburbanites, according to Kornacki. “Donald Trump did worse than any Republican has ever done with this group, but he still won them,” he said.
The country watched as “this machine that the Clinton campaign had built meticulously for years just crumbled apart with every new precinct that came in,” Kornacki said.
“He lost by 2.5 million votes, but his votes were concentrated in just a perfect, precise way,” he said, noting that his narrow victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan put him ahead in terms of electoral votes. “If Hillary Clinton had won each one of these states, she’s president. The total margin between those three states is 78,000 votes. The 78,000 votes spread out over three population-rich states, 20 electoral votes in Pennsylvania, 16 electoral votes in Michigan, [10 in Wisconsin]. The 78,000 votes spread out between those three states are just enough to give Donald Trump the electoral votes he needs to overcome a 2.5 million vote margin in the national popular vote.”
The dust settled around 2:30 a.m. when Trump had been named the 45th president-elect. As Clinton returned to her home in New York, Trump traveled to the White House to discuss a transfer of power with Obama. He has since been speaking with other world leaders, naming members to his Cabinet and will be sworn into office on Jan. 20