This is an emotional time for many of us who live in the United States. Donald Trump evoked strong feelings on both sides of the political spectrum. While his post-election rhetoric has cooled dramatically from the incendiary language of the campaign, the effects of that rhetoric will shape the political landscape for some time.

But this post is not about what Donald Trump said on his way to becoming the 45th President of the United States. That ground has already been covered. Because data analysis is the founding principle of Sarissa Partners, we wanted to examine why Donald Trump was able to find his way to the White House. In doing so, we found the simple answer that many analysts missed…

An answer that was staring us right in the mirror.


First, some ground rules. Everyone in this country needed to take a breath after Tuesday. Emotions are still very raw. So, this post is a judgement-free zone. This is just about what the numbers suggest about Trump’s path to victory. And, while conjecture rules the day on every cable television panel, our mission is to stick to the facts. The data tells a story on its own. There is no need for more uninformed drivel to clog our timelines.

With that said, here are the facts that best tell the story:

The 2016 electorate was SMALLER that 2012

While there are still votes to be counted, the 2012 Obama/Romney electorate was much bigger than that of 2016 (2008 remains the record for turnout).

List of United States presidential elections by popular vote margin - Wikipedia

The Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides the procedure by which the President and Vice President are elected, which is through the Electoral College, so the national popular vote does not determine the outcome of the United States presidential election.

Despite all of the media attention on this race, turnout did not correlate directly with media consumption. In fact, Donald Trump will receive fewer votes that Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney earned more votes than President-Elect Donald Trump.

Why They Are Called Battlegrounds

CNN identified 14 states as critical to the election. In those states, Trump was generally able to improve on the vote totals of Romney.

  • Trump’s raw vote total in 2016 was more than 10% greater than that of Romney in Florida and Pennsylvania.
  • Trump drew more votes than Romney in Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, and even Michigan (where Romney grew up).

2016 election results: National Exit polls

View the latest 2016 election exit polls by state and by race, including demographic information for US voters. For more election news, visit cnn.com/election/2016.

The trend did not hold true in Wisconsin, where he earned fewer votes than Romney (whose running mate Paul Ryan represents Wisconsin in Congress as Speaker of the House). But generally speaking, the President-Elect was able to outperform in the states where it mattered.

Who Fought The Battle In The Battlegrounds?

The composition of the electorate matters.

American Election Voters

Let’s start in the perennial swing state of Florida. White voters made up 67% of the electorate there in 2012. That number was 62% in 2016. While conventional wisdom suggested a benefit for Hillary Clinton, the numbers told a different story. Mitt Romney received approximately 3.3 million votes from white voters in 2012 (61%). Donald Trump increased that percentage to 64%, earning approximately 200,000 more white votes.

Trump won Florida by 120,000 votes.

2016 election results: National Exit polls

View the latest 2016 election exit polls by state and by race, including demographic information for US voters. For more election news, visit cnn.com/election/2016.

The story was similar across all the battlegrounds:

Pennsylvania: White voters made up 81% of the electorate in 2016, up from 78% in 2012. Mitt Romney (57%) actually did one point better among white voters than Donald Trump. But, that is still a large margin for Trump with the largest demographic group in Pennsylvania.
Ohio: Fewer people voted in Ohio in 2016 than 2012. The percentage of the white electorate increased one point to 80%. Trump’s percentage of the white vote was 61%, four points higher than Romney.
The numbers are staggering. Of CNN’s 14 battleground states, Hillary Clinton was only close in the white vote in Colorado and New Hampshire (-2% in each). By comparison, Barack Obama won the white vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, while losing that demographic narrowly in Wisconsin.

All of those states have electorates composed of more than 60% white voters.

The Takeaway

Every day, we tell clients to frame their competitive advantage. You have a weapon that will conquer your world. Show it off. Tell the world.

Because if your opponent attacks your advantage by controlling your narrative, everything is at risk.

If you do it right, consumers will never believe anything that disputes their positive attitude about you. Do it wrong, and you will never reach your potential.

Hillary Clinton proved the negative case. 4 days of the Democratic National Convention and 3 nights of highly-watched debates did not overcome the perception that she was not to be trusted. Clinton never became more trustworthy to the electorate than Trump, trailing her opponent by 20% at times.

For 2 decades as a political spouse, Hillary Clinton could not develop her own brand. Her husband’s image had to take priority. The scandals of the “Clintons” defined her. Thus, their experience was her liability. Nothing Senator Clinton nor Secretary Clinton did could change that.

Those 30 years served a different purpose for her opponent. Scandals made Donald Trump famous. Fame made him richer. Wealth made him more famous. Nothing succeeds like the perception of success. Donald Trump (and his alter ego John Miller) made sure the perception was constantly cultivated. No detail was too small in shaping Brand Trump. And no dream, like the presidency, was too big.

But no one had ever become POTUS without either a political or military career. No one.


Donald Trump on the Apprentice

How did Trump change that? Well, what better way for a political novice to prove qualifications as a presidential candidate than to host a popular television show where you control every aspect of your image as a leader. The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice gave us 186 episodes of Donald Trump as the decisive business leader. It is much easier to picture a man as a tough negiotiator in the Oval Office if you have seen it in The Apprentice board room, as 28 million people did in the Season 1 finale. Even if there is no “reality” in reality TV, the perception created by those shows served to make Trump the Teflon Don of the 2016 presidential campaign.

It is much easier to get 60 million votes when 28 million have already seen you EXACTLY as you wanted to present yourself.

The lesson here is the same thing we tell clients. Know your audience. Know what would kill your brand. Control your image before the attack.

Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric offended a number of ethnic groups. His comments to Billy Bush of Access Hollywood on that infamous bus trip created the impression that women would turn away from him.

But, any liabilities his words created did not apply to the largest voting bloc in the United States. While the ethnic demographics of the American population are changing, the American electorate in the states that matter are still overwhelmingly white.

Would we advise a client to speak as Donald Trump did? Absolutely not! Would his rhetoric win in 2024? If American ethnic demographics change as predicted, likely not. But for the audience that carried him to victory, he convinced them that he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton.

Because nothing anyone said about him could change his carefully crafted persona to the folks who made him President Trump.