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CBS News Exit Polls: How Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency

Key pillars of Trump victory
Key pillars of Donald Trump's presidential victory 01:34

by Stanley Feldman and Melissa Herrmann

Many observers thought this presidential election would be decided by Donald Trump’s polarizing rhetoric, his history of behavior toward women and his questionable qualifications for the office.

Instead, CBS News exit polls suggest Trump’s win was in large part a repudiation of Hillary Clinton by a substantial number of white voters. While Clinton did win big majorities of minority voters, she did not get the level of support from those groups that she needed to overcome her deficit among white voters.

There are also indications that Clinton’s gender was a factor in the outcome. The gender gap was substantial. Trump beat Clinton by 53 percent to 41 percent among men while Clinton won among women by 54 percent to 42 percent. Four years ago, President Obama won 45 percent of men’s votes and Mitt Romney won 44 percent of women’s votes.

More telling is the gender breakdown among white voters: Trump beat Clinton among white women 53 percent to 43 percent. This was close to Romney’s margin in 2012. While Mr. Obama won 35 percent of white, male voters in 2012, Clinton lost to Trump among this group by 63 percent to 31 percent.  

As expected, Trump did best among white voters without a college degree, beating Clinton by the enormous margin of 72 percent to 23 percent. Trump also won among white, non-college women 62 to 34 percent and white college-educated men, 54 to 39 percent. Among white voters, Clinton only won among women with a college degree by a 51 to 45 percent margin. Interestingly, among white voters, there is no evidence in the exit poll that income affected the likelihood that they supported Trump.

Clinton needed extremely strong support from African-American voters to try to offset Trump’s margin among whites. She did win 88 percent of the black vote to just 8 percent for Trump. However, this was significantly lower than the 93 percent of black voters Mr. Obama won four years ago. The falloff in her share of the black vote was entirely due to black men. Clinton won among black women by a 93 percent to 4 percent margin. Among black men she won by 80 percent to 13 percent.

Many political observers thought a significant number of Republicans would either vote for Clinton, one of the third party candidates, or stay home rather than casting their votes for Trump. According to the exit polls, Republicans stayed loyal to their presidential candidate. Some 89 percent of self-described Republicans voted for Trump; 91 percent of white Republicans did. In contrast, only 84 percent of white Democrats voted for Clinton. She did win 86 percent of white Democratic women, but only 81 percent of white, Democratic men voted for her.

Surprisingly, given all of the attention to Trump’s attitudes and behavior toward women, he did virtually as well among white, Republican women (91 percent support) as he did among white, Republican men (92 percent). Clinton was more competitive among white independent women than men, losing to Trump by a 49 to 41 percent margin among independent women and by 57 to 31 percent among independent men.

The Candidates’ Personal Characteristics

These were not likable candidates who instilled a great deal of confidence in their supporters. Many voters supported one of these candidates despite significant misgivings.

The majority of voters had unfavorable impressions of both. Twelve percent of Clinton voters and 20 percent of Trump voters had an unfavorable opinion of the candidate for whom they opted. So despite their misgivings about the candidates, something still compelled them to support one of them.

Both candidates were seen as not being honest or trustworthy by more than 6 out of 10 voters. However, among white voters, 57 percent said Trump was not honest and trustworthy while fully 70 percent said the same of Clinton. Almost 3 in 10 white voters said neither candidate was honest and trustworthy. Among this group, Trump won 52 percent to Clinton’s 32 percent. 13 percent of these voters supported one of the third party candidates.

Voters in the exit polls were asked if each of the candidates was qualified to serve as president. Almost half thought Clinton was not qualified but only 5 percent of her voters thought that. Even more voters, 6 out of 10, thought Trump was not qualified to be president. Almost a quarter of Trump voters gave him their support despite saying he was not qualified. 

Voters were also asked whether each candidate has the temperament to serve effectively as president. By a slim margin, 55 percent to 43 percent, voters said Clinton did have the right temperament. Sixty-three percent said Trump did not have the temperament to be president. Just over half of all white voters said both candidates did not have the right temperament. While very few of Clinton’s voters questioned her temperament, 1 in 4 Trump voters backed him while saying he did not have the temperament to be president.

Voters were asked how they would feel if Clinton were elected president and 53 percent said they would be concerned or scared. Similarly, if Trump were elected president, 58 percent said they would be concerned or scared. Among Clinton voters, 10 percent would be concerned or scared if Clinton were elected and 95 percent would be concerned scared about a Trump presidency. Interestingly, while 94 percent of Trump voters would be concerned or scared about Clinton being elected, 17 percent said they would be concerned about a President Trump.

If many people had serious doubts about both candidates, is there a way to determine how they distinguished between Clinton and Trump? In the exit polls, voters were asked whether they strongly favored their candidate, liked their candidate but with reservations, or if they voted because they disliked the other candidate. While 21 percent of Clinton voters said they disliked the other candidates, more – 28 percent – of Trump voters reported that. There appears to have been more people voting against Clinton than against Trump.

A Verdict on Major Policy Issues?            

Can we say Trump did better than expected in the election because a majority of voters supported his most powerfully articulated policy positions? Exit poll voters were asked whether most illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be offered a chance to apply for legal status or deported to the country they came from. Fully 7 of 10 voters said they should be allowed to apply for legal status. Similarly, more people opposed building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico than supported it. And virtually as many voters (38 percent) said trade with other countries creates more U.S. jobs as said it takes away jobs (42 percent).

How did Trump win when many of his core positions were so unpopular? Some people voted for him regardless of that. Among those who favored giving illegal immigrants a chance to apply for legal status, one in three voted for Trump. Thirty-five percent of people who said international trade creates jobs voted for Trump. And even 27 percent of white voters who said they want the next president to change to more liberal policies voted for Trump.

One issue that may have motivated some white voters is the ongoing national debate over the way police treat African-Americans. The exit poll asked voters whether they think the country’s criminal justice system treats all people fairly or treats blacks unfairly. Half of white voters said blacks are treated fairly while 41 percent say they are treated unfairly. Among the first group, 8 in 10 voted for Trump. Sixty-five percent who said blacks are treated unfairly voted for Clinton.

Did Johnson and Stein Affect the Outcome?

With so many tightly contested races, the votes cast for candidates such as Gary Johnson and Jill Stein may have impacted the overall results. The exit polling asked voters they would have cast ballots for if there were only two candidates (Clinton and Trump). A quarter of Johnson voters said Clinton, 15 percent said Trump, and 55 percent said they would not have voted. Numbers were similar for Stein voters, with about a quarter saying they would have chosen Clinton, 14 percent saying Trump, and 61 percent saying they would not have voted. It is difficult to say with any certainty, but with razor thin margins in some states, a small number of voters who might have supported Clinton could have altered outcomes in some states.


Stanley Feldman is professor of political science at Stony Brook University; Melissa Herrmann is president of SSRS

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