Donald Trump did what almost no one expected he could do Tuesday night: he overcame a daunting electoral map, virtually all national polling and the expectations of the entire political class to win the presidency.
There will be plenty of time for recriminations in the days to come -- and oh, will there be recriminations -- but in the meantime, everyone is asking one big question: how could so many people have been so wrong?
What it comes down to is that Trump’s victory has demolished so many baseline assumptions and truisms of American politics on which politicians and journalists alike have based their thoughts and predictions -- a fact that will perhaps forever change the way we think about and report on politics.
Here are the top assumptions that, after Tuesday, have been upended:
1. That the candidate who is leading in virtually all national polling is the candidate who will win the election.
It is quite an understatement to say that polling had a bad year. Trump himself has long been fond of telling his supporters at rallies that the U.S. presidential election would be another Brexit -- by which he meant that pollsters didn’t expect the United Kingdom to actually vote to leave the European Union, but they did it anyway.
A quick glance at the wealth of reputable national polling over the course of the general election finds that the only poll -- the only one -- to correctly and consistently put Trump in the lead was the Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll. All the major networks -- CBS News included -- had Clinton with a solid advantage heading into Election Day.
Included in the future discussion about polling is exit polling the day of Election Day -- which suggested Clinton would eke out a victory, even in some states where Trump was ultimately victorious. Exit polling data has long been taken as objective truth, but after Tuesday night it’s hard to imagine that happening again.
2. That increasingly data-driven campaigns with significant investments in analytics are the best way to win.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama’s much-vaunted 2008 campaign and its revolutionary use of data and analytics ushered in a new era of politics in which candidates and campaign operatives believed good data would lead to victory. It was a bipartisan conclusion: candidates and officials in both parties began building up high-dollar analytics firms and touting their digital and data efforts. The same goes for a sophisticated ground operation, which goes hand-in-hand with the data and analytics developments of the last eight years.
But twice this year, the candidates with the better analytics operations lost: during the primary, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz spent millions of dollars accurately mapping out the GOP electorate and modeling support and scenarios. He fell to Trump. Clinton effectively inherited the data pros of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaign, and she lost as well.
People in the political consultant class who’ve built their careers and their fortunes on telling candidates they should pay big bucks for a data operation have got to be terrified that their livelihoods are about to disappear.
3. That massive party divisions -- and the lack of support of the party establishment -- can keep a candidate from winning.
Let this sink in for a minute: With the news Tuesday that former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura literally left the presidential slots on their ballot blank, it’s official that no living former presidents supported Trump in his campaign. John McCain and Mitt Romney, the respective 2008 and 2012 GOP nominees, did not support Trump. A slew of other major party leaders did not support Trump. Many party leaders pulled their endorsements after the now-infamous Trump Access Hollywood tape emerged in October.
He won anyway.
Gone is the assumption that a candidate without the full support of his or her party can’t win the presidency. Despite Mike Pence imploring Republicans to “come home,” Trump effectively told the Republican establishment that he didn’t need or want their support. It turns out he was right: he won the presidency without it.
4. That the candidate with more money and more TV ads on air is going to win.
It seems almost farcical that the person to do the most to reverse the effects of Citizens United, the landmark Supreme Court case that effectively created super PACs, would be a rich New York business mogul.
In recent elections, the adage has been that more is better: more super PAC cash, more ads on TV, more money overall. Even Democrats, initially reluctant to embrace super PACs, raised some major cash for the pro-Obama, then pro-Clinton Priorities USA and plastered the airwaves with ads.
But Trump won this campaign while being massively outspent on the airwaves and with less super PAC money on his side. Clearly, money is no longer the best determinant of who’s going to win.
5. That the Democrats’ Electoral College firewall was going to hold for cycles, even decades, to come.
Another post-2008 assumption was that the geographical realignment President Obama brought about -- victories in Mountain West states like Colorado and Nevada, and in East Coast states like North Carolina and Virginia -- were here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
Obama won because he earned strong support from the demographic groups among the country that are growing -- chief among them African-Americans and Latinos -- so Democrats’ declining share of the white vote was offset. Trump doubled down on working-class white voters -- so even though Clinton too won among African Americans and Latinos, she ultimately lost the election.
The fact that Trump’s victory was officially projected after picking up Pennsylvania (which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988) and Wisconsin (which hasn’t gone to a Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984) is proof that he has reshaped the map yet again. Democrats counted on Midwestern Rust Belt states to go Democratic again this November; future Democratic national candidates won’t make that mistake again.
6. That the party with the biggest post-Election Day internal reckoning on the horizon was the GOP, not the Democrats.
Every four years, the party that loses the White House goes through a public and private identity crisis, going over what went wrong and how they need to improve four years down the line.
For months now, everyone has assumed the party going through that identity crisis would be the Republicans: after a messy and divisive primary with 17 candidates that resulted in Donald Trump as the party’s standard-bearer, the conventional wisdom was that he would lose and Republicans would have to internally beat each other up over whose fault it was.
Instead, Democrats have quite the reckoning coming. Clinton had the better campaign operation, ran more TV ads and had the various wings of the party behind her (albeit reluctantly, on the part of some Sanders-wing progressives). But she still lost -- and what that says about the party’s path and message going forward remains to be seen.