By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald Trump was right. Countless others were wrong.
The pundits and pollsters who said the former reality TV star could not win the U.S. presidency, the Republicans who shunned him, the business leaders who denounced him and the Democrats who dismissed him failed to fully understand the depth of his support.
In a stunning victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump stuck to a plan that worked to perfection in the Republican primary, a campaign built around his blunt-talking celebrity persona, his command of social media, and his anti-establishment message of change.
“Ours was not a campaign, but an incredible and great movement,” Trump said in his victory speech on Wednesday.
It was a movement driven by discontent. The Reuters/Ipsos Election Day poll found that most Americans who came to the polls were clearly angry with the direction of the country. Six out of 10 people said they felt the country is on the wrong track. Some 58 percent said “more and more I don’t identify with what America has become” and 75 percent said “America needs a strong leader to take the country back” from the wealthy.
Those who felt the country was on the wrong track were three times as likely to vote for Trump as Clinton.
In a bitter and divisive campaign, Trump cleared a series of obstacles that would doom any other candidate: An audio tape in which he talked of groping women; a refusal to release his tax returns; violence at his rallies; his mockery of a disabled reporter; and his attacks on the heritage of a federal judge and the Muslim family of a U.S. soldier.
“He was an imperfect candidate with a near-perfect message,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who has long backed Trump. “I don’t think a lot of people understood that.”
In a year when voters in the United States and abroad showed their antipathy toward the political establishment, the globalized economy, and corporate welfare, Trump guessed correctly he could ride that wave of discontent to the White House.
He exploited a growing divide in the country between whites and minorities, urbanites and rural residents, the college-educated and the working class. Trump beat Clinton among white men without a college degree by 31 points and white women without a degree by 27 points, according to the Reuters/Ipsos polling.
He also benefited from an opponent with her own flaws. Clinton was continually dragged down by questions over her use of a private email server while secretary of state and the activities of her family foundation, while her corporate-friendly background left some Democrats skeptical and unenthusiastic.
That appeared to cost her support among women, young voters and minorities – three groups that are critical for Democrats to win big. Clinton won each of these groups, but by smaller margins than President Barack Obama held when he defeated Republican candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
Some 49 percent of women supported Clinton, the first woman nominee of a major party, while 47 percent supported Trump.
Among women between the ages of 18 and 34, about 55 percent supported Clinton, while 38 percent supported Trump. In 2012, 62 percent of young women supported Obama, while 36 percent supported Romney.
THE RURAL VOTE
White voters, especially men in rural areas, flocked to Trump in record numbers. Trump appealed to voters unhappy with the hollowing out of the country’s manufacturing sector and fearful of the country’s changing demographics, campaigning on a harsh anti-immigration message.
Trump won 56 percent of the white vote, while Clinton won just 39 percent. He dominated to an even greater degree in rural areas, where he beat Clinton by 27 points.
Trump promised big things: that he would bring jobs back and punish outsourcing corporations, that he would restore the country to some unspecified early time of prosperity and security - even as unemployment tumbled below 5 percent.
Specifics were never Trump’s strength. Instead, he used an “us versus them” message to build voter enthusiasm in places where most Republican candidates never ventured, rural areas with voters who felt ignored by Washington.
Matt Borges, the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said Trump, unlike Romney, made voters feel like they mattered.
Before Trump, he said, “we weren’t listening to what voters actually care about.”
Trump thumbed his nose at the extensive get-out-the-vote operation and data-rich organization that are seen as essential to a modern winning campaign.
His campaign relied instead on more unofficial networks of rabid supporters to get the word out. His advisers argued that he would bring scores of neglected white voters back into the political process, including blue-collar Democrats in places such as Pennsylvania. Until Trump, Republicans had not won Pennsylvania since 1988.
Craig Robinson, a veteran of Iowa Republican politics, said pundits underestimated how Trump’s strength in the primaries would carry over to the general election.
“In an election where the conventional wisdom was proven wrong time and time again, they convinced themselves that conventional wisdom would prevail in the general election,” Robinson said. “The voters saw through it.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant. Additional reporting by Chris Kahn, editing by Paul Thomasch and Ross Colvin)