From the beginning, everyone underestimated Donald Trump. He pulled off a stunning victory after the most unprecedented of presidential campaigns.
Trump channeled the fury of average Americans against Washington. He tapped into their anxiety about the present and the fear of the future. He spoke to the pain they felt about working hard and getting left behind.
And in doing so, he eviscerated every convention about politics.
The pundits thought Trump’s reality show antics, his vulgar rhetoric, speeches filled with falsehoods and insults thrown at almost every sector of American society – Latinos, African Americans, war heroes, women and Muslims – would disqualify him from the presidency.
Instead Trump marshaled a movement – a modern day uprising of forgotten Americans, reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” of the late 1960s.
He argued that Americans were hungering for change and that he alone could “drain the swamp” by sweeping away corruption in Washington.
Changing the map
Trump said he would change the complexion of the electoral map – putting Democratic states in the decaying industrial Midwest into the Republican column with his anti-trade rhetoric. He did.
He said he could humble the most talented Republican field in a generation: He did.
He said he could teach Republicans to beat their nemesis – the Clintons. He did.
He said the polls were wrong and that he would pull off a surprise that would dwarf the shocking poll-defying Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. And he was right.
Trump’s rewriting of the rules of politics could usher in a period of global turmoil and uncertainty, as US allies, foreign markets and the Americans who were revolted by his behavior during the campaign look to the future with deep anxiety.
The question now, is when he becomes the most powerful man in the world in January, whether Trump will try to rewrite the rules and conventions of American government and the international system, just as fundamentally as he rewrote the rules of American presidential elections.
Trump pledged unity during a victory speech in the early morning hours Wednesday.
“I say it is time for us to come together as one united people,” he said. “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans.”
Still, Trump pulled off one of the most staggering upsets in the history of Western democracy.
As recently as a month ago, pundits were still contemplating the possibility of a Hillary Clinton landslide. But the polls began to tighten, returning the race to a more accurate reflection of a deeply polarized country.
Then came uncertainty as FBI Director James Comey cast a new cloud of suspicion over Clinton’s campaign, reopening a review of emails tied to her server.
Clinton allies said the damage was undeniable – their hope of swaying those final persuadable Republican women and independents – suddenly looked bleaker.
As late as this weekend, the polls suggested Trump would have to run a near perfect race and chart a very narrow path to the White House, essentially pulling an inside straight.
Relying on the RNC
Somehow the candidate – who relied almost entirely on the Republican National Committee for his ground game – outmanned the Clinton campaign.
The results Tuesday night stunned strategists from both parties. Many of the supporters who had gathered for Clinton’s celebration in New York were shocked, some of them crying as they watched the states roll in for Trump.
Early on Tuesday, Obama’s former chief strategist, David Plouffe, tweeted a picture of vodka and Orange Crush, with the optimistic message: “Ready to watch her victory speech.”
Eight hours later, Plouffe tweeted that he had never “been as wrong on anything” in his life. “Still a beating heart in WI, and the two (congressional districts in Nebraska and Maine). But sobriety about what happened tonight is essential.”
While Trump fueled an enormous amount of enthusiasm among working class voters and brought many new voters to the polls, many Republicans were also quick to credit the RNC, which essentially ran Trump’s entire ground game.
One Republican strategist noted that unlike in past campaigns, the GOP had permanent staff on the ground since the summer of 2013 in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
Working off the model of what the Obama campaign had done in 2008 and 2012, they spent the early days recruiting organizers and volunteers, testing their GOTV prowess in 2014.
Over the past three years, they plowed money into voter registration and field staff – flipping ten counties in Florida, for example, from a Democratic advantage to a Republican advantage. GOP aides said they cut the voter registration disadvantage that Mitt Romney had in 2012 by half.
Around the time of the Republican National Convention, the Trump campaign and the RNC forged an awkward alliance. Instead of building their own ground game, the Trump campaign looked at the infrastructure that the RNC had built to support the Republican nominee and agreed to work within that framework.
Many of the voters drawn to Trump’s campaign were new to the political process. So throughout the year, the RNC conducted countless trainings for phonebanking and door-knocking.