Donald Trump: Campaigns and Elections
Trump’s early involvement in politics came while working alongside his father and consisted mostly of contributing to and befriending the Democratic officeholders in New York City who held sway over the many rules, regulations, tax policies, and permits that govern real estate developers. His father, Fred Trump, associated with Brooklyn’s Democratic organization and became familiar with politicians including Abraham Beame, who became a New York City mayor, and Hugh Carey, who served as governor of New York.
Yet the younger Trump’s political shape-shifting was apparent early on. He supported Ronald Reagan for president in 1980 and was invited to the White House for functions. By 1987, he identified as a Republican, although in future years Trump would register or identify as a Democrat, independent, and Reform Party member.
In 1987, Trump first expressed interest publicly in running for president; in September, he bought full-page advertisements in New York, Washington, and Boston newspapers decrying Reagan-era foreign policy as lacking a “backbone.” He also condemned foreign aid to defend countries such as Japan and Persian Gulf nations, which he said should defend themselves. Trump ultimately declined to challenge then-Vice President George H. W. Bush for the 1988 Republican nomination. He considered running against a Bush two other times, in 2000 and 2004, when the former president’s son, George W. Bush, ran. In 2000, Trump was a short-lived candidate of the Reform Party, and in 2004 he considered entering the Republican contest. (In 2016, neither Bush supported Trump’s nomination.)
Throughout the second Bush’s administration, Trump identified as a Democrat, often publicly criticizing the president. But in 2008 he supported the Republican nominee, John McCain. He made a more serious bid for Republicans’ 2012 nomination, but ultimately backed the party’s choice, Mitt Romney. Given Trump’s quadrennial flirtation with a presidential campaign, by the start of the 2016 cycle, most observers and potential rivals dismissed his early talk of running as just more self-promotion to burnish the Trump brand.
Yet this time Trump was serious: For several years, he had been courting conservative groups, and, since March 2011, he had emerged as a favorite in conservative circles for promoting the “birther” conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, but in Africa, and thus was not a legitimate president given the Constitution’s requirement that presidents be born in the United States. Trump demanded to see Obama’s original “long form” certificate attesting to his birth in Hawaii, dismissing the short form that Obama had released in 2008 to quiet conspiracy theorists. Trump also said he hired investigators in Hawaii to prove Obama’s illegitimacy, although nothing came of that. When Obama produced the long form, Trump took credit even as he questioned its authenticity. He refused to back off his birther belief until weeks before the 2016 election, when he was trailing in many polls. (He wrongly blamed Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for having started the birther rumors.)
On June 16, 2015, Trump descended an elevator with his wife, Melania, at Trump Tower, his residence and business headquarters on Fifth Avenue, and announced his candidacy before a media throng. He sounded the themes that would define his candidacy: against undocumented immigrants (Mexico, he famously charged, was intentionally sending murderers and rapists over the border) and against federal debt, offshoring of jobs, free trade, terrorism, “political correctness,” and the media. He also introduced what would prove a winning slogan among disgruntled voters, especially those in the white working class: “Make America Great Again.”
Trump joined the most crowded presidential field in history against 16 Republicans, a number of them with pedigrees as current or former governors and senators. He was widely discounted as not serious, even clownish, and a demagogue, not least by Republican Party leaders, even as he won some early Republican nomination contests. Trump also ran well in Republican polls from the start, as he boasted regularly at campaign rallies, on Twitter, and in the ubiquitous cable-TV interviews that spurred his candidacy. His Republican identity still in question—as recently as 2011 Trump had registered as an independent—on September 3, 2015, Trump signed a party loyalty pledge, promising to support the eventual Republican nominee, that Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus personally brought to Trump Tower. Priebus later became Trump’s White House chief of staff.
The early focus in the race was on the candidates with political track records, in particular former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Trump was widely seen as incapable of winning the nomination, given that his record as a past Democrat and past supporter of causes such as abortion rights presumably would repel purist Republican primary voters, while his opposition to trade agreements and cutting federal entitlement spending would estrange traditional, business-oriented Republicans. Even if he could be nominated, the thinking went, Trump could not win a general election given his provocations that angered Latinos, African Americans, women, and young people, while attracting racist white nationalists in the alt-right movement.
But Trump, as a combatively antiestablishment outsider, was instantly appealing to many conservatives who had come to see the Republican establishment as corrupt and craven, insufficiently obstructionist against President Obama, and given to promises such as “repeal Obamacare” that it never delivered. They embraced Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip, politically incorrect flamboyance, even when they disagreed with him or fact-checkers refuted him. And he appealed to not just conservatives: After a slow recovery from the Great Recession and longer years of stagnant wages and a declining manufacturing base, many voters from left to right embraced Trump’s populist message against trade, offshoring of jobs, and undocumented workers, and his promise to “make America great again.”
More than a decade earlier, an article in the New York Times magazine about Trump’s popularity on The Apprentice—and the plutocrat’s “peculiar populism”—suggested what also would be the appeal of his presidential candidacy: “Perhaps he suits the truculent national mood. As Mark Burnett, the show’s creator and (with Trump) co-owner, says, ‘Americans want to puff out their chests right now . . . and he’s one of us.’” In 2015, the magazine ran another piece on Trump, in which the author asked him whether Americans wouldn’t prefer more humility from a presidential aspirant. “Nope,” Trump replied. “They want success. They wanted humility in the past.” One of Trump’s most popular lines at his raucous rallies was some variation on this: “We’re going to have so many victories, you will be bored of winning.”
Trump did not win the first nomination contest of 2016, the Iowa caucuses; Ted Cruz did. But he did so well thereafter that soon the race was down to him and Cruz, the senator who had endeared himself to many conservatives by forcing a government shutdown and calling the Senate’s Republican leader a liar, and who had expected to have the antiestablishment post to himself in Republicans’ race. In early May 2016, Cruz and Governor John Kasich of Ohio ended their bids, making Trump the nominee-apparent. Many Republican leaders, notably House Speaker Paul Ryan, withheld support from Trump initially, given his policy heresies and divisive bombast, and their fear that he would drag party candidates to defeat with him. (Ryan endorsed Trump in June, but did not campaign with him.)
Conservatives and especially evangelicals wary about Trump, the thrice-married former Democrat, were reassured when Trump chose Mike Pence, Indiana’s governor and a former House member, to be his running mate as the Republican convention got underway in Cleveland in July 2016. The convention’s speakers and delegates gave it a hard-right edge with frequent cries of “lock ’er up” against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Both pundits and polls judged the event to be less helpful politically than the Democrats’ gathering in Philadelphia to nominate Clinton and her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Clinton long held leads in national polls against Trump, but they tightened in the final weeks as both candidates confronted controversies.
Clinton never overcame a fundamental liability: she was a familiar and polarizing figure in a year when many voters wanted change. Her history-making potential as the first female president failed to enthuse even many women. She had to contend with a long-running FBI investigation of her use of a private email system as secretary of state and whether classified information was improperly transmitted. The investigation fanned many voters’ sense that she felt entitled to bend rules. In July 2016, FBI director James Comey addressed the findings about Clinton’s handling of email and recommended that no charges be brought. Still he called Clinton “extremely careless.” Then, less than two weeks before the election, Comey disclosed that the FBI was examining additional emails; they proved inconsequential, but that news came just two days before Election Day.
Trump fanned the controversy, dogging the rival he called “Crooked Hillary,” but endured several October surprises of his own. The New York Times obtained a copy of his 1995 tax returns showing a $916 million loss that, carried forward, could mean Trump paid no taxes for up to 18 years. He acknowledged as much, saying the fact he avoids taxes made him “smart,” but he became the first presidential nominee since Gerald Ford not to release his income-tax returns. He said he could not because he was being audited, but the Internal Revenue Service, without confirming any audit, said nothing precluded him from releasing his returns.
About the same time, the nation’s top intelligence officials announced that Russia had hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman to embarrass her with the leaks. An intelligence report in January 2017 buttressed the finding that Russia had meddled at the direction of President Vladimir Putin to benefit Trump, who repeatedly had praised Putin, and there were probes of contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign and of Russia’s possession of allegedly incriminating information against Trump.
In the preelection development that seemed most devastating at the time, a 2005 video filmed prior to a taping of the television show Access Hollywood surfaced showing Trump boasting of acts of sexual assault. He bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without resistance because of his celebrity. Trump ignored some Republicans’ calls to bow out. He apologized, but when more than a dozen women came forward with more allegations, Trump labeled them liars and threatened to sue. He reminded voters of Bill Clinton’s sexual affairs and Hillary Clinton’s criticisms of her husband’s accusers.
Few in either party expected Trump to prevail. But he drew heavy support from white working-class voters while Clinton got less from educated and minority voters than anticipated. Trump eked out narrow victories in several traditionally Democratic-voting industrial states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—to seal a victory in the Electoral College, with 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232. At about 3 a.m. on November 9, 2016, after Clinton’s concession call to him, Trump declared victory. Clinton, however, won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots, with 48 percent to 46 percent for Trump. He is the fifth president to have lost the popular vote; the others include three presidents in the 19th century—John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison—and George W. Bush in 2000. While Trump in his victory speech was magnanimous toward Clinton and pledged to be a unifying president after a divisive campaign, thereafter he continued to savage Clinton and his critics as if the campaign continued.