Donald Trump: Campaigns and Elections
Upon his inauguration in 2017, Donald Trump became the first person elected president of the United States who had no prior experience in public service. Most prior presidents had been elected to political offices earlier in their careers. Of those without electoral experience, three had been Army generals (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower) and one, Herbert Hoover, had been Secretary of Commerce among other appointed government positions.
Donald Trump’s pre-presidential political experience, by contrast, consisted largely of gaining and nurturing political influence, rather than exercising leadership. According to his biographers, Trump learned to cultivate political relationships with New York City Democratic officeholders from his father, Fred Trump, who used friendships and campaign contributions to gain preferential treatment from the politicians who influenced the rules, regulations, permitting, and tax policies that affected his real estate interests.
As a young man, Donald Trump did not display consistent party or ideological preferences. Like his father, he supported—and was supported by—the Democratic Party in New York. In the 1980s, he supported Republican Ronald Reagan for president and identified himself as a Republican by 1987. In future years, he would also register or identify as a Democrat, an independent, and a member of the Reform Party.
Trump indicated an interest in running for president several times before his ultimately successful campaign in 2016. He briefly hinted at a run in 1987 when he took out newspaper advertisements against Reagan-era foreign policy. Rehearsing a theme that would shape his presidency, he objected to providing military assistance to “countries that can afford to defend themselves.” In 1999, he joined the Reform Party, started by Ross Perot—a businessman who ran for president as a political outsider in 1992 and 1996—and formed an exploratory committee to pursue its nomination, but dropped out. In 2012, he considered entering the Republican primary to challenge then-President Barack Obama, who was running for a second term. He announced that he preferred to stay in the private sector and continue to host his successful reality television show, The Apprentice.
Trump’s history of hinting at a presidential run led some observers to dismiss his early talk of running in 2016 as another example of self-promotion. Yet his campaign ultimately proved serious and effective. During the Obama administration, Trump used his celebrity and prolific social media presence to become a leader of the so-called “birther movement,” a conspiracy theory that claimed Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and was therefore not constitutionally eligible to be president. Although serious scholars, politicians, and journalists all knew that Obama had been born in Hawaii in 1961 (two years after Hawaii achieved statehood), the quest to challenge Obama’s legitimacy had become a major focus within certain conservative political circles. Despite documented evidence of Obama’s birth in Hawaii, Trump continued to promote the “birther” lie until September 2016, only a few weeks before the election, at which time he was trailing in many national polls.
Election of 2016
Trump’s campaign began on June 16, 2015, with a dramatic entrance down an escalator in Trump Tower, his personal residence and business headquarters on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, New York. With his third wife Melania next to him, he formally announced his campaign to a gathered group of reporters, supporters, and, according to at least one campaign aide, people paid to attend and appear to be supporters. There, he introduced what would become key themes of his campaign and presidency, garnering both media attention and accusations of racism and xenophobia. He declared his strong opposition to immigration from Central and South America and famously accused Mexico of sending drugs, criminals, and rapists to the United States. Of undocumented immigrants, he claimed: “…some, I assume, are good people.”
Echoing an argument made by Ross Perot in the 1990s, Trump blamed the struggles of working-class Americans, including the decline of industrial manufacturing and the offshoring of blue-collar jobs, on global trade and government deficits. His campaign slogan promised to “Make America Great Again,” a simultaneously nostalgic and forward-looking phrase that Trump had used for several years. The tag line itself had a long history dating back to at least the 1940s, and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s had invoked it. Trump, who had long specialized in branding, made the slogan and its acronym, MAGA, synonymous with his argument that the country had lost something vital and had to fight to regain it.
The field of candidates in the 2016 Republican primary campaign was unusually large, including 17 major candidates. In part, the crowded field was a result of legal changes: In 2010, the US Supreme Court had loosened restrictions on campaign contributions in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, making it easier even for lesser-known candidates to raise money and stay in the race longer. In addition, the political environment seemed favorable for Republicans: Democrat Barack Obama was leaving office after eight years, and historically the presidency tended to switch from one party to the other. Moreover, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran for the Democratic nomination virtually uncontested. Many Republicans believed that her high disapproval numbers made her vulnerable.
Of the candidates for the Republican nomination, many were current or former governors or senators. Trump faced accusations of being a non-serious candidate, a clown, and a demagogue from the media as well as some Republican leaders, despite leading in all opinion polls of Republican voters. His campaign events, quickly dubbed “Trump rallies,” drew both large crowds and extensive media coverage, generating free publicity for his candidacy. With his experience in television, Trump knew how to get attention with outrageous, unconventional, and often untrue statements. He also used social media, especially Twitter, to communicate directly to the people (a practice he maintained while he was president).
Many political insiders presumed that Trump was too brash, inexperienced, and polarizing to win a general election. His racist rhetoric alienated even conservative voters of color, as well as many moderate voters and the business and free trade wing of the Republican Party, all while attracting explicit praise from white nationalists and the emergent “alt-right” movement. More established political candidates such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush (brother and son of former presidents), Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio of Texas and Florida, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie jockeyed for the “non-Trump” vote, but none emerged as a clear alternative.
Trump’s combative and “politically incorrect” flamboyance, on display at his often-raucous campaign events, appealed to many voters precisely because it provided a viscerally satisfying alternative to the staid Republican Party. His slogan “America First,” which had been a popular expression in the 1930s used by political activists who opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s commitment to defend Europe against Nazi Germany during World War II, combined economic populism with isolationism. Trump blamed free trade and global competition for the decline of American manufacturing, claiming vaguely that the United States struck “bad deals” with countries like China. His call to curtail immigration via a border wall with Mexico and to withdraw from foreign alliances and treaties represented a stark departure from mainstream American politics.
Although Trump came in second place to Ted Cruz in the first nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses, he gathered momentum with victories in primary elections in New Hampshire and South Carolina. By May, the last candidates hoping to consolidate the “non-Trump” vote—Cruz and moderate Ohio governor John Kasich—dropped out of the race. Trump became the nominee-apparent, despite lingering doubts from many Republican Party leaders that he could be successful in the fall election.
In an effort to shore up support from religious conservatives, Trump selected Indiana governor and former House member Mike Pence to be his vice-presidential running mate shortly before the summer nominating convention. The Republican convention reiterated the key themes of Trump’s campaign, painting a dark picture of a country that had been misled toward ruin by weak, feckless, and corrupt politicians who made “bad deals” and refused to put “America first.” Shocking some viewers, it also featured angry chants of “lock her up” directed at Democrat Hillary Clinton, whom Trump supporters argued should immediately be imprisoned on vague charges of corruption.
Going into the fall election season, Trump polled significantly behind Clinton, yet Clinton also faced key liabilities. A familiar figure in national politics since becoming First Lady in 1993, she had a very long resume in public service—including as a senator and secretary of State—and was poised to make history as the first woman to be US president. Nonetheless, many voters had negative impressions of her personally, even if they agreed with her politically. In addition, many voters in 2016 reported that they wanted a “change candidate.” Finally, Clinton faced an extended investigation into whether she had inappropriately used a private email system when she was secretary of State. She was never found to have done anything improper, but the accusations preoccupied media coverage right up to the election.
Trump faced several controversies in the final months of the campaign. Although he campaigned on his business success, he refused to divulge information about his finances or to release his tax returns—becoming the first nominee since Gerald Ford not to do so. A report by the New York Times, based on a leaked copy of Trump’s 1995 tax returns, concluded that Trump had declared a very large loss that year and, as a result, may not have paid any income tax at all for up to 18 years. In a debate with Clinton, Trump said that avoiding taxes “makes me smart.”
In the months before the election, intelligence officials announced that Russian operatives had hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. The hackers then leaked personal emails in an effort to embarrass Clinton and potentially help Trump, who had repeatedly praised Russian president Vladimir Putin. The allegations of Russian interference with the election would later be expanded to include deliberate misinformation campaigns over social media and other examples of political “dirty tricks,” raising questions about why Putin wished to help Trump.
Finally, a scandal erupted shortly before the election that appeared, at the time, to be potentially devastating to Trump’s candidacy. News outlets released a video filmed in 2005 for the television show Access Hollywood that captured Donald Trump bragging to the show’s host about committing sexual assault. Celebrities like him, Trump had asserted on tape, could grab women’s genitals without their consent or resistance because they were famous. Trump apologized for what he called “locker-room talk,” but ignored calls from some Republican leaders to drop out of the race.
As Election Day approached, Hillary Clinton enjoyed steady if not huge leads in opinion polls, and nearly all observers predicted that she would win. To the surprise of many, including Trump himself, Trump won several narrow victories in states that had traditionally voted Democratic—especially the formerly industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Although Clinton received 2.8 million more popular votes than Trump did, Trump’s support among blue collar white voters in a handful of key states—as well as consistently Republican states—allowed him to win the Electoral College vote 304 to 227.
Donald Trump became the fifth president, and the second in 16 years, to lose the popular vote and nonetheless win the presidency. The others included three in the 19th century—John Quincy Adams (who lost both the popular and electoral votes in 1824 but was selected in the House of Representatives); Rutherford Hayes (whose victory in the Electoral College only came after revelations of fraud in several states and Congress passing the Electoral Commission Act of 1877); and Benjamin Harrison in 1884 (who narrowly defeated President Grover Cleveland, who then returned four years later to defeat Harrison and regain the White House, becoming the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms). More recently, George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore in 2000 by 500,000 votes but narrowly won in the Electoral College after the US Supreme Court ruled on the contested election in Florida and settled the election in Bush’s favor.
Election of 2020
In recent history, US presidents have tended to welcome the respite from campaigning and commit themselves to the challenges of governing once assuming office. By unspoken tradition, incumbent presidents typically downplay talk of running for re-election and commit to being the “president for all Americans.” Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton—the three presidents who directly preceded Donald Trump—announced their re-election campaigns more than two years into their first terms.
Trump departed from this norm by devoting funds to a re-election campaign before even initially taking office and filing campaign documents with the Federal Election Commission on the day he was inaugurated in January 2017. He immediately adopted the slogan, “Keep America Great,” a modification of “Make America Great Again” that implied, some observers noted, that Trump’s presence as president—rather than any specific action or accomplishment—was itself the key to recovering greatness.
Trump held his first re-election campaign rally on February 1, 2017, less than two weeks after becoming president. He continued to raise money and hold campaign events throughout his presidency. He faced no opposition from his party for the 2020 nomination and won all state Republican primaries and caucuses. At the same time, a competitive primary campaign developed among Democrats hoping to challenge Trump, whose public disapproval ratings had remained higher than his approval ratings for nearly his entire term.
By late winter, the Democratic primary race had largely coalesced into a choice between two candidates who, despite both being white men in their 70s, represented very different visions for the party. Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont who self-described as a democratic socialist and had challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, ran again, campaigning for the left-leaning and progressive wing of the party. Former Vice President Joe Biden ran as a moderate liberal in the tradition of Barack Obama. By April 2020, Sanders had suspended his campaign and endorsed Biden for the Democratic nomination. In August, Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to select an African American woman as his vice-presidential running mate when he selected Senator Kamala Harris of California.
During the general election campaign, Trump defended the domestic and foreign policies of his first term and prioritized the same themes he had campaigned on as an outsider four years before. He routinely stressed the importance of “law and order,” a political slogan with roots in the Richard Nixon administration that drew attention to the alleged lawlessness of public protest. During the summer of 2020, nationwide protests against police violence and racism unfolded, spurred in particular after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. President Trump defended law enforcement and blamed civil unrest on activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. He especially criticized members of “antifa,” a loose collection of leftist and anti-fascist activists without a central organization.
By far the most important factor to shape the 2020 presidential election was the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and President Trump declared a national emergency. Major public events were cancelled as millions of Americans sheltered in their homes, and both Trump and Biden postponed in-person campaigning. Many states delayed their primary elections—even though the presidential primaries had already been determined, candidates for other offices remained in competitive races in many states. Congress’s first legislative response to the pandemic, the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) included funding for vote-by-mail, although the Trump administration soon argued against it on the baseless grounds that it could lead to voter fraud.
Trump attempted to downplay the severity of the pandemic, worrying publicly of the risk of letting “the cure be worse than the problem itself.” In June, he resumed in-person campaigning with an event in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although attendance was lower than expected, the event appeared to lead to a significant increase in Covid cases in the area.
In the fall, Trump and Biden engaged in two in-person debates. The first, on September 29, featured unprecedented levels of chaotic cross-talk as Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and the debate moderator. Notably, Trump declined to explicitly denounce the Proud Boys, a pro-Trump white supremacist organization that explicitly promoted political violence; when asked to address the group, Trump said they should “stand back and stand by.”
Shortly after the first debate, Trump contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalized. After he had recovered but was still considered contagious, debate organizers announced a virtual second debate. Trump refused to participate online, and the event was cancelled. A final in-person debate was held on October 22, and changes to the debate format made it more civil than the first one. Although most observers agreed that Biden fared better in the debates than Trump, few concluded that the debates were likely to have any real effect on voting behavior.
The Covid-19 pandemic also shaped election day itself in unprecedented ways. In an effort to avoid prolonged contact and due to shortages in election staff, many states lengthened early voting programs, and some expanded vote-by-mail programs. Ultimately, 69 percent of voters voted in an untraditional way—either by mail or before election day. The ease of voting may also have accounted for the dramatic increase in voter turnout: 67 percent of eligible voters voted in 2020, compared with less than 59 percent in 2016 and 62.5 percent in 2008.
More Democrats voted early or by mail than Republicans, creating a challenge for media outlets that reported on real-time results. In several competitive states, early results initially appeared to favor Trump because vote counters started with election-day ballots, only moving to early-voting or mail-in ballots later. Although election experts had predicted exactly this issue and warned the media not to make predictions based on early counts, the Trump campaign identified this discrepancy and cried foul. For months before the election, Trump had insisted without evidence that early voting would lead to fraud. Those claims would sow chaos as results came in.
By midnight on election day, pundits were unable to predict the winner because too many states had too many outstanding ballots to count. Biden called for patience but said he believed he was “on track” to win. Trump addressed his supporters at 2:30 in the morning, inaugurating what would become known as the “Big Lie”—that he had clearly won the election but that underhanded forces were at work to steal it from him. The Trump campaign began filing lawsuits to stop vote-counting and to challenge various vote counts, or otherwise allege fraud. On Saturday, November 7, news outlets officially called Pennsylvania for Biden, assuring him of a victory in the Electoral College. Trump nonetheless continued with lawsuits for several more weeks, although only in 1 of approximately 60 did a court side with Trump.
Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by more than 7 million votes, or 4.4 percent of more than 155 million votes cast. In the Electoral College, he won by 306 to 232. Trump, however, never conceded to Biden, refused to participate in the standard presidential transition process, and continued to insist that the election was “stolen” from him.
After his lawsuits failed to change state-level counts, Trump orchestrated a prolonged effort to overturn the election results in other ways. In addition to publicly claiming fraud, he privately pressured state officials to send alternate slates of electors to the Electoral College, and he persuaded supporters in Congress to object to the certification of the Electoral College vote, a procedural formality that took place on January 6, 2021. Trump personally tried to convince Vice President Mike Pence, who as president of the Senate would preside over the official certification of the Electoral College results, that he had the power to declare the process illegitimate, and in effect keep Trump in office.
On January 6, thousands of Trump supporters, including those affiliated with the Proud Boys and other paramilitary and white supremacist groups, assembled in Washington, DC, for a Trump event known as the “Stop the Steal” rally. Speaking to a crowd of supporters, Trump repeated his false claim that he had won the election and told them, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump promised to march with the crowd to the Capitol to stop the certification of the election results, although the Secret Service subsequently drove him to the White House, against his wishes.
For several hours that afternoon, a mob of Trump supporters violently invaded the US Capitol building, threatening to kill members of Congress and their staff, who hid inside. More than a hundred police officers were injured, and several rioters died—one shot by police and several from natural causes. Despite frantic pleas from members of Congress and some of his staff members, Trump refused to condemn or call off the riot, which he watched on television from the White House.
Once the Capitol police finally regained control of the building later that night, members of Congress came out of their secure locations. They formally voted to affirm the results of the Electoral College, making Joe Biden officially the president-elect and ending the 2020 presidential election.