The easiest job in American journalism? Even in a year that defied all kinds of easy expectations, that would be identifying the biggest political surprise of 2016 — plus some runners-up.
1. President Trump
There was wide skepticism he would run, few predictions he could claim the Republican presidential nomination and disbelief among most of the pros he could win the White House on Election Day. But Donald Trump, real estate mogul and reality TV star, is poised to be inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president next month.
By multiple measures, he’s a historic figure as commander in chief: the first president to have neither governmental nor military command experience. He’s the candidate with the highest negative ratings of any winning contender in the history of polling and the oldest person elected to a first term in the White House — and, based on the financial disclosure forms filed when he started his bid, the richest.
2. Dynasties defeated
Trump’s path to the nomination plowed through the two leading families in American politics.
First, in the Republican primaries, Trump vanquished the GOP’s most successful dynasty, the Bushes, the family that fielded two of America’s four most recent presidents. Though former Florida governor Jeb Bush started his bid with the most money in the bank and establishment endorsements in his pocket, he failed to fuel the fervent support that Trump commanded. “Low-energy,” Trump devastatingly dubbed him.
After four generations of family members serving in the Senate, the House, the Texas and Florida Governors’ Mansions and the White House, the sole Bush in elective office at the moment is George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner and the 40-year-old great-grandson of the late Connecticut senator Prescott Bush, who launched what would become the family business.
In the general election, Trump defeated the most powerful family in Democratic politics. Bill and Hillary Clinton have been central figures in defining the Democratic Party since Bill ousted George H.W. Bush from the White House in 1992. Though the Clintons are nothing if not resilient, the family’s era may be over: 62% of Democrats and independents in the USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released last week said Hillary Clinton shouldn’t make another run for the job in four years.
3. The Obama disconnect
After two terms, Barack Obama is moving out of the White House with a healthy job approval rating, 54% in the latest USA TODAY survey. He took over eight years ago at a time of financial calamity and leaves office with a recovering economy and an unemployment rate that has been slashed in half.
Even so, he will turn over his office to his political nemesis. Trump initially gained attention in the political world as a provocateur of the “birther” issue, pressing discredited questions about whether Obama had been born in the USA. Six in 10 Americans in last week’s USA TODAY poll predicted Trump will significantly dismantle Obama’s legacy.
Since World War II, an outgoing president’s approval rating has been a key indicator of whether his party’s voters will turn out for the candidate to succeed him, an analysis by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz found, and no modern president campaigned as vigorously for his chosen successor as Obama did. Hillary Clinton still lost.
That disconnect and its potential consequences for his place in history seem to rankle Obama, who said in an interview released Monday that he and his message could have prevailed — that is, if the 22nd Amendment hadn’t barred him from a third term. “If I had run again and articulated it, I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it,” he told former adviser David Axelrod.
Trump disagreed. “NO WAY!” he replied in a tweet.
4. Feel the Bern
A 74-year-old self-declared socialist from Vermont who has never been a registered Democrat came close to winning the party’s presidential nomination this year.
Meet Bernie Sanders.
Sanders’ success in the Democratic primaries demonstrated the power of the rising Millennial generation (at least when young voters are enthused about a candidate), the fundraising potential of small online contributions over traditional big-dollar donors and the resurgence of the party’s more liberal wing. After four decades of Democrats being told they had to move to the center to win, Sanders was defiantly liberal, tugging Clinton to the left on trade and college aid.
The debate over the Democrats’ direction hasn’t ended, especially as the party’s congressional leaders calculate how to counter the new Republican president. (See Surprise No. 1.) Note that Sanders has left open the possibility of running for president again. So has Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another hero of the left.
5. Moscow meddling
Foreign leaders have had preferences in previous American elections, but never before have they done so much to affect the outcome.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded with “high confidence” that hackers with ties to the Kremlin broke into the computer networks for the Democratic National Committee, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and others and orchestrated leaks designed to hurt Clinton’s chances of being elected.
Obama has ordered an investigation that is supposed to be concluded before Trump takes office and takes charge, among other things, of U.S.-Russian relations.
6. Money? Meh.
What the 2016 campaign demonstrated wasn’t that money didn’t matter. It’s that other factors mattered more. Trump won the Republican nomination over better-financed rivals, including Jeb Bush. Then he won the general election against an opponent who raised and spent more in about every major category.
Clinton’s campaign organization swamped Trump’s campaign organization in fundraising, $623.1 million to $329.4 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed by the end of last month. The disparity among supportive super PACs was even wider: $204.3 million behind Clinton to $79 million backing Trump. Only in party and joint fundraising committees was there anything close to parity, and even there, Clinton and Democratic groups raised more, $595.4 million to $524 million.
In all, Trump’s campaign and its supportive affiliates spent $932.3 million, Clinton $1.4 billion.
In 2016, you might say message and the moment trumped money.