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Trump rides rural rebellion to stunning victory

Many conservative white voters have despaired at what they saw as America’s decline. On Election Day, they pushed Donald Trump to a historic result.

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President-elect Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during his election night rally, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York.

John Locher/AP

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Rural white America has staged a political rebellion unprecedented in recent American history, propelling billionaire developer Donald Trump to an astounding presidential victory.

The result is essentially a repudiation of Washington and overthrows a pundit class that, as late as Tuesday afternoon, thought Hillary Clinton was poised for a tight but clear victory. A Republican surge undetected by virtually all polling kept the party in solid control of the House and Senate as well.

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“The polls underestimated two forces – one was voter discontent and the other was Republicans’ loyalty to their party’s nominee despite the ambivalence about Trump expressed by GOP leaders,” says Columbia University political science professor Donald P. Green in an email.

The result will be at least four years of a Washington unified under the direction of one party, holding out the prospect of a sharp swerve in the nation’s direction on such core issues as foreign policy, trade, immigration, health care, and the environment.

More broadly for the nation, Trump's victory reverses the narrative of the past few years. Many conservative white voters have despaired at what they saw as America’s decline economically, militarily, and culturally, feeling the country was slipping away. Now they have emphatically turned the table on Democratic voters.

After Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede the election, he told supporters, he offered her his congratulations to her for "a very, very hard-fought campaign." He also called for reconciliation, saying it was time to bind the nation's wounds and come together "as one united people."

"I pledge to every citizen in our land, that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me," he said. "For those who have chosen not to support me… I am reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so we can unify our great nation."

Big turnout in rural areas

It’s difficult for any party to hold the presidency for three consecutive terms, and that may have played a role in Trump’s victory. But at first look his win seemed a story foreordained: his core supporters, whites without college degrees, turned out in huge numbers and supported him to an unprecedented degree.

This mixed up the nation’s long-standing order of electoral swing states. Trump took Florida and Ohio before midnight, and won the election in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

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Exurban and rural areas were the Trump heartland. He ran up huge margins in such places as Newton County, Ga., about an hour outside of Atlanta. A visit to this area on Election Day showed it a shoo-in county for Trump. There were handwritten roadside signs advertising stud bulls; voters rumbled into parking lots in massive pick-ups, and honked at supporters waving Trump signs just feet from where cars whooshed by on Route 278.

Al Fortune, a trucking company manager, had a long list of actual policy issues he said he thought Trump would promote if elected: job creation, conservative healthcare reform, and energy independence from the Middle East.

Exit polls on Tuesday night showed Trump won 80 percent or more of voters who rated “change” as their top priority, and Fortune seemed to reflect just such a voter.

“I would sure hope he would have an impact on the presidency,” said Mr. Fortune. “I think he’d take the country to greater heights than what we’ve been used to the last eight years.”

Now it will be up to Trump to deliver on his voters’ expectations. They are expecting him to move decisively.

'Not a good strategy in the long-term'

Far to the north, in New Hampshire, lifelong Manchester resident Tyler Brouillard registered to vote as a Republican on Tuesday, then cast a ballot for Donald Trump. He said he expected high-speed change in US policies, based simply on who Trump is.

“I think it’s going to be a big difference between now and all the other people we’ve had, just because of the way he carries himself,” said Mr. Brouillard.

As for Democrat Hillary Clinton, her loss is likely to set off a battle of bitter recriminations among Democrats, with the liberal faction personified by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders pushing for radical change in the party agenda.

Trump, of course, represents a major change in GOP identity as well, focusing unabashedly on white Americans – contrary to the desires of party leadership – and rejecting mainstream Republican principles such as free trade. While that’s won him the White House in 2016, the changing face of the US, with a fast-growing Hispanic population and a declining percentage of whites, may challenge the approach in coming years.

“It’s not a good strategy in the long-term,” noted Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, as Trump’s victory hung in the balance.