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NBC News Exit Poll: Polarized Politics and the Unpredictable 2016 Election

The election night 'no one saw coming' 2:55

Donald Trump’s rise is the story of the ultimate outsider, having never served or even run for elected office prior to the highest one in the land. He defied all expectations by winning his party’s nomination for president, offering voters a clear alternative to politics as usual against the ultimate establishment candidate, a woman who has served the country for more than two decades as first lady, United States senator and then secretary of state.

The campaign between Clinton and Trump was dominated by the two high-profile candidates and their presumed character flaws – more so than any specific issue. Voters saw flaws in both candidates, a fact that disadvantaged the establishment candidate more than the one who spoke to those yearning for change.

Related: 2016 Election: Donald Trump Wins the White House in Upset

Underlying the intense focus on character are deep divisions between each candidate’s supporters over the direction of government. Three-quarters of Trump voters in NBC News Exit Polls believe that the government is doing too many things that should be left up to individuals or businesses, while seven in 10 Clinton voters said that government should do more to solve problems.

There are strong political divides between each candidate’s voters over President Obama’s handling of the presidency and prescriptions for the policy direction ahead. About half want to see the country move in a more conservative direction, and almost half are satisfied with current policies or want to see more liberal policies. The politically polarized electorate we see tonight is not new; these patterns have occurred again and again for more than a decade.

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Trump’s unconventional approach seems to have overridden many voters’ reservations about him. Seven in 10 Trump voters were looking for a candidate who could bring change to the nation’s highest office. Trump’s candidacy found considerable traction against a candidate whose chief vulnerability stemmed precisely from her credentials as the establishment candidate who could carry forward the Democratic policies of the past eight years.

The NBC News Exit Poll finds that each candidate’s voters were convinced that their choice would do a better job on the critical responsibilities of the presidency. Clinton edged out Trump in views about who would be a better commander in chief and in who could better handle foreign policy. But Trump narrowly beat Clinton on the question of who could best handle the economy — the issue that a small majority of voters said is most important for the nation.