NEW YORK — The polls were wrong — all of them.
So were the experts, the political consultants and the seasoned officials in both parties who predicted Donald Trump would lead his party to ruin. So were the markets, which had anticipated a Hillary Clinton victory and crashed overnight as her electoral firewall caught ablaze. So was every living president and past presidential nominee of both parties, save Bob Dole, all of whom opposed Trump.
So was this reporter and so many like him — and Trump told me as much.
When Trump appeared at an early New Hampshire showcase for likely presidential candidates in April 2014, the only reference I made to him in my story was a snarky passing mention that he spoke along with the “top-tier” contenders. Later, he sent me a handwritten note saying he “got the biggest response (by far) + standing ovation.” Trump went on to win the New Hampshire primary with ease.
At the Hilton in midtown Manhattan, the center of the wealthy and influential blue America and the place that Trump — the newly anointed champion of blue-collar America — paradoxically calls home, a crew of relative political outcasts at Trump’s victory party were eager to tell America what else its elite institutions got wrong.
New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who could become Trump’s attorney general and who has called repeatedly for Hillary Clinton’s prosecution, was happy to offer his assessment of what we all missed. His answer: rural resentment against the “Eastern arrogant establishment.”
As the results rolled in, showing a surprisingly close race, NBC News’ Chuck Todd addressed the phenomenon that some knew of, but didn’t realize the depths.
"Rural America is basically screaming at us, saying, ‘Stop overlooking us!’" Todd said.
Exit polls bore this out. While Clinton hit her targets in cities, Trump outperformed Mitt Romney in rural and ex-urban districts. He won among non-college educated white voters by larger margins than Romney did in 2012; Trump was winning this group by 34 percent while Romney won by 26 percent.
Nowhere was that more evident than in Pennsylvania. Clinton won Philadelphia and the four populist blue collar counties by the same margin as Obama did four years ago, even outperforming him slightly. But Obama won the state by six points in 2012 and Clinton lost it in 2016.
Asked if there is a “hidden vote” undetected in the polls, it’s “unlikely,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
“It’s an issue of margins and composition of the electorate,” he said.
Trump led public polls just once in the campaign against Clinton: For a few days after his nominating convention, polls then showed him with a one-point lead. Going into Election Day on Tuesday, Clinton averaged a 3.3 percent lead nationally, according to Real Clear Politics analysis. Like so much else in this election, the closing polls were wrong.
“The margin he’s getting in the red states are big margins and the margins she’s getting in the blue states aren’t coming in for her,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang.
A turning point, Giuliani said, was Clinton dismissing many Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” motivated by racism and sexism and bigotry. Trump die-hard supporters adopted “deplorable” as a mark of pride, but Giuliani said it resonated beyond that.
“They believe that’s what you all think of them,” Giuliani said. “Well, they're not. They happen to be as smart and smarter than we are. They happen to work as hard and harder than we do. They happen to fight our wars and their children die for us to keep us safe. And they were fed up with how they were treated by the so-called Washington establishment.”
It wasn’t just Giuliani who bet on Trump as a champion and won. It was a whole suite of figures whose ideologies, policies or rhetoric had been pushed to the fringes of polite society and who bet on Trump to bring them back. Now their views will get a new look, this time with the backing of a president who accepts them for who they are.
Milo Yiannopoulos, the “alt right” icon at Breitbart banned by Twitter for leading an abuse campaign against "Saturday Night Live" cast member Leslie Jones, wandered through the media tents at the Hilton as Trump's upset victory was confirmed, taunting media outlets one by one.
“The effect of Trump is that everything becomes permissible,” he said. “Dissidence and subversion and mischief and rudeness become OK again in public life. America has been moving away from that for 30 years and for the last 15 years it’s been completely absent.”
Asked by another NBC News reporter how to unite a divided country, he responded: “Who cares about the other half!”
Bo Dietl, the former cop turned Fox News gadfly now running for mayor in New York against incumbent Bill de Blasio, refused to believe the results even as Trump’s leads grew in Michigan and Wisconsin. He had known Trump for decades and didn’t want to get his hopes up.
“He’d be a lot more calm than people think,” he said, imagining a Trump White House. “He’s not the nut job people think he is. I’ve known him 40 years: He’s sensible and he’ll get the best people around him.”
Dietl didn’t like being compared to Trump, but the resemblances were obvious. As a commentator, he has said sexual harassment cases are overwhelmingly “bullshit” and warned of an “epidemic of rapes” by undocumented immigrants.
“Whoever wins, I hope the country heals,” he said in his thick New York accent.
Also trying to manage his enthusiasm was Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions, the hard-line conservative who became one of Trump’s closest advisers. Four years ago, Sessions was considered a pariah to much of the party, one of the few senators to buck the party’s new push for immigration reform and instead talk about restricting legal immigration further, as well.
Now he was telling reporters that down-ballot Republicans who fled Trump earlier had “not grasped the opportunity they have to welcome new voters that Trump is bringing into the party.”
“They’re not listening to me is what they’re saying,” he said about voter sentiment.
But even some Trump’s supporters were never quite sure what was hyperbole or for effect and what was real. Was the promise to build a wall literal or a symbol? Were the calls for torture and war crimes real or just a way to rile people up? Was the Muslim ban, since tweaked into a vague “extreme vetting,” what he really wanted? Would he really abandon NATO allies if they refused to pay more for protection? Would he really leave NAFTA or the WTO if he didn’t get his way?
“I don’t know everything Donald Trump would do as president and that troubles me a bit,” said Hogan Gidley, who worked on presidential campaigns with Mike Huckabee that tapped into similar populist themes. “But I know everything Hillary Clinton would do and it terrifies me. A lot of Republicans had the same mentality.”
In conversations at rallies around the country and on Tuesday, the answers to what Trump would do were often elliptical. They trusted Trump would do the right thing because he would ask the right people to find the right answer.
“Trump will surround himself with the most intelligent people he can,” said Adrian Anderson, vice chair of Trump’s New York campaign.
Sitting in the corner watching the proceedings, as well, was Joe Griffin. He was a small business owner with no special role in the campaign or politics, but he drove all day from Nashua, New Hampshire, to join Trump on his big night.
Griffin wasn’t a habitual activist: He remembered voting for John McCain in the 2008 primary, but that’s it. But Trump, and his promise to “drain the swamp,” spoke to him in a way other Republicans could not.
“Our country will go in a completely different direction. A stronger direction," he said, "where we don’t apologize for our strength."