Donald Trump rode his phenom candidacy to victory across a wide swath of the country Tuesday, triumphantly amassing an extraordinary coalition of voters who embraced his populist message of upending the political establishment and put him on the verge of becoming the 45th president of the United States.
Florida set the stage for his unlikely victory, offering results early in the night that showed the Republican outperforming Hillary Clinton in the nation’s largest battleground state, where a loss would have ended all of his hopes for the presidency.
Then came cascading wins in Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The likely clinchers, Michigan and Wisconsin, were still too close to call at 2 a.m.
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That’s when Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, took the stage at her Election Night party, under the shimmering glass ceiling of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, and announced the Democrat would not concede tonight.
“We can wait a little longer, can’t we?” he said. “They’re still counting votes.”
Podesta thanked the crowd, which had been assembled for hours: “We are so proud of you, and we are so proud of her. She has done an amazing job, and she is not done yet!”
Clinton, a 69-year-old former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state who hoped to become the first female president less than a century after American women won the right to vote, had seemed poised to make history heading into Tuesday. But as it had for the past 17 months of an astonishing campaign, everything that had to go Trump’s way, did.
“We’re hours away from a once-in-a-lifetime change,” Trump, a 70-year-old New York celebrity real-estate developer with no political experience, said at his final campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Today is our Independence Day, the day the American working class is going to strike back — finally.”
Jubilant cheers swept through Trump’s victory party at the New York Hilton Midtown each time another state was declared Republican red on the Fox News Channel. Hundreds of Trump supporters, who called themselves the “silent majority,” wore the candidate’s signature “Make America Great Again” baseball caps as they jumped up and down, exchanged high-fives and hugged.
“The closet Trump supporters came through. We’ve seen that effect in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio,” said 19-year-old Mark Pawelec, a finance student at Rutgers University. “It really is a movement.”
Pawelec’s friend, Alec Hershberger, called Trump “refreshingly anti-establishment.”
“Hillary is the status quo,” Hershberger said.
Tuesday night, the only word from Clinton was a Twitter post that sounded like her camp was bracing for a loss.
“This team has so much to be proud of,” it read. “Whatever happens tonight, thank you for everything.”
Trump entered the race almost as an afterthought, the day after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, at the time considered the man to beat. Sixteen other Republican political veterans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, vied for the GOP nomination.
They — and much of the news media — ignored Trump at their peril as he notched victory after victory in the primary, reshaping the Republican Party and redrawing a national political map that, under President Barack Obama, had favored the candidate who could best assemble a broad, diverse coalition.
Clinton, like Trump a deeply flawed and disliked nominee, brought most of Obama’s voters together. But she struggled among young people and never ignited the same sort of excitement as Obama or as her primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
White voters, the majority of the electorate, usually split in national elections. This time, they appeared to vote as a more unified bloc, even after Trump tumbled in polls last month following the revelation of a video in which he boasted of grabbing women without their consent. About a dozen women then publicly accused Trump of sexual misconduct.
In purple Florida, a state Obama carried twice, Clinton took the votes cast early by mail and in person. But Trump bested her in Election Day votes, and the state was called shortly before 11 p.m.
He edged Clinton by 1.4 percentage points in the state, thanks to record support in staunchly red media markets, such as Jacksonville and Fort Myers, and in rural areas. His biggest strength, though, came from bellwether Tampa: Despite losing the city itself, Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, posted robust numbers in the Tampa suburbs and exurbs.
In essence, Trump won big in places where, four years ago, Mitt Romney won small. And it added up.
In the Tampa area, Trump led Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, by about 223,000 votes, more than three times the margin of Romney’s victory over Obama. Trump closed the gap on Clinton in solidly blue Palm Beach and Tallahassee. He flipped the Orlando area from blue to red.
Trump trailed Clinton the most — by some 572,000 votes, an even bigger margin than Obama had over Romney — in the Miami media market, the state’s largest, which comprises Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.
The third-party tickets of Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein had collected nearly 269,000 votes in Florida. Clinton lost Florida to Trump by about 128,000 votes.
After being plagued by long lines in 2012, Election Day 2016 in South Florida generally ran smoothly. Most voters cast their ballots through the mail or during early voting. Lines on Tuesday were short, and outside of some complaints about mail ballots never being received, relatively few hiccups were reported.
Miami-Dade, the only county Trump lost in the March 15 Florida presidential primary, came close to reporting 1 million cast ballots, after breaking its 2012 record of 888,033. Broward also surpassed its 2012 record of 827,385.
Trump, like Clinton, visited Florida — his second home, as he likes to say — more than any other state after the summer’s nominating conventions, campaigning in Republican Sarasota as late as Monday. He owns a lavish estate, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, and golf resorts in Jupiter and Doral.
“I’m very excited,” Trump said Tuesday when he voted at Manhattan’s PS 59, which was lined with hundreds of voters and curious onlookers. “There is tremendous enthusiasm from everybody. You see it all over the place.”
In Florida, where Clinton far outspent Trump in political advertising, Trump relied not on a traditional field operation built by his own staff, but rather on the Republican National Committee, which laid groundwork in the state for three years.
Clinton boasted a robust network of 81 state offices, working in coordination with the national and state Democratic parties. But the GOP insisted — and ultimately showed — it didn’t need brick-and-mortar offices to reach its voters.
Early Tuesday afternoon, Republicans noted they trailed Democrats going into Election Day in Florida by 78,000 fewer ballots cast than they did in 2012.
Clinton, who last campaigned in Florida on Saturday, called into radio shows in the state Tuesday, as did her daughter, Chelsea Clinton; Kaine, President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
But in Florida, one of the states most traumatized by the 2008 economic recession, voters said they saw Trump as a refreshing truth-teller.
“He is honest,” said Florin Bucutea, a 57-year-old Republican and financial adviser who emigrated from Romania 37 years ago. He cast his ballot for Trump on Tuesday morning at the Coral Ridge Mall in Fort Lauderdale: “He will change this country.”
South Florida drove a Hispanic surge, likely propelled by Trump’s brash anti-immigrant talk, that seemed like it would nudge the state in Clinton’s direction. No-party-affiliated Hispanics who made up much of the uptick tended to lean Democratic, according to public-opinion polls.
“Trump is against immigrants,” said 18-year-old Erick Rodriguez, who voted for Clinton at Robert King High Towers in Little Havana. His parents, Honduran immigrants with temporary protected status, are “scared to see who wins,” he added: “If Trump wins, they’ll probably get deported.”
“This guy is like a ticking time bomb — he has no filter,” said his brother, 23-year-old Kevin Nunez. “It’s all about power for him.”
Most polls, however, showed Florida remained a tossup heading into Election Day, with Clinton struggling compared to Obama with young voters. And the record early turnout made it difficult for political analysts to accurately predict what each candidate’s margins needed to be to clinch the state. About 74 percent of Florida’s 12.9 million registered voters cast ballots.
Tuesday’s results served as a reminder that Florida has more white voters than minority voters. And whites made up the core of Trump’s base.
Many said they just couldn’t trust Clinton, a figure they’ve known from her decades in the public eye. Her candidacy was marred by a scandal over emails she kept on a private server as secretary of state, which prompted an FBI investigation that twice closed without any criminal charges.
And in Miami, home to the nation’s most conservative Hispanics, many of them were willing to give Trump a chance.
“He’s a little bit of a crazy talker, but he’s against disorder, not against Latinos,” said María Suárez, a 71-year-old originally from the Dominican Republic who cast her ballot at E.W.F. Stirrup Elementary School in Little Havana. “No one is perfect. We’ve got to give him an opportunity to see if there’s change.”
Miami Herald staff writers Jordan Levin, Amy Sherman and David Smiley contributed to this report from Miami, as did el Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres. Robertson reported from New York.