As 3 a.m. was closing in on election night, Ron Ferrance sat in a crowded party for local Republican volunteers in the small town of Dallas, Pennsylvania.
The sun was on the cusp of rising. But Ferrance, the chair of the Luzerne County Republican Party, said no one was leaving.
Against all odds, the volunteers knew what was about to happen: Republican nominee Donald Trump was going to become president-elect, Pennsylvania would be the state that put him over the top, and their county played a monumental role in doing so.
“It was one hell of a feeling,” Ferrance told Business Insider. “It was a good night. I’ve worked on enough losing campaigns, so it was nice to put that one away.”
Trump’s win was the biggest political upset he’d ever seen.
“Oh, absolutely,” Ferrance said. “I’m 46 years old, so I don’t know if it’s going to get bigger than this again before I move on from this world. But it’s the biggest I’ve seen.”
More than 1,100 miles away, Nick DiCeglie had his “wow moment” almost a full 24 hours earlier.
DiCeglie is the chair of the Pinellas County Republican Party, a linchpin county in Trump’s Florida victory. He knew the signs were there for a “big day” at 8:15 a.m. on Election Day.
“We keep track of the absentee ballots being returned, tried to see where we were,” he said. “Going into Election Day , we were down about 326 votes. This time we were down, I want to say a little over 700. We didn’t translate that to being down double, we knew we were going to have a big Election Day, knew Republicans were going to turn out, because we had a state poll that showed 62% of Republicans were going to vote on Election Day.”
“That being said, by 8:15, we went from being down 725 votes to being up by over 2,000,” he continued. “And at that point, we were like hang on tight, this is going ot be a big day. By 4:00, we were up over 10,000 votes from just Election Day.”
Both Ferrance’s and DiCeglie’s counties flipped from their 2012 vote margins in favour of President Barack Obama by more than 31,000 votes to favour Trump. Trump won the two states by a roughly 188,000 votes combined.
It was in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida, where the margin of victory for Trump was as thin as can be in some — so much so that Michigan has yet to be officially called — that he won the presidency.
In those states, only a handful of counties made the difference between what could have been, and what was expected — a President-elect Hillary Clinton — and the Trump reality that stunned much of the political world.
Business Insider spoke with party officials and pollsters in the most crucial counties within those states to see how the improbable Trump victory took place.
No Republican had won at the presidential level in Wisconsin since 1984. And the county that played the largest role in changing that was Milwaukee County, where a drop off in ballots cast was felt on both sides, but more so on Clinton’s. The margin of victory for Clinton over Trump was about 20,000 less than Obama’s over 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Clinton lost Wisconsin by just more than 27,000 votes.
“We did have larger vote totals for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, and you had a large number of write in votes which was kind of unusual,” Rob Hansen, the Democratic chair of Milwaukee County, told Business Insider. “Like a significantly higher number.”
But that wasn’t all that depressed Clinton’s vote: Hansen said a far lower number of provisional ballots than typical for a presidential election played a role, as did a recent strict voter ID law that was in effect for its first presidential election in the state.
“I think overall that the negativity of the campaign cycle itself, in some ways suppressed the votes,” he added. “You had a situation with two candidates with high unfavorables, that turns people away. It’s a lot of different things that all add up.”
He said it’s not necessarily fair to compare Clinton’s vote total to Obama’s.
“Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama,” he said. “No matter what the quality of her experience is going into it, he fires up people to a whole different degree than she does. And there are a lot of reasons for that.”
The county experienced a higher turnout than it did for Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election, an exceedingly high-profile election. Hansen added that it was the third-highest turnout in the past six elections.
The Democratic official said he hoped the narrative surrounding the state’s voter ID law soon changed.
Because the case was tied up in court for years, he said, the narrative from the Democratic side ended up being about how unfair and difficult the law made it for many to vote. As a result, he said, many people wrongly thought that the IDs were very difficult to get, and that it wasn’t worth it for the purpose of voting.
Hansen said his organisation must do a better job of “educating folks for what they need to do to get the proper identification” because that voter ID requirement is now “the law of the land.”
“It requires a little initiative, but you don’t want to tell people it’s too hard,” he said. “That turns them off. It’s going to take time, but you should do it. We’ve got to do that messaging on our end a little bit better.”
“But, you know, that’s one thing I intend to be vocal about,” Hansen continued. “Yes, you need an ID to vote. It is the law of the land here. This is how you do it, it’s not hard to do. Having it tied up in court so long, that became the narrative for a lot of folks.”
It just came down to one county.
Wayne County, the state’s most populous and home to Detroit, was the center of Clinton’s likely loss in the Wolverine State.
In 2012, Wayne County offered 595,846 votes for Obama and 213,814 for Romney. Trump received a few more votes than Romney (at the time of publication, he had more than 228,000 votes, according to The Associated Press). But Clinton fell almost 80,000 votes behind Obama at just a hair more than 517,000. In total, the advantage she held over Trump in the county was more than 93,000 fewer votes than Obama enjoyed over Romney in 2012.
And, at the time of publication, she was losing the state by fewer than 10,000 votes.
“We saw the numbers but we did not project it would be that significant a falloff from 2008 and 2012,” Steve Mitchell, a Michigan pollster who conducted the Fox 2/Mitchell poll in the state, told Business Insider. “I always said from the election of Barack Obama in his initial election of 2008 and his reelection in 2012, that no other Democrat, unless they were African American, would ever run up the numbers Barack Obama had.”
“The question was, how big of a falloff would there be,” he continued. “And there was clearly a pretty significant falloff. A greater percentage than I would have anticipated.”
The Keystone State’s vote for Trump was its first for a Republican presidential nominee since 1988 — and four northeastern Pennsylvania counties played a monumental role in making that happen.
Northumberland, Schuylkill, Lackawanna, and Luzerne counties saw a drastic change in their vote totals from 2012 to 2016. In 2012, they combined to provide Obama more than 18,000 more votes than Romney. This time around, voters in those four counties cast nearly 64,000 more votes for Trump than Clinton. That was a difference of more than 82,000 votes between Clinton’s and Obama’s margins in those counties.
Clinton lost Pennsylvania by slightly more than 68,000 votes, according to The New York Times.
And of those four counties, none had a larger reversal than Luzerne, Ferrance’s county. With its largest city of Wilkes-Barre and a population of more than 320,000, the county’s vote for Trump was the largest for a Republican presidential candidate there since President Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972.
The chair of the county’s GOP said he first realised there could be a big flip in the vote following the state’s April primary, where Trump attracted the vast majority of Luzerne County voters.
“Did we think he was going to win as big as he did?” Ferrance asked rhetorically. “I don’t know if anybody would have forecast that.”
Going door-to-door to engage with the county’s “swing voters,” Ferrance said it was “rare” for someone to mention support for Clinton.
“It just didn’t happen,” he said. “Also driving through our area, you would see a lot of Trump signs at a time when I didn’t have access to them because the campaign hadn’t been sending them. They really didn’t come out until after the convention.”
“People making their own signs, I mean, when have you ever seen that in an election, where somebody is going to make their own signs?” Ferrance continued. “Similar that you would for a sports team if you were going to a game. You just didn’t see that type of enthusiasm. So, I mean, they say it was a movement, it really seemed like it was a movement here.”
Lacking a ground game in the state, just as he did across the country, Trump relied on state and local parties, such as Ferrance’s, to drive the get-out-to-vote efforts.
The GOTV plan put forth by the Pennsylvania GOP, Ferrance said, worked to perfection.
“We were [Trump’s] boots on the ground, if you would,” he said. “In the weeks leading up to the election, they were doing 25 [to] 30,000 doors on a weekend, getting out in front of these. There was so much face-to-face voter contact. There was way more than we saw through the [former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom] Corbett election, the Romney election, they really projected each county their vote total they wanted to get.”
The state party projected that if Luzerne County could attain 60,180 Trump votes, it could be enough to offset some of the wide disparity in Philadelphia. Instead, the county secured more than 78,000 votes for Trump.
“I just think that the reason we had such turnout is because he was real to a lot of the people from the area,” he said. “[The Pittsburgh area] is similar to ours. It’s a lot of hard-working, blue collar type people and they were just sick, it seems like, anything that was done to help was never to the middle class or the slightly lower than middle class. It was like everything was going on the backs of the people going out and working. I think what he said really resonated.”
“And you’d say, ‘Well, Hillary’s going to win, Hillary’s going to win,'” he continued. “I think it just got the people out that normally wouldn’t go out to vote because they wanted to make sure he won.”
Delegate-rich Florida, the third-largest prize on the map and the biggest treasure trove of all the battlegrounds, saw a massive increase in voter turnout for the 2016 election in comparison with 2012.
Hurting Clinton was the vote in six west-central Florida counties. Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Sumter, Pinellas, and Levy counties cast 38,685 more votes for Romney in 2012. In 2016, those counties cast 158,945 more votes for Trump — a difference of 120,260.
Clinton lost the state by 119,770 votes.
Of those six counties, none saw a greater flip than Pinellas, where Clinton’s and Obama’s margins were separated by more than 31,000 votes.
DiCeglie said that, when the effort for 2016 first started in January of the previous year, the GOP was down by roughly 6,000 voter registrations in comparison to the Democrats. By this past spring, Republicans had surpassed Democrats in registrations within the county for the first time in a decade.
“This was during a time when this Trump movement was in its infancy in the latter part of 2015,” he said. “So while we were knocking on doors of people who weren’t registered that were NRA members, we had data showing that these people were likely to lean Republican or ultimately register Republican.”
“As we were knocking on doors of people that are hearing this Trump message, that are preparing to be involved in this Trump movement,” DiCeglie continued. “I mean, talk about being in the right place at the right time, quite frankly.”
The growing, and enthusiastic, support for Trump helped DiCeglie’s county party register many “immediately” after contact.
Clinton’s operation didn’t pick up steam locally, in terms of registration on the ground, until after the convention in July.
Local polling found Trump and Clinton to be in a dead heat, even as he was trailing by huge numbers in national polls, DiCeglie said.
“Going into this thing we had a feeling it was real, and usually if it’s real here in Pinellas County, it’s real across the country,” he said. “I would say within the last 10 days, started to, even though it was a roller-coaster, it really felt like this was going to happen.”