Much ink has been spilt and spleen has been vented following Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election earlier this week. Back in 2011, when President Obama mercilessly mocked him during the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, no one would have imagined that Trump would eventually succeed in becoming the Republican presidential nominee, or that he would be to able to defeat Hillary Clinton, one of the most qualified and well-prepared presidential candidates in recent American history. Indeed, the mainstream consensus that Trump stood next to no chance of becoming president was reflected in the numerous polls conducted immediately prior to voting on November 8; most large media networks and polling organisations believed Hillary Clinton was virtually certain to win the election and even the more cautious assessment of the team at Five Thirty Eight, a website with an impressive track record of predicting electoral results in the US, gave Clinton a 70% chance of defeating Trump.

It is still too early to tell why all these experts and organisations – barring a few, largely fringe exceptions – managed to get their electoral forecasts wrong. The limited amount of data regarding demographics and voting that has emerged thus far highlights a couple of factors that can potentially explain Trump’s triumph. Turnout was low this year, with both Trump and Clinton receiving less votes than their predecessors in 2012, with Clinton in particular suffering from a precipitous drop in support relative to Barack Obama in the last presidential election. A look at the electoral map also reveals a sharp divide between coastal states and cities, which largely voted for Clinton, and a rural American heartland that turned out for Trump. Perhaps most significantly, Trump benefitted from the votes of white voters, particularly those without college degrees, and even managed to secure the support of more white women than Hillary Clinton. Finally, while Clinton was able to maintain a slight advantage when it came to securing the support of American’s earning less than fifty thousand dollars a year, Trump had a clear advantage when it came to richer, middle class Americans.

These trends are interesting because they fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that prevailed prior to the election. Then it was assumed that demography was destiny, and that Clinton would be able to secure a relatively easy victory due to her lock on support from increasingly electorally important social groups marginalised by the unbridled racism and misogyny of the Trump campaign. As was the case with Obama before her, it was assumed that Clinton would be able to count on the votes of African Americans, Latinos, women, and young people. Similarly, it was taken for granted that the so-called ‘Blue Wall’ – a collection of states that had consistently chosen Democratic presidential candidates since 1992 – would provide Clinton with an in-built advantage in the American Electoral College.

None of these predictions came to pass. While Clinton did do well with the groups that were supposed to underpin her winning coalition of voters, she underperformed when compared with previous Democratic presidential nominees. This was in addition to the reduced turnout that saw her receiving considerably fewer votes than Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Furthermore, to the surprise of many watching the election results unfold on television, Donald Trump was able to breach the ‘Blue Wall’ by securing victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that all but eliminated Clinton’s chances of winning.

In attempting to explain why so many electoral prognosticators failed to predict what some have referred to as one of the greatest political upsets in American political history, it is necessary to understand how polling is a fundamentally imprecise science. While American polling organisations are both more numerous and sophisticated than their counterparts in the rest of the world, they are not immune to succumbing to various forms of bias and methodological imperfection that can lead to flawed conclusions. Even prior to the election, some commentators voiced concern about the possible existence of ‘hidden’ Trump voters – men and women who were too embarrassed to admit to pollsters and others that they supported such a divisive and polarising candidate. Similarly, questions can also be raised about the limited ability of polling organisations to deal with nonresponse bias, when potential voters and opinions are simply not captured by surveys due to reluctance on their part to participate in such exercises. Much the same point can be made about political punditry in the United States and, indeed, in the rest of the world. While television channels and other media outlets might go to great lengths to enlist the services of experts perceived to have unique insights into the political process – due to their experiences and qualifications – the reality is that the study of politics, like any other social science, ultimately deals with questions of human behaviour and interaction that, by definition, militate against the provision of answers rooted in certainty.

There is also, however, a broader point that needs to be acknowledged. As far right parties continue to advance in Europe, and with Britain poised to exit the European Union, it is important to understand the underlying structural factors that have given rise to the brand of populist, nativist politics epitomised by Donald Trump. While the collapse of support for Clinton might seem puzzling it is easy to see, with the benefit of hindsight, that she lacked a message that resonated with large swathes of the electorate faced with the prospect of increased economic uncertainty. It is undoubtedly the case that Trump benefitted from the support of people who agreed with his abhorrent views on women and minorities, but it would be a mistake to assume that bigotry alone fuelled his victory.

During the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders defeated Clinton in several rustbelt states precisely because he promised voters there a radical transformation of the economic status quo, addressing their concerns about the loss of jobs and declining wages in an increasingly globalised and competitive world dominated by an ever-smaller financial elite. Trump’s vows shake-up American institutions, with his broadsides against the Washington Establishment and the dynamics of global trade, tapped into a similar reservoir of discontent (albeit from the opposite end of the political spectrum). The mistake made by Clinton, and many pundits, was to assume that voters would value experience and a promise of continuity over radical change. As this election has shown, the possession of support from the political establishment, a competent and professional campaign team, and sizeable financial muscle – the main ingredients of a successful but conventional electoral victory – are insufficient to overcome the very real anxiety experienced by millions inhabiting a shifting and unfriendly economic landscape. As another Clinton said over two decades ago, “it’s the economy, stupid!”.