[…everywhere you go.]
“It can’t really happen can it?”
“No, the American people will make the right choice.”
“Actually electing Trump would be crazy.”
Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? How many times did we all have a very similar conversation, replacing ‘American’ with ‘British’ and ‘electing Trump’ with ‘voting Leave’?
The debate around the ongoing US Presidential race sounds a lot like conversations before the EU Referendum because the two share some very key elements.
The Polls – I know we all treat the polls with a degree of scepticism these days due to their rather patchy performance in predicting Brexit (and the General Election before that), but the polling picture in the US bears an interesting resemblance to that of the EU Ref campaign. US pollsters are currently reporting a narrowing lead for Clinton over Trump, a trend similar to movement between Remain and Leave in the final weeks leading up to the vote. While it’s not clear whether the trend will continue, it’s certainly one to watch as some polls even show Trump ahead of Clinton in key battleground states like Iowa and Florida. Renowned elections analyst Nate Silver recently remarked on Twitter that he “sees echoes of Brexit here” and argued it’s dangerous to assume that the race will drastically shift back to Clinton.
The Key Demographic – One of the key platforms of the Trump campaign is his campaign launch promise to “build a wall” to keep Mexican immigrants from illegally crossing into the US. This simple, yet enduring message was enough to propel him past 18 other potential Republican presidential candidates. The anti-immigration sentiment felt across many parts of the US resonates with certain disaffected and alienated white working-class voters. These same voters are those who are compelled by the idea of an epic return to national greatness (“Make America Great Again”).
Similarly, in the UK, the Leave campaign’s central focus, and Britain Stronger in Europe’s (BSE) key weakness, was its argument that leaving the EU would allow the Government to drastically cut the flow of immigrants. Vote Leave’s simple “Take Back Control” message was stronger than the various economic arguments put forward by the other side. BSE never really stood a chance.
The challenge for Clinton in the remaining weeks of the campaign will be to make sure the US election is not framed as a single issue choice for voters. A presidential election is not a referendum, and the characters should factor more into voters’ decision-making. That said, unfortunately, neither candidate is particularly popular with voters [See my colleague, James Plaskitt’s piece: America’s unpopularity contest]
The Bubble – Having moved from living in one political bubble to another – Washington to London – I have found that it’s easy to be sucked into the 24/7 political news cycle. We’re all constantly listening to the same arguments and thinking that the choices should be blatantly obvious to anyone with a pulse.
However, not everyone was tuned into the play-by-play Brexit chat, and not everyone agreed with what was being said. As former Justice Secretary Michael Gove MP said during the campaign, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Many voters simply don’t believe in establishment figures anymore. This sense of mistrust is what has allowed populist candidates like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and even Jeremy Corbyn to be successful.
As US elections are decided by Electoral College votes and not exactly by popular vote, the result can be slightly different, but even Clinton’s campaign issued a wake-up call email to supporters on 24 June, saying: “No matter what the collective wisdom of our political punditry has to say between now and November, Donald Trump has a real chance of winning this election.”
If nothing else, the result of the EU referendum should at least serve as a warning to American pundits, pollsters and casual observers not to automatically discredit the Trump side. While the vote on 8 November is a different kind of choice than the decision of 23 June, the similarities between the two will hopefully serve as lessons – and not predictions of things to come.