The latest earthquake of American politics (and probably the strongest one in the whole history) must be a cure of humility for all pundits and pollsters. I must recognise that I was one of those who thought that a Trump victory was almost impossible. So the next analysis is probably not of much worth, apart from a personal therapy exercise. In any case, here you have my five quick takes on a really stunning election night.
-The (pseudo) science of polling got it wrong. Again. And after the recent experiences of the Brexit and the Spanish elections, voters have reasons not to trust any poll again. I think of three possible reasons of the downfall of statistics:
a) Polls are always based in the experience of previous elections, but this year we had the most heterodox candidate competing in the strangest race ever (never the two candidates had such a wide unfavourable views among the electorate). In addition, some drastic demographic and technological changes have happened recently. So this is why the variability of polls was bigger than usual (and a few, like LA Times did indeed predict the result correctly). And this is why Gallup, one of the most experienced polling companies, decided to sit this one out.
b) There may have been a “hidden” Trump vote, although there was no reason to predict it. There was no “hidden” Trump vote in the Republican primaries. Neither was there a “hidden” racist vote against Obama in 2008 and 2012. So why then now? Maybe because, much as it happened with Brexit, all the press, pundits and even celebrities were unanimous in their despise of Trump. So maybe some voters felt ashamed to recognise to pollsters that they would vote for him. It was an anti-establishment rebellion in a country that has a long history of populism. Ok, but why did finally Trump win? As it happens with all big upsets, because of a long list of factors.
-The rebellion of the globalisation losers. A lot has been said about Trump’s attraction of working-class whites who have been hit by delocalization of factories, increase of inequality, and unemployment. The losers of globalisation. And it’s just true. Many of them used to be affiliated to trade unions, one of the most reliable Democratic voting block. Not anymore. Trump’s most crucial victories were in the Rust Belt, the old industrial states. This is not only an American phenomenon, but a Western one. Think of those former Communist voters going now for Le Pen’s National Front. Winning elections are about keeping your traditional voters and stealing some from your adversary. This is what Trump did with this group of voters. BUT this is not the only factor. Also, let’s not forget that Obama’s victories were not landslides. He won by 3 points, so it was also needed a small percentage of people (1,5%) switching loyalties to have a different results.
-The gender factor + democratic deflation. Some feminist have seen in this result a confirmation of macho views held by the American people. I am not so sure. Had she been elected, Clinton would have made history. True, but (for better of worse) that was not the driving the topic that was driving conversations the weeks before election night. It was rather the e-mail scandal or Trump’s outrageous comments. “I don’t vote with my vagina”, said Susan Sarandon when asked about Clinton. And millions of women agreed. Clinton got a smaller percentage than Obama in 2012 (54% versus 55%). Where was the excitement about Hillary breaking the glass ceiling? Nowhere to be seen. Unlike Obama, who increased dramatically the number of black voters in 2008, Hillary did not attract more female voters to the Democratic fold. She even lost among white women. It was not just more male voters supporting the Republican candidate.
Some will argue that Trump energised the voters, that he inspired abstentionist voters … well, not that much. He got roughly 60 million votes, more than one million less than Romney in 2012 or McCain in 2008. However, Hillary lost 6,5 million compared to Obama. Why? Democrats were demobilised. On the contrary, Republicans were not. Probably, this has something to do with the bigger strength of conservative media, like Fox News, which have been tirelessly spreading the idea that Obama was destroying America. Trump could not have chosen a better slogan: Make American Great Again. Pure nationalism in times of unease.
-Hillary, the disliked. One of the lessons of Bush victories in 2000 and 2004 was that Americans don’t always choose the prepared candidate who is better prepared, but the one they like the most. They have a strange intimate relationship with their president. He is not just a politician. A revealing poll showed Bush beating his adversaries when citizens were asked: Of the two candidates, who would you have a beer with?
While 28% of Trump voters cited anti-Hillary feelings as the main driver for their decision, only 21% of Hillary’s said the same about Trump. The degree of antipathy against Hillary is deeply ingrained in some sectors of the American electorate, especially in the right, who see her as someone dishonest and corrupt. The “e-mailgate” and the FBI decision to re-open its investigation in a crucial moment just built on that perception.
This antipathy explains why it was so hard for her to beat someone like Sanders, not the most charismatic politician. Hillary mobilised some Republican voters who dislike Trump, and demobilised some Democrats. She is the quintessential establishment candidate, the embodiment of dynastic politics from the 90`s, while many voters wanted change. She was a bad candidate unable to mobilise her own voters. So now what?
-Entering terra incognita. It is very difficult to imagine how a Trump presidency will be. Among other reasons, because his campaign was not based on a political platform, but on a constant attack against his opponent. Also, he flip-flopped very often. For example, at first, he defined himself as “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. However, later in the game, he presented himself as a champion of Israel. Which is the real Trump?
Having an oversized ego, a characteristic only multiplied yesterday, my guess is that the first year of his presidency will be daring. He will deviate from what conventional wisdom suggests, provoking uncountable controversies with Democrats, Republican congressmen, and both foreign foes and allies … Probably, he will enter 2018 with dismal popularity ratings. And then, only then, he will try to be a more conventional president. This is exactly what happened in this campaign. Only two weeks ago, when he was badly trailing on all polls, he became more restrained in his comments, showing a yet unseen capacity to stay on message.
The American system of checks and balances, as well as the strength of the economic establishment and the bureaucracy, limits greatly a president’s margin of manoeuvre. This is what constrained Obama to make a less dramatic change than he promised in 2008. Let’s hope that the same happens with president Trump.