Why The 2016 Election Is Not Like Brexit
A lot has been said about the similarities between Donald Trump’s campaign and Britain’s decision to Brexit last June. That doesn’t mean the results of these campaigns will be similar.
A lot has been made about how the similarities between Donald Trump’s campaign and Britain’s decision to Brexit last June. Sluggish growth, the hollowing out of industrial communities, a precarious global situation, rising inequality, hostility towards an indifferent elite and seemingly large migrations of brown people that “threaten our way of life” all contributed to the referendum victory for Nigel Farage and other Brexiteers. And it’s true that many of those same issues are also driving the Trump Train, which, for many people, overshadow the candidates’ extreme faults.
But the fraternal bond between Trump and Nigel Farage doesn’t mean that electoral success will be transferred across the Atlantic. While both of them benefit from similar voter malaise, Trump faces different headwinds that might prevent him from entering the White House.
First, there are some structural reasons why it is less likely for a “Brexit shock” to occur. Referendums often obfuscate exactly what is being voted on and what the possible outcomes will be. It wasn’t clear who would lead the UK in the event of a Brexit vote nor what exactly Brexit meant. In fact, those things still aren’t clear. Voters who wanted Brexit but didn’t want to be governed by Nigel Farage could take solace in the fact that more sober-minded candidates from the Tory Party would lead. That gave the referendum a flavor that voters were voting on David Cameron himself, who, while popular, wasn’t that popular.
The US Presidential election is different. Sure a vote for Donald Trump is a vote against Hillary Clinton and the establishment, but, first and foremost, it is a vote for Donald Trump and all his Trumpish baggage. There is no getting around that.
Also, the structure of the electoral colleges ensures that even if Hillary wins by a few percentage points, she could take it by a landslide in the electoral college. While Trump’s anti-establishment message resonates in hollowed-out industrial white communities — an easy equivalent of Northern England– those communities are scattered across states with very liberal leaning cities that outnumber them. Meaning that Trump’s electoral path to victory is very narrow, if not non-existent.
Also, the US is much more diverse than the UK. According to the 2011 census the UK is 87% white. Meanwhile, non-Hispanic whites make up only 63% of the US population. In both the UK and the US, the anti-establishment message relies heavily on racially charged rhetoric and nativism, rejecting migrants and trying to roll back gains for non-white-male populations. That messaging naturally constrains their appeal among non-white or diverse populations, giving it a natural voter ceiling which is lower in the US.
And, while the US economy is experiencing a “slow growth recovery” it is also out-preforming all major advanced economies. Those gains are being felt by a wider segment of the population, with poverty rates down and median incomes up. And yes, it will take long periods of sustained growth for people to feel that things are better but the US, at least, is operating from a position of relative advantage.
Finally, Brexit isn’t going well and that bodes poorly for Trump, who is trying to ride its tailwinds. While the UK economy is doing better than the dire “financial crisis” that was forecasted if it were to vote Brexit, it’s still struggling, and those struggles seem to be getting worse. The pound is down, as is business and consumer confidence. As the stream of bad news continues from across the pond it might dampen any nihilistic impulse of voters in the booth who might risk “rolling the dice” and voting for Trump.
All of this combined could halt the populist surge before it gets across the Atlantic. It would be wishful thinking to hope that such a scandal-ridden establishment figure like Hillary Clinton will be able to decisively beat it back but it could buy the “elites” enough time to correct their course.
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