Today I had to give the first lecture of my ‘elections and voting’ course since Donald Trump’s shock victory. To be honest, I’m glad it wasn’t yesterday. I found myself genuinely upset by the result, to the point where any sort of objective analysis was probably impossible.
Anyway, I had a good night’s sleep and spent the morning thinking about how to explain the result to my students and make sense of what it will mean. Here’s some of what I came up with…
In my opinion, there’s no single explanation that fully accounts for Trump’s victory. As human beings we crave narratives. But the reality is that millions of people, each with their own values, beliefs and motivations voted for both candidates. That doesn’t mean that we can’t explore patterns in the vote – gender, race, education, income (and its more mysterious cousin, class), age and urban versus rural location can all be used to carve the electorate into very different-looking segments.
According to exit polls, Trump’s appeal was strongest among white males with no college education; estimates indicate that over 70% of this sub-group voted for Trump. In this sense, the data support the notion of a ‘whitelash’, but the same data show that about a third of Hispanic voters also supported Trump, a higher portion than the relatively inoffensive Mitt Romney managed to achieve in 2012.
Some people voted on the basis of candidates’ personalities, others on their issue stances, others still stayed true to a deep-seated sense of partisan identification. Many Trump voters were taking an opportunity to put the boot into a despised political elite. Others were expressing rage at an economy and society that is leaving them behind. Still others were voting to further embed their existing economic advantages. And, let’s face it; some were simply outright racists. The bottom line is that there’s no single idea or theory that can entirely explain this election.
Another reason that we should avoid the temptation to divine a clear ‘will of the people’ from this complex election is that the result actually hinged on a relatively small margin. As Nate Silver points out, if 1 in 100 voters had gone for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump, she would have come out with a comfortable 307 electoral votes. The unavoidable truth is that an archaic American electoral college system gave Donald Trump a decisive victory, despite a narrow win for Clinton in the popular vote.
Nonetheless, one of the horrible lessons of Brexit is that extremists of various deplorable stripes will see the result as a vindication for their world view. If you think I’m exaggerating, just look at all of the reports of bullying, nasty and aggressive behaviour that has been directed at minorities and women since Trump’s victory on the #TrumpsAmerica hashtag on Twitter. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has paid even moderate attention to Trump’s rhetoric or the behaviour of his supporters at rallies.
In his acceptance speech, Donald Trump sounded a more conciliatory, moderate note than at any point in the campaign. President-elect Trump didn’t mention locking up his opponent; instead he complimented her public service. He went further, saying that he’ll be a President for all Americans and that he’ll reach out to those who have opposed him to date and seek their guidance in his work to come. In order to do so, he’ll have to break most of the vows that he made in order to achieve office.
Finally, it’s becoming increasingly clear that all sorts of people who are paid to understand elections – including academics like myself – need to up our game. This is the third major election in the last couple of years that we’ve almost universally misread (the others were the Conservative majority in 2015 and, of course, the Brexit result). The degree on my wall says ‘Political Science’ and predictive power is the ultimate test of any claim to hold ‘scientific’ knowledge. At the moment, we’re failing that test.