Older readers of my blog will recall a similar title, published only weeks before the Brexit referendum, in which I discussed whether Middle England would break for Leave. At the time, the overwhelming consensus of the political and media elites (the “Pundocracy”), was for a narrow Remain victory. Certainly the polling evidence indicated that the British electorate, who had consistently favoured Remain (in the poll of polls) throughout most of the campaign, would stick with the status quo. As it happened, the electorate narrowly voted to leave the European Union (“EU”), which confirmed that my “educated hunch” was more accurate than the galaxy of betting markets, opinion polls and received wisdom of the “experts”.
So the first thing to note is that just because Donald Trump is behind Hilary Clinton in the polls, it does not mean that he has lost the election. At the beginning of the month I noted that Trump needed to step up a gear in the following second and third presidential debates if he was to have a chance of winning the election. On balance, he has achieved that goal with a strong comeback performance in the second debate and a solid final finish in Las Vegas.
According to Frank Luntz’s focus group on the third debate, Trump performed very well on key “bread and butter” issues, like the economy, trade, border security and immigration, even with Democratic leaning voters. Hilary performed better on the important issue of which candidate appeared more “presidential”, a subject in which Trump has trailed in the opinion polls. The sex tape and allegations of groping by the Republican presidential candidate in the past has certainly damaged Trump in the eyes of the electorate and amplified concerns over whether he is fit to take on the responsibilities of the presidency.
So to summarise, the state of play, post the debates, is that Trump has secured his key objective of appearing sufficiently “presidential”, if not at the same level as his opponent. The Republican candidate has also succeeded in connecting with the electorate on key issues like trade, immigration as well as being a change-agent who will reform a failing political establishment. It is clear that the sex scandals have damaged the Trump brand, particularly with female voters, and ensured that the real estate billionaire has failed, so far, to seal the deal with undecided voters.
There are certain underlying factors which I don’t think are being picked up by the surface polling being conducted. These could ensure that the actual election result is much closer than expected, and indeed, could catapult the Donald into the White House. I will list them as follows;
Shy Trump voters
Anecdotally, most open Trump supporters know of individuals who have kept their support for the Donald secret, out of fear of social rejection or a backlash from friends, family or work colleagues. There is some polling evidence that suggests that Trump performs better in anonymous online polls than traditional landline polling which requires voters to confirm to another human being their voting preferences. British readers will likely have heard of the “shy Tory” phenomenon during general election campaigns.* I suspect that approximately 4% of the electorate are shy Trump voters and they will have a significant impact during the presidential election.
*As a Conservative supporter during the 2015 GE, I kept my Tory views to myself, as I was aware that among my left-leaning acquaintances the Conservative Party was considered a toxic brand. So I have personal experience of the “shy Tory” factor.
During the Brexit referendum, the polling professionals had the unenviable task of attempting to forecast turnout numbers for the different social classes. This was challenging as Britain has not had a major referendum in decades. The post-mortem of the failure of the polling industry to successfully predict the Leave result appears to place a significant part of the blame on the failure to anticipate the much higher turnout of working class citizens who don’t normally vote in general elections. It was the millions of white working class voters from council estates across Britain who helped ensure Leave had a shock victory.
I suspect that something similar will happen in this year’s presidential campaign. Donald Trump has tapped into the frustrations of the white working and lower-middle class layers of society who traditionally have a poor turnout at elections. These voters, who despise the political class, will likely make the effort to turn out, as they perceive the Republican candidate will materially benefit their interests. The fact that Trump doesn’t always behave in a presidential manner will likely endear him to this group of voters. In key swing states, a major up-surge of white working class support could be the key to victory.
It is well known that there is an “enthusiasm gap” between the two campaigns, with Trump regularly hosting huge rallies, compared to Clinton. Trump has fired up his base to go out and vote for him. If the media de facto declare Clinton as a winner in the coming weeks, on the basis of her narrow polling lead, this may lead to complacency among her soft supporters. Should Clinton fail to bring key electoral constituencies to the ballot box, including younger Latino, African American and left-leaning youth, she may lose key states on election night.
This may not be a significant factor in the election, but should the overwhelming consensus of the Pundocracy be that the Democrats have the election in the bag; it may encourage former Bernie Sander supporters to vote for Trump as a protest vote against Clinton. During the Brexit referendum, there was some evidence to suggest that a small proportion of the Leave electorate voted to make an anti-establishment protest, without ever expecting Leave to actually win. When elections are extremely close, such minor dynamics can have a profound impact on the eventual winner.
The “f*** it” factor
Polls have shown that a large majority of the American electorate are unhappy with the trajectory of the country, are alienated from a political class and feel that the economy is geared towards the very rich. There are not many opportunities to express your grievance against the political establishment in the modern era, but voting for Donald Trump is certainly one way of doing so.
I suspect that millions of voters, who may at the moment be reluctantly planning to vote for Hilary Clinton, may decide in the very last day or so before 8 November 2016, to take a gamble with the Donald. For citizens who haven’t had a wage increase in 10 years, who lost their home during the Great Recession, who are enraged that not a single Wall Street banker has gone to jail or simply despise the Washington establishment, Donald Trump is a vehicle to project their sense of injustice, anger and desire for revenge against an out-of-touch financial, media and political elite.
The question is whether concerns over the politically incorrect, and at times offensive language, of the Republican candidate will override the hard headed appeal to the interests of working Americans by the blue-collar billionaire. Trump’s policies on deporting hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, imposing border security and the return of trade tariffs will materially benefit the majority of legal lower skilled Americans. Polling shows that Trump’s hard-line position on letting Muslim refugees into America chime with the wary instincts of the majority of the population.
To summarise, this presidential election will come down to a clash between interests and values. Donald Trump will win this election if he is successful in making a hard-headed pitch to the material interests of Middle America with an “American First” platform over the values based politics of political liberalism.