Anti-establishment support could lead Trump to victory

Discontent among the electorate is driving distrust of politicians who are seen as part of the Washington establishment

  
U.S. President Donald Trump makes a fist during a campaign rally at Des Moines International Airport in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., October 14, 2020.

U.S. President Donald Trump makes a fist during a campaign rally at Des Moines International Airport in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., October 14, 2020.

Reuters/Carlos Barria

The scene is now set for the last big occasion of the US presidential campaign: Next week’s final debate. While Joe Biden retains a sizable poll lead and is clear favorite, Donald Trump’s chances of winning remain more significant than many suppose.

This is because, despite Biden’s large national poll leads — and the likelihood of him winning the popular vote on Nov. 3 — Trump may yet win the Electoral College. Whereas this outcome was a rarity in the 19th and 20th centuries, there have already been two examples since the turn of the millennium of Democrats winning the popular vote but losing the election: Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. One factor that could help the president here may be any large backing of so-called “shy Trump” voters that would not show up in the polls.

The scene is now set for a close contest in a divided nation some have called the “United States of Anger” in recent years. These schisms were most recently showcased in this year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The changing political mood of the country was shown as early as February 2016, when Trump and socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders easily won their respective New Hampshire primaries. The size of their victories, which would have seemed implausible to many only a year before, showcased the appeal of both perceived “outsider” candidates.

It was one of the first indications of the febrile US mood following the uneven economic recovery following the 2008-09 financial crisis. The intensity of the anti-establishment impulse since then has contributed to the “United States of Anger,” and it should not be forgotten that the early primaries of 2020 also saw Sanders (and Trump) do very well, whereas Biden had a more faltering start.

While this may seem so long ago as to be irrelevant to next month’s election, others have a different view. Take the example of Stony Brook University Professor Helmut Norpoth, one of a handful of people who predicted Trump’s 2016 win. He forecasts elections based on a model that emphasizes the importance of early presidential primaries. So, given Biden’s poor start to the campaign, he forecasts a 90 percent chance of a Trump re-election.

While that seems implausible based on current polls, Norpoth’s model would have correctly predicted 25 of the last 27 presidential contests. The anomalies were 2000, in which George W. Bush defeated Gore, and 1960, when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon — two extremely close elections that were marred by allegations of voting inaccuracies.

While the popularity of both Trump and Sanders has been remarkable, it is by no means unprecedented — US history underlines that income and status differences can be significant sources of political change. Trump and Sanders appeal to many of the groups that have lost income and job security, including unskilled and semi-skilled persons working in manufacturing industries that previously operated with high levels of unionization under the pressure of international competition. Such disaffected groups have significant claims upon federal and state government support. These claims are potentially open to mobilization by anti-establishment politicians, as both Trump and Sanders have demonstrated, but as others have shown dating back to at least the 19th century.

The discontent of much of the current electorate is not only driving distrust of government and politicians who are seen as part of the Washington establishment, it is one of the key factors contributing to sky-high rates of political polarization.

While polarization reflects voter discontent, including growing divides over wealth and educational attainment that Trump and Sanders are proving skilled at tapping into, it is also driven by longer-term demographic and generational change. Thus, one of the most notable features of the contemporary political environment is the Republicans’ heavy dependence on white, older, Southern voters, while Democrats have a more disparate coalition of African-Americans, younger whites, and new immigrants across the country, including the South, along the west coast and in the northeast.

Recent presidential ballots have highlighted these stark divides. For instance, Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 won almost 90 percent of his support from non-Hispanic whites. However, he still only lost relatively narrowly to Barack Obama, who had the backing of 95 percent of African-Americans, more than 70 percent of Hispanics, and about two-thirds of Asian-Americans.

The stark demographic, ideological and cultural cleavages in the electorate appear to be intensifying at the moment when the US population has become more diverse than ever before. Approximately one in every three eligible voters this year will be Hispanic, Asian or another racial minority.

What this profound demographic shift underlines is that the US is on a trajectory to become — likely around the middle of this century — a majority non-white nation. At the same time, there is a rapid aging of the electorate. While these overall trends probably will not help Trump in this year’s election, given his anti-immigrant rhetoric, it nonetheless cannot be ruled out that his energized base of anti-establishment supporters carries him to a second term in the White House.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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