8 November 2016

If Trump wins tonight, it will be a genuine peasants’ revolt


The most fascinating match-up in today’s presidential election isn’t between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It’s between Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.

That may seem an odd thing to say, given that Donald vs Hillary has been one of the most extraordinary political spectacles in US electoral history, with their every sentence and every action being endlessly contested and litigated.

But in fact, it’s the contrast between Trump and his Republican predecessor that shows precisely why this contest is so unusual – that makes it not just a presidential election, but a Brexit-style referendum on modernity itself.

Let’s start at the beginning. The most basic fact about this election is that the map favours Clinton. A generic Democrat is likely to start with 217 of the 270 electoral votes they need to win the Electoral College, vs 191 for a generic Republican – and there are another 32 votes’ worth (Pennsylvania, Iowa and Nevada) that are painted in a softer, but still noticeable, shade of blue.

And this is the strange thing about tonight’s race. Trump started off the election campaign by promising to “expand the map” – to lead the Republicans to victory in places such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, even New York. Clinton, at the height of Trump’s troubles, had similar ambitions – there was talk of the Democrats targeting Arizona, Georgia, even Texas.

Yet in the end, the essence of the race looks much the same as it ever did. If Clinton holds the “Blue Wall” – the 18 states that have voted for the Democrats in the last six elections, plus the District of Columbia, which has done likewise, she only needs Florida to take the White House.

But beneath that most general picture, extraordinary changes are afoot. The states where people are voting Republican or Democrat may be largely unchanged since 2012 – but the people who are doing the voting are profoundly different.

For all his talk of expanding the map, Trump actually ended up running a campaign built on stirring up grievances and resentment among poorer, less educated white people: “Make America Great Again” became a synonym for “Taking Our Country Back”. And it worked.

The numbers here are truly startling. This chart from the Washington Post compares Trump’s support (far right column), against both recent polls (the second column from the right) and earlier elections:


The main point of the article is to show that Trump has had a bump in white support in the closing leg of the race. But the most interesting thing on the chart isn’t that relatively minor shift, but the difference between the make-up of Trump’s voting coalition and Mitt Romney’s.

Romney, the chart shows, did better among non-college-educated white men than any Republican candidate since Reagan in 1984. Yet Trump is blasting him out of the water: the latest polls have him 18 points higher, almost 40 per cent ahead of Clinton (and well ahead even of Reagan).

Yet when it comes to men with college degrees, the situation is exactly reversed. Romney had a healthy 20-point lead in this demographic. Trump, even after a seven-point bump over the last few weeks, is barely breaking even.

With white women, the situation is even more dramatic. Since 2012, there has been a 29-point swing away from the Republicans among those with college degrees, leaving Trump trailing Clinton by more than 20 points.

Yet among women without a college education, Trump is doing just fine: he’s almost 30 per cent up, on a par with Reagan. Women who went to university may be repulsed by Trump’s misogyny, or inspired by Hillary’s feminist example, or maybe a little of both. But that is simply not the case with those who didn’t.

Looking at the rest of the chart, it’s impossible to find anything close to the 50-point gap between them: these aren’t just different tribes, but different species.

And this is why so much of what you hear tonight on TV will be utterly misleading. Because the comparisons between Trump and Clinton, the talk of one being this many points up or behind, or of how states voted in 2008 and 2012, all fails to capture the churn within the electorate – the way this contest has become not a traditional battle of Republicans vs Democrats, but a battle of educated vs uneducated, managers vs workers, lords against serfs, elites against proles.

I have held from the start of the campaign that Hillary Clinton will win, and win comfortably. She has the advantage of the electoral map. She has consistently been ahead in the polls. She has out-spent her opponent by a colossal amount.

Above all, Clinton has a ground game and Trump does not. His theory of the campaign was that the power of his personality – and the free media exposure it generates – would compensate for his lack of a campaign organisation.

There are, for example, no Trump field offices: the campaign is piggy-backing on existing Republican infrastructure, which is often ill-placed for presidential races (and may not prioritise Trump’s needs above those of local officials).

Clinton, by contrast, has the network and supporters and mailing lists built up by herself and her husband over decades of campaigning. Plus that of the Democratic National Committee. Plus that of a guy called Barack Obama, who assembled and refined the most fearsome and data-driven election machine in US history, which has now essentially fused with the Clinton operation.

The early signs also seem to show that Clinton has successfully motivated those voters alienated by Trump. There are mixed reports over whether turnout among African-Americans is down – either because Barack Obama is no longer on the ballot paper, or because of Trump’s plan to discourage black voters – or holding steady. But turnout among Hispanics appears to be spiking – perhaps proving the theory that if you tar an entire ethnic group as rapists then they tend to take offence.

So if Trump does win – that tantalising, horrifying if – it will be a genuine revolution: an overturning of demographic, electoral and political wisdom.

Trump was told he could not win because there just weren’t enough angry white men. But the reason he still has a chance of winning – a better chance of winning, according to the number-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight, than Romney did – is because he is finding and energising precisely those voters, in particular in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest.

Nate Silver, that site’s editor, has produced an excellent summary of each state’s significance in the race, and the odds of it tipping this way or that. His models put Trump’s odds at roughly 30 per cent, though others have argued that this is overstating Trump’s chances.

But what Silver does not state explicitly is the central point which emerges: if Trump wins, he will not win despite being Donald Trump, but because of it. He will win because he spoke for the angry, resentful white men and to a lesser extent women who have spent years fuming at what has become of their country.

And this, of course, is why the comparisons to Brexit are entirely appropriate. Trump has far less of a chance than the Leave campaign did. But if he does win, it will be a genuine peasants’ revolt – not just a slap in the face to the political elite and the values they stand for, but full-on assault and battery.

If he wins, it will change American politics forever. If he loses, the question will be whether the old order will reassert itself, or his extraordinary transformation of the Republican base will endure.

Robert Colvile is the Editor of CapX.