Speaking Of America

Three myths about the American voter

Rhetoric during this year's US presidential campaign has lurched from one extreme to another. But history suggests that such extremes do not reflect voters' views.

WASHINGTON • As the world watches the American presidential campaign lurch from one political extreme to the next, one question keeps coming to mind: What on earth has got into American voters?

After all, it is one thing to have people like businessman Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders - people who would ordinarily be considered fringe candidates - try their luck at a run for the White House, but it is altogether something else for them to do so well. This week, Mr Trump was effectively crowned the presumptive Republican nominee and Mr Sanders continues to chalk up victories on the Democratic Party side.

It is often said that elections hold up a mirror to society, showing us fears and desires that may otherwise not receive a lot of attention.

Individual candidates running for office are free to say whatever they want, and propose whatever policy comes to mind. But once they are subjected to the electoral process, the reception of those ideas becomes a commentary on the feelings of the electorate.

And with a brash anti-immigrant tycoon leading the Republican race, and a self-described socialist pushing the democratic front runner Hillary Clinton to the left on a broad range of issues, it is perhaps not surprising if the world is starting to get anxious about the state of the mind of the American voter.

Yet, a look at nationwide polls would suggest that the mirror the chaotic campaign is holding up is a tad warped. In fact, relying solely on the primary election cycle thus far for an understanding of the average voter would yield incorrect conclusions about the mood of Americans.

Consider these three important issues that define how Americans think about their country's place in the world - free trade, immigration and military intervention.

Mr Trump has been effectively crowned the presumptive Republican nominee, on the back of a campaign that has been strongly anti-immigrant in its message to voters. Yet, polls show most Americans still support the granting of legal status to undocumented immigrants. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY


Listening to Mr Trump and Mr Sanders denounce the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and watching Mrs Clinton seemingly turn her back on the same deal she lobbied so hard for as secretary of state, one would quite rightly assume that Americans - especially Democrats - have generally soured on the idea of free trade.

Yet, recent surveys suggest the Americans have a much more nuanced view on the matter.

A Gallup poll published last month found that some 58 per cent of Americans thought foreign trade was an "opportunity for economic growth through increased US exports", as compared with just 34 per cent who considered trade a threat.

What was especially telling about this number was that it marked the highest level of support for trade Gallup had ever recorded in the 24 years it has been asking this question. The lowest that the trade-as-opportunity score has ever been in that timeframe was 41 per cent, at a time when the global financial crisis was taking root in 2008.

But it would be inaccurate to suggest that, based on this one finding, there is overwhelming optimism surrounding free trade either.

When the question is cast in terms of its impact on American jobs, as a recent Bloomberg poll did, then the percentages are flipped.

In that survey, released at about the same time as the Gallup one, 65 per cent of respondents backed "more restrictions on imported foreign goods to protect American jobs", while only 22 per cent wanted fewer restrictions to increase choice and lower prices for American consumers.

The findings suggest that Americans understand both sides of the argument on trade and have yet to take a definitive stand on the matter. They aren't as fervently anti-free trade as the political campaign thus far would suggest.


Polling on immigration tells a similar story.

Though the surprising popularity of Mr Trump might suggest the rise of xenophobia and the desire to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, polls show that most Americans continue to back legal status for such immigrants.

Polls from Pew Research Centre, The Wall Street Journal and NBC News taken during this election cycle all show broad support for granting the illegal immigrants already in the US a chance to obtain legal status.

The Pew study, published in October last year, found that 74 per cent of Americans favoured allowing undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements to obtain legal status. Only 24 per cent backed deportation. And that support was evident across every demographic group.

Even among Republicans, some 66 per cent support legal status for undocumented immigrants. And as with support for free trade, the numbers appear to be on the rise. The Pew study found that support for legal status rose 10 percentage points between May and September last year, moving in step with Mr Trump's rise to the top of the Republican race.


The issue of US intervention abroad is a little harder to quantify, given that it is a question that is relatively less polled. The last comprehensive study on this was by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2014, but it does offer some pointers on how to figure out the current mood of the American voter.

The study's authors said their most striking finding was the "essential stability of American attitudes towards international engagement, which have not changed all that much since the council conducted its first public opinion survey 40 years ago". Throughout that time, roughly six in 10 Americans supported the US playing an active role in world affairs.

A Pew survey released this week found a slight shift towards isolationism, though there remains a significant number who support global involvement. While 41 per cent of Americans say the US does too much to help other countries solve problems, a combined 55 per cent say it is either doing not enough or just the right amount. More than three quarters also say the country should either maintain the current level of defence spending or increase it.


The puzzle then, given the numbers, is why are the candidates taking positions that directly oppose the voters' views?

The answer lies in how intensely voters feel about any one issue. In all three issues we looked at, one side - the side opposed to trade, immigration and American intervention abroad - likely feels more strongly than the other.

A factory worker who has lost his job because his employer shipped that plant overseas will have a lot more conviction for his trade position than the shopper who understands, at an intellectual level, that the lower prices he is seeing at the supermarket have something to do with the free flow of goods.

That unemployed worker is going to vote for a candidate who is anti-trade while the shopper is not. In a primary election process where turnout is generally low and favours the most active voters, the angriest section of the electorate is having its already loud voice amplified.

The bright spot amid all of this is that the influence of this active minority tends to fade once the election is over and the actual task of governing begins. Presidents have tended to take a more pragmatic stance once they get down to the task of governing. President Barack Obama had similarly opposed free trade deals before taking office, only to change his position afterwards.

The worry this year is that the election cycle is so polarising that it hardens the candidates' extreme positions. For instance, anti-trade has become so much more central an issue this year than it was in 2008. With both Mr Trump and Mr Sanders making it a key platform in their campaigns, Mrs Clinton hasn't been able to keep attention away from her own position.

And that means it will be all that much harder for her to shift again if she gets elected, even though most Americans ultimately support it. By the same token, because he has made such a big deal out of it, a President Trump will likely have to stick to a position on immigration that takes a harder line than the electorate supports.

If the good news out of all of this is that the average American voter is not as extreme as the campaign thus far suggests, the bad news is that it might not matter if candidates who get elected then feel pressed to stick to their more extreme positions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2016, with the headline 'Three myths about the American voter'. Print Edition | Subscribe