US Elections 2016

First, Brexit; next, President Trump?

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a news conference last Friday at the Trump Turnberry golf course in Scotland, where he welcomed the Brexit vote.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a news conference last Friday at the Trump Turnberry golf course in Scotland, where he welcomed the Brexit vote.PHOTO: REUTERS

But Republican candidate faces steep hurdles in turning voter anxiety into electoral victory

WASHINGTON • Britain's vote to withdraw from the European Union (EU) sent a shudder through the US capital as the forces of economic nationalism and working-class fury forced US political leaders to wonder: Could it happen here?

Driving the Brexit vote were many of the same impulses that have animated US politics in this turbulent election year: anger at distant elites, anxiety about a perceived loss of national sovereignty and, perhaps most of all, resentment towards migrants and refugees.

These are themes that Mr Donald Trump harnessed during the Republican presidential primaries to explosive effect, and that he aims to wield to his advantage again in his race against Mrs Hillary Clinton.

Although Mr Trump may struggle to convert a message of national retrenchment into victory, some of the stark divisions on display in Britain do mirror political trends in the US. The highly educated, younger voters around London who voted to remain in the European Union, for example, share some commonalities with the American urbanites who were the pillars of Mr Obama's coalition.

And Mr Trump has triumphed with the American counterparts of the British "Leave" voters: older whites who lack university degrees and live in less prosperous regions of the country.

But beneath those generalities, there are crucial distinctions between the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election.

In the US, there is no recent history of electing nationalist presidents hostile to immigration, and even recent Republican presidents have celebrated new arrivals as integral to US prosperity and identity.

US presidential elections are largely decided by a diverse and upscale electorate, anchored in America's cities and suburbs. These communities more closely resemble London than Lincolnshire.

Minorities made up more than a quarter of voters in the last presidential campaign. And while Britain decided to leave the EU through a popular vote, the White House race will be determined by the Electoral College, which is tilted towards the Democrats.

Mr Trump is at an even greater disadvantage than other recent Republican presidential nominees because of his dismal standing with non-white, college-educated and female voters.

Unless he can reverse the deeply negative views such voters have of him, he is unlikely to capture the voter-rich communities around Philadelphia, Denver, Miami and Washington that are crucial to winning the White House.

Despite high levels of concern about immigration and foreign trade, polls show that most Americans have so far recoiled from Mr Trump's specific policy proposals, such as deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.

A survey published by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution last Thursday found that while Americans were closely split on the benefits of immigration and mostly said global trade is harmful, strong majorities rejected Mr Trump's promises to build a wall on the Mexican border and ban Muslim immigration. Further, the vote in Britain was a referendum on a European entity that was easy to rally against, while the presidential vote in the US is increasingly becoming a referendum on a single, polarising individual. "Americans will be asked to vote for or against a person: Trump," said Mr Tony Fratto, a former press secretary for former president George W. Bush. "And that's a higher hurdle. If you want to express yourself with a protest vote, you'll have to vote for Trump, and he is singularly unattractive and even offensive to a large majority of Americans."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'First, Brexit; next, President Trump?'. Print Edition | Subscribe