2016 US Presidential Elections: The Power Nativist Populism

October 17, 2016

2016 US Presidential Elections: The Power Nativist Populism

by Matthew J. Goodwin


Don’t underestimate the power of nativist populism. That’s the harsh lesson we in Britain learned less than four months ago, when Brexit blew up in our faces and confounded nearly every prediction. It’s one the Austrians and French are learning even now, as they keep counting out (then are forced to count back in) right-wing populist backlashes to the establishment. And it’s the lesson that American pundits who are already predicting a comfortable victory for Hillary Clinton over the embattled Donald Trump—if not a historic landslide—should take on board before they start relaxing too much in the next few weeks.

Of course, every election, and country, is unique. And with little more than 20 days left until America elects its next president, there is reason for the new sense of confidence in the Clinton camp. In recent weeks, Trump has been engulfed by scandal, and Clinton’s position has strengthened considerably in the polls.

But recent elections outside the United States should check too much complacency in the Clinton camp, especially when the side that is perceived to be losing is preaching nativist populism to voters who have been economically left behind and feel culturally under threat from ethnic change. Voters, in other words, who are especially motivated to vote for change. Less than four months ago the United Kingdom held a national referendum on whether it should exit the European Union, known as Brexit. Ahead of that contest, the betting markets, pundits and media were united in predicting a comfortable win for the pro-EU side, who wanted the U.K. to remain in the EU. Most of the polls, too, put “Remain” ahead (especially polls conducted by telephone), while the few online polls that suggested a Brexit victory were dismissed as rogue outliers riddled with sampling errors. Pundits pointed to the unfavorable ratings of leading Brexiteers like Nigel Farage who, they argued, were too divisive for Brexit to win. Others pointed to how even most voters accepted there did not seem to be much of a plan for life after Brexit. The Remain camp, we were also told, had the superior ground game—it seemed to be knocking on more doors, had more offices and had a developed strategy for targeting young university towns.

These assumptions continued to guide the national debate right up until the contest itself. In the prediction markets, throughout the final week of the campaign, the percentage chance that Remain would win did not fall below 75 percent. In the final days, seven polling companies issued their “final” polls, none of which forecast the eventual result. In three cases, the result was within the margin of error, though only one had put Brexit ahead, while the remaining four had overestimated support for Remain. Every single poll, noted the British Polling Council, even those within sampling error, had overstated support for Remain. Even on the day of the vote, three polls put Remain ahead, one by a striking 10 points.

The betting markets were just as confident; on the morning of the referendum, they put Remain’s chance of victory at 76 percent and, by the close of voting, at 86 percent. When you asked voters who they expected to win, it was the same story; in the final 24 hours of the campaign, only 27 percent expected Brexit to triumph. Those who sought to keep Britain in the EU, having recruited President Barack Obama to their cause, expressed relief. An anxious Prime Minister David Cameron was told to relax.

Almost everyone was proved wrong by the massive turnout of Brexit voters, who had been derided by established politicians as loons and racists and who were not expected to be organized, especially at the polling stations. “Leave” won 52 percent of the vote across the U.K., and nearly 54 percent in England. This figure rocketed higher in poorer industrial and rural communities that had been cut adrift by globalization and felt under threat from unprecedented levels of immigration—the analogue to many Trump voters today (as even Trump himself has suggested, tweeting that he would soon be known as “Mr. Brexit”). Support for Brexit reached striking levels among those same groups of voters who are now backing Trump—nearly 60 percent among voters on low incomes, over 70 percent among manual workers and 75 percent among people with no qualifications. In forgotten England, the anti-elite and anti-immigration message had spread like wildfire. The left behind mobilized in a big way.

Turnout rates among poorly educated white voters threw cold water on the earlier claim that the angry white man would not show up, that he would be pushed aside by young cosmopolitans and the big cities. Overall turnout was high, at 72 percent, the highest for any U.K.-wide vote since 1992. Subsequent analysis of how this affected the vote suggests that Brexit won by mobilizing people who never normally vote, something that Trump hopes to emulate. The unexpectedly high turnout, especially in blue-collar communities, is why turnout models in the polls that were based on turnout at previous elections performed poorly; they failed to account for the mobilization of unlikely voters. Turnout was much higher among the Brexit-voting over-55s and strikingly lower among young voters who had promised to vote. Some estimate that whereas 64 percent of young people who were registered to vote did vote, this figure was 74 percent among people ages 55 to 64 and 90 percent among those ages 65 and above. In the aftermath of the Brexit victory, a petition emerged to overhaul the result through a second referendum. The largest number of signatures were in young and trendy areas like the London districts of Camden and Hackney, where voters had failed to turn out when it mattered.

The Brexit vote is a powerful reminder not only of how identity can trump economics but also of how supporters of populist insurgents are often more loyal than many think. While the pro-EU side had focused relentlessly on dry arguments about jobs, wages and appeals to economic self-interest, Brexit was pushed over the line by a campaign that tapped into an intense cultural angst among blue-collar, left behind and older voters. The core message of “Take Back Control” had resonated strongly among these voters who had long felt cut adrift from mainstream politics and under threat from rapid ethnic change. That culture was as important as economics was reflected in the fact that it was in communities that had experienced the most rapid ethnic change over the past 10 years where support for Brexit was often strongest. Presented with an opportunity to reassert their conservative values and disdain for a liberal mainstream, they took it. The intense power of this identity angst should have been diagnosed given that ahead of the referendum most voters readily admitted to pollsters that they would be willing to suffer an economic hit if, in turn, it meant they had greater control over borders and immigration. Political and media elites failed to diagnose the simmering anger and mistakenly believed that it could be soothed with appeals to rational choice.

Image result for Trump's nativist power will beat Clinton

In the U.S. election, it is clear that the strategy of the Trump campaign is to rile up the passions of America’s disaffected in the same way—to the point where many people at his rallies are now saying they’re doubly motivated to go to the polls to ensure that the election isn’t “rigged,” as the candidate himself has been urging them to do.

Other experiences in Europe underline the durability of support for right-wing populists. Since the 1980s, the media and liberal progressives have written off anti-immigration and anti-elite populist parties, but they never go away and have only accumulated support. In Austria, since the mid-1980s, the populist xenophobic Freedom Party has sustained a strong following; today it is on the verge of possibly winning the presidential election in December. In France, Marine Le Pen is currently forecast to reach the final second-round of the presidential election next spring despite her party being widely written off after her father was defeated in the same contest in 2002 and then saw a drop-off in support in 2007. This durability flows from an economically disaffected, socially conservative, white, less educated and male electorate that has mobilized despite talk of its members’ alienation and apathy.

It is also worth noting another contest in Britain: In 2015, conventional wisdom had again mistakenly told us that the progressive, social democrat Labour Party would likely triumph. The polls and commentariat were united in claiming that no party would secure an overall majority, that Britain was thus headed for a hung parliament and that—most likely—there would be a coalition headed by the uninspiring but nonetheless competent Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Labour, we were told, also had a superior ground game (rooted in Labour’s promise to hold “four million conversations with voters in four months”). When some of the world’s most renowned political scientists gathered at a conference to share their increasingly sophisticated forecasts of the election, not a single one predicted the outcome—a majority Conservative government. The polls, too, had been wrong. A subsequent inquiry revealed they had consistently overestimated Labour support and were among the most inaccurate since election polling had begun in 1945. Their samples had too many “easier to reach” Labour voters and not enough harder-to-reach older and more socially conservative voters.

Donald Trump will most likely fail to win the presidency, not least because the mechanics of the race differ from those contests above in important ways. The electoral college stacks the deck against the Republicans; there is a sharp gender gap in current voting intention (which was not evident at Britain’s EU referendum); and the Trump candidacy is perhaps the most divisive in modern American history. But at the same time, recent history from across the Atlantic reveals why you should never dismiss the appeal of a populist insurgency, place blind faith in the polls and forecasts nor assume that populist voters will not mobilize when—in their eyes—it matters most. Anger goes a long way at the polls. Trump is still the underdog, but those who claim to be experts would still be foolish to completely write off the power of the revolt on the right.

Matthew J. Goodwin is Professor of Political Science at the University of Kent and Senior Visiting Fellow at Chatham House. He is author of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Public Support for the Radical Right in Britain.


18 thoughts on “2016 US Presidential Elections: The Power Nativist Populism

  1. Trump is tapping into the disenchantment with the establishment in Washington and the democratic administration after Bill Clinton and Obama. They want change. The race will be close. The final debate will not decisive, but it could turn nasty.–Din Merican

  2. Yes, Americans want change but neither of the two main candidates can or will bring this about…

    Bernie was the one person who could at least have started a peaceful revolution the country needs… fortunately for the US there is Dr.Jill Stein to carry on where Bernie was forced off…

    If the millions of Americans who have had their country taken from them (BREXIT come to mind?) vote for Dr.Jill, who represents the only current hope for the country, they will not only save their country but the entire world…

  3. It’s a safe bet that Hillary will win the presidency. And the GOP will keep the House, because there are few swing seats and many seats don’t have strong Democratic challenger.

    The ugliness and bitterness of this campaign won’t end after the election. We the People are already nearly at each other’s throats. I don’t see what could happen that could reduce America’s political, social, and economic polarization.

    Hillary will be the most unpopular president ever to be elected. She is despised and distrusted by a large part of the electorate. She won’t be entering office with a large reservoir of public hope and good will to draw upon. The next four years are apt to be tough.

    Our infrastructure is crumbling and the consequences will increasingly be obvious. In the best scenario, there will only be a normal cyclical recession, but in the worst, there will be another big economic shock. We are on the edge of several geopolitical precipices. America will highly likely be forced into humiliating retreat or war.

    Right now, the election is sucking up so much media oxygen that Americans aren’t paying much attention to the warning signs of dangerous confrontations to come.

  4. Hillary is tipped hot favourite to win the presidency and she may in all probability. She is not bringing in anything new. But Trump does – bringing back American capital home from abroad, create new industries and thousands of new jobs, making Allies co-pay costs for having American military bases and soldiers in their countries, drastic cuts in immigrant inflow etc. Actually for an unbiased American voter, the choice is crystal clear. The only doubt is, given his idiosyncrasies and flip flops, can Trump deliver what he promises?

    The biggest concern for the outside world is what will be the nature of American foreign policy after the election – more of the same or slightly or drastically different?
    The world needed America to maintain global peace and economic order and help poorer countries economically. The same needs to be continued under prevailing situation.

    The bugbear in American foreign policy is interfering in the affairs of (weaker) countries to get rid of their leaders for being brazenly anti-American and bringing about regime change. Such policies have failed miserably in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The killings attributed to Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad and others is a drop in the ocean compared to millions killed by America and its Allies. These countries were relatively more peaceful then than they are now. ISIS – one could dare say – is a creation in vengeance and retaliation, basically against America. Terrorism will not stop unless regime change policy of America stops.

  5. LaMoy, I am just confused why adult film actors need to wear condom or not can become a voting matter… For POTUS, almost how we vote matters little. I think I am beginning to vote like closet libertarian, especially when it comes to California state law.

  6. Yea, katasayang:

    LOL. Are you a new citizen and first time voter? I suggest you read the pro and con on every proposition in the Voter Information Pamphlet that is sent to you. Personally, I do not participate in every proposition on the ballot. Never have. I vote selectively on those I care and deem important.

    California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) enforces regulations to protect workers from workplace hazards. Proposition 60 is about harmful sexually transmitted infections spread from infected people to healthy people through contact with blood and certain body fluids,
    like semen, while making or performing in an adult film.

  7. I just hope that the voter turnout will be phenomenal and every American who is eligible to vote,will appreciate the power of his/her vote and that they can look back to this coming historic day with pride that their votes made a difference. Rather than not vote and remorse later, like what happened at the Brexit Referendum.
    The Celtic soothsayer sees a victory for the underdog. 🙂

  8. katasayang, that is how a democratic system works. The government needs the approval of voters before implementing any new laws. Even increasing 1/4% tax or proposing a budget to increase funds for education goes before the voters.
    The government is elected to manage the state but not to spend money freely unlike in Malaysia. Sometimes sales tax increase of even 1/4 % gets turned down by voters. So its back to the drawing board. The issue of a toll road was put to ballot several times and got turned down. California is a major state without a toll road till recently where the 91 Freeway had an Express Lane and commuters have to pay a toll to use it.
    Yes as LaMoy mentioned, read the Voter Information Pamphlet, study it and vote wisely. Check the track records of Congressmen or Senators seeking reelection, how they voted on issues in the past. Don’t just vote based on the Party.

  9. After winning the arbitration Duterte have to go a “begging” to China, big fish in small pond suddenly find himself small fish in big pond. Guess Duterte still need the ‘one road’ program huh

  10. Semper fi:
    Road toll on Freeway 91? You must be living in the Riverside area of metro Los Angeles. Yes, I agree that one should not vote blindly on party line. Very wise advice of you to katasayang. Also, abstention is a democratic choice.

    Most proposed laws got to the ballot by going through the state legislature. But in California we have the ballot initiative system, where ordinary citizens can write proposed laws, get a certain percentage of signatures of registered voters, and have them put to the popular vote. For those states that do not have the ballot initiative system, the proposed laws have to go through the state legislature.

  11. Semper fi, LaMoy: Thanks. This would be my third time voting for a President.
    I just thought for that specific case on a specific industry, it should have been decided by the court system first.

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