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The Great White Hope? - Saurabh Kumar Shahi - The Sunday Indian
 
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Friday, October 20, 2017
 
 

US ELECTIONS

The Great White Hope?

 

Donald Trump sufficiently capitalised on the anger of white working class America that was fed-up with the established political order of which Hillary Clinton was the face, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: January 5, 2017, New Delhi
Tags : Donald Trump | Hillary Clinton | US Elections |
 

It takes a lot to prove Nate Silver wrong. Nate Silver, the man who did not make one wrong prediction in almost a decade and a half of his electoral forecasting. Yet, when the results for the United States Presidential Elections of 2016 started pouring in, Nate Silver, like several of his peers, had to eat the humble pie. Donald Trump, who was considered at the worst a comic relief and at the best a statistical nuisance at the start of the election season, had won the day, fair and square.

The election of 2016 will be known for many things. Years later, as one will acquire the comfort of the hindsight, a lot of ifs and buts will be discussed. How President Donald Trump will perform is anyone’s guess. What his legacy will be is yet undecided. What is not undecided is that demise of the old Democratic and Republican structure. While Democrats lost the presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate – and now stare at the crumbling down of the old order – the Republican Party won the election that it was so desperately trying to lose in its final days. This will remain the greatest takeaway from this election.

But let’s first look at why were the pre-poll surveys so off the mark this time around. At the eve of the elections, out of the 13 major polls in the country, only one gave Donald Trump a clear victory. While three other polls were either statistically tied or predicted dead heat, as many as nine polls gave the election to Hillary Clinton. It is not surprising therefore that when Donald Trump won four of the six battleground states, and managed to break the Democrat’s firewall in two others, the news led that the Democratic establishment was stunned beyond belief.

There are a few reasons why the polls missed their target so badly. Gone are the days when newspapers and allied TV channels took the pain of physically conducting the polls and surveys. While the data collected through physical polls are undoubtedly better, it also incurs monetary costs. This is precisely why every single media house in the US – irrespective of their liberal or conservative bias – has shifted to either online polls or, more prominently, telephonic polls.

The methodology of most polls contains biases. For example, one well cited poll took into factor its own predictions in the past to correct the 'standard error' in the actual results – and thus, despite their data showing a Trump win, the interpretation was a Hillary victory. A similar example is related to previous polls in the US suggesting that somehow, Republican respondents were more likely to come up and respond than a probable Democrat voter and hence invariably a telephonic poll would always give Republicans certain benefit. To correct this anomaly, certain polls have been either over-sampling Democrats or adding a corrective factor to skew the final outcome. Past polls gave 3-5% bias towards Republicans. So a corrective factor of 3-5% was introduced in favour of the Democrats. There is no inherent problem in this methodology. After all, past polls done with the same methodology had proven to be right. However, this methodology could not factor in a tectonic shift. In other words, for this methodology to remain correct, other factors must remain constant. But Hillary Clinton’s own unlikeablity assured that they didn’t.

Two things happened that everyone had some inkling of, but were not sure about. A huge section of Democrats who would have voted for anyone else, didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. A section of the ‘Bernie-or-Bust’ voters, who were also known as ‘the deplorable’ by the pollsters, actually delivered on their threat and either voted for Trump, voted for the third candidate or did not come out to vote at all.

Interestingly, polls also suggested that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, this corrective factor would have been bang on target.

Says journalist and analyst Michael Katz, “It is pretty evident now that pollsters either completely missed the ‘not Clinton’ voters as a factor, or chose to underestimate their impact on the final number. These Left voters were those with better recall memory than others, and did not want to forget what she was, where she came from and what she represented. There was a certain vengeance in their action and that is evident in the result.”

The question arises; why was Hillary Clinton’s unlikeablity factor so high? We seem to have some clues.

Since the start of the Democratic Primaries, it was evident that Hillary Clinton was not a candidate suitable for enthusing the voters who were beginning to show fatigue after eight years of Democratic rule. But more than that, because of the mood created by years of leaks by Wikileaks, there was a sustained anger towards the establishment and its norms. To the detriment of Hillary Clinton, from the very beginning, even before the Podesta mails were leaked, she was always seen as an establishment insider.

So during her whirlwind campaign, she came to be seen as a mascot of the broken American political system. She was particularly inclined to keep reciting her resume. That she had served as a first lady, a US senator for New York and a secretary of state, was in her mind her unique selling point against the greenhorn Donald Trump. However, in an election where voters had nothing but utter contempt and rage for the political class, this resume was a poisoned chalice.

Says journalist and expert Juan Cole, “If you see it from the perspective of the voters, the Clintons were in the thick of thing for over 24 years now. Trust me; this induces fatigue to even the most enthusiastic of the supporters. Bernie Sanders was, in contrast, seen as an outsider. That he was an outsider was an issue with the Democratic establishment, not the voters.”

That the Democrat voters didn’t turn up in sufficient numbers is a well established fact. Of those who turned up, a huge number of voters either voted for a third candidate or Donald Trump. The poll numbers suggest a complex voting pattern. The only thing that is not complex in this entire data crunching is Hillary Clinton’s unlikeablity.

The poll suggests that 53% of men voted for Trump, while 41% voted for Clinton. When it comes to women voters, the numbers are slightly reversed with 54% voting for Clinton. On the face of it, this number looks predictable. But it is not. In spite of winning the majority of women votes, Hillary Clinton has actually performed poorly. One would expect that in an election where your opponent is an uncouth male facing several molestation charges, you would land up a windfall. Don’t forget that you are also likely to be benefitted from the fact that electing you would mean the women voters would be making history. Under the circumstances, it boggles the mind that Hillary Clinton actually polled lesser women votes than Barack Obama did in 2008.

A vision of this disaster was already unfolding during the primaries, but Clinton – not to mention pollsters and analysts – overlooked it in hubris. It was evident that Clinton was having a hard time enthusing young women voters, especially about electing the country’s first woman president, and in the process breaking the proverbial glass ceiling. Bernie Sanders was attracting about half of such voters. This should have rung the bell.

What also did not help was Clinton’s smug and arrogant position on housemakers. Non-committed women voters in general and Republican women voters in particular seem to have recalled a series of her remarks she made when she was first lady about “not wanting to stay at home making cookies”.

If a small section of Republican women voters was disgusted by revelations about Donald Trump – although there were not many – the disgust was more with Hillary Clinton. If one looks particularly at white women voters, they favoured Mr Trump, with 53% supporting him compared to the 43% for Mrs Clinton. The fact that in a racially charged America, more white women voters voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012 than voted for Hillary Clinton, demolishes the insinuation by feminists that it was misogyny that defeated Hillary Clinton. She performed worse in other demographics, as expected. Among white voters, who make around 71% of the total electorate, Trump won 58% to Mrs Clinton’s 37%, while the Democratic candidate won the support of a substantial majority of African American voters – 88% to Trump’s 8% – and Hispanic voters – 65% to his 29%.

It is important to note that even among African Americans and Hispanic voters, she polled less than what Barack Obama polled in 2008. What is even more damning for her is that fact that in an election where Donald Trump showed open contempt for the Hispanic population and threatened to deport them, 29% of Hispanic voters actually went out and voted for Trump, which was greater than the 27% who voted for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, despite Mr Trump’s comments about Mexicans and plans to build a wall on the US’s southern border.

Democrats had also pinned their hope on the establishment-loving Republican voters who considered Donald Trump a disgrace. However, when the numbers came in, it became evident that only 7% of voters who identified themselves as Republicans had voted for Clinton. To the detriment of Hillary Clinton, as many as 9% of those who identified as Democrats actually went out and voted for Donald Trump.

This brings the focus on the white voters and their changing preferences. While white voters started to shift towards Republicans way back in the late 60s, the gargantuan shift seems to be complete now. Democrats used to poll bigtime among the Union members and poorer whites,but that has also started to shift slowly and steadily.

While Clinton still polled the majority of voters on lower incomes, with 52% of those on incomes below $50,000 a year supporting her compared with 41% voting for her opponent; she trailed on every other group. Among those earning more than $50,000, it was 49% to Trump compared with 47% to Clinton. What is particularly problematic for Democrats is her performance among those earning less than $30,000. Clinton’s support among this group was substantially down from Obama’s in 2012, leave alone 2008. He had 63% support in this group compared to 35% voting for Mitt Romney, while Clinton polled 53% against Trump’s 41%. There appears to be a huge swing for voters without a high school diploma, with Trump leading 51% to Clinton’s 45%. In 2012, Obama polled 64% support from this group compared with Mitt Romney’s 35%.

So why are white voters – especially the low earning non-diploma holder kind – fed up with establishment candidates? Some experts seem to have answers. Juan Cole believes that since the early 90s, the white working class with high school or less education has not only seen their lifestyle slowly declining, they are actually dying, quite literally. His theory is based on a study conducted by Professor Anne Case and Professor Angus Deaton, Princeton University economists. The study has revealed disturbing numbers. The number suggests that since 1999, death rates among the white Americans aged 45-54 has gone up in both percentage and real terms. What makes this finding particularly horrible is the fact that death rates have gone down in every other demography surveyed.

“One of the big reasons for this increased death rate has been increased use of opiods and other drugs, leading to overdoses, along with liver disease from drinking too much alcohol and increased suicide rates. The problems were especially acute among working class and rural whites with only high school or less, and later studies found that they extended to younger members of this social class in their 20s and 30s. Loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs was clearly a primary reason for this despair,” says Cole.

This is where Trump struck, and hard. His rhetoric of bringing jobs back from China and Mexico and expelling illegal Mexicans did find copious amount of takers among this demography. Interestingly, the only initiative that could have lessened the pain somewhat was Obamacare, which was either watered down or torpedoed by Republican majority states.

However, since Trump was not carrying the baggage of the establishment candidate, and Clinton was, the anger was directed towards her. Trump won the rural vote by 62% to 34% and the suburban vote by 50% to 45%, two geographies where this demography is more likely to be present.

While many of these numbers are reflected more on Clinton than on the Democratic establishment; it would not be an exaggeration to say that the old order inside the Democratic establishment has finally died a merciful death. What the future has in store for them will depend on how they take this drubbing. The initial reaction is not encouraging. In one of the addresses directed towards her campaign donors, Hillary Clinton blamed FBI Director James Comey’s over-enthusiastic letter regarding possible opening of email probe to be the reason behind her political demise. While Comey’s statement – deliberate or inadvertent – was one of the reasons of her defeat, it was not the primary one by any yardstick. The Democratic establishment might still be recovering from the jolt of not controlling anything above the municipal level; such naïve assessment will only bury it further.

Leaked emails of Hillary Campaign manager John Podesta gives a vivid idea of how Democrats rigged the primaries in the favour of their favourite Hillary Clinton, without giving any attention to public mood. The Democratic establishment made a horrendous blunder rallying around Clinton. Clinton was always a bad candidate with robotic speech delivery incapable of enthusing as was required.

By sidelining Bernie Sanders, the DNC gave the signal to the neutral voters that it was unwelcoming to outsiders. It also gave the signal that it was and is merely a club of elite, glib talking, coastal liberals with college degrees, where everyone else will either be mocked or looked-down upon.

In one particularly disturbing email, one can see the current US trade representative Michael Froman, writing from a Citibank email address in 2008, name President Obama’s cabinet in advance, even before the election that was to allegedly bring hope and change was even won.

Jonathan Cook, one of US’s most astute political observers said acerbically, “The reason Trump is heading to the Oval Office is because the Democratic Party rigged the primaries to ensure that a candidate who could have beaten Trump, Bernie Sanders, did not get on the ticket. You want to blame someone, blame Clinton and the rotten-to-the-core Democratic party leadership. But no, liberals won’t be listening because they are too busy blaming Julian Assange and Wikileaks for exposing the truth about the Democratic leadership set out in the Clinton campaign emails – and Russia for supposedly stealing them.”

The Democratic Party’s focus on demonising President Putin and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, by suggesting joint collaboration to rig polls in the United States, also did not cut teeth with many voters. Trump’s signal of withdrawing support from Jihadist rebels in Syria, including the al Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front, and his open declaration to work closely with Vladimir Putin – against Europe’s enthusiasm to poke him – also seems to have found takers among the war-weary American voters.

Several surveys done among the European population repeatedly put Trump far behind Clinton in likeablity. Trump’s likeablity was only high among the far-right for obvious reasons. How Trump recalibrates his foreign policy, now that he has won the election, especially when the old nexus of corporations,
the military-industrial-complex and intelligence deep state are still alive and robust, will be interesting to see.

What looks sure at this point in time is that the era of aggressive military confrontation and intervention that Hillary represented is facing some serious road bumps ahead. It is evident by the reactions of President Assad the and Jihadist terrorists who oppose him. While President Assad cautiously welcomed the election of Donald Trump, the rebel ranks in Aleppo and Idleb, waiting for Clinton’s promised No-Fly-Zone to materialise, fell to dejection.

Experts suggest that if the Democratic Party wants to win back its base, it will need to think fresh and act soon. It will have to look for someone as its face who is not considered as an establishment figure. Then, it will have to work to create a base among the people who have lost jobs and pension under the neoliberal policies of deregulation and austerity. These are the voters who abandoned Clinton in the Democratic Party bastion of “Rust Belt.”

Pollsters are now unanimous over the fact that Clinton’s failure to attract enough supporters in Michigan and its Rust Belt neighbours Wisconsin and Pennsylvania proved to be her bane. Trump, with the help of white working class voters that were once Democratic Party’s mainstay in these states, breached the Democrat firewall by taking Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, a state that hasn’t gone Republican since 1984. Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania account for as many as 46 electoral votes. If Clinton had won them, she could have sealed the presidency with 274 total electoral votes, without worrying about the Swing States. Trump’s tenure is going to be anything but smooth. He is not a likeable human being, and chances are, he’ll falter during his presidency. The question is, are Democrats ready to attack if a breach is left opened?

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017