Yesterday, President-elect Donald J. Trump announced his first staff appointments since his election victory, appointing Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff, and appointing Stephen Bannon as his Chief Strategist. These two were both thought to be strongly in the running for a position in the Trump administration and therefore their appointment is not much of a surprise, however, that Trump chose them to fulfil these roles does suggest a fair bit about the direction that his Presidency will take.
Throughout the election campaign, Trump spoke of his disdain for Washington insiders, and pledged that he would ‘drain the swamp’ of special interests and D.C. insiders. However, the appointment of Reince Priebus to such a key position flies straight in the face of this. Priebus is arguably the ultimate Washington (or at least GOP) insider. He has been chair of the RNC since 2011, and previously was RNC general counsel and chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, with his work for the GOP in Wisconsin meaning he has strong connections with the likes of Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Given Trump’s rhetoric around ‘draining the swamp’ of political insiders, you would have thought that the selection of Priebus to such a key role would have provoked anger amongst some of Trump’s most keen supporters — and you would be correct. However, the selection of Priebus could well have done a fair amount the placate those parts of the GOP who are extremely wary about the prospect of a Trump Presidency, given the extreme rhetoric that characterised his campaign. The feeling amongst moderate Republicans may well be that Priebus will add some moderation into Trump’s thinking, whilst his excellent relationships with Congressional leadership should help the Trump administration get their legislation through Congress — as long as it isn’t too extreme that is. Some have likened his role to that of Andy Card who served as White House Chief of Staff for five years during the George W. Bush administration.
Whilst he will have disappointed some of his most keen supporters with the hiring of party insider Priebus as Chief of Staff, Trump then hired the opposite for the role of Chief Strategist: Steve Bannon. Bannon is the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, the conservative news website, which aligns with the extreme ‘alt-right’ in much of its coverage. The appointment of Bannon is likely to worry much of the Republican establishment as he is an avowed enemy of Paul Ryan, and has led a campaign through Breitbart to unseat him as Speaker of the House. In addition, and very worryingly, he has long been criticised for pandering to white supremacism and the ‘alt-right’.
Media coverage of Bannon’s appointment has variously described him as being along the lines of a ‘right-wing provocateur’, and ‘anti-establishment populist’. Whilst these descriptions are both true, they don’t go far enough by any means. Following news of the appointment, John Weaver tweeted, “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.” Weaver is an experienced Republican strategist who held key roles on John Kasich campaign for the Presidency, and on John McCain’s campaigns in 2000 and 2008, so not simply a diehard liberal with a trivial complaint — Bannon genuinely is an extreme right-winger. This is why his appointment to Trump’s White House team has got people so worried.
Many people (in particular many Republicans) have brushed off the appointment of Bannon, and suggested that as Priebus technically holds the number one role on the White House staff, Bannon won’t hold much influence over policy. However, this is likely to be wrong. To go back to the comparison of Priebus with Andy Card, at the same time that Card was Chief of Staff, Karl Rove served as ‘Senior Advisor to the President’. This role was effectively the same as the Chief Strategist role which Bannon now fills. Everyone knows that although Card served as Bush’s gatekeeper, it was Karl Rove who had significantly more influence on the policy direction of the Bush administration. Although the appointment of Priebus and Bannon was accompanied by a description of the two as ‘equals’, don’t be surprised if Bannon has considerably more influence on policy direction than Priebus, with Priebus included more for his links with Congressional Republicans (which can help get Trump’s policy through Congress) than anything else.
Ultimately, the appointment of both Priebus and Bannon looks to be an attempt by Trump to straddle the divide between the Republican establishment and the populist wave which took him into the White House. This balancing act was evident this weekend as Trump alternated between tweeting about the constructive conversations that he’d had with GOP elders like John Kasich and Mitt Romney, and railing against the election coverage of the New York Times.
What side of the dividing line his policy will fall on is perhaps more uncertain.
However, the fact that he has chosen to appoint Bannon to a White House position at all, suggests that despite the more moderate notes which he has been trying to hit in recent days, Trump intends to pursue at least some of the right-wing populist policies which took him into the White House, perhaps even some of the most extreme ones. The appointment of Bannon should worry everyone, the world over.
The Electoral College system in United States Presidential Elections typically limits the viable field in Presidential Elections to just two viable candidates. In this case of course, that was Hillary Clinton and the ultimate victor, Donald J. Trump.
However, despite the fact that the system for the electing the President makes it near impossible for a third-party candidate to win, that doesn’t stop third-party or independent candidates running, and this election was no exception.
Of the myriad of other candidates who were on the ballots in some of the States, the most high-profile were the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and the Libertarian Party candidate, former Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson.
Given the national unpopularity of the two main candidates in this year’s presidential race, it was expected that this election could be a bumper one of third-party candidates, with forecasts during the campaign suggesting that many voters were considering backing third-party candidates out of distaste for those nominated by the Democrats and the Republicans. However, in the end, third-party candidates didn’t do anywhere near as well as expected. During the campaign, Gary Johnson was polling upwards of nine percent nationally, and had a justifiable claim for being included in the Presidential debates. However, when it came to the Presidential Election he only received around four percent of the popular vote, which amounted to more than four million votes. This meant that Johnson didn’t achieve his stated aim of gaining a five percent of the national popular vote.
However, although the national returns of these third parties candidates were less than satisfying, both Johnson and Stein did manage to gain quite sizeable number of votes in the battleground States — many of which were ultimately won by President-elect Donald Trump. It has been argued by many that the presence of the likes of Johnson and Stein in the race helped to hand the Presidency to Trump. Whilst this is hard to prove or support, it is indeed inarguable that these candidates made an impact in the battleground States.
This was particularly notable in Florida. It was of course Florida where then Green Party Presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s candidacy in the 2000 Presidential Election was widely considered to have handed the State and the Presidency to Republican Candidate George W. Bush, despite Democrat Al Gore winning the national popular vote. This time around the situation was remarkably similar, with Hillary Clinton prevailing in the national popular vote, but ultimately being well beaten in the Electoral College. In 2000, Nader received 1.63 percent of the vote in Florida. The margin between Bush and Gore was just 0.05 in Bush’s favour. Although Nader has always disputed his impact, if he hadn’t been a candidate then it would have been hard to see his Green Party supporters plumping for Bush over noted environmentalist Gore.
This year, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by 2.4 percent, so won by considerably more than Bush did in 2000. Gary Johnson won 3.1 percent in Florida, whilst Jill Stein won 0.7 percent of the vote there. It was a similar situation in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with the margin in all of these States being eclipsed by the number of votes cast for Stein and Johnson. This means that if you assume that the Stein and Johnson vote would go to Clinton, then Clinton would have won these States had they not been standing, and therefore she would have won the Presidency.
However, in my opinion, this is a pretty lazy assumption to be making.
Firstly, there is no way to prove that the Johnson and Stein vote would go directly to Clinton. Throughout the campaign, Johnson and his campaign team were clear that they thought that they were collecting votes from Democrats, Republicans, and independents, meaning that there is no guarantee that Johnson’s non-candidacy would have had any significant effect on the margins between Trump and Clinton.
Secondly, one of the main reasons that people were backing these third-party candidates was as a protest against the quality of the two candidates of the main parties. What’s to say that if Johnson and Stein hadn’t offered them another option, that they wouldn’t have just stayed at home on Election Day and not even voted. I’m sure some of them would have voted and particularly with Stein’s voters, you would have thought that most would fall on the Democratic side, however it seems unlikely that they would have been enough to overhaul Trump’s margin, particularly in Florida. In 2000, just one-third of Nader’s voters going for Gore, would have been enough to flip Florida into his column. However, in this election, more than two-thirds of Johnson and Stein’s combined support would have had to vote for Clinton in order to flip Florida. To me, this just doesn’t seem likely.
Overall, although the numbers mean that it is possible to argue that Johnson and Stein caused the Trump Presidency, to me it doesn’t really stack up. It looks to me more like an easy answer to the question of why Trump’s right-wing populism won the day. For the Democratic Party going forward, it is not at all helpful to any sort of re-building process to suggest that the election was in some way stolen because of the presence of third-party candidates. Of course, it is right to assess why many voters felt it necessary to cast a protest vote for one of the these candidates, but there should be no assumption that this was what lost the election, because the facts just don’t stack up that way.
So I was wrong, Donald Trump has won the Presidency. Going into election day I still felt sure that the trend towards populist candidates would be halted in its tracks, and that normal service would be resumed thanks to the United States somewhat archaic Electoral College system. Before polls began to close, I didn’t really see a path to the White House for Trump. I mean, to win he had to win Florida, and although that would be close high Hispanic turnout would surely allow Clinton to edge the win. Likewise, I fully expected Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to go Clinton’s way. Michigan and Pennsylvania had voted Democrat in every Presidential Election since 1992, Wisconsin in every Presidential Election since 1988. Surely Trump couldn’t take them, could he?
Alas, I was wrong. Trump didn’t just take one of these States, he took all four. Add to his column North Carolina, Ohio (by an astonishing 8.6 percent), and Iowa, and you’ve got the recipe for a comfortable victory in the Electoral College — currently projected to be 306 votes for Trump to 232 for Clinton. Having said this, it looks as though Clinton narrowly won the popular vote. But, as we know only too well (Gore 2000), it’s all about the Electoral College.
So, why did Trump win? Most of the media and political pundits effectively anointed Hillary Clinton as the next President (and the polls also suggested this outcome), and I must admit that I was only too willing to follow suit, and I am sure that I wasn’t the only one.
Prior to the election, all the talk was about how the sleeping giant of the American electorate, the Hispanic population, was going to play a huge part in deciding the winner. But in actual fact, the Hispanic impact was overstated. Yes, it was arguably the Hispanic population which got Clinton over the line in Nevada (mostly as a result of early voting) but it was always going to be Florida which mattered the most. There was somewhat of a surge in Hispanic voters (particularly in the early voting), and more Hispanics did indeed vote in this Presidential Election than in any previous Presidential Election. However, although Hispanics did vote overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, they didn’t vote for Clinton quite overwhelmingly enough. In fact, Trump actually received around 27 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. This means that he beat Bob Dole’s 1996 tally of the Hispanic vote (Dole got just 21 percent), and received a similar percentage to Mitt Romney’s 2012 share (Romney also took around 27 percent of the Hispanic vote). All this meant that despite the surge in the number of Hispanic voters, Clinton still couldn’t compete in Florida, undoubtedly the most important State in this election.
And on top of this, Trump had a surge of his own. The surge of the white working class. Similarly to those in the UK who voted to leave the European Union in June, these tended to be voters who felt disillusioned by the political elite and left behind by globalisation. Although the results of recent US elections and the ongoing demographic changes in many of the swing states suggested that the Democrats could win an election despite minimal support amongst working class whites, this view proved to be unfounded. In 2012, President Obama won so comfortably in the Midwest because of his strong showing with white working class voters. His low rating with this group was almost purely due to the result in the Southern safe Republican States.
In short, in the swing states Hillary Clinton did not outperform President Obama with Hispanics to the extent required to counteract the huge support Donald Trump was gaining with white working class voters. The biggest surges in Hispanic support for Clinton came in California and Texas, States which were never going to have any bearing on the result. Yes, she did outperform President Obama slightly in some areas of Florida, with Clinton slightly improving the Democratic margins in heavily Hispanic counties such as Miami-Dade, but she did not improve the margin enough to counteract the white working class voters which Trump was winning — many of whom had voted for Obama in 2012.
The same huge support for Trump amongst white working class voters was evident in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In counties which President Obama had won by twenty points in 2012, Trump was drawing level. In counties which President Obama had won by double figures in 2012, Trump was winning handsomely. In these swing states, the same was true as in Florida, Clinton wasn’t over-performing President Obama in the Democratic strongholds. For example, in Pennsylvania, Clinton was unable to get close to the margin needed in Philadelphia to overturn the white working class vote in over areas of the State. The same was true in Ohio, with Clinton not winning cities like Cleveland by enough to overturn her deficit elsewhere.
In short, Clinton certainly made gains among minority groups and the well educated during this election. However, these gains did not seem to occur in the swing states which needed them the most. Either this, or they were simply overwhelmed by the unexpected huge support Donald Trump had amongst the white working class — a group everyone expected him to win, but very few suggested he would win by as much as he ultimately did.
Perhaps the Clinton campaign’s real failure was to misread which were the actual swing states. Throughout the campaign, Clinton barely visited Wisconsin and Michigan, with the campaign putting out hardly any television advertising in these States. Given that they had voted Democratic in Presidential elections for so many years, they thought that they were absolutely safe. Even in nearby Minnesota, typically an even stronger Democratic State in Presidential Elections, the margin of Clinton’s victory was very, very low.
Given how wrong the polling was about these States it is, in hindsight, no surprise that the Clinton campaign didn’t foresee the problems that they were going to have in these States. The same was true in the Trump campaign, who said that their polling results were much the same as professional pollsters. Very few people saw the surge in Trump support in any of these States, apart from perhaps Ohio — although even there the polls generally only had Trump a point or two ahead, nowhere close to the 8.6 percent margin he ultimately took Ohio by.
It is difficult to now what caused such a huge polling error, but perhaps the most simple explanation was that voters were simply not willing to tell pollsters that they were backing Trump. We saw a similar phenomenon in the recent European Union referendum, where polls before the referendum gave the Remain campaign a surprisingly strong lead, seemingly because many Leave voters were telling pollsters that they planned to vote remain. We also saw a similar thing in the recent referendum in Columbia on the agreement on a peace deal between the Columbian Government and the FARC rebels. Whatever the error is, it will take far a far deeper evaluation of the polls and the methodology used, in order to ascertain what the errors were.
So it was the surge in white voters which took Donald Trump over the line, but that isn’t really an explanation for why Trump was able to win the Presidency.
Was he able to win because of Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity? I’m not sure I buy into this argument, mostly because I think that generally both candidates were disliked, and personality wise Trump probably was disliked more than Clinton. Indeed according to the results of the preliminary exit polls, 54 percent of voters viewed Hillary Clinton unfavourably, whilst 61 percent of voters viewed Donald Trump unfavourably. Therefore, to some extent, I feel that this debunks the argument that Clinton lost because of her national unpopularity — although it was arguably a contributing factor.
Delve more deeply into the exit polls, and I think they shine more light on why Trump won. The exit poll revealed that among Trump supporters, 92 percent felt that the country was on the wrong track, 88 percent were angry with the way the government was working, and 70 percent were voting for a candidate who they felt could bring about change. For Clinton supporters, they were found to generally feel as though the country was on track, and only fourteen percent were voting for a candidate who they felt could bring about change.
So, in short, voters were switching to Trump because they felt that he was the only chance to bring about change. For these voters, many of whom had voted for Obama in 2012, they were willing to vote for Trump despite their misgivings about him purely because he could bring about change, and shake up the Washington establishment. This is much the same as in the EU Referendum, where many people voted Brexit purely to give the Westminster political establishment a bit of a kicking.
Typically, when a single party is in government for an extended period of time (in this case, Obama had been President for eight years) their supporters grow disillusioned, particularly if their ‘champion’ is failing to enact the change that they voted for. This is the main reason why since 1952, there has only been one occasion where the same party has held onto the Presidency for three consecutive terms, with this of course being between 1980 and 1992 when Ronald Reagan was succeeded by George H.W. Bush.
In recent years, gridlock has characterised the workings of Washington D.C., and in his second term President Obama has been able to accomplish little without the use of executive orders. It was here that Clinton’s status as a member of the political establishment counted against her. Throughout his campaign Trump kept saying things along the lines of “she’s been in Washington for thirty years and she hasn’t solved these problems, don’t expect her to solve them now.” Whilst it isn’t true that Clinton had been in Washington D.C. for thirty years, the view that she wouldn’t be able to end the gridlock in government was clearly one shared by many. Indeed, even Clinton’s most ardent supporters would be hard-pressed to support the notion that Clinton would have been able to enact transformative change. It was this reason, that so many voters chose to go for Trump. They simply thought that he was the only chance that they had to change things with regard to healthcare, immigration, manufacturing jobs.
Whether or not he actually has the ability to do, they are not really that bothered. Having exhausted every other avenue for what these voters perceive to be positive change, they are willing to give a complete outsider a go, in the hope that he can shake up the establishment.
This trend in favour of populist and anti-establishment political candidates is one which is replicating itself around the world, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Of course we’ve got Trump, and we also had Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Primary. Before that we had the win for Leave in the EU Referendum. Even earlier we had the win for Syriza in Greece. Next year we’ll find out whether the trend continues in the French Presidential Election, where Marine Le Pen continues to look strong.
All over the world, voters are concluding that they want a change from the political establishment who they blame for the poor economic situation which many voters experience in their daily lives. For those who have been more insulated by the economic problems experienced by the developed world over the last eight years, this is perhaps quite hard to comprehend. But the truth is perhaps that voters are willing to vote for anything that they feel will bring about change, and shake up the political establishment.
Overall, Trump won because the voters felt that he was the only candidate who could bring about change. We will soon see whether he manages this task, and if so what changes he brings about.