Lessons from the American election

By Robert Presser on November 12, 2016

I write this barely 17 hours after Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the New York Hilton, so emotions are still raw all around.  Protesters are in the streets in seven American cities, urban voters expressing their frustration at his unexpected victory.  America’s progressives should not be so surprised – the African American and Latino vote participated less than in 2008 and 2012, and working-class white men and women voted more for Trump than they did in those previous elections.  Trump won the White House with fewer votes than John McCain and Mitt Romney received, but the overall participation rate was down, which favours Republicans.  Therein lies the first lesson of national campaigns – energize your base and make sure they turn out.  A lack of enthusiasm for Clinton led her key constituencies to hold back and the heavily urban Democratic vote was not enough to overcome the overwhelmingly Republican rural counties across the country.  This Democratic strategy failure cost her Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the last two having not voted Republican in over 30 years.

Observers of American democracy should be pleased that even in this most contentious election there will be a peaceful transition of power.  The election was managed robustly with few irregularities and delays, and no evidence of hacking or foreign tampering.  Hillary Clinton was gracious in her concession speech and accepted Trump as her president – indeed, many mature Democrats expressed the same sentiment today.  We will never know if Trump would have expressed the same to Clinton had the results been reversed, but I would hope that cooler heads within his party would have prevailed upon him to do so.  The Electoral College system designed by the Founding Fathers forces candidates to run national campaigns,though the hardening of red versus blue divisions over the past five or six presidential election cycles has reduced the contest to about a dozen battleground states that no candidate can be without on the road to victory.  As an example, no Republican has won without Ohio in modern times.  However, if you think that Trump’s Rustbelt strategy was something new, look back at Truman’s 1948 whistle-stop campaign when he ran a train trip though many of these same states, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California.  Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada are still hotly contested by modern candidates.  Truman knew the formula and so did Donald Trump. 

The second lesson of this campaign is that there are still classic strategies to winning the White House that go back decades, if not centuries.  The system will survive Trump versus Clinton and we hope to see more positive, substantive future campaigns run under its rules.The mainstream media, the pundits, the elites in both parties and the lobbyists are the big losers in this election cycle.  

The third lesson is that you cannot buy American’s votes, they will go to the ballot box with their heads and hearts and be heard regardless of how the election is played out in traditional and electronic media.  How did the pollsters get it so wrong, and do so consistently?  It is time for them to review their methodology, since they failed to capture the anger and frustration of those Americans left behind since the Great Recession.  Trump’s simple message of renewal and defiance - despite his other statements of division and discord - resonated with them due to a mixture of their desire to see America rise again coupled with a feeling of resignation for many that they had nothing left to lose.

I remember the 1980 election when Ronald Reagan swept aside Jimmy Carter, many were fearful that he would lead the US into a conflict with Russia in short order.  Instead, he effectively checked Soviet expansionism and set the stage for the fall of the Iron Curtain.  I am not equating Reagan and Trump – I am merely saying that things are not automatically as dire as Trump’s detractors make them out to be.  There is still a lot of history to be made


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