Clinton versus Trump:
Four years ago I wrote a weekly review of the progress of the US election. This year I have hesitated to put pen to paper. Perhaps I’m getting too old for all this – perhaps I’ve nothing to say that has not been said before and probably better said by others.
Still now we have reached this pass it is no longer possible to resist the itch to say something – even if it will not be that original.
Looking back from this vantage point to 2012 it may seem that the re-election of President Obama was inevitable. It was not the case at the time. Although unopposed in his party – Obama was a President with baggage – he disappointed expectations where he once excited them – and the iffy economy still pulled by the undertow of the great financial Crash of 2008 was not running strongly in his favour. His signature reform to Health Care was not that popular. Whilst he was a shoe-in for his party’s nomination President Obama’s national polling numbers were lukewarm and therefore, he was not in a strongest position to win re-election. At times the ever articulate Obama struggled succinctly to make his economic case and in many ways it was to be Bill Clinton who made the defining speech of the 2012 election in defence of the President’s economic policy to an electrified Democratic convention.
These were also the days of the Tea Party insurgency which had followed hard upon the first Obama victory in 2008 and which had laid waste the Democrats in the Mid Term elections of 2010. As much as there was a visceral (irrational) hatred of Obama amongst some of these Tea Partiers (much as the Conservatives had loathed the Clintons before him) there was also an awful lot of hostility towards the grand old guard of the Republican Party. The Tea Partiers disliked establishment Mitt Romney almost as much as they hated the President; the Evangelical wing of the GOP disbelieved a Mormon much as they disbelieved Obama was Christian. Neither of these malcontents believed Obama was really even an American. However, in the end – after a mutinous spasm – the party came to heel – or to it its collective sense – depending upon your viewpoint – and settled on Mitt Romney whom the GOP establishment and commentariat promised was by far the most viable Republican nominee. The first Mormon nominee for the Presidency, Romney promised the GOP and Tea Partiers a famous victory but went on to deliver them an infamous defeat.Unprepared, the GOP party establishment was hugely discredited. The Tea Party insurgents felt betrayed. Caught off-guard, Republican voters also felt genuinely angry – perhaps even betrayed.
The Obama victories have often been described as landslides – and by comparison with the elections after 1992 in some ways they were – but in historical terms – convincing might be a better term to employ. Winning and losing in US elections is not at all as it used to be. For many years the term ‘landslide’ was used to describe a virtual clean sweep of a vast majority of the the states that compose the USA. In this more divided partisan age a landslide still leaves a lot of Red (or indeed Blue) states standing.
It is the states – in their incarnation as the Electoral College that actually elects the US President. Each state is allocated a tally of electors which equals in total the number of Representatives and Senators the state sends to the federal Congress in Washington DC. This means no state has fewer than 3 electoral votes and for this purpose the District of Columbia also has 3 votes these days. It also means that smaller states own a greater say in the election than the number of voters in the state would arithmetically suggest. There are 538 Electoral votes in all and 270 are therefore required to elect a president.
The great landslide (and landmark) elections of the modern era remain: FDR in 1932 and 1936; Johnson in 1964; Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984. In all of these elections the winner swept of nearly all the states. It also happened that this sweep was matched by a similar sweep in the popular vote – something in the region of 60% or more to 40% or less. Winning the popular vote however does not necessarily mean winning the presidency. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 election but – after engaging the Supreme Court in its business – it was G.W. Bush who was elected president having finally secured the electoral votes of Florida – hanging chads and all and a state where his brother Jeb Bush was coincidentally Governor.
It was Jeb Bush appointee Katherine Harris as Florida’s Secretary of State who ensured the 2000 election in the state would run to the partisan advantage of the Republicans. She had authorised a systematic purge of the electoral register which removed swathes of mainly black (and therefore mainly Democrat) voters. Many did not know they could not vote until election day when they were turned away from the polling booths. In this there was nothing odd or even new – partisanship has been part and parcel of American politics since the election of Thomas Jefferson. It is in the politics of gay friendly Democratic Illinois as much as in homophobic Republican North Carolina or Mississippi.
However, the US presidency is won or lost not in terms of individual votes cast for an individual candidate but in terms of the number of states won by an individual candidate. Therefore, the election this November is best thought of less in terms of a single election but rather in terms of one of fifty odd separate but simultaneous elections in the individual states of the union and the District of Columbia (Washington DC).
This year marks the first open ‘election’ since 2008 – that is to say one where the incumbent President cannot run again for office. Thus, both the Democrat and Republican parties start on a level playing field and historically it is rare for the party of the incumbent president to retain the White House for what is effectively three consecutive terms. Since 1945 this feat has been achieved only once – in 1988 by the Republicans under Bush the Elder against Democrat nominee, Michael Dukakis.
This ginx may explain to some degree why it appeared on the Democrat side as if there was not really going to be much of a contest for the nomination. For a while there was only one candidate – Hillary Clinton. For a while it looked as if the primaries might really be a form of coronation. Who after all had heard of 74 year old Socialist Bernie Sanders? But Sanders, like many before him, has run a successful insurgent campaign against the favourite and – rather akin to that of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 – it has attracted a lot of enthusiastic,young support. It has also exposed Clinton’s many weaknesses as a candidate with a long and controversial past. Moreover, Hillary – in contrast to Bill – is not a natural on camera. She has something of Nixon’s awkwardness if not quite his shiftiness. She also lacks Obama’s assured, sauve eloquence. She also lost a bruising the nomination battle in 2008 where she had been the early and firm favourite. Her early set backs in this campaign made it look as if history might repeat itself. It hasn’t and she is inevitably the stronger for the challenge and this may well turn out to be a deciding factor in the Fall.
The Democratic nomination struggle is not yet formally over but it is safe to say Hillary Clinton will be the nominee. Hillary has won more votes than Sanders – near 3 million of them – and more states and more delegates than Sanders. Indeed, even if there were no super-delegates and these delegates had been elected on a per state basis Clinton would still hold the same commanding lead as she holds now and she would still be on course to win the nomination. Bernie Sanders has latterly complained the system is rigged against him because of the so called super delegates – that is the convention delegates who will participate and vote at the Democrat Convention because they are elected Democrat politicians or elected officials of the Party. Sanders makes no mention of the fact that in the Caucus states – where he has won most convincingly – delegates are selected by activists turning out to long meetings in halls and even houses where after three hours or more delegates are selected by a show of hands – rather than by ordinary voters turning up to polling stations and marking a ballot.
Sanders says he intends to take his campaign to the convention and alike Teddy Kennedy in 1980 Sanders says he intends to make his voice heard there. Clinton may wisely give the Senator his say and make concessions in the party platform by which later on she will not feel bound. Sanders success may also have a profound effect upon the choice of Vice Presidential nominee. No one expected Sanders to give Clinton such trouble – his outsider’s authenticity contrasting with her insider pragmatism. And it should be remembered that the term “insider” for many is but a code word for crooked. In all this it is easily forgotten that Hillary Clinton herself once was a Wild Turk and that her detractors on the left today would surely have felt the same about that hero of the New Deal of yesterday – the sainted FDR – who was the ultimate party fixer and insider. Clinton is now easily dismissed as ambitious and part of the corrupt establishment. It could be that Hillary will be alike William McKinley rather than FDR or Lyndon Johnson. We will never know until or unless she reaches the White House.
Still Sanders – an Independent Socialist senator from Vermont who has routinely caucused with Senate Democrats – has struck a chord – alike say Jeremy Corbyn over here – with young (educated) voters who increasingly feel the political system is rigged against them. If they can be mobilised the terms of political trade may be forever changed but such change always remains an ‘if’ until it happens; and after is has happened it always looks inevitable. History from its lofty ery in hindsight is replete with the wisdom of the ages – be they the reasons for the Fall of Rome or the success of the Reformation; or the cause of the French Revolution or the rise of the Nazis. Whether they are true explanations is always a matter of debate and never a matter of fact.
More powerful than the Bernie Sanders insurgency on the left has been the Donald Trump insurgency within in the Republican Party on the right. The extraordinary thing about this insurgency is it follows hard on the heels of the earlier Tea Party insurgency within Republican ranks which had looked as if it might finally get a suitably hardline Conservative nominee in the form of a Ted Cruz or Ben Carson one of the other many many Republican hopefuls. The placid and seemingly predictable nature of the Democrat race and the fierce nature of the Republican race as manifest in its many TV debates has in many ways caught all the attention of the Media – for good and for ill. At times the whole process has felt as if it should be taking place either in the colosseum in Rome or in circus run by P.T. Barnum. The Establishment candidates – Governor Scott Walker – Senator Marco Rio and Governor Jeb Bush never got their rhetorical birds to flight before their goose was well and truly cooked. This forum – and with so many candidates striving to get noticed by the camera – played rather to strengths of Billionaire Reality TV showman – Donald Trump. The Donald quickly turned these staid debates into something akin to an episode of the Apprentice – where he used all his savvy tactical bullying to fire one of the Republican hopefuls after another.
Trump has also well understood the genuine anger, frustration and public contempt for politicians of every tribe. He well knows the weariness of many voters with a profession whose best exponents routinely employ what they see as a language designed to peddle falsehood. Trump well knows the public appetite to see those who know what’s best knocked from the pedestals. And just like P.T. Barnum trump knows how to entertain and to shock and tiillate his audience – an audience longing for a novelty dish to tease their jaded palates. The showman has shown he is not only to be taken seriously and at his own best estimation but that he knows the Media circus better than many of the commentariat who believe themselves to be opinion shapers and who tend to take themselves rather too seriously. Donald Trump is many things but he is not a joke. But surely you cry: “he can’t be President” – and surely I reply – “yes he can” – no, you shout – “you can’t be serious” – well is Mr Trump in truth any less serious than Nigel Farage or Marine le Pen or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán?
The financial crisis as left a political as well as an economic legacy. The young and educated feel the whole system is stacked against them – but anger is not their exclusive prerogative. It is also deeply felt by many older – often in the UK and USA mainly white blue collar voters – who also feel more and more insecure and more and more threatened by an economic system in which they cannot compete successfully. These voters see the root of this problem as immigration. Migration is just one of the many unforeseen consequences of globalisation. Similarly, the collapse of authoritarian government in Eastern Europe and the spread of education in developing countries in every continent has fed ambitions for many to seek out a better future in the western democracies. Much as the US drew huge numbers of economic migrants in the early twentieth century so successful and stable European states are now a draw for migrants anxious to better themselves and their families. What indeed could be more natural – migration is a force long known to shape economic and social history and this age will be no more immune from it effects than earlier times. At the same time – societies in the Western democracies have themselves embraced a global experimental capitalism which has made swathes of its citizens less financially secure whilst making its richest unimaginably richer. Again this might not have mattered since the lure of the capitalist casino always plays happily so long as the punters have their coins for the slots and their chance to win a fortune. However, other legacy of the financial crash has been the very public failure to hold those responsible for the crash to any serious account. The rules it seems are the little people lose their jobs when things go wrong but the top brass get golden handshakes and bonuses. in a world where images are quickly made – rather like Marie Antoinette in the last days of the ancien regime – once a perception becomes established it is hard to shake it free from the public’s mind.
Those like Bernie Sanders (and perhaps Jeremy Corbyn) who believe we can put this genie back into the bottle with a dose of old fashioned public ownership and redistribution of wealth suddenly find they have a listening public. Others on the right like Nigel Farage or Donald Trump who think we can build walls and recreate a lost world the sovereignty of the nation state own a similar appeal. It is not their solutions that their followers embrace so much as the frustrated sense that something different needs to be done. Last time a systemic crisis of this nature came upon the world was in the Great depression of the 1930’s. Then capitalism eventually and reluctantly bent to the prevailing winds and embraced the New Deal or Democratic Socialism but not before some very nasty things had come out of the woodwork.
We have Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We have two parties so entrenched in their various ‘safe’ states that we can be certain that an old fashioned landslide either way is not likely. We have polling that predicts Hillary Clinton will win. We have polling that tells us Hillary is greatly hated. The wise saws look at the Electoral College math and tell you there are more safe Blue (Democrat) states than Red (Republican) states. The commentariat want to talk up Trump to keep the contest interesting but in their heart of hearts they believe Clinton will emerge the winner – not least because it is expected that President Obama will campaign strongly for her.
Then we have the unpredictable – the angry blue collar voters in States like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan who may well vote for Donald Trump in large enough number to flip these into the Republican column. Then we have fact that both Latino and Black voter registration is on a sharp rise. These voters will vote for Hillary Clinton and may well bring normally Red states – Arizona, Georgia, and Mississippi into play for the Democrats. There is some scant polling that shows Utah – that reddest of Republican states – with its large Mormon population whose religion Trump has trashed over the years – might even vote for Clinton. Then there is polling that suggests the young voters who have flocked to Sanders will not vote for Hillary. Conventional wisdom says Hilary has the natural advantage – but conventional wisdom said Trump would never get the Republican nomination and that Bernie Sanders would present no challenge to Hillary Clinton.
We must return to the Math – it is a truth that the current state of things leaves more routes for a Democrat to assemble the necessary 270 Electoral College votes than for a Republican. It must be said that there is no clear sign that these allegiances will change – save in the handful of toss-up states that have decided every election since 1988. If the demographics moves steadily in favour of the Democrats the politics is moving against old political establishments. As the Labour Party long the laird of Scotland’s politics has discovered when the peasants revolt no one is safe. Trump may be the very sign that such a Revolution is underway.
Two things can be said with certainty: the Republican Party after this will never be the same; and the pyroclastic fallout from the Financial crisis has changed the political landscape forever. In changed political climates political parties can quickly become extinct – look no further the Tories and the Liberals; or the Whigs and the Know Nothings…nothing indeed is forever in politics.