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Trump, Clinton and the Battle for the Soul of America


US election blackboard with options between Trump and Clinton

By Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences

I grew up near Harrisburg in Pennsylvania and have lived in Philadelphia, Washington DC and Boulder, before moving to the UK in 1993. I came to The University of Nottingham just over a year ago as the first Pro Vice Chancellor in the Faculty of Social Sciences. As a political scientist I’ve naturally followed US politics – and this year’s campaign for the US Presidency has captivated the world’s attention as Hillary Clinton seeks to be the first female president of the United States and has been campaigning against billionaire Donald Trump, who for many has confounded the odds as an outsider to become the Republican candidate.

Understanding the popular and Electoral College votes

Since the 1950s and the Eisenhower elections, the American presidential electoral map has seen, for a large number of years, states that have been ‘red’ for the Republican support they’ve expressed. The 1964 Johnson election saw a large swathe of ‘blue’ states but not until the 1990s with the election of Bill Clinton did the country see strong patches of Democratic support – mostly concentrated in the East and West Coast as well the Midwest and Great Lakes area. Through the Bush years the red returned, but with eight years of Obama, we see the same pattern as Clinton: East and West Coast blue, South and Middle of the US red. These electoral patterns are largely based on population size and an urban/rural split. Populous areas, like the coast states and cities, vote Democrat, while rural areas vote Republican.

The difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote is important for understanding the current race. In 2012, Obama won with 51% of the popular vote but got 61.7% of the Electoral College vote. Trump and Clinton have been neck and neck in the popular vote polls over the summer and early autumn, but the Electoral College vote predictions favour Clinton. There are a number of key states to watch in the run up to the election which have large numbers of Electoral College votes up for grabs and tend to swing between Republicans and Democrats – including Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. With only a couple of weeks left to go before the election at the time of writing, the swing states have started to turn blue in favour of Hillary Clinton, where she now has over an 85% chance of winning the Presidency.

Trump v Clinton

The primary process for selecting the candidates saw Trump challenged by Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, while Clinton only really had to content with Bernie Sanders. The early primaries had a strong showing for Trump and he gained momentum throughout the process to win the nomination, despite increasingly deep reservations from members across the Republican Party. Clinton’s lead was not a given, but she secured the nomination once Sanders conceded late in the race. It became clear to me as early as Super Tuesday on 2 March that the final contest would be between Trump and Clinton – and that the Presidency was Clinton’s to lose.

With the primary race over, the two candidates focused their attention on the party conventions. Trump made a populist appeal to the people – ‘I am your voice’ – and pledged that only he could make America great again. Clinton sought to show how America can work together and that her partnership with America would deliver greater benefits for a middle class that has lost out.

Clinton enjoyed a post-convention bounce in the polls that was more sustainable than Trump’s slight rise, but the summer campaign saw her lead slip, and then almost collapse after her health issues were revealed. By the time of the first debates, her lead had all but evaporated and fell within the statistical margin of error. Across all three debates however, Clinton showed that her studied preparations began to chip away at Trump, whose popular polling numbers experienced a steady decline. His fortunes have not been helped by the release of a tape that captured his remarks about women and attempts to defend himself have been met with further allegations, adding to his electoral woes. Electoral College vote predictions now suggest that he only has a 13% chance of winning.

A bitter and controversial campaign

Both candidates are hugely unpopular and have struggled to capture the heart and soul of America. Hillary Clinton has been dogged by worries over her use of a private email server as Secretary of State and her role in the Benghazi attack in Libya. Donald Trump has faced allegations beyond his sexual misconduct that include failure to pay suppliers across his business empire, failure to pay and disclose his taxes, and doubts about his temperament to be President. In the second debate he threatened to appoint a special prosecutor to put Hillary Clinton in jail, and in the third debate failed to confirm whether or not he would honour the outcome of the election. These decidedly anti-democratic statements coupled with his cavalier references to nuclear weapons and long-held international alliances have made domestic and foreign observers very nervous of a Trump Presidency.

I’ve maintained throughout the campaign that Trump needed to reach out beyond his core supporters in order to win the Presidency. He has been very effective as an outside candidate to work within the Republican Party to convert his populist message into the nomination. He has failed, however, to soften his tone or to garner support from groups outside his base. He has attacked a wide range of groups in America, especially women, which has narrowed his base even further. Clinton, as a centre-left candidate, enjoys a larger share of the changing demographic in the United States, with much more support among African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans and equal support among white Americans (but those that are educated and female). The underlying changes in the demographic patterns in the US have presented a real challenge to the Republicans, who have not developed a strategy to respond in 2008, 2012 and now it looks like 2016. The white population is decreasing while the non-white population is increasing in voter turnout, while America is becoming more socially liberal, less religious and less Christian. And it is these changes that are currently benefitting the Clinton campaign.

This has been a bitter and controversial campaign, and when voters go to the polls on election day, America will wait with baited breath. Some are worried that the US election will be ‘Brexit-like’ with a surprise Trump victory – but it is not a referendum where the conversion of votes to victory is mediated through the Electoral College, which at present strongly favours Clinton.

US Election 2016: The Results

Join Todd and American and Canadian Studies academic Dr Christopher Phelps for a special event on 9 November at University Park Campus to reflect on the election results. The event is free but booking is essential – secure your place.

Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences. He is author of numerous books, articles, reports, and reviews on the politics of development, democracy and human rights. He is an international consultant who has travelled to over 40 countries working on the measurement and analysis of democracy and human rights. He is also a professional magician, member of the prestigious Magic Circle, founder of The British Society of Mystery Entertainers, and Visiting Professor of Performance Magic at the University of Huddersfield.

Posted on Thursday 27th October 2016

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