“If the Brits can vote for Brexit, then Americans can elect Donald Trump.” So say many serious people inside and outside the US. There are many reasons why this comparison is flawed. But even if the odds are low that the Brexit vote will inspire Americans to wage war on their own political elite, and that US-style populism will make Trump president, it will still pose serious challenges for President Hillary Clinton.
First, it’s important to note differences in the demographics of the UK and US. It’s true that British voters who support Brexit tend to be white working-class citizens alarmed by immigration, anxious over the impact of globalisation on their job prospects, and angry at politicians who don’t seem to care. But the US is a much more diverse country than the UK. Some 94% of votes in the Brexit referendum were cast by white people. In the US, the number will be closer to 70%, and polls suggest that Trump’s advantage among the less educated isn’t large enough to overcome his deficit with the better educated and with racial minorities.
In addition, the population of foreign-born UK residents has doubled in less than 20 years. The foreign-born percentage in the US has grown gradually over more than 150 years, ensuring that the intensity of anti-immigrant anxiety is not the same. Further, the Brexit referendum posed voters a relatively abstract question about their country’s ties to a faceless institution. US voters will choose this November between two very well-known faces. Finally, US presidential elections are not decided by the national mood, as in Britain, but by peculiarities of the US system that make the battle for a few demographic groups in key states overwhelmingly important.
For all his fame, Trump faces an uphill fight. Hillary Clinton’s Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and the “electoral college” system used in the United States extends her advantage further. To win, a candidate must earn 270 electoral votes. The 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) that Democrats have won in six consecutive elections would give Clinton 242 electoral votes. The 13 states that Republicans have won in those contests total just 102. In short, Clinton must win just two or three of the remaining 19 states to claim victory. Vote-rich Florida alone would push her to victory.
Clinton has other formidable advantages. Reports filed by the Clinton and Trump campaigns show that she has raised about nine times more money than Trump. The difference in the number of campaign workers around the country is even larger. Republican officials are openly sceptical that Trump is capable of lifting his game.
If Trump is to win, he must target his populist message towards a few vote-rich states that usually support Democrats for president, those with large numbers of white working-class voters anxious over immigration and trade policies. He is likely to inspire unusually large numbers of this group to vote for him, but his abrasive style and nativist message will also inspire large numbers of other new voters to turn out against him.
But a likely Trump loss should not obscure the reality that many Americans are just as hostile towards globalisation and as anxious to reassert control over borders and job prospects as a growing number of Britons and Europeans. Trump is an imperfect messenger in a hundred different ways, but the warning signs of growing public anger are coming from both right and left. Trump’s argument that a new president must “make America great again” won him the Republican Party nomination. But Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s forceful and persistent rival for the Democratic Party nomination, has advanced many of the same arguments to younger leftist audiences.
Candidate Clinton has responded to these challenges by talking down trade and withdrawing support for the Transpacific Partnership, an enormous trade agreement that Barack Obama considers a crucial part of his legacy. But if President Hillary Clinton believes that, after defeating Trump and Sanders, she can easily revert to pro-trade, pro-globalisation policies, she will have misunderstood why voters have made her president.
And if she misses the message, her presidential “honeymoon” won’t last long.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of “Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.”
The views expressed are personal