Tuesday 22 October 2019

Relax: Donald Trump can't win

There have been shocks aplenty in 2016, but a Trump victory won't be another one

We've been Trumped: People are much better at evaluating others than they are at weighing up complex issues. Photo: Getty
We've been Trumped: People are much better at evaluating others than they are at weighing up complex issues. Photo: Getty
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The extraordinary miscalculation of so many normally savvy people - from bookies to financiers - of the risk that British people would vote for Brexit led to a great deal of shock. Among the consequences was a reappraisal of Donald Trump's chances of becoming president of the US. That the British referendum was followed within weeks by Trump's best-ever poll ratings (which have slipped considerably since) gave many commentators cause to claim that he is in with a real chance.

They are wrong. Trump has almost no chance of winning in November.

Consider the Brexit effect first. It is by now the conventional wisdom that anger is the spirit of the age. If the British public is so angry with the country's "elites" and was prepared to vote for a course of action that the same elites said would be costly and damaging, then, the argument goes, it is more possible than previously thought that Americans could vote for a candidate whose fitness for the role of president has been questioned in an unprecedented manner.

While there is undoubtedly an inchoate anger among some voters in the western world, comparing a vote for membership of the EU with a vote for a living, breathing human being is to compare chalk and cheese. People are much better at judging other people than they are at weighing up issues as complex as membership of an historically unique political and economic entity. Over thousands of generations we have the developed the capacity to evaluate other human beings. Not only do we listen to what they say, but we have evolved the ability to read facial expressions, interpret tone of voice and pick up the slightest gesticulation.

We have evolved no such capacity to consider the more abstract constructs of modernity. It is for that reason that people will make much better judgements about somebody's character after spending a short period of time observing them than if they spend the same amount of time trying to figure out the pro and cons of something like the EU.

This is particularly important, because electorates in democracies don't spend a great deal of time weighing up candidates' positions (how many people read manifestos and policy documents?) and only really start actively paying attention in the weeks and days before they cast their votes. As such, tens of millions of Americans who are more interested in their own lives than politics have not yet made definite decisions about who they will plump for in November. When they do the moderate majority will see Trump as too dangerous to take a chance on.

Historically, American opinion polling supports the view that most people don't make their minds up until closer to the vote. Over many elections it is only in the final weeks of presidential campaigns that the polls tend to converge on what ends up happening at the ballot box.

Another reason to doubt that Trump has any chance of making it to the White House is the misleading signals the primaries send. The "selectorates" in the primaries are not a good representative sample of the American voting public. Trump may have won 13 million votes in the primaries, but that represents only a little more than one in 20 eligible voters.

The parallel with another curious going on in Britain is obvious. Jeremy Corbyn coasted to the leadership of the UK Labour Party with a massive majority last year, and is likely comfortably to defeat this year's challenger. All that is thanks to a party membership which in no way reflects British public opinion, as Corbyn's satisfaction ratings with the general public have shown so clearly. The lesson from both cases is that motivated (and angry) activists can hijack party selection processes to put in places unelectable candidates. Trump and Corbyn are the same in this respect.

Yet another factor that will militate against Trump is his leadership experience. Among the unique aspects of Trump's candidature in living memory is that he has won the nomination of one of the two major parties without having any history of working with and within the party organisation.

Trump's experience is different from most politicians. He has run businesses over many decades. But the sort of businesses he has run have not given him the experience and record of judgement that befits the highest political role in the US, and probably the world. It is my strong hunch that the moderate majority of Americans will arrive at that conclusion by election day.

Why? It is often said that as companies are not democracies, their leaders are closer to political autocrats than democrats. While that is true to some extent, depending on the type of organisation and style of the boss, anyone who runs a large organisation of any kind needs political skills.

Trump's businesses have always been small and highly centralised around him. He does not have the experience of running a large bureaucracy in which the answer to every problem can be reduced to "you're fired" or filing for bankruptcy which allows problems to be walked away from.

As the vast majority of people have at least some experience working in organisations and have a good sense of what makes a good boss and a bad boss, I am convinced that more people will conclude that Trump falls into the latter category and reject him as Commander in Chief.

A further reason Trump is set to fail is money. A year ago, Jeb Bush was the favourite for the nomination. He was in poll position not only because of his deep level of support within the upper echelons of the party but also owing to the huge "war chest" he had accumulated (of course, the two are linked, with corporate donors tending to pile in behind the most likely victor in order to buy influence once their candidate is in office).

If there has been anything positive to come out of Trump's unexpected securing of the Republican nomination it is that financial resources are less important than has been assumed heretofore. Although Trump is rich, he has spent only small amounts of money on TV advertising - one of the most important ways of winning votes in the US over the past half century - and campaigning more generally. The absence of a grassroots organisation has saved him vast sums.

But spending money on ads and having a network of experienced campaigners in every electoral district coast to coast remains an important asset, particularly in the most intense phase of the campaign, which is yet to come. As Trump has only raised any serious money in recent weeks and lags far behind Hilary Clinton, an unprecedented funding gap exists. An even bigger gap exists in terms of grassroots organisational capacity. Unless social media comes to dominate all other types of campaigning, Trump is certain to lose the "ground war" in the weeks ahead.

We live in troubled times and the US faces many challenges. But these are far from the worst of times. The American economy - always an important predictor of whether the incumbent party retains the White House - is enjoying one of the longest (if modest) expansions in its history.

When the moderate majority of Americans come to evaluate the risks posed by a personality such as Trump, they will conclude that however dissatisfied they are with many things, they would put a lot of what they are satisfied with at risk by electing him.

Making predictions in the punditry game can be risky. But predicting that Trump will not become president is as safe a prediction as one could ever make.

Sunday Independent

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