As the U.S. presidential election enters its final weeks, political scientists studying the data find themselves asking: How did we get here?
How did a man who was, up until last year, hosting a reality TV show become the Republican presidential nominee? How did Hillary Clinton, one of the world’s best-known politicians, battle into June with a previously unknown senator from Vermont?
Much has to do with the rise of anti-establishment sentiment that drove the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, says Stanford Graduate School of Business professor David Brady.
Now the big question for political scientists in November is: Will 2016 be an odd blip on the American timeline, or is this a sign of a fundamental shift in the country’s politics?
Brady presented his analysis of the 2016 election at a recent alumni weekend lecture and shared why he believes Clinton would likely defeat Trump if the election were held today.
How We Got Here
When Trump declared his candidacy in June 2015, pundits could have been excused for dismissing it as non-serious. Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker was his party’s early favorite in the polls, running on a familiar platform of conservative social values, lower taxes, state rights, and a smaller federal government. Walker faced more than a dozen other career Republicans with essentially the same platform.
Trump’s populist, anti-immigrant, nationalist message resonated with less affluent, non-college-educated whites, many of whom felt they were worse off financially than they were five years ago, Brady says.
This base of voters, combined with the large Republican field and winner-take-all rules in the primaries, gave Trump an advantage, while Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and others fought to be the establishment candidate.
Meanwhile, a twin anti-establishment sentiment on the left was working in the Democratic primaries. Given Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity, it was clear that an anti-establishment candidate would emerge, but no one saw Sanders as that alternative. His anti-Wall Street and inequality themes caught on with millennials and the disaffected, and his message of higher minimum wages, greater industry regulation, and reduced military spending resonated with many independents. Not only that, his fundraising and vote totals were astounding for a declared socialist. During the primaries, pollsters discovered that independents who felt that the political system favored wealthy people overwhelmingly favored Sanders. In contrast, Democratic Party identifiers went for Clinton 60% to 40%. The difference between the two parties was that in the Republican Party, the anti-establishment candidate prevailed, while in the Democratic Party, the establishment candidate won out over the outsider.
This election, like most national elections before it, will be decided by undecided voters living in battleground states, Brady says.
He points to polling data from YouGov and The Economist, which survey the same 5,000 voters each month, and those data show that neither Trump nor Clinton has captured their party’s voters as well as Romney or Obama had in 2012. However, the good news for Democrats is that they now lead the Republicans by about 9% compared to the 6% they had in 2012.
Of voters who would not declare for either Trump or Clinton in the September poll, the question is: How will they decide come November? A poll asked these undecided and uncommitted voters that question, and Clinton won by about 15 points.
Of those surveyed who still would not choose between Clinton and Trump, the common feature was that they disliked both candidates. They said that Clinton was “untrustworthy and a liar,” and that Trump was not qualified, was a bully, “and other things that I can’t repeat,” Brady says.
“This set of voters, which is not a small number ... seem to be pretty hardcore in their dislike of both candidates, so maybe they won’t vote,” Brady says. “And I can't tell you based on past experience [what they’ll do] because we’ve never had candidates as unpopular as these.”
Despite Clinton’s establishment image and unlikability among voters, several key factors are working in her favor, Brady says.
First, the country has more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, with somewhere between 70% to 80% of Democrats saying they planned to vote for her, Brady says.
Given Trump’s support among the Republican base, he’d have to capture more than 60% of the unaffiliated vote to win — something only two candidates have ever done before: Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984, Brady says.
Trump’s message seems to be resonating chiefly with white voters, and he’s failing to capture the support of black and Latino voters.
Those factors give Clinton an edge, but the result is far from a foregone conclusion as the candidates begin their debates and hit the campaign trail hard in these final weeks.
“She hasn’t sealed the deal with Democrats. Trump has not sealed the deal with Republicans,” Brady says.
Ripple Effect of the Protest Vote
Brady is studying what the anti-establishment vote means for future elections. His research ties the rise of Donald Trump to Brexit and anti-immigrant political parties in Denmark and France.
In the extreme, 2016’s protest vote — on the left and right — could signal a future break in America’s two-party system.
“We live in very turbulent times,” Brady says. “If you look back on American history or European history to see when the last time there was this same kind of turbulence … it’s 1870 to 1890.”
This period (1870–1890) was when the U.S. and western Europe entered the second Industrial Revolution and the economy shifted from small farming and regional trade to factory work, urbanization, and the transfer of wealth to companies and individuals.
Today the world economy is transforming yet again, as widespread automation replaces manufacturing jobs and jobs shift to low-wage regions, changes that have increased political instability.
Political scientists will look to elections around the world over the next five years to determine whether the economically motivated messages of nationalism and protectionism continue to rally voters.