Barely a week ago the voters of the United Kingdom narrowly approved a referendum to leave the EU. The result underscored how economic pressures and demographic change is shifting the political paradigm in much of the industrialized, Western world.
Initial speculation on the result of the referendum somewhat favored how it benefited Trump. In reality though, while Trump mimics many of the anti-globalization and nationalistic trade tendencies of the “Leave” campaign it underscores just how much tougher a road Trump has to travel to succeed with the same theme in the US.
Brexit did crystallize the deepening political fault lines in UK politics though. It also highlighted some of the factors driving the Trump-Clinton contest. More importantly, it foreshadowed a likely long-term realignment of the electoral base of both Republicans and Democrats and perhaps a reshuffling of critical swing states.
Unsurprisingly, UK politics tends to correlate with American elections. That’s why the Brexit election day surveys mimicked the results of a US election. The Leave campaign carried over 60 percent of those without college degrees, a majority of seniors and whites overall. The Leave campaign was strongest in rural areas outside of major cities. The Remain camp won a majority of college graduates, the young, ethnic minorities and urban voters. Short of Northern Ireland and Scotland, the only other region to vote to Remain was London with almost 60 percent support.
This voting pattern replicates many American elections. Republicans are increasingly becoming the party of older, non-college educated whites, men and the religiously devout. The Democratic Coalition is growing among single women, the urban, the young and minorities. Obama won in 2012 by amassing a 5 million vote advantage in the country’s most urban areas.
British voters pessimistic abut the economy and next generation’s chances, hostile to unchecked immigration and multiculturalism as well as changing cultural norms were most likely to support Leave. A full 80 percent of Leave voters said immigration negatively impacted the UK. That closely mimics the number of Trump supporters in a new survey.
Brexit showed the power of anti-immigration, anti-globalization, older whites who are rural and non-college educated. The problem for Trump in replicating Brexit is that these voters are less of the American electorate. In the UK, about 90 percent of referendum ballots cast were from whites. In November, most experts predict whites will cast just over 70 percent of ballots. In the UK, 53 percent of whites voted to leave. Due to racial and ethnic cleavages in US politics Trump will likely need 60 percent or more of whites support to win.
Resistance to the Leave campaign came strongly from college-educated and urban UK whites. It is hard not to see a similar dynamic playing out in the US. The loss of the GOP’s managerial wing is not a new phenomenon. Since 2000, Democrats have carried more college educated voters than non-college educated. But, historically, Democrats have struggled to hold a majority of college-educated whites in Presidential elections.
There is evidence this election could see that change. Numerous national surveys have shown Clinton leading among these voters. However, Trump leads among white men and Clinton among white women and with fewer men attending college it is likely this is benefiting Clinton.
The Trump-Clinton contest is certain to accelerate the party’s long term resorting and shift it from a primarily geographical and demographical shift to a cultural one as well. Democrats will increasingly become the party of urban cosmopolitanists comfortable with cultural and economic changes while the GOP coalition will become more traditionalist and resistant to change. We could see this immediately in the 2016 contest’s swing states.
Historically, Democrats have run extremely well in the older, more white Rust Belt. This has occurred even as the heavily white South has shifted firmly to the GOP. Since 1992, Republicans have only carried Rustbelt states 3 times out of 30 chances. Contrast this with the GOP carrying Sunbelt States 17 times out of 30 chances.
However, these results do not tell the whole story. Since 2000, GOP vote totals have increased in the majority of Rust Belt states while Democrats were able to carry many Sun Belt states in 2008 and 2012 including GOP bastions such as North Carolina and Virginia. This has occurred as globalization has benefited many Sun Belt states and caused many Rust Belt voters to feel globalization has left them behind.
Party and ideological loyalties were scrambled during the Brexit vote. A full third of Labour voters (far more than initially thought) voted to Leave. A majority of Conservatives voted to leave but the breakdown of their votes was interesting. Labour dominated London overwhelmingly voted to stay but rural, labor strongholds voted to leave. Likewise, Conservative suburban and urban enclaves voted to remain but were overwhelmed by Conservative votes to Leave.
Much as Labour has done since the 90’s to pivot to a more urban, inclusive, demographically welcoming party Democrats have done the same. The result has been domination in the US’s urban enclaves. But, in doing so, they have ceded their ancestral base to the GOP. To incorporate these voters the GOP may be sacrificing many of its college educated supporters.
Brexit points towards a reshaped UK political order that revolves more around cultural affinities and values-particularly immigration and globalization-than economic class. Trump’s campaign has mimicked this shift and doubled down on it. As a result, the Clinton-Trump race could usher in a new, defining divide in American politics.