It’s tempting to look at the Brexit win and worry that it means we’ve underestimated Donald Trump’s odds of winning the American presidential election in November.
That leap is tempting, but wrong. Here are three reasons our election is different, and that Brexit is not a sign we have underestimated Trump:
The polls showed Leave might win, but they consistently say Trump is losing. Lots of polls in the last month showed Leave ahead of Remain, and even the polling shift in the last week produced only a slight Remain lead in EU referendum poll averages. The final polls were off, but not by that much. Analysts (including me) simply didn’t pay enough attention to poll results that showed that the outcome was uncertain and Leave might win. We have not similarly been disregarding polls that show Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton; except for a brief blip when he had secured his nomination and she had not, she has held a clear and significant lead in polling averages. The US is much more diverse than Britain. About 63% of Americans are white non-Hispanic, while about 87% of Britons are white. Nationalist phenomena, such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, tend to hold much stronger appeal to the majority ethnic group than with minorities. Indeed, Trump’s poll numbers are dismal with nonwhites, partly because he has a track record of racist statements, but also partly because nationalism is just not that appealing to ethnic minorities who reasonably perceive it as a threat even when it does not come laced with insults. A political campaign that appeals almost solely to white voters is much more likely to succeed in Britain than here, just because of the numbers. Trump is not a referendum – he is a candidate. While Conservative voters were more supportive of Leave than Labour supporters were overall, Leave was able to win because it peeled off many working-class Labour voters to join Conservatives in backing it. The fact that Trump is a Republican will limit his ability to peel off working-class Democrats who might share his dissatisfaction with the trade and immigration status quo, and who might even vote on his side on an issue-specific referendum. In part, that’s because working-class Democrats are much more likely to be nonwhite than working-class Labour voters, and therefore are likely to object to Trump on grounds of racism and nationalism.
The biggest reason to worry about Brexit and the US election is not about parallels in our political situations, or that Brexit might inspire Trump voters, but the possibility of direct economic effects. If Brexit causes a global recession, that could increase dissatisfaction with the status quo in the US and thereby boost support for Trump.
I don’t think the economic effects are likely to be severe enough to materially affect our election. But that is where I would place my worry – rather than fretting we have missed something in the already available data.