Trump Has Brexit-Style Voters, But Not Enough of Them

The U.S. shares the U.K.’s economic and demographic anxieties, but a smaller proportion of whites will prevent a political earthquake.

Donald Trump speaking last month in Lynden, Wash.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
June 29, 2016, 8 p.m.

When United King­dom voters last week ap­proved a ref­er­en­dum to leave the European Uni­on, they un­der­scored how an era of un­re­lent­ing eco­nom­ic and demo­graph­ic change is shift­ing the ax­is of polit­ics across much of the in­dus­tri­al­ized world from class to cul­ture.

Con­trary to much ini­tial spec­u­la­tion, the vic­tory for the U.K. “Leave” cam­paign didn’t point to­ward vic­tory in the U.S. pres­id­en­tial elec­tion for Don­ald Trump, who is voicing very sim­il­ar ar­gu­ments against glob­al­iz­a­tion and im­mig­ra­tion; the Brit­ish res­ults, in fact, poin­ted up the obstacles fa­cing his agenda of de­fens­ive na­tion­al­ism in the vastly more di­verse U.S. elect­or­ate.

But the Brexit ref­er­en­dum did crys­tal­lize deep­en­ing cul­tur­al fault lines in U.K. polit­ics that are also likely to shape the con­test between Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton. In that way, the res­ults pre­fig­ure both a con­tinu­ing long-term re­align­ment in the elect­or­al base of each Amer­ic­an party—and a pos­sible near-term re­shuffle of the tip­ping-point states in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics.

Both geo­graph­ic­ally and demo­graph­ic­ally, the Brit­ish ref­er­en­dum split the U.K. along lines fa­mil­i­ar in Amer­ica. An ex­tens­ive Elec­tion Day sur­vey by Lord Mi­chael Ash­croft, a Brit­ish poll­ster, found that the “Leave” cam­paign car­ried over three-fifths of those without four-year col­lege de­grees, a com­par­able num­ber of seni­ors, and a nar­row ma­jor­ity of all whites. Elec­tion res­ults showed the cam­paign amass­ing big mar­gins out­side of ma­jor cit­ies. The cam­paign to re­main won over two-thirds of non­whites, about three-fifths of col­lege gradu­ates, and big ma­jor­it­ies among young­er and urb­an voters. In Lon­don, which re­cently elec­ted one of the West­ern world’s first Muslim may­ors, 60 per­cent voted to stay.

All of this rep­lic­ates Amer­ic­an pat­terns. Demo­crats now rely on an urb­an­ized co­ali­tion of mil­len­ni­als, minor­it­ies, and so­cially lib­er­al col­lege-edu­cated and single whites (es­pe­cially wo­men). Re­pub­lic­ans thrive among older, non-col­lege-edu­cated and re­li­giously de­vout whites, es­pe­cially out­side of ma­jor cit­ies. In 2012, Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried less than one-fourth of Amer­ica’s counties; he won few­er counties than any pres­id­en­tial win­ner since at least 1920. But be­cause Obama so dom­in­ated the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, he tri­umphed by 5 mil­lion votes.

Not only was the dis­tri­bu­tion of the Brit­ish vote fa­mil­i­ar, so was the mo­tiv­a­tion. Ash­croft’s poll found that Leave voters were char­ac­ter­ized by pess­im­ism about the next gen­er­a­tion’s eco­nom­ic pro­spects, and deep hos­til­ity to im­mig­ra­tion, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, and the chan­ging role of wo­men. Fully 80 per­cent of Leave voters said im­mig­ra­tion neg­at­ively af­fected the U.K. That ex­actly equaled the per­cent­age of Trump sup­port­ers who called im­mig­ra­tion more a bur­den than be­ne­fit in a ma­jor new na­tion­al poll. Stan­ley Green­berg, a long­time poll­ster both for U.S. Demo­crats and the U.K. La­bour Party, says a post-ref­er­en­dum sur­vey he con­duc­ted for the Brit­ish Trades Uni­on Con­gress found that among those who voted to leave, “the biggest ra­tionale, and the strongest ar­gu­ments, were op­pos­i­tion to im­mig­ra­tion.”

In these ways, the Brit­ish vote showed the power of the Trump-like anti-im­mig­ra­tion, anti-glob­al­iz­a­tion ar­gu­ment for white, older, non­urb­an, and non-col­lege-edu­cated voters who feel mar­gin­al­ized by eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al change. The key dif­fer­ence is that those voters rep­res­ent much less of the U.S. elect­or­ate. In par­tic­u­lar, while whites com­prised about 90 per­cent of Brit­ish voters, they will likely cast only around 70 per­cent of Amer­ic­an bal­lots. In the U.K., Ash­croft found 53 per­cent of whites voted to leave; be­cause Trump faces so much op­pos­i­tion from minor­it­ies, if he wins the same per­cent­age of whites he will lose in a land­slide. He will likely need well over 60 per­cent of whites to win.

If any­thing, the res­ist­ance to the Leave cam­paign’s nativ­ism from col­lege-edu­cated and urb­an U.K. whites un­der­lined the head­winds Trump will face reach­ing that num­ber. Since 2000, every Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate has run bet­ter among col­lege-edu­cated than non-col­lege-edu­cated whites. But even so, in mod­ern polling tra­cing back to 1952, no Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate has ever car­ried most of those col­lege-edu­cated whites. Yet the last five na­tion­al sur­veys have shown Clin­ton lead­ing Trump among this group. Green­berg pre­dicts that as the GOP is tugged more to­ward the res­ist­ance to im­mig­ra­tion (and di­versity more broadly) by its cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive blue-col­lar wing, more col­lege-edu­cated voters will de­fect, per­haps last­ingly. “They drove their col­lege-edu­cated voters out by the nature of this primary,” he said.

Re­volving around these cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences, the Trump-Clin­ton con­test seems cer­tain to ac­cel­er­ate the two parties’ long-term re-sort­ing in­to a cos­mo­pol­it­an, urb­an-centered Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion com­fort­able with demo­graph­ic and cul­tur­al changes and a primar­ily non­urb­an tra­di­tion­al­ist Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion mostly res­ist­ant to them. That on­go­ing shift’s ef­fect in 2016 may be to re­order the states at the tip­ping point of U.S. elec­tions.

Since 1992, Demo­crats have run bet­ter in older and heav­ily white work­ing-class Rust Belt swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wis­con­sin, Ohio, and Iowa than in young­er and di­verse Sun Belt swing states in­clud­ing Vir­gin­ia, North Car­o­lina, Flor­ida, Col­or­ado, and Nevada. (Over those six elec­tions, Demo­crats have won those Rust Belt states a com­bined 27 times out of 30 chances and the Sun Belt battle­grounds only 13.) But many signs sug­gest that align­ment may start to in­vert this year. With its big His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion, Flor­ida could be bet­ter ter­rain for Clin­ton than largely blue-col­lar Ohio or even Pennsylvania. And her cam­paign is in­tensely fo­cused on North Car­o­lina, which has voted Demo­crat­ic only once since 1992, while Trump sup­port­ers al­most uni­ver­sally agree that any plaus­ible path to the White House runs through the Rust Belt states Demo­crats have dom­in­ated since then.

The Brexit vote poin­ted to a re­shaped U.K. polit­ic­al or­der that re­volves more around cul­tur­al af­fin­it­ies—par­tic­u­larly at­ti­tudes to­ward im­mig­ra­tion and di­versity—than eco­nom­ic class. The Clin­ton-Trump race is poised to fast-for­ward that same shift across the At­lantic.

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