This is the text of my presentation to the International Democrat Union Campaign Managers Meeting in Washington on 24 February 2017. It covers subjects including the reasons for President Trump’s election, voters’ views on his early weeks in office, expectations for the Trump administration, policy challenges including healthcare, and how the Democrats are reacting to defeat.
Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for inviting me. If you happened to hear my presentation in Munich last month, let me reassure you that this is an expanded and updated version, with new material.
Much of the research I am about to share is described in more detail in my book Hopes and Fears, which was published last month. I had hoped to be able to bring you each a copy, but I have to tell you that we have temporarily sold out, which goes to show just what indispensable reading it must be. You can still order it from Amazon, or direct from Biteback Publishing, and I hope you will all take the chance to help a struggling author.
For the Americans in the room, let me say I hope it doesn’t seem too presumptuous that I should have come to Washington to tell you about your own election. Over the last twelve years or so, most of my research has been focused on British politics, but the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton demanded a closer look. I came to listen and learn, and to report what I found, so I hope the observations of an objective outsider will be of interest.
My Ashcroft In America project included 32 focus groups in the weeks leading up to the election in seven states: Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and Ohio. On top of that, I conducted a poll of nearly 30,000 voters. I wrote up my observations of the groups every week on my website, as well as producing a weekly podcast featuring clips from the groups, as well as my interviews with figures including Mitt Romney, Reince Priebus and Howard Dean. We also had a guest appearance from the wonderful Kristin Soltis Anderson, whom you heard from this morning.
We were not doing “horse race” polling to try and predict the outcome. The idea was to look at the election from the voters’ point of view, to understand how they saw the choice and see what this told us about the state of American politics more widely.
First, some thoughts on the contest itself: how voters saw the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and why Trump came out on top.
I think the first point to make here is that Americans who voted for Donald Trump did so with their eyes wide open. There is a view in some quarters, especially overseas, that the only people who voted for Trump were lunatics or bigots, or that his supporters were somehow duped or misled. I don’t think that was the case at all. As in all elections everywhere, voters knew they were choosing between imperfect alternatives.
Donald Trump’s imperfections were clear, and those who were considering voting for him could see them. People worried about his temperament and said he had no “filter” – that he would say whatever came into his head and act however he wanted to. While this was sometimes entertaining, it also made people wonder what he might do when representing the US on the international stage. He was perhaps not ideally suited to diplomacy, and as one of our participants in Ohio put it, “do we want him smacking the Queen of England’s butt during a meeting?”
Trump’s remarks had sometimes gone beyond the unpredictable and into the offensive, especially when it came to his rhetoric on immigration or some of his thoughts on women. Indeed, when various women accused him of assault, many thought there was probably some truth in the claims.
As for his policies, these were rather hazy. Asked what he planned to do as president, people would cheerfully repeat “Make America Great Again”, and then give a long list of all the things they hoped he would “fix”.
But the only specific policy most people in our focus groups could recall was building a wall on the Mexican border, which few said they expected to happen in practice. Even his supporters tended to see this as a metaphor, or just a way of emphasizing that he planned to take a tougher line on illegal immigration.
Despite this, Donald Trump unarguably represented change. As all his flaws went to show, he was not a politician and did not try to behave like one. As a businessman, he had a reputation for doing deals and getting things done – in stark contrast to the political establishment that seemed incapable of changing anything for the better.
And being extremely rich – something that often counts against politicians on the centre-right – he was not beholden to any of the donors, lobbyists or vested interests who they believed held such sway over Washington.
If the details of his policies were obscure, there was no doubt that he represented a new direction because he shared people’s priorities. People in our focus groups worried about their job security, healthcare, prospects for their children, the effects of immigration, the state of their infrastructure, and America’s standing in the world – all things Donald Trump said he wanted to do something about.
And for people who felt their values were under attack, as many did, Trump’s refusal to be politically correct came as a breath of fresh air. He would halt the leftward, liberal drift in policy that they felt they had seen under President Obama – and which would continue under Hillary Clinton. And crucially for conservatives who were doubtful about Trump’s other qualifications, he would appoint the right judges to the Supreme Court.
Hillary Clinton’s strengths as a candidate could have been designed to exploit Trump’s shortcomings. If he was temperamental, she was measured. If he was unclear on policy issues, she was always well-prepared, fluent and articulate. For some of the undecided voters we encountered, these things – combined with her experience, and the fact that she was not Donald Trump – were reason enough to vote for her.
But as with Trump, the downsides of Clinton were the flipside of her strengths. She was experienced because she was the ultimate Washington insider, the embodiment of the political establishment that so many people longed to be rid of. Her long experience also made it impossible for her to respond convincingly to voters’ demand for something new.
And if Clinton was measured, prepared, fluent and articulate, this also made her scripted and insincere. A politician, in other words. This is one reason why the televised debates, which were supposed to show why she was so much more qualified than her opponent, actually showed many people something else. As a man in Virginia told us after the first debate: “He’s up there showing who Trump is. She’s up there showing who that polished politician is, and then going behind the curtain and being her true self there.”
To many people, Clinton also exuded a sense of entitlement: as participants in our focus groups put it, she seemed to think it was “her turn” to be president. And her use of a private email server as Secretary of State was the most obvious example of someone who expected to be allowed to play by different rules from everyone else.
Moreover, they said, there was something “shady” about her. She always seemed reluctant to be open about things until forced to do so – whether the reasons for her collapse at the 9/11 memorial, or the workings of the Clinton Foundation – and this fed the widespread idea that she was actually corrupt, or worse.
Ultimately, enough people in enough places decided that of the two, Donald Trump’s flaws were the more forgivable. His failings were personal, but provided he appointed good advisers and managed to control his temper, they had little bearing on the way he ran the country.
Hillary Clinton’s failings were also personal, but with the important difference that they stood for things that affected the voters. Trump might be vulgar and have an unedifying attitude to women, but Clinton represented a Washington élite that lived by different rules, ignored the people it was supposed to represent and had no plans to improve their lives. That, it turns out, was the bigger disqualification from office.
One of the first things to strike us when we began our US research was a sense of déjà vu. Having spent months listening to British voters deliberate over the EU referendum, we found something eerily familiar in the way Americans talked about their own decision.
The parallels were not exact. Since American voters were choosing an individual, in some ways they had a better idea of what they were getting than their British counterparts: Donald Trump in the White House, the Oval Office, and the Situation Room. And while Trump would be president for four years with the option to renew, Brexit was for life (and beyond). But some similarities were evident. These are explored in more detail in my book, but very briefly, the main parallels I see are as follows:
First, voters on both sides of the Atlantic thought things were going in the wrong direction and wanted a change. Brexit meant change and so did Trump – but exactly what kind of change, no-one could be sure. People had to weigh the prospect of a new direction against the risk that came with it. Ultimately, enough people in enough places decided the risk was worth taking. As a man in Ohio put it the week before the election: “We know we’re not going to get any change with Hillary… A lot of people feel like, let’s roll the dice, and we’re going to have to put up with a whole bunch of bad stuff, but maybe we’ll get some things done with Trump.”
Second, many in the political and media world failed to understand that reasonable people might vote for Trump – just as they thought, five months earlier, that no sane or well-informed person could vote for Brexit. This attitude was abundantly clear to people in Britain who were inclined to leave the EU, and made them all the more determined to vote as they wished. By the same token, Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables” had the opposite of the intended effect – it simply created the “proud to be a deplorable” T-shirt industry.
Third, people’s decisions in both cases were closely related to how they thought they had fared from globalisation. In my referendum-day poll in Britain, Remainers were nearly twice as likely as Leavers to say they thought globalisation had been a force for good; in my US poll, Democrats and Republicans split in the same way. And just as reclaiming sovereignty was the biggest single reason Leave voters gave for their decision in the referendum, we found many American voters motivated by the idea of taking back control – that too much power was in the hands of financial institutions, multinational bodies, and domestic politicians who did not share their priorities or values.
Finally, I found in both cases that different sets of voters were divided not just by the immediate issues at hand, but on their wider outlook on life, and particularly their degree of optimism or pessimism.
Democrats and Remainers thought, on balance, that for children growing up today in their respective countries life would be better than it had been for their parents; Republicans and Leavers thought the opposite.
Most people in all groups felt that changes in the economy and society would bring more threats to their standard of living than opportunities to improve it – but Leavers and Republicans thought so by much bigger majorities than Remainers and Democrats.
And while Remainers and Democrats thought that, overall, life was better in their respective countries than it was thirty years ago, Leavers and Republicans thought it was worse.
But as we all know, society does not divide neatly between supporters of different parties. My American polling identified ten distinct segments of voters with different backgrounds, outlooks and priorities. They are represented here according to their degree of cultural or social conservatism, and their level of openness on economic questions like globalisation and free trade. The challenge for both parties is to maintain and expand a coalition of voters from this patchwork.
For example, our analysis found that the Republican base comprises two groups. The first we have called Republican Mainstream, who say their views are moderate to conservative, and take what you might call an orthodox centre-right position on most things. Then we have what we describe as the Fox News Militants, who describe their views as very conservative and evangelical, and tend to think Hillary Clinton should be in jail.
Beyond the base, Donald Trump was able to attract voters who had been less politically engaged, with lower levels of education, and who were generally feeling left behind. While these groups were all part of the Republican voting coalition, that doesn’t mean they all want the same things.
While the Republican Partisan segments strongly supported the idea of “smaller government offering fewer services” and that government benefits were too readily available, other parts of the party’s voting coalition disagreed – probably because they were more likely to rely on those services and benefits themselves.
And while the Republican Mainstream and Fox News Militants thought that “as the most powerful nation in the world, the US has an obligation to defend allies like NATO members, Israel and South Korea,” majorities in the Trump Target segments felt that the US “should only defend itself and has no obligation to protect other countries.”
For most voting groups, the biggest fear was being unable to pay for healthcare if a member of their family is seriously ill. But for the most committed parts of the Republican base, the biggest fear was “current immigration policies allowing terrorists into the United States”, followed by the prospect of “America becoming a socialist country like those in Europe”.
The question on peoples’ fears revealed some other striking differences between different kinds of voters, not least along lines of race. African Americans were no more or less afraid than the population in general of being unable to pay for healthcare or losing their job – but when it came to their fear of “a member of my family or a friend being treated unfairly by the criminal justice system”, African Americans gave a mean score twice as high as that of voters as a whole – making it the event they feared most of the eleven we tested. The level of anxiety that a friend or family member might be killed by a police officer was also twice that of the general population, putting it third on their list of overall fears.
On some questions, African Americans were much more positive. Six in ten black voters agreed that “overall, life in America is better than it was thirty years ago” – making them more likely to think this than any other demographic group. They were also much more likely than white voters to think that “for most children growing up in America today, life will be better than it was for their parents.” But they were also more likely than most to think that “in America today, people from some backgrounds will never have a real chance to be successful no matter how hard they work.”
The answer to a further question helps explain this discrepancy. When we asked people how much they agreed that “African Americans and minorities have the same rights and are treated in the same way in the United States as whites”, white voters gave a mean score well above 50, and our Republican Mainstream and Fox News Militants gave a score above 70.
But African Americans themselves were much less likely to agree. Their mean score was just 27.9, and more than half gave a number between zero and ten – the very bottom end of the scale.
Those are some of the main points from what we found before the election about the voters and what went into their decision. Since then, we have been back to find out what they expect from the new President, and what they think of the show so far.
For this exercise we held focus groups earlier this month in Macomb County, Michigan – one of the key counties that switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.
One thing everyone agrees on is that President Trump is doing what he said he would do – or, depending on your outlook, “actually following through with some of this crazy stuff”. Whoever they voted for, people were prepared to give him credit, if sometimes grudgingly, for being a politician who seems intent on keeping his promises – an important point in itself for voters who had become used to being let down.
Our groups took place at the height of the controversy over the Executive Order restricting travel from seven countries, but we found his voters were fully behind him – as far as they were concerned, “he said he was going to take control of the borders, and he’s doing it.” If anything, they thought, more countries ought to be added to the list.
As for the protesters in Washington and around the country, they were going to “stomp their feet no matter what he does. He could hand them a thousand dollars and they’d still find something to bitch about.” This went double for complaints from overseas – here was a president who was not prepared to “kowtow” to foreign opinion, which was one of the many criticisms they had of his predecessor.
If the new administration sometimes seemed a bit chaotic, for some this was proof that President Trump really did mean to shake things up and do things differently. Not everyone was so keen, but – as with their voting decision in November – the way he went about things was simply part of the package, and something they knew they would have to accept if they wanted the change that came with it.
If his voters thought the President had made a flying start, this only heightened their expectations of what he could achieve in the next four years – especially with a Republican Congress behind him. Everything needed to change, and he was the man to do it.
We learned more about people’s expectations in a 10,000-sample poll completed on the eve of the inauguration. Not surprisingly, people said the economy, healthcare and national security were the three most important issues facing the country – with immigration also high on the list for those who had voted for President Trump.
Whether a president can achieve any of the things on the voters’ wish-list is another matter, so we asked people whether they expected President Trump to have more or less impact than a typical president in a number of areas. His voters think he will do more than most on practically all fronts, but they expect the “Trump Factor” to be biggest when it comes to “keeping jobs in the U.S. rather than letting them go overseas”, and “preventing illegal immigration into the United States”.
Indeed, by huge margins, people who voted for Donald Trump expect that America in four years’ time will be stronger, richer, fairer, and taken more seriously internationally than it is today. Clinton voters, predictably enough, think the opposite – in particular, that the country will become less fair and less united under the Trump administration.
One of the President’s biggest challenges will be in the area of healthcare. The great majority of Trump voters, and indeed half of Clinton voters, say they want to see Obamacare repealed. But importantly, most say they don’t want this to happen until another scheme is ready to take its place.
Exactly what this new scheme should look like is a rather more complicated question. Voters of all kinds complain about the cost of health insurance, and Trump voters in particular want to see the back of the Individual Mandate, which requires everyone to buy some form of health coverage. At the same time, two thirds of Trump voters want to keep the requirement for insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions. Squaring that circle will be perhaps the biggest test of the President’s deal-making prowess.
For international observers, the question that compels the most interest is the President’s approach to foreign policy, not least on the question of Russia. This was brought into focus before he took office when a CIA report claimed that Russia had been behind hacking operations against Democratic Party.
We found the majority of Clinton voters – but only eight in a hundred Trump supporters – believed that Russia had indeed tried to influence the presidential election, and that this had had a significant impact on the result. Those who voted for President Trump were divided as to whether Russia tried to influence the election but had no significant impact, or did not in fact take any action at all.
Since the President initially ridiculed the official reports of Russian hacking, this begged an important question. When it came to claims about actions that America’s enemies were taking against the United States, who were people most inclined to believe?
Intelligence agencies like the CIA…?
… or Donald Trump…?
…or indeed, neither of them?
Soberingly, more than a third of Americans overall said they would believe neither – though they were much more likely to believe the CIA than President Trump.
But the scepticism of Trump voters was directed elsewhere. If they had to choose between believing the CIA or Donald Trump, they would be more likely to believe Donald Trump.
It is always instructive to explore how things look on the other side of the fence. As someone who was closely involved in the Conservative Party in the years after Tony Blair swept to power, I learned a lot about how losing parties can react to defeat, and it is extraordinary how the pattern repeats itself.
The temptation is always to claim a moral victory, and to resist learning the right lessons from the result. The early signs are that the Democrats are going to be no exception.
We asked Clinton supporters how they explained the outcome of the election. They blamed the voters, for not understanding the issues that were at stake; the media, for failing to hold Trump to account and disseminating “fake news”; and, as we have already seen, the Russians.
Only just over a quarter said she had run a poor campaign, and only one in five said she had not been a very good candidate.
As to how they should deal with the new era, we found Democrats as a whole closely divided as to whether their party should work with the Trump administration to shape legislation, or do everything possible to oppose his plans.
But the most politically active, committed and progressive section of Democrat voters – what we called the Cosmopolitan Activists – were the most likely to say that the party should go for outright opposition. The risk for the Democrats is that, as with Labour in the UK, their direction will be set by people whose values and priorities are far removed from the kinds of voters they need to win back.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have a different version of the same problem. I mentioned earlier some of the tensions between the different parts of the Republican voting coalition, particularly the Fox News Militants and the less politically engaged voters with more everyday concerns.
But we can also expect some battles between the branches of government. As far as the voters are concerned, they now have one party in charge, with no excuse not to get things done. But in the event of disagreements between the White House and Capitol Hill, the evidence from my research is that Republican voters will be rooting for the President.
In our poll, we compared people’s levels of agreement with two separate statements: “The Republican Party understands the problems of people like me”, and “Donald Trump is a Republican who I respect and support.” In each of the Republican-leaning segments, Republican identifiers gave their level of support for Trump a higher score than their belief that the GOP is on their side.
Trump, in other words, was more of a pull for them than the party – an advantage we can expect him to exploit if he needs to. And as we found in our focus groups, even Republican Party supporters tend to see their leaders in Congress simply as part of the political establishment that needs to be shaken up.
But today, hopes are high. Above all, Donald Trump’s voters see him as a President who knows how to make things happen and get things done. For them, politicians are people who sell out their principles and promises in order to scratch each other’s backs – whereas President Trump is someone who knows the art of the deal. Much depends on how well he can maintain the distinction. Thank you very much.