I recently spent a month travelling in the US and the word on the street is that Donald Trump could be the next president.
Before the EU referendum earlier this year, I wrote about public opinion in the UK. At the time, most political pundits were predicting a remain result but there was a noticeable public sentiment to leave. Something similar is happening in the lead up to the US presidential election. While many political commentators still find it difficult to accept that Trump is a contender, many of the people whom I met on my road trip expect him to win.
Of course, given voting is not compulsory in the US, voter turnout will have a big influence on the result. I met quite a few people who will not be voting on 8 November. One woman in Memphis, Tennessee told me she doesn’t follow the campaign and won’t vote because nothing positive comes from it. A man from Montgomery, Alabama told me he’s ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions. But while some are disconnected from media and politics, others can’t bring themselves to back either Clinton or Trump.
Not voting is not unusual in the US where voter turnout is low compared with other OECD countries. Over the last 40 years or so, only a little over half of the voting age population participated in presidential elections. Voter turnout hovered in the 50 percentile bracket for decades: in 1996 it dipped down to 49%. Ineligible voters (including convicted felons) are included in these measures but the figures also indicate there is plenty of potential to engage new, eligible voters.
What we may see in November is the Trump phenomenon motivating previous non-voters to visit the polling stations, assuming they can be registered in time. Just as Barack Obama inspired a greater turnout of black people to vote, it seems Trump may increase the blue-collar vote. I met a couple of working class Trump supporters who said the last time they voted was for Reagan. These were only two individuals but it still seems significant that people who haven’t been to the polls since they voted for Reagan in 1980 or 1984 are saying they’ll be voting for Trump.
People are optimistic that Trump will deliver on jobs and the economy. A man from upstate New York told me workplace issues are key for people he knows who have taken financial blows in the past decade and who are either out of work or unable to retire. An increase in white, working class voters has the potential to swing the election Trump’s way, particularly in contested Rust Belt states such as Ohio.
While Trump may increase the white, working class Republican vote, Clinton may struggle to retain Obama’s youth and non-white votes. The election of the first female president of the United States would clearly be an historic landmark, yet this barely featured in my discussions, which suggests age and race are more important than gender in this election.
In terms of age, Trump and Clinton (who will be 70 and 69 respectively on election day) are the oldest pair of presidential candidates yet. If Trump wins, he will be the oldest first-term president in US history. Clinton would be the second oldest (Reagan was 69 years and 11 months). In contrast, Barack Obama, elected at the age of 47, was one of the youngest.
Older people I met tended to favour Trump while young voters were split. I met both Trump and Clinton supporters aged in their twenties as well as a few young people who said they’ll support Libertarian Gary Johnson. In the university cities of Austin and Nashville I spoke with students who still wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders.
This fragmentation could be significant as the youth vote was important to Obama’s successes in 2008 and 2012. In 2008 Obama attracted a whopping 66% of votes lodged by 18-29 year olds and a solid 60% in 2012. Other groups that turned out in strength for Obama were low income earners and non-whites.
It seems racial issues will impact this election too. I had several conversations with African Americans about the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a sense that racism in America is as bad as it was during segregation except that now it’s ignored by political leaders because of a denial that racism exists.
When I arrived in the US, Chris Kaepernick was making news for not standing for the national anthem before an NFL game. During the month I was on the road, there were at least two fatal police shootings of black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte, North Carolina and another soon after I left in El Cajon, California. Whatever the circumstances, these incidents have further agitated racial tensions.
Obama has appealed to African-Americans to vote for Clinton but it’s hard to imagine this group will turnout in the same numbers for Clinton as they did for Obama. Clinton will win a majority of black votes but the total number cast will likely be less. This may prove significant to the outcome in Florida, a critical swing state.
My overall impression is that reduced youth and African American Democrat votes overall coupled with an increase in blue-collar worker Republican votes could tip things Trump’s way. This is from speaking with people in southern states – Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas – that tend to vote Republican but where I also spoke to people visiting from other places in the US.
In contrast to the proud and determined Trump voters I spoke with, the Democrats I met reluctantly supported Clinton. Many see her as the least worse option. These attitudes may affect voter turnout and with it the outcome of the election.
I flew out of the US a couple of days before the first Trump/Clinton debate. Since then I’ve seen a shift in sentiment on social media by some Clinton supporters concerned about Trump’s prospects. A week on from that debate, Clinton’s lead on Trump in various polls appears to have grown but it is still close (the Real Clear Politics average of national polls gives Clinton a 3.9 point advantage). There is a growing realisation that Clinton is not a sure thing and Trump may actually be elected. Just as the Brexit vote was too close to call at the eleventh hour, so too is the US presidential election.
This post originally appeared on The Interpreter, a blog hosted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.