Why US Politics hasn’t changed

The Republicans and the Democrats are just as strong (and weak) as ever

Picture the scene: an independent billionaire has announced he’s running for president. He announces via a TV chat show – a forum he will use again and again to broadcast his views throughout his campaign – that he is running because the politicians in both of the main parties in Washington have no idea how to solve the nation’s problems. He claims they cannot balance the federal budget and are putting the government into debt, leading to huge tax increases, and that by signing a free trade agreement congress and the president will be selling out the American economy and giving an edge to foreign competitors. The press are dubious of him, suggesting his grasp of policy is tenuous at best and his views are scarily authoritarian. Saturday Night Live will mock him every weekend for his claims that he can solve all the nation’s problems because of his business experience, despite the failure of several of his businesses and him never having served in public office before. In response, he will claim the media establishment is rigged against him; a message that will resonate with voters across several states.

You may think I am attempting to sum up the presidential campaign, however I am actually referring to an election 24 years earlier. I’m describing the 1992 presidential campaign of Ross Perot a Texas businessman who ran against incumbent president George Bush Sr. and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton. Perot’s campaign clearly tapped into the same resentment that powered Trump to victory. Unlike Trump, Perot won less than 20% of the vote and zero states, while Clinton was able to win over the angry rural states. Then, once in office signed NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and other legislation which enlarged the power of the federal government.

What does this say about the election of 2016? That voters are angrier than before? Perhaps. That a better messaged candidate in the style of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, could allow an establishment politician to win over anti-establishment voters? Also true. That Trump’s campaign had some extra advantage Perot never had? This is where the reason for Trump’s victory lies. Unlike Perot, Trump ran as a Republican not an independent. Because of this Trump already had the electoral votes of larges red states (such as Texas) which hadn’t voted against a Republican in decades, on his side. This meant he only had to win over a few other states (in this case Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan) to reach the 270 votes required to win the white house.

Trump’s victory is a perfect example of the strength of the American Two-Party system. Nevertheless, for one of these two parties the results should be incredibly worrying. The lifelong Democrat candidate gained a convincing majority in the popular vote (meaning that party has now held the majority in 6 of the last 7 elections). While the Ross Perot figure – who only registered as a republican 2 years ago – outflanked the Republicans’ most popular figures on both the moderate centre (Jeb Bush) and the conservative right (Ted Cruz) . The Democrats now have an energised and angry voter base which could propel them to victory in 4 years, so long as they organise their campaign better. By contrast, Republicans have sacrificed both principles and any potential popularity to win. 2016 shows that the Republicans can always rely on votes from Red states, their problem is they can’t get votes anywhere else. If that trend continues their next four years in power may be their last.

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