They hadn’t finished counting the votes before the pundits were weighing in on what the Brexit vote meant to the Trump presidential campaign. I stared at the television and yelled that they were wrong.
The decision by British voters to have the United Kingdom withdraw from the European Union has worldwide implications. Most of those though are economic rather than political. In the heat of the moment it is easy to say the vote has ramifications for domestic American politics. It is much more difficult to prove that point.
Tomorrow I will discuss the lessons of Brexit for American political strategists, especially for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Today though, the primary reason why the outcome is meaningless when applied to US domestic campaigns.
That voters in the UK would choose emotion over reason is seen by many American strategists as a morale booster for the Republicans. Like the Leave campaign, Donald Trump has appealed to emotion with a hefty disregard for the facts. Conventional wisdom says Britons are better off as part of the European Union. The voters kicked conventional wisdom in the teeth, and now the United Kingdom faces an uncertain future. While it is too soon to properly speculate on whether the outcome will see further referenda, and a dismantling of the UK, the EU or both, that is certainly a theoretical possibility.
(An aside here. I didn’t have a vote, so didn’t see any point in expressing my preference before the ballots were cast. However, media simplification of a complex issue makes me think that I should take a stand. Those in favour of Remain were seen as young, well educated, economically well off and progressive. Those in favour of leaving the EU were supposedly old, uneducated, poor and hankering for a glorious past that Britain will never return to. By all accounts, except for age, I should have been a Remain supporter.
And at the outset of the campaign that’s the way I would have voted. As a conservative I couldn’t see casting a vote in favour of economic turmoil. But the more I thought of it, the more I began to lean toward the Leave side. If the EU was only a free trade common market, like it was in my childhood, there would be no question of support. But I have been to Brussels; I have seen the EU in action, and I was not impressed. I see the EU as a social engineering experiment that has run amok – and in the long term I think maybe the UK will be happier with a lower standard of living and less interference from Brussels.) Sometimes there is more to consider than economic prosperity.
But back to the US. Why the Brexit vote is meaningless (mostly) for the US is that the voting system is different. The UK held a referendum on a simple, clear question (Quebec separatists must have hated that). The results were close but decisive.
Republican strategists are hoping Donald Trump can tap into the same emotional flow. After all, conventional wisdom said he would never be a serious contender, and now he is the presumptive nominee. He has tapped into the same feeling of alienation, showed the same disregard for the truth that Leave campaigners showed. Now he is hoping to surf that wave into the White House.
It’s a nice theory, but those pundits drawing parallels forget an American presidential election is not a referendum.
It is quite conceivable Trump will win the majority of votes cast and lose the election. An American presidential campaign is not decided by the number of votes cast by the populace but by the Electoral College, a distinctly American invention. Clinton and Trump need to win Electoral College votes, which are assigned by state. A winning margin in a state isn’t that important. Win by one vote or a million is the same thing in the Electoral College.
In 2000 Al Gore received more votes than George W. Bush, but still lost the election. Trumps millions of disaffected voters will do him no good if he doesn’t win the Electoral College. If his support is clustered in a few states that he wins big, the final totals won’t matter. Clinton will win. For the Republicans and the Trump campaign the real lesson from Brexit is that they can’t take themselves too seriously. One campaign is not a harbinger of another.