In the 1984 election Ronald Reagan won 49 states, his opponent Walter Mondale holding only Minnesota (his home state, and only by about 3,000 votes). It’s one of the most crushing wins in American history, and the power it gave Reagan led to a dramatic national turn to the right, and the purging of centrist and moderate Republicans from the party. We are in many ways still living with the legacy of that result.
What people sometimes forget is that Mondale got over 40% of the vote. Such is the power of the electoral college system, that a few percentage points spread across the country can make a relatively narrow win look like a rout.
With fifteen days to go, here’s why I feel optimistic.
First, the polls not only show Clinton with a significant lead of 6-7% nationally, the trend line is now consistently down for Trump and up for Clinton. Absent a dramatic event or revelation, that gap is likely to widen, rather than just be maintained.
Second, the fact that so many Americans vote early lessens the risk of some last minute shock moving the polls enough to change the overall result.
And third is that the Trump campaign appears to know this. Trump is blustering, of course, berating the press and expressing confidence of providing a shock on polling day, but his team now openly acknowledge that they are behind, and their attempts to explain how Trump can get to 270 college votes increasingly rely on several events that look ten-to-one shots, all happening in a row.
Dying political campaigns have a habit of producing embarrassing moments. In 2008 John McCain kept calling old Joe the Plumber (who wasn’t called Joe and wasn’t a plumber) up on stage, and on one occasion called out only to discover that Joe wasn’t even there. ‘You’re all Joe the Plumbers’ he shouted, desperately trying not to look like a man who’d run out of gimmicks. Trump’s performance at the Al Smith dinner, during which he was loudly booed, felt like one of those moments.
My gut says that another significant factor will be Democratic turnout, in terms of Hillary having a massive, well-funded machine, and Trump commanding barely any conventional electioneering apparatus at all. He still gets big crowds, but the impression that Trump is going to lose may reduce the number of people prepared to queue for hours in order to make their voice heard. Clinton is warning her followers against apathy, and because Trump represents such a terrible threat to America’s democracy, I think that is a call that is likely to be heeded.
Those seeking to compare this to the Brexit vote are misguided. Brexit was incredibly close for some time, especially coming into voting day. Yes, there was an expectation that the remain vote would narrowly prevail, but the polls were actually within their margin of error. Some were precisely right. The polls in America look nothing like that.
A win for Mrs Clinton will almost exclusively give cause for a sigh of relief across the globe. Clinton is an experienced and steely centre-right public servant, whose errors across a long career are few. She’s likely to be a little more hawkish than Obama, but a more effective legislator than he has been. She’s much more experienced than Obama was, coming to the job. Yes, within the prism of the American state she will undoubtedly act as a war-criminal and do some things many of us find unforgivable, but compare that with a notional President Trump. It’s cake or cancer.
Fourteen days from now we’ll know. There is the small chance that not only will Hillary Clinton win the White House and the Senate, she’ll have two years in control of the House of Representatives too (before the mid-terms of 2018). Look what Reagan did in ’84 – with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the team, Clinton could be forced into (or allowed) a significant turn to the left. Antonin Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan just two years after the ’84 election. Clinton may have the power to appoint two, or even three Supreme Court justices in the next four years, shaping the political direction of the country, as Scalia, the old ratbag, did for a generation.
There is much to play for.