The US Election votes are still being counted but with each day that passes, this result looks ever more like the greatest electoral anomaly in living memory. Hillary Clinton is on course to win by the popular vote by around 2M votes, yet suffer a resounding 306-232 defeat in the electoral college.
This isn’t an excuse. I argued many times that the electoral college favoured the Democrats nowadays and am happy to fess up to being completely blindsided by this result. Trump redrew the map in a way other Republicans have only dreamed – that fact is unarguable.
Nevertheless, we need to understand why the overwhelming majority of pundits – and betting markets – were proved so spectacularly wrong.
Pollsters are predictably taking flak and differential turnout seems almost certainly to have been a factor – just as it was with Brexit and the 2015 UK General Election. We know that older voters turnout far more reliably than younger ones – favouring the Right.
However these don’t tell the whole story, nor really vindicate talk of a ‘silent majority’. If that was so, Clinton wouldn’t be winning the popular vote. Pollsters weren’t so far off the mark.
One area I believe requires further examination is the electoral system, and the effect it has on undecided or voters that are less than enthusiastic about the main options. It almost certainly applies to UK elections too, and have long suspected goes a long way towards explaining how almost everyone called our 2015 General Election so wrong.
Unlike countries that use proportional representation, both the USA and UK have first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting systems, with results awarded on a winner-takes-all basis by constituency or state. The effect is to create the sense of a binary choice – despite the political preferences of both electorates being increasingly diverse.
Could it be that respondents answer polls honestly, listing their favourite choice, yet end up going for a tactical option on the day, having considered the realistic effect of their vote?
While FPTP worked perfectly in the 1950s, when Conservatives and Labour shared over 95% of the vote, it was inappropriate last year, when our TV debates included seven different parties. The big-two haven’t even scored 70% between them since 2001.
Likewise, whilst the 2016 election was always in reality a Clinton v Trump head-to-head, polls consistently showed the public were interested in other options – either via a historically high number of undecided voters, or Gary Johnson and Jill Stein scoring double digits combined.
Yet in both cases, the main two parties were miles apart on policy, the population increasingly partisan and the polls pointed to a very tight contest. Whatever voters felt in their hearts, they knew that a vote for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, the Lib Dems or UKIP would feel like a wasted one if the ‘wrong’ side won.
Both shock results, I believe, were driven a significant rise in what effectively amounts to tactical voting. Trump owes his electoral college victory to the fact that he dominated among late deciders and the collapse in both Johnson and Stein’s support.
Likewise, the Tories owed their majority in 2015 to almost wiping out their Lib Dem coalition partners – something which was not predicted by constituency markets or polls. A squeezing of Lib Dem or UKIP voters may also have swung several key Con-Lab marginals in favour of David Cameron’s party – again in defiance of polls and markets.
When polled several times during the course of the 2010-15 parliament, the Lib Dems were consistently close or ahead in the constituencies which they already held. The market factored in they’d lose around half of their 57 seats, but nobody saw them getting just 8. Virtually every Lib Dem seat targeted by Labour or the Conservatives fell – and the latter won many more, dramatically altering the electoral maths.
There was simply no polling evidence for anything like the scale of swing in Lib-Con marginals. Nor was there much evidence on the ground or sense among activists. Yet there was undoubtably a big, late swing in these places to the Tories, without which they would never have won a majority.
These voters are often labelled ‘Shy Tories’ or ‘Shy Trumpers’, but I’m not sure that is accurate. They might ideally be Johnson or Lib Dem voters (at least on a local level), but went for the practical option in fear of helping Clinton or Labour.
This would be far less likely to be an issue under a proportional representation system, as widely used elsewhere. They would have no need to switch, as it is usually clear which way a candidate will swing after the election. Hence people are free to vote their conscience.
It is way too early to predict the effect of Trumpism on US politics. There is definitely a yearning for extra choices and in some respects the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders reflects that. Both parties could undergo ideological transformation, but we can only wait and see how that affects voting behaviour.
So the UK will provide the next test for this theory, whenever the election happens. Ours will remain very much a multi-party system and the fate of both UKIP and the Lib Dems will have a pivotal effect.
Interestingly, Lib Dem performance has regularly blindsided betting markets. In 1997, 2001 and 2005, they considerably overperformed expectations. The logical explanation was that this small party could focus all it’s resources effectively on key targets, yet could never compete on a national scale.
In 2010, they underperformed after a national polling surge, for the same reason. They didn’t have a nationwide organisation, or the resources to compete in inner-city Labour-held seats that had suddenly appeared within range.
Next time could see the trend reverse. Unlike 2010 and 2015, it will probably not be close, with the Tories expected to win big, just as Labour did between 1997 and 2005. The motivation for voters in those (mostly southern) Con-Lib marginals to ‘stop Labour’ may no longer exist, leaving them free to switch back.
The first test of that is looming at the Richmond by-election, which the Lib Dems are trying to turn into a contest about Brexit. I’m not convinced they’ll oust the sitting MP Zac Goldsmith and suspect it is too early for this new dividing line to truly reap dividends. It is, nevertheless, an interesting work in progress.