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Comment: Dr James Bilsdale gives his view on Trump

Comment: Dr James Bilsland looks at how Trump won the US election

Published on: 10 November 2016

How did Trump win an election he was tipped to lose? asks Dr James Bilsland, University Teacher in Politics.

Historic victory

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has generated headlines around the world. The general consensus is that this is a result of historic significance. Indeed, during his acceptance speech the new president elect described his as “a very, very historic victory”. In many ways this is understandable. The polls had Clinton in the lead. However, the polls were wrong. Just as they had been with the EU referendum. Trump once again defied the experts. He was not expected to win the primaries and he was not expected to win the presidential election.

How was he able to do this? In part, Trump managed to speak to issues that resonated with a lot of Americans who feel they have been left behind by the policies of a Washington elite that does not represent them or promote their interests. Trump presented himself not just as an alternative to President Obama, Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party, but also as a Republican who was not tainted by what his supporters perceived as the failures of the Republican Party’s own elite. This is why Trump refers to himself as being part of a ‘movement’. He claims to offer something that traditional politicians do not. As a result of his win, comparisons are now being made with the successful Brexit campaign and the growth of similar anti-establishment views gaining support across Europe.

The stars and stripes over an image of the USA
America has voted

The expectations gap

However, in two respects, the result might not be as shocking, historic or surprising as commentators have claimed. Although Trump defied most of the experts, there have been lone voices in academia who predicted Trump’s victory. Professor Allan Lichtman at American University developed a model in the 1980s that has correctly predicted every presidential winner for the past thirty years. Lichtman got it right again with Trump. Also, in recent electoral history there have been few examples of one party holding the White House for more than two terms. In large part this is due to what scholars call ‘the expectations gap’. The public elect presidents promising change, but when presidents struggle to deliver that change due to the US’s system of separated powers, public support for the president quickly declines.

President Trump now faces the task of turning his promises into results. The Republicans maintained control of Congress. This has given Trump the best possible opportunity for policy success. Obama care, tax reductions, immigration policy reform and securing ‘better deals’ for the US abroad are high on his agenda. However, this will require Trump to work with many Republican members of Congress who have been vocal opponents of him, his campaign and his policies. To further complicate matters, the Democrats have a chance of regaining control of the Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections. This means Trump might have a very short window of opportunity to act. It is unlikely he will be able to deliver all of his promises in just two years. Just like Obama’s legislative success rate fell when the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010, Trump will possibly be faced with a Democratic Senate working hard to oppose his policies. The president’s task may be made easier if he can fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court with a justice sympathetic to the Trump and Republican policy agenda. However, one question to ask is will Trump’s supporters continue to back him if he has to compromise on his key policy goals? Time will tell.


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