It’s like an itch you just can’t help scratching. Brexit is on everyone’s mind and the variation in their conclusions about its consequences is striking. And of course, all of us are waiting anxiously for the market opening tomorrow. I confess to a bit of this addiction. Parallels between the Brexit vote and our presidential contest are obvious and have been the topic of much of the discourse on the Sunday talk shows. Principally, these include concern over out-of-control immigration, belief that establishment politicians and institutions are corrupt and out-of-touch with the common people, fear that free trade means job insecurity or worse, and – crucially – the suspicion that all those predictions of disaster are overblown and self-serving. Doesn’t that seem to echo the Trump campaign?
Probably this correlation is a bit overdone but, assuming that there is a lesson here, one crucial aspect seems to be overlooked. And this aspect is worrisome to those who think Donald Trump might be a disaster as President.
Going into the vote on June 23, up to 20% of the Brexit voters claimed to be undecided. I suspect that others were only weakly committed. Post-election analysis indicates that they went strongly for Brexit, and that explains the unexpected outcome.
Analysis of undecided voters is problematic for pollsters. How they break depends heavily upon the issues involved. In the United States, conventional wisdom is that they tend toward the challenger, i.e. against the status quo. The opposite belief prevails in the United Kingdom, where they are believed to flinch at radical change. But there is a built-in bias in both cases for pollsters, who tend to be relatively well-off and highly educated. They simply can’t see how the hoi polloi won’t eventually see it their way, which usually means accepting the establishment viewpoint. Some pollsters try to erase that bias by assuming that the undecided will eventually break about the same way as those already committed.
Here is what I think happened. Many of the undecided emotionally wanted Brexit but were frightened by the establishment’s predictions of disaster. At the last moment, they thought, “Oh, what the hell! I really want change and maybe it will turn out fine after all.” Can’t you see the same thing happening here? We have multitudes of both political persuasions as well as independents who are royally fed up with the status quo. This means not just the current incarnation but the way it has been trending for many years. However, Trump scares them and Clinton is doing her best to stoke that fire. Maybe last-minute decisions, based on the heart rather than the head, might break strongly for the outsider Trump. Perhaps not, but the possibility seems real to me.