As the United States goes to the polls on November 8, the world waits with baited breath. Polls are increasingly tightening, with Hillary Clinton leading by 11 points a week ago and cratering to 3 points currently. Donald Trump is the closest he’s been to the presidency till date.
We’ve always believed that voting in democratic elections was about choosing the right candidate, both in terms of policies and character. What recent elections and referendums in Europe and the Americas have revealed is that something has changed dramatically in the average voter outlook. In this day and age of austerity and recession, scapegoats are apparently much more in demand than policies advocating growth.
Bigotry and its cousin, racism, have suddenly become common after decades of ostracism. The repeated failure of pollsters to predict sudden shifts in various elections in the West is a symptom of this phenomenon.
Predictions are hard to make in such a volatile campaign. Consider the Bradley Effect – Tom Bradley, a long-standing African American Democrat mayor of Los Angeles, was running for re-election in 1982 against George Deukmejian, a Republican of Caucasian descent (Casey, P., 2015) The majority of the polls prior to the election showed Bradley with a significant lead. Seeing exit polls, the media had already begun anointing him the winner, while the San Francisco Chronicle published an early edition stating “Bradley Win Projected”. While Bradley won the majority of the votes cast on Election Day, the inclusion of absentee ballots swung the barometer the other way, with Bradley losing the overall race narrowly. Post-race research by psephologists highlighted that far fewer white voters actually ended up voting for Bradley than initially projected, with the majority of them breaking for Deukmejian in anomalous quantities. Another election for Governor of the state of Virginia in the United States saw similar results with an African American candidate, L. Douglas Wilder, seeing his initial 9% point lead decline to 0.5% points post the election. The “Shy Tory” effect in the UK was ascribed to the Labour Party’s failure to come to power in the 1992 elections, despite a slim lead and a long unpopular decade in power for the Conservative Party. The Conservatives ended up winning by 7.6%.
While the causes of such switches in voting preferences remain debatable, a number of pollsters consider that societal pressure might have led white voters to be less than forthcoming in their answers to polling questions – a preference for Deukmejian could be interpreted as a racially prejudiced one, preventing polled voters from answering honestly and providing superficially acceptable responses. Political scientist Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann in her seminal “The Spiral of Silence” (1973) states that people tend to be deterred from voicing an opinion in polls, if they consider themselves to be in a minority (as determined by mass media), given a fear of isolation (Furedi, F., 2015). Such spirals of silence are broken rarely, only when a highly educated or affluent individual with the same minority opinion speaks out. With few having the courage to speak out and against the status quo, polls tend to reflect majority opinions voiced by mass media. Social taboos play their own reinforcing role against non-conforming opinions. Self-censorship prevails.
Let’s consider more recent examples where polling has gone wrong. Four leading Colombian pollsters had projected that Colombia would vote “Yes” to a referendum on a peace agreement ending its civil war with FARC, that too with a 60% majority (Moffett, M., 2016). Two other polls highlighted an over 50% majority for “Yes.” The final result was a victory for “No” with 50.2% voters voting so. Spirals of Silence were blamed as the referendum campaign saw voters leaning towards “No” castigated as being termed “enemies of peace,” while opinions voicing doubts about the peace agreement were quickly attacked by the mass media as warmongers. Clearly, those who opposed the agreement kept their opinions to themselves. The election result was a vote for war and vengeance, instead of one for peace and amity. Inflamed by stories and visuals of FARC rebels killing soldiers, the people of Colombia sought instead to continue the civil conflict.
The Brexit vote had the “No” side up in polls by 10 points until the last few weeks. The final result was victory for the “Yes” vote by 4 points. The Scottish vote for Independence, once cast as a lost cause for “Stay United”, proved otherwise, with older voters holding their nerve and voting to stay in the UK. Spirals of silence had seemingly occurred here as well – with “No” voters threatened by the pro-independence camp with violence and shame (those who had “No, Thanks” poster on their doors were pelted with eggs before the election; Bershidky, L., 2014). The Brexit vote was one marked by nimbyism and anti-immigrant views (for some, a masked representation of racist views) that reflected the rise of the Little Englander instead of the Great Briton.
Polling has become harder to do. Getting representative samples in this day and age of increased mobility and smartphone usage is harder than one where people stayed in the same place for decades and communicated on landlines. Predicting turnout for elections remains difficult, leaving room for the independent voter to impact election results on the last day.
We’ve been here before, in a different era. Senator Joe McCarthy sought to expose the supposed Communist takeover of the United States as a pathway to a presidential campaign. He highlighted how the establishment was riddled with corruption, how Communist immigrants were weakening the country and how he would “take the country back”. He launched a campaign to expose the “fifth column,” causing the blacklisting and firing of hundreds of government employees. While he fizzled out later, the fate of the Republic at one point seemed at an inflection point. The rise of silent bigotry seems to be upon us now once again.
In Huntingdon, a leafy market down in Cambridgeshire, Polish immigrant children increasingly get cards calling them “vermin” from Brexit supporters asking them to go back. The Brexit campaigners fed this climate of fear, raising concerns about Turkey’s accession to the EU; Nigel Farage simply said that Syrian refugees would raise the risk of sexual assault of British women. Public decency was ditched, and it was suddenly fine to be racist again. After years of austerity and budget cuts, scapegoats are much needed.
Donald Trump’s rise is not an accident – it was fed by decades of rage against minorities by the Republican party and right-wing television. The forthcoming election is a milestone, one which could lead the world to a future that encourages anti-immigrant rhetoric and open bigotry or one that maintains the genteel status quo. Will we see the advent of a new age of racial and cultural exclusiveness? We await its outcome with trepidation.