Even though we’re 5000 miles away from London, the results of the December 12th British election sent a chill through left-coast voters. The ascension of Boris Johnson was painfully reminiscent of the 2016 election of Donald Trump; further evidence that we have entered the buffoon era of geo-politics. There are two political lessons to learn from the British tragedy.
Two Unpopular Candidates: The British General Election was an awkward “popularity” contest between Boris Johnson, leader of the Conservative Party, and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Labour — the British press characterized it as the “ugly baby contest.”
In this sense, the British contest was a replay of the 2016 U.S. presidential election that pitted two historically unpopular candidates: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The final 2016 Gallup election poll (https://news.gallup.com/poll/197231/trump-clinton-finish-historically-poor-images.aspx ) found Trump with a 61 percent unfavorable rating and Clinton with a 52 percent unfavorable score.
Donald Trump has remained unpopular. In December 2019, roughly 52 percent of voters disapprove of his performance in office ( https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/). According to the 538 summary, Donald has been in this negative range since April of 2017; during these 33 months he’s been viewed unfavorably by 52 to 57 percent of poll respondents. Based upon this polling, Trump has been the most unpopular President in recent American history. This is unlikely to change between now and November 3, 2020.
On election day, how popular will the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate be? It’s unlikely that any candidate will be as unpopular as Hillary Clinton. Nonetheless, at the moment, It’s difficult to get a comparable approval rating for the leading Democratic candidates. (A recent Monmouth University Poll (https://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/monmouthpoll_us_121019/) found that among Democratic voters Elizabeth Warren had the highest net favorability rating (+61) and Michael Bloomberg the lowest (+1).)
According to the latest Quinnipiac Poll (https://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=3651), most of the leading Democratic candidates would beat Trump: “If the general election for president were being held today, 51 percent of registered voters say they would vote for Joe Biden, while 42 percent say they would vote for President Trump. When Trump is matched against other Democratic contenders the race remains in single digits: Bernie Sanders gets 51 percent, while Trump has 43 percent; Elizabeth Warren receives 50 percent and Trump gets 43 percent; Michael Bloomberg gets 48 percent to Trump’s 42 percent; Pete Buttigieg has 48 percent, while Trump receives 43 percent…”
If the only issue was popularity, and the election was held today, Donald Trump would probably lose. Considering this, it should be noted that over the past 36 months, Trump has made no concerted effort to increase his favorability ratings; Donald has not reached out to those who did not vote for him in 2016. Trump’s strategy is to (1) hold his base and (2) drive down the popularity of his competition. He implements this strategy by either disenfranchising likely Democratic voters or by disparaging his competitors via social media. (Trump’s attempt to have Ukraine President Zelensky announce an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden is an example of Trump’s elaborate attempts to influence the popularity of his competitors.)
Simple Message: In their analysis of why Boris Johnson won, the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/13/five-reasons-the-tories-won-the-election) observed that Johnson, and the Conservative Party, had a simple message, “get Brexit done, repeated over and over again [that] appears to have resonated with a public weary of the lack of resolution over the UK leaving the EU.” In contrast Corbyn and Labour “had a multiplicity of huge policy offers from mass nationalization to free broadband and compensating women in the 50s for the rise in pension age…”
Corbyn could have helped by taking a strong remain stand but, instead, meekly called for another referendum. (At a distance of 5000 miles, Corbyn came off as a wimp.)
Johnson won because he was the least ugly baby and he campaigned with a simple message.
In 2016, Donald Trump had two simple messages: “Build the wall” and “Drain the swamp.” With regards to the latter, Trump successfully painted Hillary Clinton as a member of the Washington elite, part of the swamp, and played to his base’s antipathy towards government.
In 2020, Trump will likely resurrect “Build the wall” as “Finish the wall.” And he will tout the economy, claim, “You never had it so good!” But what about “Drain the swamp?” Will Trump dare to repeat “Drain the swamp,” after presiding over one of the most corrupt administrations in American history? Perhaps not. But then again, we’ve learned that Trump has no shame — and that his base will likely swallow whatever lies Donald feeds them. (Trump tells his base that impeachment demonstrates that “the swamp” is alive and well.)
What is certain is that whomever the Democratic presidential candidate is, Trump will attack them as corrupt. (We’ve already seen that with his attempt to implicate Joe Biden in a Ukraine scandal.) Trump will try to drive down the favorability ratings of his opponent by lying about them: Biden as corrupt, Sanders as a crazy socialist, Warren as Pocahontas, Buttigieg as “wink-wink,” etcetera.
What will the Democratic response be? No doubt one message will be, “We can’t afford four more years of Trump!” And Democrats might find a companion message concerning global climate change: “Trump fiddles while the planet burns.” Or Democrats may opt for a simpler message, such as Joe Biden’s promise to “bring us together.” (In the December 19th Democratic debate, Biden effectively repeated this, “I refuse to accept the notion, as some on this stage do, that we can never, never get to a place where we have cooperation again. If that’s the case, we’re dead as a country. We need to be able to reach a consensus.”)
The lesson from the British General Election is that popularity matters — even when both candidates are unpopular — and voters prefer a simple message.