Politicians can err in believing that vote choice is influenced by rational decision-making, but we’ve seen in the past months how emotion can trump logic, writes NoelleAnne O’Sullivan.
NoelleAnne O’Sullivan is a political consultant based in Brussels.
We walked up a country road in the middle of nowhere. All around us were open fields and trees. A line of people snaked up the lane to a farm. The first sign that we were going to a Trump rally were the stalls of campaign memorabilia set out with t-shirts with logos like “Hillary for Prison 2016,” “Proud member of the Basket of Deplorables,” “Grab ‘em by the Pussy,” and “Because you’d be in JAIL.” Badges shouted “Trump that Bitch.” A green US Army truck was parked on the side of the lane, with a “Trump Pence Make America Great Again” billboard loud and proud. Merchandise was in abundance, even bottles of water were emblazoned with the grinning Donald J. Trump. Two hours standing later, there was a rush through the farmyard gate towards the venue, a cattle market barn.
Inside, it was an intimate venue, no bigger than 2,000 capacity. The organisers claimed 9,000 people had turned up, and this with less than 24 hours notice that Trump had added an extra rally on at the last minute to visit Leesburg in Loudoun County, Virginia. Many people had driven 4 or 5 hours to be there, and waited in line since midday. The enthusiasm was palpable. The atmosphere was like going to a rock concert. This was raw excitement, and I was up near the front of the stage. Campaign aides distributed placards to wave on high – “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump,” and NRA members handed out bright orange stickers emblazoned with “Guns SAVE lives.” Another 6 hours passed before The Donald actually arrived on stage, past midnight.
The ‘show’ opened with a call to sing the National Anthem. Everyone burst into song, cheered and clapped and chanted “USA.USA.USA.USA.” Prefaced by figures like Rick Santorum and Ollie North, the crowd was pumped. And then their hero finally arrived. I watched the faces of those around me – they were transfixed, like they were seeing a beatific vision. The speech he gave was a variation on the theme of all the speeches we’ve heard throughout the campaign – he was going to repeal Obamacare and make healthcare great again; Hillary is the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency, and it’s all a rigged system. And peppered throughout at regular intervals, the one-liner triggers that whipped the crowd into a waving fury, erupting into chants of “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” There were boos when Hillary’s name was mentioned, and roars for “Trump! Trump! Trump!” He had presence, no doubt, and seemed ‘human’ not cardboard.
Why were people voting for him? I heard many reasons from people in the line, from too much red tape legislation on businesses, to disgust with the Clinton dynastic politics. Though, the common denominator among all was the absolute loathing and rejection of Hillary Clinton after the email scandal – how can you trust her after that? they asked incredulously.
The Hillary Clinton rally the day before had been a much more professionalised, formal, affair. In the line to enter the stadium, there was little merchandise on sale. A lone protestor in an orange jumpsuit held up a banner saying “Hillary for Prison.” The backdrop to the stage at the Philadelphia Mann Centre displayed the slogan “Love Trumps Hate” on huge screens. There was no reference to the Democratic Party, the “Stronger Together” Hillary campaign slogan appeared later.
The theatre with a capacity of 14,000, was packed. Katy Perry was due to play – was she the main draw? – and Madeleine Albright was one of the warm-up speakers. The atmosphere was like a family event, like attending a baseball match. Though, unlike at the Trump rally, there was nothing comparable in the way of warm-up music, or enthusiastic chanting. People sat, and waited.
A series of succinct 5 minute speeches led into the arrival of Clinton herself. Her speech focused on get out the vote, rather than reasons to vote for her, other than generic statements about a better, stronger, fairer America. After 6 minutes, Hillary was done, and introduced the main act of the evening, the roaring Katy Perry.
My five takeaways from the campaigns:
- Short, pithy, controversial and memorable promises win out over a multi-point plan that covers a sweep of policy areas in great detail, though fails to articulate an inspiring vision of what Hillary stood for, and why you should vote for her, beyond her stance on equality for women, rights for children and families.
- The rural blue-collar vote must be courted, it’s decisive. Trump won the industrially decaying Rust Belt regions (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan), traditionally blue states, whereas an over-confident Clinton ignored Wisconsin, paid no visits there, and lost what was the decisive state in the final results. This is a red flag for French 2017 elections. In France, the major cleavage in the electorate is territorial and geographic. Urban metropolitans will continue to shun populist parties and vote left or right, but suburban areas will vote FN or abstain. The division between metropolitan elite and the rural hinterland was also apparent in the Brexit referendum.
- Breaking the glass ceiling is not a reason to vote for a women candidate. Throughout the campaign, I felt this was an ego-trip for Hillary, though not a major motivating factor for the masses. Voters want a leader who represents change and will get things done, no matter their sex. Did Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf campaign on breaking the glass ceiling?
- Contentious policy positions got Trump elected, though it remains to be seen how many of these he will be able to deliver. While Europe shudders at the prospect of a Trump presidency, others believe that his controversial policies will be tempered by wise counsel by Republicans; the inherent checks and balances within the American political system, and global geopolitical reality. Counter this with Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer of his book The Art of the Deal, who believes he is a dangerous sociopath capable of shutting down media freedom, imposing martial law, and risking nuclear war.
- Expect more election upsets to come, driven by voters’ emotional responses to Muslim immigration, fears of globalisation, and a revolt against the establishment elite. Politicians can err in believing that vote choice is influenced by rational decision-making, but we’ve seen in the past months how emotion can trump logic.