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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Donald Trump’s American Brexit

People waited for Donald Trump to speak Friday at a rally in Hershey, Pa.Damon Winter/New York Times

With only one day remaining until the US election, and with Hillary Clinton’s lead in national polls erased by the return of her e-mail server to the front pages, a ghastly question tortures my liberal friends — not to mention those of us on the other side who signed the “Never Trump” letter back in March. Could Donald Trump become the 45th president of the United States?

Having just watched the Chicago Cubs win baseball’s World Series for the first time in 108 years, I have to face the fact that this year anything is possible. Trump himself has declared that Tuesday’s result will be “Brexit times 10.” Back in June, like most of the despised experts on British politics, I underestimated the probability of Brexit. Might I be wrong again?


True, Clinton remains the favorite to win next Tuesday because of her lead in key swing states and in early voting, as well the Democrats’ superior “ground game.” The last-minute tightening of the race may even help get out Democratic voters who would otherwise not bother.

Given the way the electoral college works, with each state having as many electors as it has members of Congress, Trump needs to win five or six swing states (on top of the reliably Republican states of the “heartland”) if he is to make it to the White House. In the most probable scenario for a Trump victory, he has to take Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa, plus Colorado and North Carolina. While he currently has a reasonable chance of winning the first four — indeed, he is well ahead in Ohio and Nevada — he looks likely to fall short in Colorado and maybe also North Carolina.

The opposite does not hold for Hillary Clinton. Trump needs to take all the states in that scenario to win; Clinton needs only to deny him one of them. And remember that four years ago Mitt Romney won just one of the states named above, North Carolina. Nor can we wholly rule out Trump’s losing Arizona, where his lead is slender.


For all these reasons, the pundits and bookmakers still have Trump as the underdog. On the Daily Kos website, Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency stand at 87 percent. According to The New York Times’ “Upshot,” the number is 84 percent. Betfair says 83 percent. Nate Silver says 65 percent.

So how could Trump overcome these daunting odds? The answer is: if there is a large enough differential in turnout between his supporters and hers in the battleground states, comparable with the age- and ethnicity-based differentials in the UK referendum. Trump leads by substantial margins with male voters, white voters, over-64 voters, and degree-less voters. In short, his support looks a lot like the support for Brexit. If, as happened in the UK, those groups turn out more than pollsters expect, and other groups turn out less, the polls will be wrong. He can win.

Historic turnout differentials do favor Trump, at least up to a point. White voters are more likely to vote than Hispanics and (except in 2008 and 2012, the Obama elections) African-Americans. Older voters are nearly twice as likely to vote as those aged under 30. On the other hand, the best-educated voters are more than twice as likely to turn out than the least educated, and that differential favors Clinton.


In his 1935 novel “Of Time and the River,” Thomas Wolfe notes how every four years the World Series coincides with the “furious apogee” of a presidential election, with its “speeches, accusations, dire predictions, and impassioned promises.”

In Wolfe’s words, “Both events gave the average American a thrill of pleasurable anticipation: his approach to both was essentially the same. It was the desire of a man to see a good show, to ‘take sides’ vigorously in an exciting contest — to be amused, involved as an interested spectator is involved, but not to be too deeply troubled or concerned by the result.”

That is as true today as it ever was. Conversations last week went back and forth between baseball and politics, just as Wolfe described. In baseball terms, Trump is the underdog. In the RealClear Politics average of polls for the past year, he has been ahead of Clinton for only two brief periods, back in May and July. Trump is the maverick pitcher. To many voters, this election has been the most gripping in living memory precisely because he keeps throwing curveballs at the progressive culture of the Obama era: feminism, immigration, intellectual elitism, multiculturalism, and political correctness in all its forms.

So I get why she’s still the favorite. But I also get that this is political baseball, and favorites don’t always win the big games.

It’s now the 10th inning of Game 7 in this presidential World Series. The teams are tied. The difference is that in politics, unlike in baseball, it’s the crowd that decides it, not the players. The question is no longer: Could he do it? It is: Will they risk it?


Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.