Analysts have made direct connections between the Colombian vote, the Brexit, vote and the U.S. November election. The question is whether the same thing will happen here. While plebiscites are different animals than presidential elections, the one element all three elections have in common is that voters in each are presented with a dichotomous choice: relatively predictable reformism (the Yes in Colombia, Remain in England, Hillary Clinton in the U.S.) versus unknown departure (the No vote, Brexit, Donald Trump). In all cases, the more uncertain option is led by groups who are unhappy with the status quo.
Could that choice prevail in the U.S. as it did in Colombia and Britain?
There are three reasons why the answer might be yes. But the one difference is the approach to the campaign. The Clinton side so far seems to be avoiding some of the mistakes made by the losers in Colombia and Britain. This difference in campaign style can save the U.S. from a Colombia-Brexit scenario.
Let’s begin with the parallels.
First, cynicism often wins in high-stakes elections.
The No campaign in Colombia, led by ex-presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, played to the fears of many Colombian voters—vilifying the concessions made during negotiations for the sake of peace as signs of weakness and acceptance of impunity. The No side slammed the accord as “full amnesty” for the FARC. They mobilized people’s resentments (the FARC haven’t paid enough for the sins) and people’s fears: the accords would allow the FARC an opportunity to enter politics and eventually capture the state. In addition, the No camp mobilized Evangelical voters by arguing that the accord imposes “gender ideology” on families (the accords mention the need to establish gender parity and offer reparation to LGBT victims). In short, the No camp scared voters into thinking that the next step after the accord was a Castro-Gay-Chavista regime.
The campaign proved similar to the UK Brexit referendum earlier this year, where London’s outgoing Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, put his future on the line for the “Leave” campaign. Johnson and Nigel Farage, the xenophobic leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) played to the worst in voters, fueling anti-immigrant scapegoating in working-class communities and spreading falsehoods about how much the United Kingdom lost financially from participating in the European Union (EU).
The lesson from both plebiscites is clear: cynicism and fear can move voters and deliver results. In the U.S. context, we’ve seen that vilifying enemies, eschewing compromise, overstating slippery slopes, inflating threats until they are squarely in the center of the political conversation—all central to the Trump playbook—have enabled him to win the Republican nomination and mobilize a significant percentage of voters. Deplorable as they may be, these political tools, which appeal to the dark side of humanity, can deliver results.
Second, voters with relatively low levels of satisfaction can often behave recklessly at the polls.
Many No voters in Colombia and “Leave” supporters in the UK were not extremists, nor were their lives on the line with their respective votes. Many voters simply didn’t like the deal with which they were being presented—a Colombian peace accord requiring substantial political compromise and, in the Brexit vote, membership in a complex multi-lateral set of institutions that limited UK autonomy.
The tragedy is that the rejections expressed by these voters triggered the nuclear option—in Colombia, the rejection of the first hope for peace in more than five decades, and, in the UK, a departure from the EU with such negative potential implications that the campaign’s leaders started walking back their campaign rhetoric immediately after they won.
Trump, one could argue, also represents the nuclear option for the United States. At some point or another, he has criticized every political institution in the U.S. and virtually every geostrategic alliance (with the notable exception of Russia). No one knows for sure what he means when he says that he will “fix” our problems because he rarely provides details and frequently changes his positions. In this sense, he is the prince of the unknown. Working-class white voters in large swaths of the country feel disaffected, and increasingly dispossessed in a rapidly diversifying country whose new economy seems to be leaving them out. They also tend to distrust Clinton as a symbol of the political establishment. Never mind that a vote for Trump is a vote for racism and misogyny that could open the door to fascism—for many, it will simply be a rejection of the hand they have been dealt, whatever the broader consequences.
Third, pollsters often get it wrong or can influence results unintentionally.
Leading into Sunday’s vote, polls had shown the Yes side winning comfortably in Colombia, just as most commentators in the UK expected Remain to win (though the expected margin tightened in the days before the poll). To be sure, there were not as many polls from which to aggregate in Colombia as there are in the Trump–Clinton race, and there is not the same cottage industry of poll analysis and modeling that has emerged in the United States. But the simple fact is that polls often miss the mark.
What’s worse, polls can impact voter behavior. In Colombia, most voters thought “Yes” would win relatively easily, and this seems to have depressed the Yes vote. Voter turnout in this historic plebiscite was 37 percent, lower than the turnout for Colombia’s recent congressional elections—below 40 percent—and much lower than the near 50 percent of voters who cast ballots in the nation’s 2014 presidential election. While part of this dip appears attributable to the inclement weather in certain regions, it seems probable that polls showing a comfortable margin depressed “Yes” turnout, as elections perceived to be less competitive tend to attract fewer voters.
American voters who fear Trump’s rise must not allow themselves to suffer the same fate as Yes supporters in Colombia. Currently, Donald Trump’s weak debate performance, followed by a series of misogynistic gaffes and the release of his 1995 tax returns, have left many Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans feeling bullish about the chances of a Hillary Clinton. Their optimism is fueled by clever poll aggregators like Five Thirty Eight and The Upshot, as well as betting markets, all of whom as of Thursday, have Mrs. Clinton holding a substantial lead—with at least a 70% chance of victory.
In the weeks to come, American voters will see fluctuations in the polls. With two debates remaining, the polls will likely narrow again, and chances are that Mr. Trump will say several more outlandish things that will reveal his mercurial and offensive character and alienate more undecided voters.
But, if the odds of a Clinton victory hold (or even expand), her supporters should heed the lesson from Colombia and the UK—poll numbers, however scientific the sample, however reliable the questionnaire—guarantee nothing. Especially because those opting for the most controversial choice can be less likely to reveal their preferences to pollsters. Regardless of what polls tell us in the days leading up to an election, results come down to voter turnout. Low turnout among moderate-propensity voters, particularly in communities of color, would be disastrous for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. To win, those who oppose Trump must thus do everything in their power—knocking on doors, calling neighbors, and donating money—to ensure voters cast their ballots en masse.
Despite all of the above, the Colombia and Brexit vote also demonstrate that campaigns make a difference.
This is perhaps the biggest difference among these three cases. In the UK, the Remain side ran a lackluster campaign, relying on CEOs and international leaders to warn voters starkly of economic damage in the case of Brexit, a tactic that some Remain campaigners acknowledged had been overkill. Meanwhile, the Leave side deployed Johnson, a highly effective populist communicator, who consistently rejected expert knowledge as elitist and targeted effective appeals at older, white working-class voters. The final rhetorical flourish: the promise of taking back the country and celebrating a new “independence day.” Their strategy paid off.
In Colombia, the defenders of the Yes vote made major mistakes, while their opponents did better. The promoters of the Yes vote were too self-confident, too dismissive or insensitive of the other side, and too reliant on pundits’ validation. They relied mostly on TV and YouTube videos, and hardly bothered to organize door-to-door canvassing.
In contrast, the promoters of Colombia’s No, despite their preference for something reckless, avoided the perception of recklessness. They argued, reasonably, that the vote was not a choice between Peace and War, but between a bad deal and a possible better deal, one that was friendlier to the victims than to the FARC. They still did not offer any concrete example of how a better deal could be achieved, but they used logical rhetoric to attract non-extremist voters.
The opposite seems to be happening in the United States thus far.
Trump is running one of the worst campaigns in the history of political public relations in the United States—while he has won an enormous amount of free airtime from his reality-TV-like spectacles, he has used that time to pander to conspiracy theorists and white nationalists. One lesson from the No vote in Colombia and the Brexit vote in England is that attracting extremists alone is not the way to win a large national general election (even if it can provide a path to victory in a primary election). Which is why Trump’s debate performance and subsequent erratic behavior over the past two weeks have erased most of his September gains among the general electorate. In addition, Trump has no on-the-ground game plan. One of the risks of eschewing the support of a party is that the candidate also loses the machine that is capable of doing the nitty-gritty work of going door-to-door talking to voters.
Nevertheless, however buffoonish Trump may appear, he has a real chance of winning the White House. Sensible voters may still choose big rejections of the status quo. Voters don’t enjoy being lectured by pundits and international observers about their preferences.
If we are to learn anything from the Colombian and UK referendums, it must be this; in a world where cynicism exerts such power on the electorate, where voters are becoming less risk-averse, and where polls guarantee nothing, complacency is the enemy of progress.
Javier Corrales (@jcorrales2011) is a professor of political science at Amherst College.
Daniel Altschuler (@altochulo) holds a doctorate in Politics from the University of Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar.