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The end of the campaign, not the end of the world

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 4 November 2016

Have we ever witnessed a stranger US election campaign? What started off looking like a bad joke has now become a possibility: Reality TV star and self-proclaimed business genius Donald Trump becoming the 45th US President.

Of course, even the most recent, tighter opinion polls make it appear more likely that Hillary Clinton will be handed the keys to the White House, not least thanks to the US electoral system. Yet it is astonishing that after a Trump campaign characterised by insults, broken taboos and sexism, Clinton’s opponent still has a chance of beating her.

After all the strange twists and turns of the campaign, it is impossible to predict the outcome of next week’s election with great confidence. Instead, I would like to offer just three small observations on the election.

First, it is remarkable how volatile opinion polls have been throughout the campaign. From a nationwide Clinton lead of +12 percentage points a fortnight ago to a minuscule Trump lead this week, the swings are extreme. This suggests two things: that many voters are genuinely undecided or rather unconvinced; and that we should take polls with a grain of salt. It is also hard to assess how many Trump supporters are too shy to tell pollsters of their true voting intentions.

Second, the polarisation of US politics has never been worse than it is today. That a candidate of one of the main parties may not even accept the eventual election is unprecedented. That a candidate threatens to imprison his rival if elected is unheard of as well. These are more than the side-effects of a nasty election campaign. They are a stake to the heart of America’s identity.

Third, there is some consolation at least. Whoever will be the next US President, he or she will be bound by constitutional checks and balances. The US is still a democracy with a finely balanced distribution of power between the Presidential executive, Congress and the Supreme Court. Clinton already knows how this machinery works, and Trump would find out soon enough.

Next week, we will see the end of an ugly, unprecedented election campaign – and a good thing too. But regardless of the outcome, it will not be the end of the world. America is strong enough to survive this election. But the wounds of the election campaign will take years to heal and will make the life of the next US President a living hell, whoever it may be.

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