Britain's Warning Shot: What Hillary Clinton Should Learn from Brexit

By David Wemer

The United Kingdom's dramatic decision to leave the European Union has sent shockwaves throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. For American observers, the result, which a year ago appeared unthinkable, should give pause to those who think that Hillary Clinton's election is a near certainty. The likely devastating economic impact of the Brexit vote, for Europe and the United States alike, will certainly affect the 2016 election, as Democrats could be hurt by a slowing economy. Perhaps more worryingly, the movement of white working-class voters from the left-leaning Labour Party towards the Leave campaign, in many cases in order to register their disapproval of the status quo, provides a potential foreshadowing of a November defeat for Democrats. Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party should take three lessons away from the Brexit result if they hope to avoid a dramatic defeat at the hands of Donald Trump.

It's not all about the economy

In Secretary Clinton's primary and early general election campaign statements, the economy has taken center stage. Indeed, before Brexit, Clinton had every reason to play up the improving economy under the Obama Administration and push relatively popular economic policies such as infrastructure spending and financial regulation. Setting aside the immediate effect of Brexit's economic shocks, the British vote has demonstrated that a singular focus on economics can be ineffective. Opinion polls found that the economy was only of secondary importance for Leave voters, who were primarily concerned with immigration and skeptical that the gains of limited immigration would outweigh the economic costs of membership in the European Union. Leave voters, who were primarily concentrated in the formerly industrial areas of Northern England and Wales, rejected the economic arguments of the political establishment, which were primarily concerned with the City of London's financial industry, and whose prosperity has never extended to places such as Sheffield or Sunderland. Secretary Clinton should be wary of touting the success of a U.S. economy that similarly struggles to spread prosperity to formerly industrial areas. Immigration issues trumped economic interests in Northern England, and could very well do so again in the American Rust Belt this November.

Don't take turnout for granted

Despite early indications of a Remain victory, pundits quickly backtracked as the votes from Scotland came in. Leave was not winning in Scotland (indeed Remain won every counting area), but turnout in Scotland was far below what Remain needed to gain a majority. A combination of voter fatigue after Scottish elections in May, the intricate issue of Scottish independence, and a cool relationship between Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Prime Minister David Cameron all could have contributed to depressed turnout. The last point is critical for Secretary Clinton, who herself is struggling to excite Democratic supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders. It does not appear that passive Remain support by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was enough to boost Scottish turnout, and the Remain campaign suffered for it. If Cameron had put more resources and effort into repairing the relationship with the SNP, or had Sturgeon more forcefully campaigned, the result could have been quite different. Similarly, the youth vote, which went almost 75% for Remain, was not large enough to offset the votes of older Britons, who generally backed Leave. Although turnout will be less important in the United States' Electoral College election, Clinton should be wary of taking the participation of traditionally Democratic voters for granted.

Project Fear doesn't work

The campaign themes for the Remain campaign and Secretary Clinton are remarkably similar. The British political establishment tried to warn voters that the decision to leave the European Union would bring disastrous consequences that would tank the British economy and weaken British power. Hilary Clinton, for her part, has worked to paint a dangerous image of a Trump presidency filled with debt defaults and global war. The Brexit vote demonstrated that threats of future hardship may not be effective. In deciding between the possible dangers of Brexit versus the very real grievances caused by immigration, voters in rural England and Wales were overwhelmingly motivated by the latter. Secretary Clinton can spend as much time as she likes highlighting the dangers of a Trump presidency, but if voters are deeply dissatisfied with the country's current state and unhappy with the establishment (spoiler: they are), there is a risk that they will choose to support Trump. Another scenario that could be even more challenging for Clinton is if Brexit's negative economic consequences prove short-lived. Western elites in both countries could be seen as "crying wolf," which in turn could embolden those on the fence about Trump to support the Republican candidate. The Remain campaign's biggest mistake was focusing too narrowly on the costs of leaving the European Union, rather than making a coherent argument about the benefits of remaining. Secretary Clinton would do well to adopt a more positive argument about why she would be the best candidate for the country, and not just why Trump would be the worst.

It is true that the two biggest votes of 2016 are very different. While the Remain camp faced a nationwide campaign in which every vote counted, Secretary Clinton needs only to target a handful of swing states. But the elections' similarities should be enough to give Democrats pause. A short time ago, Brexit appeared as improbable as a Trump Administration. If Democrats are to avoid that future, they should be taking notes.

David Wemer received an MA in European Union Politics from the London School of Economics and is the Washington D.C. Program Coordinator for the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College. David is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.