It’s a video that made the rounds fairly quickly. A young British woman told ITV News today, “I was really disappointed about the results [of the Brexit referendum] even though I voted to leave. This morning I woke up and the reality did actually hit me. If I had the opportunity to vote again, it would be to stay.”
She’s not alone. A BBC journalist spoke with voters in Manchester this morning who voted for Brexit, and she found “most” of them woke up this morning thinking, “What have I done?” An editor at the Daily Mail quoted another British voter who said she voted for the U.K. to leave the E.U., but added, “I never thought it would actually happen.”
It wasn’t long before many started imagining a similar scenario in the United States, the day after our presidential election, with many Americans telling domestic reporters the day after something like, “I voted for Trump (or a third-party candidate) to send a message, but I never thought he’d actually win.”
The Washington Post ran a piece arguing that the British results suggest “we’ve been seriously underestimating Donald Trump’s ability to win the presidential election.”
When you consider all his controversies and self-inflicted wounds over the past month, combined with how much he’s getting outspent on the airwaves in the battleground states, it is actually quite surprising that Trump and Hillary Clinton are so close in the polls. […]The British campaign to exit the European Union (known as “Brexit”), like Trump’s, was fueled by grievance. Those agitating to cut off formal ties to the continent were less organized and less funded than those who wanted to stay connected, but that deficit didn’t matter in the end, because the energy was against the status quo.
The New Republic ran a similar piece, noting the ethno-nationalistic similarities between the two campaigns, fueled by cultural resentment and anti-immigration animus.
“There is a tendency among political and media elites to dismiss such phenomena,” the piece noted. “There is an ingrained belief that cooler heads will ultimately prevail, that voters will do ‘the right thing,’ that things will be as they were before. David Cameron certainly believed this, blithely betting his country’s future to win an election. It might be facile to assert that if British voters could vote to leave the European Union, then American voters could vote to put Trump in the Oval Office. But the Brexit is shocking evidence that you can’t be too sure.”
The thesis is not without some merit, though I’d note one important caveat.
Watching British polls of late, there was ample evidence that “Leave” enjoyed at least as much support as “Remain.”
People were highly skeptical of the polls, and the combination of conventional wisdom and betting markets led to widespread assumptions that surveys overstated Brexit’s support. The polling averages, however, turned out to be fairly close.
And in the United States, nearly all polling shows Trump losing.
In other words, we’re looking at two qualitatively (and quantitatively) different pictures. Polling in the U.K. told us “Leave” stood a real chance of success, while polling in the U.S. tells us the nativist Republican candidate is likely to fail.
Learning lessons from yesterday’s results is certainly a good idea, but so too is appreciating the differences. The American presidential election isn’t a literal referendum on Trump – he has a very credible opponent – and we have plenty of polling data that should help shape our expectations.