U.S. politics

Understanding the race for the White House

The U.S. election as seen from Canada
Photo: Marco Verch

After three televised debates and a marathon campaign, the U.S. electoral campaign is finally winding down. With less than two weeks to go until the vote on Nov. 8, no one seems to be more fascinated by what’s playing out south of the border than Canadians. But while the election seems to be front and centre on all of our minds, few of us are truly experts on the U.S. electoral process and, curiously enough, practically all pundits who’ve been invited to speak in the media seem to be male.

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To help Canadians understand the race for the White House, Ricochet interviewed Elisabeth Vallet, the author of Comprendre les élections américaines: la conquête de la Maison-Blanche.

Vallet is the scientific director and research fellow at the Raoul Dandurand Chair in Strategic and Diplomatic Studies (the only bilingual French/English such centre in North America) at L'Université du Québec à Montréal. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Geography at UQAM, and director of the Quebec branch Borders in Globalization, an international research network. She teaches geopolitics at UQAM and is an expert on the U.S. presidential elections, the American political system, as well as on borders and walls.

Has the US presidential campaign played out the way you expected it to? What were the major surprises for you?

[Laughter] No, it didn’t play out exactly the way I expected it to.

I think what surprised me the most was the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I think the former showed the extent of how many angry white men were out there who felt they hadn’t been heard.

Social media and reality TV have changed the rules of the political game. You suddenly had a candidate [Trump] who didn’t play by the rules at all, but was already famous. Social media has definitely changed political campaigns. We first saw it with Obama’s campaign, but it really blew up in 2016 — and not necessarily in a good way.

The GOP seemed to have lost control this time around, and someone like Trump who didn’t follow the rules managed to bully his way into the primaries and the presidential candidacy.

To what do you attribute the rise and popularity of someone so unqualified for the position of president as Donald Trump?

An overwhelming anti-Washington resentment and anti-establishment sentiment many Americans were experiencing. Many dismissed the Tea Party in 2009 as too extreme, but it was the beginning of a movement that represented people who felt they weren’t being heard and who felt betrayed by the system. Banks were being bailed out, but the middle class was abandoned.

There was — and still is — an overwhelming sentiment that the minute you send politicians to Washington they don’t listen to you anymore. The moment was ripe for someone like Trump to appear and the GOP played on that sentiment. He tapped into something very strong and it has to be dealt with and addressed by whoever wins the election on November 8.

Did you think sexism had a role to play in this election or do you find those accusations unfounded?

Sexism has played — as usual — a role in the way Hillary Clinton has been addressed. Also, in the way female pundits are treated. When I would be invited on panels, I’d be asked what I thought of what Clinton was wearing. I’m not an expert on fashion. I’m an expert on the U.S. electoral system!

If Clinton had been a man would Trump have even gotten this close to the presidency? I don’t think so.

There is no question that female politicians are treated differently. There is an established and well-documented bias against female presidential candidates. Erika Falk, formerly a professor and researcher at John Hopkins University, wrote Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns, and provides a detailed analysis in her book of the gender bias the media has demonstrated in covering women candidates, and Clinton has been no exception.

There is a focus on appearance and clothes with female candidates and emotion in women is seen as weak, while in men it’s seen as compassion. The executive functions of a president are routinely described as, and traditionally expected to be, masculine. If Clinton had been a man would Trump have even gotten this close to the presidency? I don’t think so.

Her contacts and experience (what is usually just the old Boy’s Club) is seen as a suspicious liability, instead of an asset, because she’s a woman. And Bill is consistently seen as a liability for her because it’s inferred that as a woman she’s – of course - an extension of her husband and not an independent entity. There is a lot of subtle sexism at work in those accusations.

As the author of a book on understanding U.S. elections, what is it that you think Canadians don't understand about the political process south of the border?

It’s not as centralized as people often assume. Although Canada and the U.S. are both federations, the U.S. is more of a confederation. You have to look at the U.S. as 50 different states that see themselves as sovereign.

You have 14,000 different election administrators, and that means that you may have 14,000 potentially different ways of doing things. Some states are more centralized than others, but many aren’t. For example, if you look at the California ballots, they vary from county to county and the last ballot I checked was five pages long. The California voter guide is 214 pages long! The system is quite complex. It can take you 45 minutes to read some ballots.

A 2011 study concluded that in order to fully understand the ballot in New Mexico you would need 18 years of schooling, which is a scary thought when one considers that the average American has a Grade 8 level reading comprehension.

Registering to vote is also very difficult in the U.S. Add to that the many different ways that residents actually vote (some by ballot, some by an ATM-type machine, some with a sheet where you check a box, etc.) and you see how complicated the process can be.

And since the states see themselves as independent there has been no real incentive or budget in the past decade to harmonize and improve the system.

You specialize in geopolitics and border walls. Which candidate's position do you support and why? Do you believe walls work?

Border walls do not work. All studies confirm that all they do is complicate legal commerce and force illegals to go even further underground, which is dangerous. It makes them reliant on violent cartels and smugglers and makes the areas around borders dangerous for everyone living there.

Clinton is more of a hawk than Obama is when it comes to foreign policy. She’s not as open to foreign trade as he is, but she’s much better than Trump. If Trump were to be elected, the impact on U.S. foreign policy would be disastrous. She understands the issues and that’s what we need.

What do you think the results will look like November 8 and why?

According to the vast majority of polls, Clinton will win. What I’ll be looking for will be the participation rate. There is a danger in Trump supporters coming out in great numbers and some Democrats not bothering to vote for her because they think she’s going to win anyway — so why bother voting for someone they don’t like all that much.

Participation in the swing states like Florida is crucial and the Democrats know that. But most importantly, the participation rate is the key to her legitimacy. The thing Clinton will have to live with will be lower legitimacy because she is a woman and because Trump has been undermining her. If she has a very high participation rate that would be very good for her and that would compensate for the fact that she’s seen as a female Commander in Chief.

This campaign has been very divisive and ugly. What should the U.S. be focusing on after the elections are over?

Listening to the middle class and trying to answer their concerns. If you look at how they perceive themselves, while all minorities feel that the quality of their lives is somewhat improving, that is not the case for the white middle class. I don’t know if the will and the money are there to address those concerns and pacify the country.

I also, unfortunately, expect that some sort of violence will erupt after the election, and the appearance of hate groups would not surprise me. After Obama’s election we saw racist hate groups skyrocketing and I fully expect to see misogynistic groups popping up and a backlash against women after Clinton is elected as a reaction.

Why do you think Canadians should even be paying attention to the U.S. elections? Does it matter?

As fascinating as they are, the presidential elections are actually not that important for us. What matters to Canadians is Congress because that’s where the policies are made and that’s where we can lobby to make some of our cases.

Governors have an impact on us, so we should be paying more attention to local elections and Congress elections. The people I’m working with study how many times, for example, Quebec is mentioned during the elections in Maine, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and how many times Canada and security are mentioned in other states. It’s interesting to see how the closer the Governors and members of Congress are to the borders the better informed they are of the issue and the better they understand that borders need to remain open.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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