IN March 2017, I was in Washington DC giving a talk and was staying in the heart of the political district. The fallout from Donald Trump’s election as president was still to be felt and analysis of why he’d won was underway. At the hotel bar one night, I had a conversation with another guest about the election and, as the presidential campaign 2020 gets under way it seems apposite. It also has lessons for Scotland.

My acquaintance explained he was a pollster doing not just surveys but in-depth focus groups. He commuted in from Florida when Congress was in session, explaining his residence in a hotel on Ambassador Row. He claimed to have predicted Trump’s success and I’ve no reason to doubt that, but I asked him where he thought American politics was heading.

His answer was that he couldn’t predict who would win in 2020 but what he could say with certainty was that America was polarising. At that time, it wasn’t clear whether Trump would even survive in office, let alone seek re-election. But without knowing who the candidates might even be, he was adamant that it would be a Trump Plus or a Sanders Plus contender who would win.

As Trump embarks on his re-election campaign, my American pollster’s proving correct, Trump Plus it most certainly is. The president’s campaign has morphed and is even more ugly and brutal than his record in office. The Republicans have been subsumed by Team Trump, making even the Tea Party section seem sane and moderate. So, the spotlight now turns to the Democrat challengers.

The National:

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In 2016, it was Hillary Clinton and, to be fair, she won the popular vote not by a few hundred but a few million. But the vagaries of the American electoral system were well known especially to her and the Democrat machine. They knew the key states that they had to win and there they failed miserably.

Many, not just in the USA but here in Scotland, were gushing about the prospect of the first female president. That would have been a momentous event for sure, as had been the election of Obama as the first black president. But the sycophancy of many ignored her failings, for her campaign was an unmitigated disaster.

A close friend of mine on the fringes of the Clinton circle told me of her arriving in some poor Rust-Belt state. Appearing power-dressed from the doors of a private jet, she went down like a lead balloon with the unemployed and left-behinds standing there to meet her. Those areas turned against her despite being natural Democrat states. Some voted for Trump and the hope he offered, even if it was shameless lies, many more just stayed at home. But, despite the mythology, it wasn’t the working class that put Trump in but the votes of the wealthy and middle class.

Many radical commentators had predicted just that scenario. Long before it was thought that Trump was anything more than seeking publicity for his businesses, the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Michael Moore were warning what might happen. When it became clear that the Republican contender was to be Trump, they were even more adamant that it had to be Sanders not Clinton as challenger. The Democrat machine eventually ground Sanders down but in doing so crushed the hopes of many excited by his vision and also their own chances of success.

Now history is in danger of repeating itself. Yet again the Democrat machine is seeking the great centrist candidate to take on and slay the president. Joe Biden is touted despite an appalling record, and other arrivistes such as Cory Booker are shamelessly promoted. Sanders is once again portrayed as a dangerous socialist and Elizabeth Warren as a fellow traveller. The danger must be that the radical contenders are ground down by the party machine; after all, that’s what happened last time with manipulation to thwart the grassroots momentum of Sanders.

This time the fear must be that another anointed but dull, staid and centrist candidate is crushed or the efforts of winning the nomination come at such a cost to a radical that Trump romps home.

Yet the ground has shifted, as my pollster friend predicted. The election of radical young women to Congress has electrified political debate and excited many in the country. The venomous attacks upon them by Trump are sure evidence that he knows how dangerous they are. For America is changing with the majority of under-15s non-white and the median age showing that transition – 44 for white, 34 for black and just 30 for Hispanic.

The National:

The poor, whatever their colour, and the growing dispossessed, of wealth not just health care, are paying the price of Trump’s election. Mobilising them and getting them out to vote is the key. Battle it out over the soft middle and Trump will win. Provide hope and vision and the radicals will triumph. Perhaps, not this time but certainly by 2024 when Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar or others still to come through can stand.

Which is where there’s a lesson from America for Scotland. For sure we need to convert No voters to Yes but even more importantly we need to turn non-voters into voters. Yet all the emphasis, certainly of the SNP machine, has been on the former rather than the latter.

There’s an electoral logic in that as voting is habitual. However, as we saw in 2014, independence can mobilise those who don’t normally participate in the electoral process.

Then turnout was up and was driven by those who usually disdain political parties but voted for hope and a vision of a better land and life. It was in areas where turnout’s normally lowest that the Yes vote was highest; the housing schemes seeing crushing victories, yet still seeing fewer participate that in more affluent areas. Increasing turnout there is as important as conversion in leafier estates.

Participation in referendums, as both the independence and EU votes have shown, is higher than in other elections. Likewise, the evidence from Quebec shows that a second vote can see turnout go even higher; up from 85.6% to a record 93.5% there. Indyref2 might not see that figure but it can still bring a far higher turnout than before.

As shown in 2014, previous non-voters can break heavily for Yes.

Steps are being taken both in Britain and in America to make voting harder. That’s no accident. It’s a deliberate effort by the establishment to impede those they know will vote against them, if they vote at all. That’s why our efforts must be as much focused on ensuring those who aren’t registered or didn’t vote do so next time.

In Scotland as in the USA, the poor are being ground down. They’re paying the price for Trump and Johnson. Indyref2 can’t be a rerun of indyref1. The key to victory in both lands isn’t converting the soft middle but mobilising the alienated and dispossessed. It’s not focus groups of former No voters that’s required but evangelism amongst non-voters that’s essential. They have little to lose but everything to gain and that’s where victory lies in Scotland as well as in the USA.