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US looks set for a nasty presidential election

Greetings, and in case you missed it, here is the piece I wrote for Nikkei Asian Review, just after the Indiana primary on May 3 that sealed Donald Trump's victory as the presumptive Republican Party nominee. Let me know your thoughts, and I'll be back soon in this space with more on the U.S. election, and the implications for Asia.

 

By Keith B. Richburg

©Nikkei Asian Review

Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul turned reality television star, is now the de facto Republican nominee for president following his landslide primary win on May 3 in Indiana and the departure from the race of his last two remaining rivals.

The Republican party has now chosen as its standard bearer a candidate who has described Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and murderers; advocated downgrading America's global military alliances; supported the idea of Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons, and threatened a trade war with China.

The presumptive Republican nominee has accused both Japan and China of manipulating their currencies, and has promised never to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the giant regional free trade agreement that was supposed to be a linchpin of the current administration's "pivot" to Asia.

The long, unconventional Republican race ended in the factory towns of midwestern Indiana, with Trump as the last man standing. He will now go to the Cleveland convention in July uncontested after both Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out when it became clear that Trump had an insurmountable lead in convention delegates.

Republican primary voters made clear they preferred Trump's angry bombast and often-crass authenticity to Cruz's pious religiosity and Kasich's cheerful moderation.

Trump's victory now sets up what promises to be a brutal general election matchup against his fellow New Yorker Hillary Clinton, who has amassed an overwhelming lead in convention delegates against her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

The coming Clinton-Trump matchup is likely to be a battle of the sexes for the ages, a veritable cage match pitting against each other two larger-than-life personalities, both with high negative ratings, in an epic New York political street brawl. It will likely be very, very ugly.

"This campaign has got to be the most vicious in this century," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College in New York. "It's definitely going to be the most vicious in my lifetime."  Muzzio said he was "flabbergasted" that Trump is the nominee. "There's going to be nothing positive about this campaign. It's going to be nuclear war on both sides."

Angry white men

And that contest could well be decided by the answer to one question of electoral mathematics: does America have more angry, blue collar white men, or more unmarried white women?

Trump is the uber-macho candidate, the standard bearer for the angry blue-collar white male. Those voters propelled Trump to victory in depressed industrial strongholds like Michigan and Indiana, in southern rural places like Mississippi, and in economically troubled Northeastern states like Pennsylvania. These working class white men have seen their wages stagnate for decades, or their jobs disappear entirely due to automation, digitization and globalization.

The male working class vote will be crucial in the eight states -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire -- that are likely to determine the outcome of the November presidential election under America's unique electoral college system. Trump won five out of eight of them in the Republican primary.

While Americans overall are healthier and living longer, studies show middle aged white men without college degrees are actually dying in larger numbers -- from suicides, liver disease caused by alcoholism, and from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers. Analyses show Trump performs best in those areas with rising white mortality.

Trump emerged victorious from a crowded field of 17 Republican contenders because he was able to speak most directly to the anxieties of those angry white men. He blames their plight on illegal immigrants from Mexico, unfair trade deals, a China that he said was "raping" the American economy, and the "stupid people" he said were running the U.S. government. He promised to "make America great again."

Trump also exudes an unvarnished masculinity that appeals to his core supporters. He talked of building a "big, beautiful" wall across the southern border with Mexico, and referred to the large size of his hands -- and other body parts. He promised to "bomb the (expletive)" out of the Islamic State. He derided his vanquished opponents as "very weak" and "low energy." He spoke about wanting to punch a heckler in the face.

Trump's many disparaging comments about women and their appearance have also fueled accusations of misogyny.

Image of misogyny

Of his onetime rival Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, he said; "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?" He accused a Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, of menstruating while moderating a debate. And of Clinton, he said: "If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5% of the vote. The only thing she's got going is the woman's card."

His male supporters love it. But a slew of recent polls show Trump's popularity among women is abysmal.

For decades, U.S. presidential elections have shown a gender gap, with women generally preferring the Democrats, the "mommy party," stressing issues like education and expanded health care, and men showing a preference for Republicans, the "daddy party," which talks about increased military spending and fighting terrorism.

The gap, however, looks a bit different when you burrow into the statistics. The 2012 election saw the largest gender gap in Gallup polling history, with President Barack Obama beating Mitt Romney among female voters by 12 points, 56% to 44%. Romney actually won white women, 56% to 42%, and he won married women 53% to 46%. But Romney got slaughtered among black women, 96% of whom voted for Obama, and Hispanic women, 76% who went for the president.

But with Trump, the gap looks more like a chasm.

Trump's unfavorable rating among women was 64% in the latest CNN poll. Among married women, the race is closer, with Clinton leading Trump 48% to 36%. But unmarried women prefer Clinton over Trump 73% to 21% in one poll, a massive 52 point margin.

Generally, Republicans win when they can pump up their numbers among men to compensate for Democrats' edge with women. Trump will likely do significantly worse among Hispanics and African-American voters, both male and female, than the last few Republican nominees, so he would have to count on a huge increase in white male votes. But the question is whether there are enough of those angry white men to off-set all the single white women he has alienated?

Trump will be going up against the first female presidential nominee of a major party, with the prospect of the U.S. making history with its first woman president.

And Clinton, who largely avoided gender labeling in her 2008 campaign, this time has been appealing directly for the women's vote. She talks openly about being a doting grandmother. She has made issues like equal pay for women, women's health care, and paid family leave central to her campaign.

Asked about Trump's criticisms, Clinton seemed unconcerned. "I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation, and the way they behave, and how they speak," she said on May 4. "I'm not going to deal with their temper tantrums, or their bullying, or their efforts to try to provoke me."

But Clinton will have to find a way to respond, as Trump has shown a penchant for launching unconventional and highly personal attacks on his opponents, with ruthless efficiency. For Clinton, "this is going to be about as fun as a root canal for the next six months," said David Axelrod, Obama's 2008 political strategist.

The campaign has already shown signs of descending into sexism and misogyny. Signs and merchandise at Trump rallies have taken on a nasty tone. One of the most popular slogans on T-shirts and bumper stickers is "Trump that bitch!" Some buttons for sale to Trump supporters read: "Life's a bitch -- don't vote for one."

The anonymity of the internet has also enabled Trump supporters to unleash a torrent of online vitriol against of the billionaire mogul's real and perceived critics, including female commentators and journalists.

Many establishment Republicans, who formed a movement called "Never Trump," awoke the day after the Indiana primary to their worst nightmare -- the reality TV star was now their de facto nominee. Some expressed their horror on Twitter, vowing to support Clinton with the words "I'm with her." Clinton starts with a decided advantage in all the polls. But Trump has proven himself an unpredictable contender.

Muzzio said he was "distressed" and "confused" by this primary result. Asked how Asians should view the race, and the prospect of a Trump presidency, he replied; "They should be terrified."

#END#

©Nikkei Asian Review

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