Commentary: How Clinton could lose even as she wins

It’s not enough to win the election. You also have to win the interpretation.

Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton walks off the debate stage as Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump remains at his podium after the conclusion of their third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

That’s where your mandate comes from. What kind of mandate will Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton get if she wins? Much depends on her margin of victory. And her coattails.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has indicated that he does not intend to concede, even if Republican leaders try to concede for him. Trump is already claiming the election is rigged. If he loses narrowly he will likely insist the election was stolen.

Asked in the final debate Wednesday night whether he would accept the election result if he loses, Trump’s response was shocking: “I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense.” 

Don't expect Trump to fade away quietly. He's making plans to start Trump TV in order to give himself a platform from which he can harass President Clinton. He could become the creepy clown of American politics.

A close election will be interpreted to mean that Clinton won only because she is not Trump. Trump's supporters will rally behind him and protest Clinton's victory up to – and beyond – her inauguration in January.

They will denounce her as an illegitimate president. They will pressure Republicans in Congress to block everything she tries to do. If her victory does not produce big Democratic gains in Congress, Republicans will feel emboldened to defy her. A narrow victory means endless gridlock.

A landslide Clinton victory may be tough. As a Democrat who was part of the Obama administration, she is the candidate of the status quo. The fact that Clinton would be the first woman elected President does not appear to be generating much excitement, especially among younger women.   

But there's a lot of discontent in the country and it's not confined to Trump enthusiasts. All this year, around 70 percent of Americans told the Gallup poll they are not satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. If Republicans had nominated a more broadly acceptable candidate – like Ohio Governor John Kasich or Senator Marco Rubio of Florida – there is a good chance Clinton would be losing.

Trump tried to claim the change issue for himself when he said at the end of the debate, “We cannot take four more years of Barack Obama, and that’s what you get when you get her.”

But he discredited himself when he was asked about his abusive behavior toward women. He claimed, “Those stories have been largely debunked.’’ No, they haven’t. In fact, more of them are coming out, and they are being corroborated.

The Clinton campaign understands that there is a market for change in the country. That’s why her husband told the Democratic convention in August, “She is the best darn change-maker I have ever known,” adding, “She always wants to move the ball forward.”

That’s what “change” means for Clinton: “moving the ball forward,” as opposed to radical disruption. No round-up of illegal immigrants. No wall on the Mexican border. No high tariff barriers. No abandonment of military allies. No repeal of Obamacare. No jailing of political enemies. No harassment of the press.

Clinton stands for incremental change. Measures to reduce inequality. To fight climate change. To resolve conflicts between minorities and the police. To create more jobs. To push back Islamic State without committing large numbers of U.S. troops.

A sweeping Clinton victory would mean that the New America, a coalition of working women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, single mothers, Jewish and  Muslim voters that swept President Barack Obama into office, has finally arrived and is here to stay. It would mean that Trump's resistance movement has been crushed. It would be an endorsement of diversity and inclusion for previously marginalized groups like immigrants and minorities and working women and gays.

It would be a message to the Republican Party. As Ohio Governor John Kasich put it, “If the Republican Party does not evolve, the Republican Party is going to die.”

One striking feature of this presidential campaign is the huge education gap. White non-college-educated voters are going two-to-one for Trump, 62 percent to 31 percent, according to the ABC News-Washington Post poll. College graduates favor Clinton by more than 20 points, 55 to 34 percent. For the first time in more than 50 years, whites with a college degree are voting Democratic, 51 to 38 percent

To educated voters, Trump represents know-nothing politics. His supporters reject climate change as a hoax. They are suspicious of foreigners and immigrants. They are fearful of a globalized economy. They harbor racial resentment. They believe the rest of the world takes advantage of the United States. They nurture conspiracy theories and believe this election is being hijacked by sinister forces.

“This election will determine,” Trump told a rally in Florida, “whether we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system.” 

A lot of Americans resent being governed by educated experts and professionals like Clinton and Obama. Resentment of the educated elite has always been a deep strain in American populism.

It emerged in 2008, when Obama spoke disdainfully about economically distressed small-town Americans who “cling to guns and religion.” It broke out this year when Hillary Clinton denounced “half of Trump supporters” as a “basket of deplorables . . . racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.” To many less well-educated Americans, comments like those are blatant snobbery.

Resentment of the educated elite also drives hatred of the press. Journalists, especially national journalists, are usually well educated and have a sophisticated world view. A conservative editor explained to the New York Times that mainstream journalists are “interested in every kind of diversity except the kind that would challenge their own prejudices,” including “bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks and bigotry against working-class and poor white people.”

Educated Americans will interpret a big Clinton victory as an endorsement of their “enlightened” values. For less well-educated whites, it will confirm their sense of isolation and resentment.

Each of the last four presidents – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama – promised to bring the country together. They all failed.

There is little prospect that either Clinton or Trump – two of the most divisive figures in U.S. politics – can heal the divide. Two Americas, two interpretations.

And no widely accepted mandate.

About the Author

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is a visiting professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of California – Los Angeles.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.