Behind Trump’s Popularity and the “Pivot to Asia”
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Behind Trump’s Popularity and the “Pivot to Asia”

Jun. 07, 2016  |     |  0 comments

On May 26, Donald Trump succeeded in obtaining enough delegate support to become the Republican candidate for the US presidential election in November. Even the Democrat front runner, Hillary Clinton, has not crossed the required delegate count to be the Democratic Party’s official candidate. Based on the current situation, it is generally presumed that the November election is going to be a Clinton-Trump fight.

Trump will face a challenging electoral map in the November election. Based on the electoral map projection prepared by The New York Times on May 4, Clinton can easily beat Trump 347 to 191. However, if Trump improves his polling margin by five percentage points in each state, he can narrow the electoral vote to 253 to 285 against Clinton. If he improves his polling margin by ten percentage points in each state, he can beat Clinton by 305 to 233.1

The latest survey shows that his popularity gap with Clinton has narrowed significantly in the last few weeks, reflecting the situation whereby Trump improves his polling margin by five percentage points in each state.

Just a few months ago, Trump’s ascendancy was inconceivable. Now, political observers deem him a serious presidential candidate who is slowly gathering election momentum, and are scrambling to better understand him.

Back in June 2015 when Trump announced that he was running for Republican nomination, hardly anyone thought he stood any chance. The Republican Party already had a crowded field of young, conservative, charismatic candidates — the strongest in generations according to some party elders. Even if he was the Republican Party frontrunner since July 2015, his position in a field of seventeen candidates was hardly noticeable. In contrast, his mockery of senior party establishment convinced most observers that once the candidate list started trimming down as primaries went on, the consensual candidate would easily boot Trump out. In the Republican primaries that started in Iowa in February, Trump fell behind Cruz and barely edged Rubio for second place. Until March when he remained as front runner while his opponents dropped out one by one, very few political observers took him seriously. His soaring popularity reflects the skill of understanding and manipulating popular discontent more than his personal charisma and leadership quality.

On a personal level, Trump is not particularly affable and his language is often offensive. His unfavorability rating has stayed high at 57.7 percent while his favorable rating is at 37.8 percent, based on the latest Huffington Post election pollster result.2 However, this unfavorability rating is not going to hurt him as much as Clinton, whose unfavorability rating crept up to 54.7 percent while her favorability rating went down to 41.2 percent.3 With only six months left to the election, both major party candidates are more viewed as unfavorable than favorable.

Behind Trump’s Popularity

Experienced political observers trace Trump’s electoral appeal to five origins:

First, Americans are not happy with their current political leaders as they feel that they are not fit to govern given their recent records. Anti-establishment candidates not associated with the leadership, either in the far left like Sanders, or extreme right as typified by Trump, have a natural electoral appeal to the people.

Second, the US political establishment is very corrupt in the eyes of many citizens. In terms of income distribution, the middle class is dwindling but the top 1 percent is so much better off. Many Americans blame a lobbyist-infested federal government for the malaise. Trump’s wealth makes him different because it is assumed that he will not take bribes and lobbyists cannot control him. He is financially independent, in a sense. He has incurred relatively low campaign spending — just USD 57 million through the end of April. Out of this 57 million, he loaned at least USD 43 million to the campaign. Less than USD 21 million was spent on paid television and radio commercials, about a quarter of what Jeb Bush spent before he dropped out of the primaries.

Third, political correctness has suffocated America. Nobody, especially in the government or the academic circle, speaks candidly. This is the key differentiating factor for Trump — people perceive him to be brave and honest. His brash and offensive language is a breath of fresh air to his followers. His talk on building a border fence with Mexico actually endeared him to many beleaguered traditional Republican supporters who worry about immigration and jobs.

Fourth, Trump is a good strategist. He knows how to manipulate the media. The mainstream media has long ignored conservatives, but it cannot ignore Trump. He creates news and his confrontational style attracts attention. He is smarter than most people think and he knows the pulse of the main street. He says “right” things to his audience at the “right” time. This is why although many of his speeches contain questionable rationales and there are tens (if not hundreds) of sound rebuttals that immediately come out against his speeches, these rejoinders all amazingly fail to dent his support.

Fifth, Trump is lucky to play the underdog role. US tax law has become exceedingly complicated and difficult to understand and comply with, and Trump is an ultimate insider who knows how to game the system. His assets being audited provide him the opportunity to be seen as a victim of the IRS. In addition, legal cases in progress are usually kept under wraps, and his non-disclosure of those cases is seen as an underdog protecting his rights against an intrusive government, rather than an attempt to hide wrongful deeds.

A Polarizing Election

A close dissection of the supporters of Clinton and Trump reveal the candidates’ support bases divide along some major racial and gender lines. Clinton enjoys high support among minorities and women, while the Trump base is a majority of Republican primary electorate, especially the large Caucasian bloc, from white supremacists to aging White people who feel that they are losing their clout and that the country is being taken over by minorities.4

The election issues reveal a deeply divided electorate. Under the pressure of a belatedly surging Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton is taking a more left-leaning stand to consolidate her support among Democrats, minorities, and women. Trump, on the other hand, is sticking to his conservative lines to solidify his Republican base, and has not shown any move towards the centre to attract the traditional mainstream. Clinton has been forced to defend the record of Obama who is unpopular among core conservative Republicans.

There are indications that the election will touch on the personal pasts of the two candidates and distract from the pressing issues facing the nation. Trump has been divorced twice, with his first marriage ending amid infidelity, and he has a history of high-profile business and real estate failures that may receive renewed scrutiny.5 Hillary Clinton’s EmailGate has cast doubt on her personal integrity and will reinforce the image of an elite not following the rules.6

Foreign Policy on the Side-Line and the World is Feeling Uneasy

The domestic conditions that Trump and Sanders have addressed in this election include a yearning for a restored middle class, a sense of increasing economic insecurity, and anger over wage stagnation and widening inequality. This domestic-centric sour national mood will spill over into US foreign policy.7

Foreign leaders who are “rattled” by Trump have good reasons to feel that way, adding to the uneasy feeling around the world about the November election.8

While US foreign policy generally enjoys broad bipartisan support, many foreign observers are not feeling so sure in this election. They noted that the populist sentiment in the election has turned all the candidates against free trade, and there are doubts as to whether Obama can push the ratification of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress before he leaves office. The TPP agreement is more than 6,000 pages long and there are controversial provisions in areas of currency value, immigration, and investor-state dispute settlement. If the TPP is not passed under the present Obama administration, it will face heightened scrutiny in the next administration.

If Obama fails to enact the TPP in the lame duck session of the Congress as what pundits wish, how will the failure of this economic pillar affect his overall “pivot to Asia” policy? One should note that without the TPP economic leg of the “pivot to Asia,” the pivot idea is just a security deal and US can only lead if it diverts much of its military resources from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and increase its defence spending.9 These scenarios are not likely to happen in the immediate future.

The US policy of the “pivot to Asia” is logical. The world’s economic gravity is shifting to Asia and it makes sense for the US to adjust to this reality. Yet the present form of the “pivot to Asia” might not survive without the TPP component. Most Asian countries are watching the US November election closely.

Trump has changed the dynamics of the 2016 US presidential election. Unless he can successfully transform his style from that of a maverick-businessman-turned-politician to a statesman-like GOP titular leader running for the presidency, nations around the world will be in a state of suspense until the election is over.

The strong showings of anti-establishment candidates in both the Democratic and Republican Parties are going to redefine both parties. It is difficult to predict the outcome of the November election. The 2016 US presidential election is going to be the focus of the world in the coming months. With the global economy teetering towards another slowdown and geopolitical tensions rising from the South China Sea to the Middle East, whoever is elected as the next US president will be closely watched by its allies, friends and adversaries. In many aspects, this election could be a watershed event for both the US and the world.


1. Andrews, W., Katz, J., & Parlapiano, A. (2016, May 4). The electoral map looks challenging for Trump. The New York Times. Retrieved from

2.  Poll chart: Donald Trump favorable rating. (2016, May 26). The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

3.  Poll chart: Hillary Clinton favorable rating. (2016, May 26). The Huffington Post Retrieved from

4.  Graham, D. (2016, May 4). The 2016 US presidential race: A cheat sheet. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

5.  Levy, G. (2016, May 25). Trump campaign sends strategic email to reporter by mistake. US News. Retrieved from

6.  Wofford, T. (2016, May 26). A look at the scandals that could still sink Hillary Clinton. Newsweek. Retrieved from

7.  Fontaine, R., & Kaplan, R. (2016, May 23). How populism will change foreign policy: The Bernie and Trump effects. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from



8.  Benac, N. (2016, May 26). Obama: World leaders rightfully “rattled” by Trump. Associated Press. Retrieved from

9. Obama’s pivot to Asia remains unfinished: The outgoing US president is unable to offer reassurance to its nations. (2016, May 25). The Financial Times. Retrieved from

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