Our guest this week is Pedro Magalhães, one of the most recognized political scientist in the country, strongly knowledgeable on the American electoral system and expert in electoral behavior, public opinion, and polls.

When one thinks of the American electoral system in Portugal, one of the first names that immediately comes to mind is Pedro Magalhães. With a degree in Sociology fromISCTE-IUL, he obtained a PhD in Political Science at the Ohio State University, in Columbus, (one of the traditional Swing-States), and is currently a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of Lisbon University.

Just over five weeks before the day of the Presidential elections in the United States – which take place on November 3rd – Pedro Magalhães explains in this conversation with journalist Filipe Santos Costa how the American electoral system works, talks about how and why the polls failed in 2016 when they didn’t predict the victory of Donald Trump, but also how to read the polls in order to avoid precipitated conclusions, and about the polarization we see in the American electorate.

In addition to unawareness, there are also several criticisms and even those who ask for an amendment to the American electoral system, where, as Hillary Clinton was one of the best examples, having more votes does not mean victory. But what justifies this system and what arguments are there for its change?

“It is clear that it is, from a certain point of view, shocking to see that a candidate can lose an election by winning such a significant majority of the votes. But the counter-argument is that the electoral college, and the way it is defined, allows States that normally wouldn’t have much attention on the part of politicians do have it. Because, if the criteria are just the numbers, the risk is that what we talked about a while ago, the attention of politicians, the investment of campaigns, the concern for the preferences of those voters are centered on the most populous States.” – Pedro Magalhães

Another issue that generated the most debate in 2016 was the failure of the forecasts. All polls pointed to a significant and almost guaranteed victory for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. The result, as we see, was not that. However, there are several reasons to explain what happened, as the political scientist explains. Failure, yes, but not only.

“In fact, the polls if we take a simple average, the last ones gave Hillary Clinton a 3-point lead and she had a two-point lead. In Portugal, that’s the kind of thing we have. In the parliamentary elections where we say it, the polls are right. In the United States, they failed. And why did they fail? Because they got the national vote right, but they failed in some States that turned out to be absolutely crucial to Trump’s victory. […] In these States the people who decided later decided disproportionately in favor of Trump.” – Pedro Magellan

Another feature of the American electoral system, in traditional times, is the rigidity in voter preferences and the existence of less than a handful of States that fluctuate between one party and the other, eventually having a decisive weight when choosing the next President. This year, the choices are not so clear, and there may be more States in dispute – Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada, in the researcher’s opinion. But what distinguishes them from the rest?

“One thing that characterizes these States where Trump had a particularly good and unexpected result, and that gave him victory even by small margins, is a very large division between the urban world, more liberal in the American sense, more democratic, and the more conservative rural world. It is this mixture of ingredients that makes some of these States particularly divided and particularly unpredictable.” – Pedro Magalhães

The issue of increasing polarization is, in the opinion of the political scientist, more complex and worrying. Not least because the issue is no longer just politics and leaves Americans in more extreme positions with their countrymen.

“This polarization is not only of politicians, but it is also of the voters. It’s not as big as it is in politicians, but it’s increasing. Why is it increasing? Because the more polarized, more extreme people are also more politically active, they are the ones who most tend to vote, are the ones who most tend to protest, are the ones who vote the most in the primaries. The primaries play here, according to some analyses, an important role in this polarization, because they are made for those who are more participant, and who is more participant is more radical.” – Pedro Magalhães

With the first head-to-head debate between the two candidates for the Presidency of the United States in the early hours of Tuesday, this is an essential conversation for those who are interested and want to know more about American politics.

This episode of the Atlantic Talks can be heard where you usually listen to your podcasts, or by following one of the links below.