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Political watchers look for clues to November election in Brexit vote

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, June 24, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

The United Kingdom's historic vote to leave the European Union amid a wave of populist anger, nationalism and concerns about immigration could be a harbinger of things to come when Americans elect a president in November, experts said.

“You wonder if this is the canary in the coal mine,” said Donald Ellenberger, head of multi-sector strategies for Downtown-based Federated Investors.

“We're starting to see populist backlashes all over the globe. Is this a signal that maybe Donald Trump has a better chance to win in November? I don't know, but certainly it's something we want to keep our eye on,” Ellenberger said, noting political uncertainty could adversely affect U.S. financial markets.

The demographic profile of the UK's so-called “Leave” faction, which supported exiting the EU, and Trump's supporters is “strikingly similar,” said John T.S. Keeler, dean and professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

Keeler said people from the two groups are generally older, more working-class, less educated and from more insular or rural parts of their respective countries. Globalization and the Great Recession adversely affected them, and their fortunes haven't changed much during the economic recovery, Keeler said. And both groups have been led by outspoken celebrity politicians with wild, blonde hair: former London Mayor Boris Johnson and the presumptive Republican nominee Trump.

Lara Brown, director of George Washington University's political management program, said Trump and Johnson “are not the reasons people are revolting against the status quo. They are just the beneficiaries of much larger issues that concern people.”

In the UK, the pro-Leave voters blamed many of the nation's economic problems on the European Union and immigration, Keeler said, noting the voters' immigration concerns focused more on legal, intra-EU immigrants from other European nations than on an influx of illegal immigrants or refugees that Trump has vowed to stop.

“In some ways, Brexit has been presented as the functional equivalent of the wall with Mexico,” Keeler said, referring to the barrier that Trump has promised to build along the southern United States at Mexico's expense to keep out illegal immigrants. “It's been presented as this almost magical, silver-bullet solution to the problems (the pro-Leave voters) face.”

Despite the demographic similarities, Keeler doesn't predict much of a trans-Atlantic carryover effect.

“The Trump supporters probably like the idea that the political elites didn't get their way, but I don't actually think they should feel that this puts a lot of wind in their sails,” Keeler said.

Philip Harold, a political science professor at Moon's Robert Morris University, isn't so sure.

“I think it speaks to people in democratic countries in the West feeling underrepresented by the political class,” Harold said, noting that polls showed the “Remain” faction ahead until the referendum became too close to call in recent weeks. “For them to rethink that, it means you're going to have to rethink everything.”

Staff writers Salena Zito and Chris Fleisher contributed. Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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