Making Sense of the US Presidential Election

02/06/2016

The US presidential elections of 2016 have been nothing less than extraordinary. No credible analyst predicted that the Republican nomination would go to Donald Trump. What happened? The main cause of Trump’s victory reflects an immense institutional failure by the Republican Party to manage the nomination process and its longstanding neglect of white, working class men.

The Grand Old Party (GOP) now has Mr. Trump as its standard-bearer: a brash television celebrity and political neophyte, with a mishmash of policy views that are completely out of step with party elites. American parties have nominated weak candidates in the past, but they have done so by sticking to principle in picking ideological darlings.  I am thinking of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democratic Senator George McGovern in 1972.   Unlike Trump, however, these men were experienced Senators with strong principles rooted in party traditions. As my colleague Seth Masket point outs, Trump reflects the failure of the Republican Party to select a nominee based on either principles or electoral pragmatism.

Many commentators attribute the success of outsiders like Trump to voter anger about the economy. And few predicted Senator Bernie Sanders from the tiny rural state of Vermont would do so well in the Democratic nomination.   While some voters are discontent about the economy, the unease has more to do with an increasingly dysfunctional government that is torn apart by an unbridgeable divide between the Republicans and Democrats.

Why Trump?

There is no simple answer for Trump’s success in the Republican nomination. In retrospect, however, I see three reasons why he is the presidential nominee.

  1. Institutional Failure of Republican Party.   Trump’s selection reflects a major breakdown of the Republican Party leadership to protect its “brand” from outsiders.   It has never been easy for party elites to control the nomination process in primaries. (French politicians beware!) After the start of primaries in the 1970s, party elites regained some influence by coordinating endorsements of favored candidates and front-loading the primary schedule to give big advantages to establishment candidates who were able to raise a lot of money early in the process. In 2016, however, Republican elites failed to coordinate. The number of candidates was especially large at 17.  Jeb Bush seemed to be the establishment-backed candidate, but when his campaign floundered, Republican elites failed to rally around a second candidate quickly enough.  Instead, politicians attacked each other while Trump was practically ignored.  As Trump racked up early victories, the establishment started to coalesce around Senator Marco Rubio but it was too late and Rubio floundered in key debates.
  2. Media and momentum.  Party elites compete with the media to influence the nomination.   The media elites, of course, have a unique set of incentives when covering elections.  They want novelty, conflict, and excitement for their stories.  Party elites, in contrast, want predictability and stability. Trump is the perfect media candidate, especially for the uniquely raw forms of conservative media in the U.S. that attract many of his potential supporters.  He makes outrageous comments, he loves clashing, and has a flair for one liners that make it into the news. The media adore his candidacy and confer legitimacy on him by giving him such disproportionate coverage.  Jeb Bush or John Kasich, in contrast, are boring policy “wonks” who do not generate lively news.  Winning in early primary states, begets more attention and momentum as voters begin to jump on the “bandwagon” by supporting a candidate who looks like a winner. To win primaries candidates need to mobilize factions rather than put together broad coalitions. Thus, Ted Cruz chased the evangelicals, Bush sought the business elites, and Trump sought the blue-collar whites who have not been well-represented by party elites. One only needs a plurality to win the nomination. Trump won roughly 11 million of the 27 million popular votes (or 40%) cast in the Republican nomination. Keep in mind that his victory was achieved by getting the support of less than 5% of the entire American electorate.
  3. Voter anger. Americans have a long history of “populism” – a belief in the wisdom of the common man over political professionals.  This anti-government, anti-elite sentiment dates back to the earliest days of the Republic.  In challenging times, a significant portion of Americans are often willing to vote for inexperienced candidates who make outrageous claims and offer unrealistic policies as a way of “bringing power back to the people.”  For Trump supporters there are at least three sources of anger that stoke the populist appeal of Trump: 1)Trump voters have the most reason to be disgruntled: they tend to be poor, uneducated, and not faring well in the new economy.  It is hardly a coincidence that the mortality rates of white, working class men are sky-rocketing.  Republicans have virtually ignored this constituency on economic policy even as they have used racial appeals to keep these voters on their side. 2) Partisan Stalemate: Trump attracts many voters, particularly independents, who intensely hate the partisan fighting in Washington. Such voters believe solutions to the nation’s problems are obvious and politicians avoid them to advance their own careers. Trump’s voters – many of whom have authoritarian leanings – are inclined to turn men ‘above politics’ who promise to fix things. 3) The “politics of resentment” is especially strong among Trump voters and has a racial element.  The divisions between the parties reflect controversies rooted in racial issues (e.g., policing and prisons, social welfare, equality).  The electoral appeal of Trump, with his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, is that he says things more directly than other Republicans and gives voice to working-class white men who feel they have been ignored in comparison to other groups.   They despise “political correctness” which to them implies excessive deference to key Democratic constituencies (minorities, gays, women). The fact that the President is black accentuates this grievance.  Such anxieties reflect the changing demographics in US and the fact that most minorities tend to be Democrats.

Sanders is a Different Story

If Trump’s success is about the institutional failure of the Republican Party and polarized politics, the story of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party suggests that primaries can also provide a healthy outlet for discontent among party voters.  Hillary Clinton was the establishment-picked candidate and all other serious contenders stayed out of the nomination except for the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. But rather than allow a coronation of Clinton, many Democratic voters voiced dissatisfaction with the party.

The main discontent came from the left wing of the party, which had high expectations of an Obama presidency.   Like the French left, the Democrats in the U.S. are having their internal party struggle between la gauche du gouvernement et la gauche romantique.  The left in the U.S. – called “progressives” -- want government-sponsored health care, greater redistribution of wealth, and investments in schools and infrastructure.  These hopes were dashed against the hard realities of a Republican-controlled Congress.  Sanders, a virtually unknown Senator with few policy achievements in Congress, epitomizes the expressive yearnings of progressives.  He speaks to the core principles of the Democratic Party in its calls for greater equality and a government that is not corrupted by big campaign donors.   His supporters are idealistic youth and professionals who dominate knowledge-based fields of technology, academics and the high-value service economy.  Tellingly, he did not get support from minorities, especially blacks, who favor Clinton because of her loyalty to Obama and her strong ties with black leadership.

While Hillary Clinton has about as much experience to be president as anyone in US history, she is a flawed candidate in many ways.  She represents “no change” at a time when many voters want a new direction.  Like her husband, she has had ethical challenges with the use of private emails for government business and questions about her ties to Wall Street.  But unlike her husband, she is not a magnetic campaigner. Her establishment credentials and her “stay-the-course” caution are the perfect foil for an insurgent like Sanders.

Like Trump, Sanders benefits from mainstream media’s inclination to make a horserace out of the primary.   Ironically, Sanders is not a Democrat but an Independent.  He chose shrewdly to run in the Democratic primary because he knew the media would ignore him if he ran as Independent.  More importantly, Sanders was able to tap into new social media, which is a fact of life for his tech-savvy supporters.  His campaign’s prowess with Facebook, Twitter and other applications helped propel the gathering of large crowds at rallies and generated millions of small contributions to his campaign, which allowed him to compete with Clinton.

What to look for in last six months of presidential campaign

Looking toward the general election, the first question is whether Donald Trump can unify the Republican Party. Unless he brings together different factions of the party he will not be able to win the election.  Many prominent Republicans, including the past three Republican presidential candidates (George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain) have said they cannot support him. That his nomination divided the party and upended the traditional GOP policy platform has raised larger questions about the future direction of the Republican Party.    That conversation starts in earnest the day after the election.

Second, even assuming Trump brings Republicans together he must be able to run a credible general election campaign.   While primaries are about mobilizing factions, general elections are about putting together a broad coalition.  His slashing rhetorical style suggests he will have trouble.  More important is whether he can focus attention on Clinton and the Democrats rather than himself.   Any party that holds the White House for two terms is at a disadvantage.  But the out-party needs to make an argument for “change” in a credible manner.  Trump has argued for change, but his hazy positions and undisciplined campaigning will not satisfy a more skeptical general electorate.

Finally, the question that plagues the Republican elites is what will happen to their majorities in Congress.  A Trump candidacy puts that in jeopardy if voters lack enthusiasm.  Many Republican voters may not show up at polls to vote for races lower on the ballot.  There are 34 elections for the US Senate and Republicans must defend 24 of them.   Thus, there is a good chance Democrats can take control of the Senate.  Republicans are unlikely to lose their majority in the U.S. House but they will certainly see their position erode if Trump runs a bad campaign.

In conclusion, one could argue that the upending of an establishment party on the right by a nationalist, anti-immigrant candidate has some parallels in Europe.  But I would not push the comparison too far.   Nations in Europe, like the US, share a crisis of political institutions and leadership.  In the US, however, the institutional crisis has its roots in partisan divisions that have not been expressed so strongly since the U.S. Civil War.  These partisan divisions have stoked the anger of the white, working class on the right, who have been ignored by the Republican party.  On the left, the progressives are fed up with the unvirtuous compromises of governing in a divided political system.  It is a very ripe time for outsiders like Trump and Sanders who both promise to upend the status quo of U.S. party politics.

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