Can the Monster Be Elected?

Ever since Trump secured the Republican nomination and Hillary Clinton essentially nailed down the Democratic one and began to turn her attention away from Bernie Sanders and toward Trump, we’ve seen the outlines of what we’re in for. Clinton’s most notable thrust was her rollicking speech—and “rollicking Hillary Clinton speech” is not a phrase that has been frequently deployed during her career—delivered on June 2 in San Diego, when she attacked Trump on national security matters.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by James Ferguson

Trump parried that with a June 13 speech, the day after the horror of the largest mass shooting in American history in Orlando, with a lacerating attack charging that Clinton supports various policies, mostly relating to immigration, that are handing the country to terrorists on a platter. Indeed, he said that “if we don’t get tough, and we don’t get smart—and fast—we’re not going to have a country anymore. There will be nothing left.” Trump didn’t merely repeat his call to ban Muslims. He expanded it—now, you don’t have to be Muslim to be banned, you just have to be from an “area” of the world where there is “a proven history” of threats against the United States. As I write we’ve seen no post-Orlando polls to tell us whether this cocktail of anger and paranoia will help him. If it will—and who knows, with Trump, maybe even if it won’t—we can of course expect much more of it.

Meanwhile, after the primary voting ended, both parties set about the business of trying to unify for the battle ahead. That process is in flux as I write, but in its early innings, this phase took some surprising turns. The Democrats’ unifying process was supposed to be nasty, but Sanders seemed to accept the reality of defeat after Clinton beat him in California, and he struck a more conciliatory tone after meeting with Barack Obama on June 9, vowing to do his part to keep Trump out of the White House. There will be fights in the Democrats’ near future over the platform—perhaps over how many of Sanders’s domestic policy positions the party adopts, perhaps over the language pertaining to Israel. Sanders’s decision to elevate to the platform committee Cornel West, who has expressed repeated contempt for both the Democratic Party and the incumbent Democratic president (“a Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” West said in 2012), has left some mainstream Democrats upset and nervous. But there don’t appear to be any especially divisive issues looming, and even intense platform fights tend to be forgotten after the convention.

For their part, the Republicans were until recently coalescing behind their candidate. House Speaker Paul Ryan endorsed Trump on June 2, through the odd and telling vehicle not of a press conference or a television appearance standing at Trump’s side but via an Op-Ed he wrote for his hometown newspaper in Janesville, Wisconsin. Polls indicated that Republican support was solidifying behind Trump, and he closed the polling gap with Clinton by a few points.

Then came his astonishing attacks on federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a lawsuit brought by some former matriculants of Trump University. If you have not watched the video of Trump defending his attacks to CNN’s Jake Tapper, which aired on June 3, I urge you to do so. It’s not exactly Joseph N. Welch destroying Joe McCarthy, because Tapper stays firmly within the zone of the neutral reporter; it is nevertheless a stunning visual document, one that will be played on television or whatever they’ll be calling it fifty or a hundred years from now to explain to people who this man was. “He’s a Mexican,” Trump says repeatedly. No, corrects Tapper; he’s an American, born in Indiana. “This judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall.” “He is giving us very unfair rulings,” Trump complains.1 But what does his heritage have to do with that? “I think that’s why he’s doing it. I think that’s why he’s doing it.” And isn’t saying that someone can’t do his job because of his ethnicity the definition of racism, Tapper asks? “No. I don’t think so at all.”

Finally, senior Republicans snapped. Here was South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking to CNN:

I don’t think he’s racist but he’s playing the race card. And in the political process he’s putting the race card on the table. I think it’s very un-American for a political leader to question whether a person can judge based on his heritage…. If he continues this line of attack then I think people really need to reconsider the future of the party.

Graham also told The New York Times: “This is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy. If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it. There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”

We move now toward the two steps that have perennially signaled the official start of the general election campaign—the nominees’ selection of running mates and the conventions. These are crucial matters, we tend to believe, and often defining.

For Clinton, the big question is whether she’ll name Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as her running mate. The upsides are obvious. First, Warren is beloved by the liberal-left wing of the party, even more than Sanders in some ways; any intraparty ideological rift would mostly be instantly healed, and the more left-leaning groups and donors within the party’s orbit would back the ticket with enthusiasm. In addition, Warren demonstrated, starting in late May, that she can attack Trump zestfully, in a series of speeches, remarks, and tweets ridiculing Trump as “a small, insecure money-grubber.”

The potential downside is equally obvious: no one can quite predict the effect of having two women on the ticket. (Indeed, the whole question of whether there’s enough latent sexism among the electorate to cost Clinton the White House is still waiting its turn to be dissected by the media.) The Huffington Post’s Zach Carter and Ryan Grim reported on June 8 that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, according to “four Senate sources familiar with Reid’s thinking,” believes Clinton should choose Warren. The next night, Warren endorsed Clinton on The Rachel Maddow Show and seemed to hint that she was open to the job.

Whether Clinton would offer the slot to Warren—and whether Warren would or should accept—are questions being heatedly debated right now in Washington Democratic circles. There exist defensible reasons why Clinton, or any president, might not want a number two with a huge fan base of her own (much of which disdains the putative nominee). In addition, Clinton, who approaches these kinds of responsibilities with much seriousness, may decide that Warren would be unqualified to take over the presidency in the event of a tragedy because of her lack of experience and even apparent interest in foreign policy.

Likewise, many wonder whether Warren would want the job; she must be aware that many liberals hope she doesn’t take it if offered and believe that she will be a more effective advocate for her causes as senator. There’s merit to this argument, but I believe it’s partly based on an outdated conception of the vice-presidency. In our time, a vice-president can be like a chief operating officer to a corporate CEO. Dick Cheney didn’t lack for power, and Joe Biden has a broad portfolio. Clinton and Warren would have to agree, in detail, on what Warren’s lines of authority would be, a negotiation that might prove daunting.

Clinton’s other most plausible options include Senator Tim Kaine, a Spanish-speaking Catholic from the important state of Virginia who is best known for demanding that Congress vote on going to war with ISIS; and Tom Perez, the current secretary of labor, whose Dominican heritage would augment what is already sure to be a heavily anti-Trump Latino turnout.

On the Trump side of the ledger, it seems to me that the central question is who will accept the job if offered. If you are a rising figure in the GOP and you perhaps hope to run for president in the future, do you really want to lash yourself to Trump? It’s not merely that most observers expect Trump to lose, and perhaps badly. It’s that you will be identified with Trump and have to defend him. Assume yet another racist eruption from the candidate. Republicans of all sorts will denounce it, but if you’re Trump’s running mate, you will have no choice but to defend it. Many Republicans will—or should—think long and hard about putting themselves in that position.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton; drawing by James Ferguson

Likewise, it’s bizarre to contemplate a convention in Cleveland during the third week of July that is choreographed to celebrate the greater glory of Trump. Back in April, Trump dismissed past conventions as “boring” and said they need “some showbiz.” What may he have in mind? Meanwhile, anti-Trump Republicans, tweeting under the #NeverTrump hashtag, continue to hold out hope that somehow Trump can be blocked as delegates are suddenly seized by conscience at the convention. In addition, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain—four of the last five GOP standard-bearers—have said they will not attend (the fifth, Bob Dole, plans to). It seems hard to imagine that the cable news cameras won’t capture some measure of dissent or disaffection. But of course his speech will get great ratings.

The Democrats convene the following week in Philadelphia. One risk here is that the hall will be filled with Sanders delegates, more than 1,800 of them. Unless Sanders has unequivocally told his people by then that they are to back Clinton—and who knows, maybe even if he has—some percentage of them may find ways to make some trouble. They may well boo party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whom they perceived as having “rigged” the process for Clinton. They may even boo Clinton herself, as the roll is officially called. This risk could be eliminated if Sanders himself takes to the floor and moves that the convention dispense with the calling of the roll and nominate Clinton by acclamation, as Clinton herself did for Obama back in 2008. It is hard to visualize him doing this. At the same time, if he hopes to maximize his power in a Senate that the Democrats may have recaptured, he will have incentives to be a good team player from now until November. (Few observers believe the Democrats have a realistic chance of retaking the House.)

If such disorder or anything close to it occurs in Philadelphia, there will be high excitement on the cable news channels. Disaster for Clinton! Can she survive? Is she damaged permanently? Cable news lives off these dramas.

But it might be that they just don’t matter at all. This is the view of most political scientists, who argue that elections are decided on what they call the “fundamentals,” by which they mean chiefly the condition of the economy, along with a couple of other ancillary factors—the incumbent president’s approval ratings and voter mobilization efforts. This view maintains that most of the things journalists obsess over—the candidates’ charismatic qualities or lack thereof, their smiles, their gaffes, the little scandals that explode—often don’t mean a thing.

I addressed this question four years ago in these pages.2 I was respectful but somewhat skeptical of the fundamentals argument. Part of my skepticism is surely grounded in the fact that if the political scientists were correct, then much of what journalists do for a living would be mostly a waste of time. But I also cited a then-recent analysis by Nate Silver, who found that the political scientists’ record over the last forty years was mixed.

In the intervening four years, though, I’ve come around a bit to the fundamentals argument. There’s no disputing the fact that, absent a major event like a terrorist attack or a legal indictment, the economy is the most important factor in any presidential election. More specifically, as John Sides and Lynn Vavreck argue in The Gamble, it’s the economic conditions that obtain in the last few months or perhaps the last year before the voting. They assert, with respect to the 2012 election (their book was published in 2013), that Mitt Romney’s crucial error was his relentless hammering away at the terrible economy and his constant comparisons of Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter. This was a miscalculation, they write, because “economic conditions in early 2012 were much better than they had been in early 1980. Obama was also far more popular than Carter.”

There’s another reason I’ve come to think that events don’t matter as much as they might have in the past: polarization. We are at a point in history where there simply aren’t many votes up for grabs. Virtually any reasonably qualified Democrat would get 45 percent of the vote, as would any reasonably qualified Republican, leaving just 10 percent for the two sides to fight over.

This means that events aren’t likely to change that many people’s minds. Critics of the political scientists’ thesis often point to the 1988 election, when George H.W. Bush came back from a seventeen-point deficit to beat Michael Dukakis, pummeling him with attacks about Willie Horton and his membership in the ACLU. Surely, these critics contend, those events mattered. They did. But it’s no longer 1988. In our polarized climate today, a seventeen-point swing is well-nigh impossible. Today, a five-point swing in one direction or another would be stark. Voters on both sides are deeply dug in, which means, in turn, that gaffes and even scandals are much less likely to cause them to change their minds.

The facts of the 2012 campaign bear this out. As Sides and Vavreck show, nothing much changed from December 2011 until the voting the following November:

In December 2011, the polling firm You-Gov asked 45,000 Americans who they would vote for if the presidential election pitted Romney against Obama. Among all respondents, 45 percent chose or were leaning toward Obama and 41 percent chose or were leaning toward Romney.

Eleven months later, Obama won by…four points. Nothing that happened seems to have made any difference. And quite a lot happened. Remember the “47 percent” video, when Romney was caught at a fund-raiser disparaging the little people? Sides and Vavreck studied all the polls and found that the four-point lead Obama had on the day the video was released was unchanged a week later. They do concede that the first debate, in which Romney clearly got the better of a laconic and distracted Obama, shifted the race by “about four points,” but it pretty quickly shifted back and stayed constant.

This tracks with my memory—Obama had a small but consistent lead for the entire general election contest, except for that brief post-debate blip, both nationally and in the swing states. It was close enough that conservative commentators were able to allege that the polls were wrong—“skewed” was the word that caught on—and that Romney would win Ohio or Pennsylvania or even, in some fantasies, Minnesota. Obama won them all. The polls were mostly accurate, it turned out, and the contest mostly static—for a year. The whole race, and all those billions of dollars spent on it, might as well have never happened.

All that occurred as it did, in my view, because of polarization. Most Romney voters weren’t voting for Mitt Romney as such. They were voting for a set of values they felt Romney represented, and against a set of values they felt Obama represented. The same was true in reverse of Obama’s voters, although being the incumbent he probably enjoyed more positive support than Romney did.

Note that I said “values” above, and not “policy positions.” It’s values and emotional intuitions that matter. We divide up into tribes, and we vote as tribes. This is the argument of Democracy for Realists, the new book by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, who put forth a “group theory of democracy” and state:

We conclude that group and partisan loyalties, not policy preferences or ideologies, are fundamental in democratic politics. Thus, a realistic theory of democracy must be built, not on the French Enlightenment, on British liberalism, or on American Progressivism, with their devotion to human rationality and monadic individualism, but instead on the insights of the critics of these traditions, who recognized that human life is group life.

That’s a striking observation for a couple of political scientists to make, since it flies in the face of decades of political science conventional wisdom about “the rational voter” and other such dicta (what the authors call the “folk theory” of democracy), but it seems to me obviously true, particularly in our age. Here is more:

For most people, partisanship is not a carrier of ideology but a reflection of judgments about where “people like me” belong. They do not always get that right, but they have much more success than they would constructing their political loyalties on the basis of ideology and policy convictions.

This certainly describes much of what happens in our time. It explains why states, regions, and cities have turned ruby red or deep blue; it explains those little blue islands on electoral maps of the vast red seas in the South and Midwest—they are university towns, where liberals live. The argument is not exactly the same as the one advanced by Sides and Vavreck, but it complements it nicely, since both agree that events need to be very dramatic indeed to change more than a handful of voters’ minds.

How does this apply to the current election? The economy, at least so far, should favor Clinton in that conditions, while not optimal, are probably good enough to support an argument for stability. I write these words shortly after the appearance in early June of the troubling May jobs report, when only 38,000 new jobs were added and the previous months were revised significantly downward. Economists I spoke with after the report’s release said they still thought that the chance of a recession before the election was remote. If this was just a hiccup, Clinton’s case that she’ll build on the work that Obama has done should get a hearing from a majority of voters, and it doesn’t hurt that if she wins, she’d be having breakfast every morning with the same president who presided over the strongest economy of the last fifty years, as she has (sometimes clumsily) started to remind voters.

To the extent that the incumbent’s approval ratings matter, that too favors Clinton, for now. On June 1, according to Gallup, Obama’s job approval rating was 53 percent, with 43 percent disapproving—a big change from where he’d spent most of his tenure.3 This is highly conditional, of course, but assuming no economic downturn and no major external crises, Obama—who, during these last few months, seems to be enjoying being president for perhaps the first time—should glide into retirement on a wave of comparative good will.

As for voter mobilization, it is generally thought in the political world that the Democrats do it better, at least in presidential election years, with more sophisticated targeting techniques and so on. Some commentators have noted, ominously or gleefully depending on where they sit, that for much of the primary season, Republican turnout was higher.4 But that was because until Trump’s opponents all dropped out, the GOP race was more competitive. Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s website, wrote in March that “voter turnout is an indication of the competitiveness of a primary contest, not of what will happen in the general election.”5

So that, too, would seem to favor Clinton. There was a hubbub in the political press in May, when Trump closed the polling gap against Clinton from seven or eight points to three or four, or in some cases less. But that was probably a natural bump as the result of his having claimed the nomination, as Republicans who’d backed other candidates threw in the towel. In early June a couple of polls showed her edging back toward her earlier margin, and it is presumed that she’ll benefit once it sinks in that Sanders cannot run and that he and Warren are supporting her. So if our political scientists are correct and this is an election about fundamentals, she will win by seven or eight points, and in the Electoral College will at least equal Obama’s 332–206 margin over Romney.

Any such prediction has its hazards, especially in view of Clinton’s broad unpopularity apart from loyal Democrats. All the fury we’re about to see, all the moments that will arouse partisans on both sides—maybe they won’t matter at all. But it would also seem that if ever there’d be an election in which events would matter, it would be one involving Donald Trump. We have no idea what he has in store for us. More frighteningly, neither does he.

—June 16, 2016

  1. 1

    It might be noted that Judge Curiel delayed the trial until after the election in order that it not influence the voting.  

  2. 2

    How to Follow Our Weird Politics,” The New York Review, May 10, 2012. 

  3. 3

    You can Google “Gallup daily Obama job approval” and see the tracking numbers every day.  

  4. 4

    In the end, the difference came to only about 2 million—30 million Republicans voted, and 28 million Democrats. Clinton actually got more votes than Trump, 15.7 million to 13.3 million. Sanders ended with 12 million.  

  5. 5

    See Harry Enten, “Primary Turnout Means Nothing for the General Election,” FiveThirtyEight, March 18, 2016.