Politically Uncorrected: The Matters of 2016
The Republican presidential nomination contest, with Donald Trump still atop the Republican field, defies everything that we know or thought we knew about nominations.
On the Democratic side, the political crystal balls have been equally opaque. Hillary Clinton’s long planned coronation has morphed into a slug-fest with Bernie Sanders—who still gets about one-third of the Democratic vote nationally while holding a narrow lead in New Hampshire. Who would have guessed that a self-described socialist would go toe to toe with Clinton despite not even being a member of the Democratic Party whose nomination he seeks?
Long before the nation’s first elections, the British surrendering at Yorktown during the American Revolution, reportedly marched out of their entrenchments playing the popular British ballad, “The World Turned Upside Down.” Someone should consider reprising that tune at one or both of the national party conventions next summer. It would be apt.
Uncertainty has become the new certainty in American electoral politics.
Nevertheless, four fundamental political factors are emerging from this maelstrom of political chaos, factors that collectively will determine who wins in 2016 – not just the presidential race – but also virtually all Pennsylvania’s statewide races.
The Rising Importance of Presidential Coattails – The steady decline in ticket splitting is probably the most significant trend in American politics today. Over the past several presidential elections, straight-party-ticket voting has dramatically increased to as much as 90% in 2012. As such, straight ticket voting has become both more partisan and more polarized. Consequently, if a presidential candidate carries Pennsylvania by as little as 5 points, (as Obama did in 2012), the chances are high that the party will sweep the so called “down ballot” elections, which in 2016 include U.S. senator, and state auditor general, treasurer and attorney general. Under these conditions, any presidential candidate winning Pennsylvania by 5 points or more could carry into office all the “down ballot” candidates on the ticket with the winning presidential candidate.
Scandal in The Row Offices – All three of Pennsylvania’s “row” offices, auditor general, treasurer, and attorney general, are held by the Democrats, and two of them – state treasurer and attorney general – have been tainted by scandal. The state treasurer left office pleading guilty to extortion and the current attorney general is mired in a history-making set of legal and political problems. Normally these factors would greatly benefit Republicans. But the huge Democratic voter registration edge (approximately 800,000 voters) together with the trend to straight ticket voting may nullify any GOP advantage from the scandals. Typically voters do not show great attention to the row office elections. If that remains the case in 2016, the winning party of the presidential election is also likely to win all the row offices.
The Electorates Third-Term-itis – President Obama is not on the ballot in 2016 but his party is – and Obama’s struggling approval ratings (about 45 percent positive) will have an effect on the election outcome. But Democrats have an even bigger problem in combating what has been called “third-term-itis,” the distaste many voters express toward awarding any political party three consecutive presidential terms. Indeed, winning a third consecutive term by one party has been a difficult feat to accomplish in modern times. The Republicans did it when Vice President George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1988. But for the Democrats it last occurred in 1940 when Franklin Roosevelt won a third consecutive term. As the presumptive Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton’s fate will be influenced by Obama’s approval rating. To a larger degree she will be running against the no third term tradition, and in that sense she will be running against history
The anti-establishment vote – This one is truly a wild card in 2016. Nearly every presidential election in modern memory has featured an “anti-establishment” vote. Ross Perot in 1992 embodied this electoral phenomena as did Ralph Nader in 2000 and George Wallace in 1968. Today, the anti’s have converged around the candidacy of Donald Trump, unleashing chaos in the GOP, while simultaneously revealing both the scope and strength of that portion of the electorate furious with politics as usual. As many as 60 percent of Republican primary voters may be animated by anti – establishment leanings. What makes anti-establishment voters such a wild card is forecasting what they will do if an establishment candidate wins the Republican nomination. Will they sit out the election? Or, worse (from the Republican perspective), will they support an independent third party candidacy? Less discussed but equally problematic for Republicans: what will rank and file Republicans do if Trump or an anti-establishment candidate wins the nomination?
So, coattails, scandal, third-term-itis and the anti-establishment vote will all matter mightily in 2016. Two of them probably favor Republicans – scandal and third-term-it is. The other two favor Democrats–coattails and the anti-establishment vote.
But knowing what matters isn’t the same as knowing what matters most. Right now it looks like we won’t know that before next November 8th.