Election Day is still months away, yet the 2016 presidential race is already one of the most unusual in history. With the candidate selection process just past the halfway point, Professor Chris Ellis, political science, explains what has happened in the Democratic and Republican primaries, what to expect as the parties choose nominees in the next few months, and what that means for the rest of the campaign.
Question: How does the 2016 presidential election compare to past elections so far?
Answer: On the Democratic side, it looks fairly conventional: There's an establishment candidate that the party elite has decided on, and that candidate is going to win the nomination. Hillary Clinton maybe had to fight Bernie Sanders harder than she wanted to, but she still has all but clinched the nomination.
The Republican side is unprecedented. Donald Trump is obviously way off the charts in terms of things we've seen before — the party leadership not only doesn't support him, but is also actively hostile to his candidacy. Ted Cruz is the second-most viable candidate and has more conventional Republican ideas, but the party elites haven't rushed to support him either. Essentially, two people the party leadership finds to be the least acceptable have received a combined 60 to 65 percent of the vote in most states.
Q: What are the conditions that have set the stage for Trump's lead?
A: There are a number of different theories in political science to explain how primaries work — none of them are particularly good at explaining Trump, so we're revisiting a lot of our models. From what I see, the Trump phenomenon comes from a few places.
First, Republicans in the electorate have been trained to be angry over the past eight years. This is partly because of real economic circumstances and partly because party leaders have mobilized and stoked anger, which was used to good effect with electoral wins in 2010 and 2014, but now the party has lost control of its message to some extent.
Second, Trump is really popular among blue-collar, working-class whites, particularly men, who feel the country has passed them by. They struggle to make ends meet, think they're not going to be able to provide the same kind of life for their children that they had, and feel they've been left behind culturally. They don't have anyone in government that cares about their interests. If you look to the right and see a party whose policies always seem to benefit the wealthy instead of you, and you look to the left and see a party that mocks your cultural traditions and says you're somehow privileged, you begin to see why someone who wants to break the system is appealing.
Third, Trump in some ways parallels the rise of right-wing parties in places like France and Germany. If you listen to their rhetoric, these parties aren't talking about slashing the size of government or cutting social benefits like the Republican Party here. Like Trump, they're focusing on nationalism and patriotism instead. The Republican Party is finding the most popular part of its message isn't tax cuts and deregulation, but a conservative nationalism.
Q: If Trump is nominated, will the Republican Party and electorate coalesce around him?
A: I think if Trump is the nominee, the party is broken. There is always animosity in elections, but the party usually comes together at the end. This fracture seems a little bit more fundamental because Trump is not only unconventional and a bad candidate in most ways, but he's also not conventionally conservative. He doesn't fit within the party box. Combined with all the things he's done and said, that's going to make it a much harder sell for him to capture voters, even in his own party.
Q: Would those white, working-class people you mentioned potentially offset some of that fracture within the Republican electorate?
A: I think Trump would get a different coalition, but nowhere near a majority. The people Trump is mobilizing are a big, important bloc of people that have been neglected by both major parties for a long time. But it isn't big enough to overcome alienating ethnic minorities and college-educated whites — there's just not enough working-class whites to make up the gap.
Now, everything I've said about Trump for six months has been wrong, but I doubt he has as much crossover appeal as he thinks. His favorability ratings are so much lower than those of anyone who's ever run for president that the gap he has to make up is staggering. Clinton is also one of the most unpopular people to ever run for president. But everyone in the country has an opinion of Trump and for a majority, that opinion is negative.
Q: Despite her lack of popularity, Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee. Will Sanders supporters vote for her in the general election?
A: I don't see too many Sanders people pulling the lever for the Republican candidate. The parties' messages are just so divergent that people have more or less taken a side.
The issue that might pose a problem for Democrats is Sanders supporters not voting at all. Most are young voters, who are really dodgy when it comes to voting in general elections. I think the worry for Clinton is that they'll become apathetic and stay home. That's important because Barack Obama did an incredible job, particularly in 2008, of mobilizing young voters. If she loses that chunk of people, that's going to be a potential problem.
Q: How does Sanders compare to insurgent Democratic candidates we've seen in the past?
A: I think Sanders is a little bit different in the sense that he's explicitly and openly advocating for a very collectivist and idealistic vision of what the world should look like. For example, on taxes, he is the only candidate in recent memory who isn't running from the idea of raising taxes on all citizens, not just the rich. He's saying, this is how the country gets better, collectively. But saying that you're going to raise taxes on the middle class is not a winning general election strategy. Walter Mondale did that in 1984 and won one state.
Both parties are more polarized than ever. The Democratic primary electorate is more liberal than ever, and a socialist message is therefore more appealing to a larger fraction of voters. Sanders appeals to a small, passionate group of people, particularly white voters, that have moved very far to the left. But you don't win the Democratic primary with just white liberals — the math doesn't work. On the other hand, he has activated a group of people in much the same way as Trump — by telling them what they want to hear, free of the niceties of conventional politics.
Q: Where do you see the Republican nomination process going?
A: Trump needs around 55 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination, which is a lot, but he is really the only candidate that can get a majority for the convention. There's a much better chance of denying Trump a majority, and playing for a contested convention. John Kasich and Cruz seem like an effective tag team to go after Trump. They have essentially no crossover appeal with each other, but both poll from various segments of Trump's supporters. Cruz has seemed to play well in the Midwest and the West, and Kasich can do well in states like Pennsylvania and New York. The issue is getting other Republicans to come together with the common goal of stopping Trump.
Q: What happens if no one has a majority of delegates at the Republican convention?
A: After the first ballot it becomes a free-for-all. The working assumption is if that happens, the party would find a way to develop some kind of non-Trump coalition. I think that's probably true, but not necessarily, especially if Trump is very close to the number he needs. What would happen is chaos, in some sense. There are those that say as long as you keep Trump under a majority, he won't be the nominee and the party will figure something out. However, one of the reasons Trump has gotten this far is they haven't been able to exert any control over this process to this point, so there's no obvious reason to think they will at the convention. It'll be a mess, and what that'll do to the general election depends on how messy it gets.
The shame of it for Republicans is they are blowing a golden opportunity: a Marco Rubio or Kasich-type candidate would be a solid favorite to beat Clinton in November. Instead, it appears not only is the party headed to a landslide defeat, but they're endangering control over Congress as well.