Three weeks into the official start of the 2016 US presidential elections have produced a trove surprising and not so surprising results, along with a ton of misinformation. So what have we learned so far?
The Bush Dynasty is over. Six months ago received wisdom was that this election was going to be clash of political dynasties–Bush v Clinton–but that is just not the case. Jeb left the race for several reasons. First he was a lousy candidate with weak media skills and no narrative for why he was running. He had a ton of money but his campaign spoke either to the fact that money cannot by everything or that money misspent cannot buy votes. Since 1980 a Bush has been a presidential or vice-presidential candidate in all but three elections (1996, 2008, 2012), although Obama did effecting run against a Bush in 2008. The Bush brand has run its course, ruined in part by Jeb’s brother’s weak presidency and also by the fact that the GOP has moved further to the right than where the Bush brand lies.
It’s all Politainment. Bush also lost because politics and entertainment have converged into politainment (politics + entertainment). Presidential races are media events favoring candidates with the ability to look good on television. This is Trump’s strength, nurtured by years of his own personal branding and television show. Trump is only the latest candidate to show how mastering television and other multi-media forums is a big advantage. This is also the election that the social media seems to have gone into overdrive, with Facebook campaigning taking on the new role of spinning in the way that only pundits used to. One wonders how much of what is posted on Facebook is actually true, or done by real people. The barrage of misinformation on the social media will soon raise questions about how much people can trust it and therefore, its utility as a campaign tool.
Trump is for real. All of us wondered if Trump could transform his media presence into a get out the vote effort. The received wisdom 20 years ago was that it was all about ground game and not just about the airwars. They were separate strategies that had to be mixed to produce a successful presidential campaign. Trump may be unique but he is redefining the rules, showing how media presence can be a winning strategy, generating its own ground game. Barring the unexpected, his path to the party nomination seems likely.
But how popular is Trump? Trump is polling about 30% of the Republican voters. The best estimates are that 32% of the population describes themselves as Republicans. Trump thus commands not quite 10% of the voting population. Polls also suggest that he has high disapproval ratings among many voters, especially the swing voters. This is important because were he to get the nomination it will be interesting to see who these swings vote for. In a race against Clinton (who has the second highest disapprovals), it will be a battle to see who these voters like least, and whether they will vote at all.
The anger and intolerance vote. Historian Richard Hofstadter described the paranoid style in American politics that also prided itself on ignorance. Trump and Cruz are proving Hofstadter right, showing that there is an ugly side to American politics where I suspect a significant percentage of the populations still will not vote for women, people of color, members of certain religious faiths, and those with a grasp of facts.
The mainstream Republicans don’t get it. There is a base of the party that hates mainstream wimpy candidates like Bush. They believe that running milk toast moderates such as McCain and Romney cost them the election and now they want purity. The base is aging, refusing to change, seeing perhaps this election as their last hurrah to win. The base of the GOP is demographically eroding and the party establishment is trying to figure out how to hold on. As more and more mainstream Republicans endorse anyone but Trump they fail to see how that fits into the strategy of Trump to be the anti-establishment candidate. Additionally, fascinating in this election how the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” strategy that the GOP has run for a generation or more is now killing them. By that, for years the GOP has used social issues to get working class to vote for them, while at the same time pursuing a plutocratic strategy that favors the rich. Working class whites have seen little that the GOP have done for them and thus, why should they support them anymore?
Democrats need to worry about turnout. Republican turnout is way up so far and Democratic turnout below 2008 levels. Sanders needs bigger turnout to win but more importantly, if primary and caucus turnout is predictive of general election turnout then no matter who gets the Democratic nomination there is cause to worry about the Democrats delivering their base. Why is turnout so bad for Democrats? Blame in party the party leadership who wanted to protect Clinton by not scheduling many debates or placing the debates on nights when no one watches them. The Democrat debates have produced less television and media coverage and therefore less turnout. Remember as noted above, presidential politics is politics and entertainment. (Politainment). Presidential debates are like pop culture advertising for candidates and the Democrat party has done a terrible job advertising itself.
No Democracy in the Democratic Party. Who is ahead, Clinton or Sanders? After three contests Clinton and Sanders are tied each with 51 pledged delegates. Add up the total votes cast for Clinton and Sanders in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada and Sanders probably is ahead. Yet Clinton has a huge super-delegate lead. The media is quick to declare Clinton way ahead but in terms of grass roots earned delegates she is tied. The story this year is about the lack of democracy in the Democratic party and how there will be a coming battle to scrap the super delegates. They look like elite efforts to thwart popular will. Super-delegates are as anti-democratic as the Electoral College. In a fair primary process driven by the people the race to be the Democratic nominee would be wide open.
Gender, Age, Class, and the Generational Divide. Clinton wins female voters over the age of 40, but not younger. There shows a generational split and a declining importance of old style gender politics characteristic of the Baby Boom generation. In the same way that the GOP is facing a demographic and base revolt, so too is the Democratic Party. The Boomers are aging out, the Millennials are taking over, and that change is pushing the party in a new direction. Clinton may be the last Baby Boomer candidate to head the Democratic party. The future is not with her wing of the party, but with a new group. Think of Sanders not in terms of his age but in terms of the shift he is bringing about–a retreat from simple identity politics and a re-emergence of class as factor to mobile voters and provide a focus for public policy.
Finally, it’s a long way to November! We have only just started campaign 2016 and no doubt other new trends will emerge.