For a political scientist who cares about our system, it’s disheartening that a candidate can do pretty much everything in his power to disqualify himself from office and still be within a few percentage points of winning.
By Seth Masket
A man exits a voting booth inside of a middle school serving as a voting station. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
It’s pretty typical for political observers and regular voters to declare, at the end of an election season, that they’re glad it’s over. After all, most people just don’t like politics. They don’t like to see the advertisements by candidates misrepresenting and tearing down their opponents. They don’t like that horserace coverage dominates the airwaves and takes attention away from discussion of policies. They get tired of all the persuasion messages and turnout reminders. They get annoyed and confused hearing about conflicting polls.
That’s fine. If you don’t really enjoy politics, there’s nothing wrong with welcoming the end of a campaign. But I normally love this stuff. Following elections is my profession and my hobby. Yet this year has left me queasy and stressed. What is it about this year?
First, we should consider what’s not unique about this election cycle.
It’s not that the policy consequences of one outcome versus the other would be enormous. That’s been true for a long time in this polarized political environment. Compare this presidential election to the previous four, all of which were pretty closely contested. (The highest vote share of the lot — achieved by Barack Obama in 2008 — was under 53 percent.) Had any one of those elections tipped the other way, we’d be living in a very different country today. The consequences for foreign policy, health care, responses to recessions and acts of terror, etc., are considerable.
It’s not that there’s been too many nasty ads on television. Spending on ads looks to actually be slightly down from previous years.
It’s not that the election has been too close. By most measures, the George W. Bush/John Kerry race in 2004 and the Obama/Mitt Romney race in 2012 were actually closer, with candidates repeatedly swapping leads. Hillary Clinton has been consistently ahead this year (although there may be greater uncertainty in this year’s polling forecasts than in other years).
What has soured me is that one candidate (spoiler alert: Donald Trump) has been going out of his way to make a mockery of the entire political system. He is unlike any other modern major party presidential candidate, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. He has run for office by trying not to expand a coalition but rather to narrow one. He insults large blocs of voters. He demonizes women, Latinos, Muslims, and Jews, among others. He makes young girls feel bad about themselves. Rather than just hinting at sexist or racist tropes, he overtly employs them, legitimizing their use by others.
And, for what it’s worth, he mocks the rituals and practices associated with our presidential elections. He has refused to release his personal tax statements. His medical disclosures have been a joke. He does not prepare for debates except to attempt to sexually humiliate his opponent. If he can’t find a poll that supports him, he’ll fabricate one in his head. And, of course, vows that, if he wins, he’ll jail his opponent, and, if he loses, he’ll challenge the outcome.
But what should sour us even more is that this hasn’t mattered very much. Yes, it’s mattered to some extent. I take seriously the forecasts that a more conventional Republican candidate would be beating Clinton right now. But it’s nonetheless disheartening that a candidate can do pretty much everything in his power to disqualify himself from office and see many of his own party’s leaders and nearly every major newspaper in the nation endorse his opponent and still be within a few percentage points of winning.
I certainly get why this happens. Party identification is incredibly powerful. It allows us to dismiss criticisms of our party’s nominee while believing everything bad about the opponent. And party identification is very useful, allowing voters to meaningfully participate in elections and get a pretty good idea about where most candidates will stand on issues without doing costly research. But it also means that literally anyone who manages to get through a party’s nomination system has a shot at winning office, no matter his or her qualities and no matter how broken that nomination system might be.
A few months ago, I wrote the following:
This election will come down to roughly the same set of battleground states we’ve been watching for two decades, and the loser will likely win in excess of 47 percent of the two-party vote. In the end, this very weird election cycle will probably end up looking like a pretty normal one in the election returns.
This may end up being the most accurate thing I’ve written this year.