NPR political correspondent describes a one-of-a-kind presidential race

Donald Trump will have more voter support in the presidential election than most people would have expected if he is the Republican nominee, and Hillary Clinton is likely to be the Democratic presidential nominee, National Public Radio (NPR) political correspondent Mara Liasson predicted during her campus talk on “The 2016 Election” as a Poynter Fellow on April 15.

Liasson, who has covered six presidential elections during her tenure with NPR, said that beyond those likelihoods, she would not make a prediction about who will win the presidential race.

Describing this year’s presidential contest as far from typical, Liasson noted that the current frontrunners, Trump and Clinton, “have the highest unfavorable ratings of anyone that has ever run for president” — with Trump viewed unfavorably by 50% of Republican voters and Clinton by 55% of Democratic voters.

“I think this is a recipe for an ugly, negative campaign when you have people with negative ratings that are this high,” Liasson told her audience.

Ultimately, she said, most voters will decide on the next president based on five factors: which nominee they believe will help them maintain their middle-class lifestyle and create a better future for their children; which is likely to keep them safe from terrorism; their personal sense of the state of the nation’s economy at election time (such as whether their household income has risen); and President Obama’s approval rating in the fall, which is “the most important political indicator” of how the race will conclude, Liasson said.

“It’s extremely hard [for one political party] to get a third time in office,” Liasson told her audience in Sudler Hall. “George H.W. Bush has been the only American president able to do that. Generally after eight years, voters want change.”

However, Liasson acknowledged that in a race featuring a maverick like Trump, conventional political thinking may not apply.

“Forget whatever you thought you knew about elections,” she said. “We’ve never had one like this. This isn’t even a typical ‘Throw the bum out’ election.” She cited some of the incidents on the campaign trail that have been firsts in the history of presidential races, including Trump and Ted Cruz trading insults about each other’s wives and Trump promising his supporters he would pay the legal fees of anyone who roughed up a protestor at a rally. Among Republican voters, she said, 60% have told pollsters that the battle for their party’s nomination is an “embarrassment,” Liasson said.

Liasson explained the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) nominating rules, which Trump has asserted are rigged to block him. Those rules require a candidate to win 1,237 delegates to earn the party’s nomination on a first ballot. However, if the frontrunner fails to win that many, all of his delegates are free to switch their allegiance to another candidate on a second ballot. Thus, she said, Cruz has been busy campaigning behind the scenes — what Liasson characterized as a “shadow campaign” — to win delegates’ support in the event Trump fails to win a first-ballot nomination.

“So the RNC, as we’ve all learned — and to many people, including Trump, it was a very big surprise — is a private club. It’s not an official body governed by law. It’s a private club, and they write the rules as they see fit, which means that almost anything is legal. You can buy a delegate’s way; you can give them a golf vacation; you can pay for their family to go to Aruba,” she said.

This reality finally convinced Trump — who will have to win 56% of the delegates in all of the upcoming state primaries to win the nomination on a first ballot — to hire lobbyist Paul Manafort as his convention manager, said Liasson. “He’s at the point where he understands that the celebrity joy ride has come to an end and he does need more traditional political arts if he’s going to be the nominee.”

She characterized the surprise of many (including Republicans) that Trump has stayed in the race this long as “a failure of the imagination,” adding, “He’s so beyond the pale it was hard to imagine it going this far. Now the establishment is in full-on panic that Trump will get the nomination and hurt the party.”

Trump speaks especially to white, blue-collar workers who are angry at politicians, the media, President Obama, immigrants, and Wall Street, she said. “[A] big majority of Republican voters have told pollsters that they feel betrayed by their leaders in Washington. [T]hey are angry at an economic system that seems rigged against the middle class.” Liasson said they have legitimate reasons for this anger, noting that median income in the United States in 2014 was $4,000 less than it was during the Clinton administration.

The political correspondent characterized the Democratic race as perhaps more “boring,” but still “plenty divisive and contentious.”

Bernie Sanders would also need 56% of the remaining delegates in the Democratic contest to win the nomination, she said, noting the bigger question is whether the Democratic Party will be able to unify after its convention to win the presidency. She described the contest for the Democratic nomination as one in which Sanders is “all message” and Clinton is “all resume.”

“She’s contrasting her experience and her practical ideas against his idealistic, big, ambitious goals,” said Liasson, adding she is surprised that Clinton, unlike her husband, has “failed to have an aspirational vision” and “one simple overarching message.”

Of Cruz, Liasson said that she has never before heard a man described as “ambitious” in a negative context.

“He has proven you can be intensely disliked by every single one of your colleagues in Washington and still do pretty well with voters on the primary campaign,” she said.

In the question-and-answer session that followed her talk, Liasson was joined onstage by Yale’s vice president for communications, Eileen O’Connor, and Yale Political Union member Brendan Hellweg ’18. She discussed such topics as the future of the Republican Party should its candidate lose the election and whether Sanders’ supporters might chose to support Trump instead of Clinton.

She answered that while the two candidates share a “pessimistic” picture of today’s America, she believes that Sanders’ supporters would be too put off by Trump’s “xenophobia and nativism” to cast their vote for him.

Of the Republican Party’s future, she said that the party may find itself in a deep “identity crisis.”

“Maybe someone like Trump … only without the ugly part …” will come along, she said, adding, “This is what I do for a living. I ask people these questions. Nobody knows.”

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