Sterling Professor David Mayhew: a political scientist’s views on the 2016 elections

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Republican Party officials have gathered in Cleveland this week to officially nominate Donald Trump as the GOP’s presidential candidate — a circumstance that most pundits considered unthinkable when the businessman and reality TV star kicked off his unconventional campaign last summer.

At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next week, Hillary Clinton will become the first woman in U.S. history to become the presidential nominee of a major political party. Both candidates are unpopular within their own parties — only 43% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they are satisfied with Clinton, while just 40% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters are happy with Trump, according to recent polling by the Pew Research Center.

Nevertheless, come Nov. 8, one of the two candidates is almost certain to be elected the nation’s 45th president. At the same time, voters will decide which party will control the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

David Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale and a leading scholar on the American Congress, shares his thoughts on this unique presidential election and offers a forecast on several key Senate races.

What does the nomination of Donald Trump and the unexpectedly competitive campaign waged by Bernie Sanders indicate about the mood of voters in the Republican and Democratic parties?

The indication of mood is overwhelming. It is a revelation. Sanders and Trump are outsiders. Sanders isn’t even a Democrat. Trump is only vaguely a Republican. The politics is catching up with the public. We are seeing a reaction, probably simmering for quite a while, to globalism, sketchy economic growth, and rising income inequality. Neither party has paid much attention in recent times to the white working class, which is rising up against globalism and political correctness. Immigration and trade have come of age as leading issues. The Brexit result in England is a similar statement.

What’s the closest historical parallel to the presidential nomination of Donald Trump, a candidate with no governing or legislative experience, and little history of engaging in party politics?

The closest is probably the GOP nomination of the businessman Wendell Willkie in 1940. Aside from that, going back in U.S. history, we have had military generals with no previous blotter of election experience. Those include: Zachary Taylor, Whig, 1848; Winfield Scott, Whig, 1852 (nominated but not elected); Ulysses Grant, Republican, 1868; Winfield Hancock, Democrat, 1880 (nominated but not elected); and Dwight Eisenhower, Republican, 1952.

Still, Grant and Eisenhower had had considerable governing experience of a sort. Grant was czar over the South for a few years after Appomattox. Eisenhower presided over the allied coalition to win World War II in the European theater.

Also possibly worth mentioning are certain other folks who had had governing but not election experience. Herbert Hoover was a major cabinet leader during the 1920s before the GOP nominated him in 1928. Alton Parker was a judge before the Democrats nominated him in 1904.

The businessman Ross Perot came from nowhere to win 19% of the November vote in 1992.

Before endorsing Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator Bernie Sanders lobbied for several specific changes to the party’s platform. What purpose do the platforms serve? Do they influence policy and legislation or are they just a way for parties to secure their coalitions?

All of the above. Generally speaking, the statements that the presidential candidates make are more important politically than the party platforms, and they are better predictive of what will happen in office. But a party’s platform is a statement. It says what the coalitional base of the party stands for, although with an eye for winning in November.

What is your forecast for the Congressional elections? Will the Republicans retain both houses? Does Trump’s presence on the ballot weaken the party’s chances to hold the Senate?

The House will probably stay Republican. The party would need to lose 30 seats net, and they probably won’t. Looked at district by district, we see well-financed GOP incumbents and, on the Democratic side, a ragged record of supplying promising nominees. Generally speaking, House members who run again win again. It was probably that factor of personal incumbency advantage that kept the GOP on top in the House seat result in 2012. Also, the GOP incumbents do not need any instruction this year on how to disassociate themselves from Trump or to play wishy-washy on Trump. A good deal of GOP ad money will go into keeping House control. But I would not bet the mansion on this. Sometimes a presidential nominee who does poorly can hurt in the House elections, as with Barry Goldwater in 1964. On the other hand, the Democratic George McGovern ran disastrously in 1972 without causing obvious pain to Democratic House candidates, who kept that party’s control of the House. Wait around. Beyond 2016, if Hillary Clinton wins the White House the Democrats will probably lose House seats in the 2018 midterm. If Trump wins the White House, the Democrats will probably win control of the House in 2018.

Control of the Senate looks like a tossup, maybe leaning Democratic. The Republicans are in big trouble on the Senate side, their 54-46 edge is at risk, but that isn’t mostly due to Trump. The GOP landslide in the 2010 midterm six years ago is the reason. It brought the party a lot of seats to defend this year in Democratic or tossup states. The GOP would be in trouble his year anyway, regardless of Trump. Here are the special Republican vulnerabilities:

  • Mark Kirk in Illinois, more or less conceded to the Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth
  • Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, a probable loser to ex-senator Russ Feingold
  • Kelly Ayotte versus Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, a tossup
  • Rob Portman versus former Governor Ted Strickland in Ohio, a tossup
  • Richard Burr versus Deborah Ross in North Carolina, a tossup
  • Patrick Toomey versus Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, a tossup              
  • The open seat in Indiana; this was supposed to stay GOP given their good nominee U.S. Representative Todd Young, but the Democrats have gotten ex-senator Evan Bayh to run again. It’s a tossup.

Other GOP Senate seats at some risk are:

  • John McCain in Arizona, a probable winner but …
  • Charles Grassley in Iowa, a probable winner but …
  • Marco Rubio in Florida, a likely winner (the GOP lucked out to have him run again), but …
  • Roy Blunt in Missouri, a probable winner but …

Any Democratic Senate seats at risk? Yes. The open seat in Nevada what with Harry Reid’s retirement – a tossup. Michael Bennet in Colorado? Probably stays Democratic.

So what happens? It is not clear that Trump is sagging the chances of these various Republicans. They are being adept at skirting him, and the incumbents among them have lots of ad money to spend.

The presidential election could come down to results in a handful of swing states. This has been the pattern over the last several elections. Does this indicate a flaw in our system of electing a president?

Probably not. In any system of single-member districts for filling the top office, there will always be swing districts (or states, given the Electoral College) that are pivotal. That is the way the politics works. In 1800, New York was the important swing state. In the late 19th century, some of the elections hinged on Indiana and New York. Lately we have been dwelling on the familiar list of Florida, Ohio, etc. In Britain or Canada, there are swing constituencies that everybody keeps an eye on in the parliamentary elections. It doesn’t make a good deal of sense to say that voters in safe districts or states in these systems are not represented. Of course they are represented. Their positioning counts toward deciding where the national pivot is. In all these countries, the top elections for president or parliament are so well publicized that it isn’t hard for voters everywhere to keep in touch and contribute to a result, so chill out Idaho and Massachusetts.

Given the widespread unpopularity of the two major party candidates, could a third party candidate, such as Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, be a factor in the presidential election?

There is a very good chance. Also, watch Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. This could shape up to a four-party race with both Johnson and Stein performing in the high single digits or low double digits. We may end up with a winner south of 50% of the total popular vote. That has happened fairly commonly as with Clinton in 1992. Watch for a Johnson and Stein scramble to appear in the national TV debates in the fall.

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