High profile speakers come together this fall at UBC for the Fall 2016 series of the Lind Initiative in U.S. Studies to spark a national conversation around U.S. election issues, from hyper conservativism to widening rifts in the two major American political parties. Kicking off Sept. 15, the series is hosted by the Liu Institute for Global Issues at UBC’s Vancouver campus.
UBC political science professor Richard Johnston, who will be moderating the final event, Examining the Nomination Process, on Oct. 26 shares his thoughts on the U.S. election so far.
This presidential race seems to be particularly ugly. Is it really as unprecedented as it seems?
There are certainly precedents. Primary campaigns that go on for long regularly get nasty, even if they don’t start that way. This is why rules in recent decades have been designed, especially on the Republican side, to shorten the campaign. If the primaries end soon enough, the bitterness will fade. But this year, as in 2008, the primaries went down to the bitter end, such that the attack ads against the winner on each wrote the script for the other side in the general campaign. This has happened again this year.
That said, this year represents a new level of vitriol. On the Democratic side, the Sanders campaign mobilized an unusual number of young irreconcilables. On the Republican side, the campaign would have been bitter anyway, with each of the three key elements in the party’s coalition represented by a (seemingly) strong well-financed candidate.
And then there is Donald Trump, who not only broke the rules, he made new ones, so to speak. Having succeeded with the strategy in the primaries, he concluded that it also would work in the general. It would have been difficult, in any case, for him to pivot away from it. Much of what Trump says aloud has been dog-whistled for some years now by his Republican predecessors. As for the Democratic side, they have never had an opponent with such a self-writing script.
When it comes to how the candidates are challenged for their missteps, have they been scrutinized equally? Do the same standards apply to each candidate?
This is a difficult year for the media, as there never has been a candidate like Trump. Not only does he say outrageous things, he is unusually accessible. The historic newsroom norm is one of balance: rough equality in volume of coverage and, allowing for bursts of positive or negative coverage of an individual candidate, a quick return of the tone—for the candidates relative to each other—to a neutral setting. The media seem willing to allow Trump to set his own tone, while his on-screen appearance draws audience ratings.
With Hillary Clinton, the coverage is more conventional. And the conventional pattern is that coverage of individual candidates becomes more negative as the campaign progresses. This trend reflects attempts by the press to reassert its professionalism and independence—not to be played for fools or to be mere conduits for someone else’s message. Clinton has been around for so long that the negatives have had longer to pile up, and she has not helped herself by keeping herself inaccessible.
What comes after this campaign for the Democratic and Republican parties? Both parties experienced major divides among their membership during the primaries. Can they rebuild?
I am skeptical that all that much has changed. Large numbers of Democratic and Republican identifiers have already come back home, and more will still do so, as the campaign progresses. New forces have been unleashed on each side but will they have staying power? Will they even turn out on election day? There is a powerful logic inside the parties that repeats the scripts of previous campaigns.
Clinton’s victory on the Democratic side illustrates this, as her victory was never really in doubt and the building blocks of her campaign were quite predictable. No less important is the emergence of the Internet as a vehicle for millions of small donors. Candidates of many stripes can now stay in the race indefinitely provided they appeal to certain kinds of voters. The longer these candidates stick around, the more they widen each party’s internal divides. The logic broke down most spectacularly on the Republican side, and not just because of Trump.
If the race is close—even more so if Trump wins—his insurgent support, which cuts across some of the party’s existing bases, will be harder to dismiss in the future. If Trump loses decisively, and especially if the party loses control of Congress, it will be harder in the future to argue that his coalition is a winning one.
Donald Trump claims that he believes the election will be rigged against him. If Clinton is elected, what will the reaction be from his supporters? What will the consequences be for rebuilding of the GOP?
Whether this goes beyond election day may depend on whether the result is one-sided or close. If it is one-sided, claims about being rigged will not be plausible, not for the main result. If it is a narrow Clinton victory, then I think we will see “guerrilla warfare” in the form of multiple court challenges and demonstrations. If many GOP congressional candidates lose, they might be happy to assist in this (although a close result may save a lot of them). In all of this, similar claims by disgruntled Sanders supporters will be cited as evidence by persons making the Republican case.
What this implies for the rebuilding of the GOP depends on how credible the rigging claim is. In the recent past, both sides have basically accepted the outcome, including the Democrats in 2000, where the case for a miscount was exceptionally strong. But Republicans have been test marketing the “rigging” claim for some time now, in their arguments for voter ID. Trump has simply articulated the claim in a more forceful way.