Making sense of the 2016 campaign, assessing the prospects

(iStock image.)

(iStock image)

The United States’ 2016 presidential race so far has been ruled by drama, trauma and Donald Trump, and provided political scientists and reporters assembled at UC Berkeley on Friday for the 19th annual Travers Conference on Ethics and Accountability in Government no shortage of potential lessons.

There was no shortage of topics to discuss at the 19th annual Travers Conference on Ethics and Accountability in Government.

There was no shortage of topics to discuss at the 19th annual Travers Conference on Ethics and Accountability in Government.

At the one-day conference, sponsored by the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science, the Institute of Governmental Studies and the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, the experts offered some possible explanations and forecasts in key election arenas, starting with:

Understanding the nominating process

  • Outsiders and outfoxing Fox?

A creeping radicalization of the Republican Party in recent years has set fire to expectations of the far right and spurred outsider candidates with no ties to party insiders or a need for elite or major media endorsements.

  • Money, money, money.

The influence of “dark money” raised by 501c4 organizations that don’t have to disclose donors and aren’t supposed to be involved in politics has increased, as well as single-donor super political action committees.

If Bernie Sanders fails to capture the Democratic nomination, it won’t be due to a lack of funds, says Eric Schickler, chair of UC Berkeley’s political science department and an authority on political parties and voter behavior. The successful small-donor strategy refined by Barack Obama during his presidential races has helped Sanders collect $140 million, compared to the $160 million raised by Hillary Clinton from larger, often corporate sources.

How voters will decide in November

  • It’s not really all about Trump.

Voters in both the Republican and Democratic parties are in largely anti-establishment mode, often have no idea how government and democracy really work and are increasingly enamored with a style of “video politics” featuring popular, charismatic candidates whose celebrity in other life roles guarantees them inordinate amounts of free publicity.

We should be appalled” as educators about the country’s too-often uninformed electorate, said Thom Mann, a resident scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”

  • Latino and Black Lives (and voters) Matter

    Black and Latino voters are expected to play key roles in the 2016 presidential election, for both Democrats and Republicans.

    Black and Latino voters are expected to play key roles in the 2016 presidential election, for both Democrats and Republicans.

Missteps with African American voters and alignment with the black community’s most far left leaders may have dealt Bernie Sanders an insurmountable voter deficit. As for the Republican side, neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz offer immigration policy proposals likely to win over Latino voters, who are crucial if the Republican Party is to regain the White House.

  • Could overexposure cripple Trump?

UC Berkeley political scientist Gabriel Lenz says Trump’s final political undoing could result from the continuing barrage of attention toward him, no longer so diluted by Trump’s criticism of his Republican challengers but instead focusing on his rhetoric and record.

  • What have you done for me lately?

Lenz, author of “Follow The Leader? How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance,” reminded the conference that voters tend to vote according to how the economy and their immediate worlds are performing closer to Election Day, opening the door to what today is unknowable.

  • Prospects for governance after the votes are counted

Grim. The vote was unanimously negative for anything such as reaching across the party aisle or forming coalitions, although some experts conclude that a Trump backlash in November could bring Thanksgiving early for Democrats, delivering them more seats in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.