Experts try to untangle an unusual presidential campaign

Four experts on American politics assembled Thursday at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies to try to make sense of one of the wackiest presidential contests in United States history.

How did we get here?

Terri Bimes, assistant research director at IGS, a lecturer in political science and authority on the American presidency, noted the stark contrasts between the nation’s first commander-in-chief, George Washington, and the 2016 Republican nominee for the job, Donald Trump.

Political experts are trying to figure out how America got from George Washington to the decidely unusual 2016 presidential race. (iStock photo.)

Political experts are trying to figure out how America got from George Washington to the decidedly unusual 2016 presidential race. (iStock photo)

When Washington delivered his inaugural address in 1789, Bimes said, he confessed to concerns about his abilities to handle the tasks of the presidency and referenced his own “inferior endowments.” Bimes wondered aloud how the U.S. journeyed from the self-effacing Washington to the chest-thumping Donald Trump.

One reason, she suggested, is the evolution, or devolution, of political parties. In the 1970s they seemed to lose much of their control over the presidential nomination process, as witnessed the rise of less centrist Democratic Party candidates like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter.

Insider-backed candidates managed to prevail in the early 2000s, with the candidacies of George W. Bush and Al Gore, although Bimes said that grip has been tenuous, as evidenced by Republican candidate Jeb Bush’s fall from seemingly strong frontrunner status in a field of 19 just months ago. Elites in both major parties have fallen from favor with large swaths of voters in the current election cycle, she said.

Political projections based on standard fundamentals such as the state of the economy and the popularity of the incumbent president might give an edge to a “generic Republican,” Bimes said. But Trump is anything but a generic Republican candidate, and polls assessed at the political website FiveThirtyEight show Hillary Clinton maintaining a steady lead in an average of national polls.

Bimes quipped that she recently saw a flyer for an upcoming world premiere of the play, “It Can’t Happen Here,” an adaptation of the 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis about the election of a demagogue as U.S. president after he vowed to return the country to greatness.

She listed various “soft constraints” that America’s founding fathers wrote into the U.S. Constitution, such as impeachment, the Electoral College system, a minimum age for presidents and a separation of powers. While the “current party system no longer ensures that any of these safeguards will work,” polls giving Clinton a continuing lead may indicate that U.S. voters are smart enough to vote against a demagogic leader like Trump, Bimes said.

Not so fast

UC Berkeley associate professor of political science Laura Stoker cautioned that both Republicans and Democrats in the electorate have been swinging to their parties’ more extreme boundaries on issues of race and immigration, which facilitated the rise of Trump within the Republican Party.

An authority on national elections and public opinion, Stoker told the audience in Moses Hall that white Trump supporters are also more likely than supporters of the other, earlier Republican candidates for the nomination to express economic grievances, hold authoritarian values, distrust elites and strongly identify as white Americans.

Regarding the general election, Stoker noted Trump’s chances were hindered by a number of considerations: the fact that Democratic identifiers outnumber Republican identifiers within the electorate, the rebounding economy and Obama’s relatively strong presidential approval numbers.

A couple of big question marks for determining who will move into the White House in January include historically large percentages of Democratic voters who rate Clinton unfavorably, and the large numbers of Republicans who likewise look askance at Trump. A historically large number of still-undecided voters also adds to uncertainty about the outcome on Nov. 8.

In addition, Stoker said that election polling has enough challenges and shortcomings to be seriously called into question, particularly when it comes to how it portrays young, poor and nonwhite voters.

Latino voters

Still more uncertainty remains as to the potential impact of Latino voters, whether in the presidential vote nationally or in California, where a U.S. Senate race and more than a dozen state initiatives are frequently overshadowed by the campaign histrionics to claim 1600 Pennsylvania Ave..

Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, cited several statistics relating to the Latino vote in the Golden State:

  • Only 17.3 percent of eligible Latinos voted in the 2014 general election.
  • Latinos made up only 15.4 percent of California’s 2014 vote but accounted for 39 percent of its population.
  • The Latino percentage of California’s vote was down from 19.3 percent in 2012. That was its lowest share since 2006.

Let the campaigning begin, really

Gabriel Lenz, an associate professor of political science at UC Berkeley and author of Follow the Leader? How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance, agreed with other panelists that the 2016 presidential race is unique.

After all, he said, Trump has no government experience, his party elites hate him, he is being vastly outspent by Clinton, he is plagued by scandal and he lacks a professional campaign staff as well as a public policy “shop.”

It is easy to overestimate the political knowledge of the voting public, Lenz stressed, adding that maybe pundits who tend to say the real presidential campaign doesn’t begin until the home stretch following Labor Day are right.

Stay tuned

IGS will host a “watch party” for the first presidential debate on Monday, Sept. 26, in the IGS Library in Moses Hall.  The time of the event will be announced later.  Check the IGS site for details.