New book examines historic election

Graphic by Greg Grinnell.

Why did Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election? How did women affect the outcome? And what can we expect from a Trump presidency? The answers to these questions lie at the core of Winning the Presidency 2016, the first scholarly reflection on what Politico called “the dirtiest presidential race since ’72.”

William Crotty, professor emeritus of political science at Northeastern University, edited the eight-chapter volume, which will be released in July. Here, Crotty, an American elections expert, reflects on the race and its potential impact on the future of the nation’s political landscape.

Other than the fact that Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, what was the most surprising outcome of the 2016 presidential election?

 Two developments: The role of the FBI in impacting the outcome and, second, the failure of the Democrats and Hillary Clinton to address the economic ills of the Rust Belt.

Party leaders in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania reported that they repeatedly attempted during the campaign to get Clinton through her national headquarters to take seriously the economic dislocations in their states, to put out a plan to deal with it—the slogan “Stronger Together” wouldn’t do it—and to campaign in their states. The problem was that, not unlike 2008, Clinton’s campaign organization was a mess and the campaign’s national director later said he never saw such pleas.

Then FBI director, James Comey, broke precedent and bureau policy in getting involved in the election. His criticism of Clinton, when he closed the first round of the investigation in early July 2016, went against the agency’s policy. His announcement of a reopened investigation at the end of the campaign, on the basis that more emails had been found, is inexplicable. The attorney general and his superiors advised him not to do it. Clinton had a right to be furious. It does suggest that an over-eager bureaucrat, for whatever reason, can disrupt a national election without fear of reprisal. (Trump’s later firing of Comey has more to do with Trump’s own Russian problems than in instilling some discipline into FBI ranks).

What was Clinton’s most egregious mistake on the campaign trail—the error that doomed her chance of becoming the nation’s first female president?

It was surprising that Clinton failed to campaign in the Rust Belt. She lost three of these states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—by less than 1 percent of the vote. It cost her the election. If Clinton had won these states, which she thought safe, she would have won the Electoral College vote as well as the popular vote. As a U.S. senator from New York, Clinton had a strong record in directing economic development opportunities to depressed rural areas of the state. It was an accomplishment that, if emphasized, would have helped her campaign.

On the flip side, how did Trump, a billionaire businessman with no clear political attachments, win the election?

Trump hit on, by accident or instinct, an issue of fundamental concern to a large segment of the population and rode it hard. This was the basic economic needs of the white working class voters passed over by the recent economic recovery. The pain is real. Add to it fears of multiculturalism and anti-immigration, anti-globalization views, and a candidate who promised to transform Washington and you have a winning formula.

Do you think the record-breaking distaste for Trump and Clinton will fuel the rise of more unaffiliated voters, marking a tipping point in the electability of a third-party presidential candidate in 2020 or 2024?

No. Not a chance. This is too bad given the state of the parties. The last third-party candidate to win a presidential election was the Republican party in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln as its nominee. The party rose from the ashes of the 1850s, the slavery question, and the fractionalization of the then-dominant party system. There have been third parties since—segregationalist George Wallace in the late ’60s and early ’70s and Ross Perot in 1992. They made a splash but both were swallowed up by the Republican party. Perot’s single-minded focus on the taming of the national debt did attract some support and made Bill Clinton’s election possible.

The pull of party id, not easily changed, a state and federal legal structure built on a two-party model, and a campaign and its demands—mobilizing voters from a largely apolitical constituency; building a grass-roots organization; developing a TV and social media presence of consequence; attracting the funding needed to compete effectively; and introducing a candidate and a new party’s views to the electorate to motivate their support, all in a matter of, at most, a year or so—are formidable barriers for a third party to overcome. Again, it has not been done since Lincoln and there are not many Lincolns around.

What does the outcome of this election tell us about how the next wave of presidential hopeful will shape their campaigns?

If Trump does not resign or is not impeached, he will be the Republican nominee and probably the favorite to win a second term. The Republican Party is in crisis mode. There has been continuing talk of a civil war within party ranks, but with the party’s control of the House, Senate, and Supreme Court, along with the presidency, that has faded. Trump may be mobilizing a permanent coalition and with it a new Republican Party. Then again, organization has not been his strong point and he has gotten far without it.

The real problem is mobilizing the angry grassroots’ pushback that has arisen spontaneously throughout the country in reaction to Trump’s policies, especially in the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The reality is that this is dependent on a resurgent Democratic Party to organize electorally, and at present this is not happening.

The Democrats are in serious trouble. During the Obama years, the party lost majorities in both houses of Congress and almost 1,000 state legislative seats. It is in its worst shape since 1922. Democratic governors are at their lowest point since 1865. The problem came to a head in the recent election of a national chair for the Democratic Party. Barack Obama’s candidate won a close race against a progressive committed to rebuilding the party. The winner was a member of Obama’s Cabinet, a centrist with no electoral experience. The progressive was supported by the labor unions and others such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. There is major discontent with Trump at the local level but, again, the party has yet to begin to mobilize it for the 2018 congressional races. Still, candidates such as Sanders, Warren, Joe Biden, and possibly Hillary Clinton, along with lesser known senators, congressmen, governors, and mayors have begun to test the presidential waters.