THE WILDCATTERS: Donald Trump, Critical Elections, and Public Opinion Polling

In 1991, John Geer, now the Vice Provost for Academic and Strategic Affairs at Vanderbilt University published an interesting addition to the partisan realignment literature that, we contend, has relevance for the 2016 election. 

Typically marked by critical elections, partisan realignments serve as major shifts to the underlying party system whereby the balance of power between the two major parties, the defining issues dividing the parties, and existing party coalitions are fundamentally and (relatively) permanently recast. Partisan realignments were thought to occur every 30 to 36 years in the context of large-scale crises (depression, civil war) as political change abruptly caught up with larger social, economic, and demographic shifts.

The most clearly defined realigning sequences were in 1824 when Andrew Jackson reshaped the Democratic-Republican Party and ended “the era of good feeling,” 1860 when Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party replaced the Whigs as one of America’s two major parties, 1896 (discussed below), and 1932 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt lead the country out of the Great Depression and the Democratic Party into majority status for the next 30-40 years.

There is no general consensus what to call what happened after 1932, though the electoral reshuffling has been substantial and includes (but is not limited to) the following:  

  1. The Democratic Party consistently lost supporters but Democratic losses did not translate into Republican gains. Instead, voters increasing increasingly identified as Independents. (Dealignment). 
  2. Following the passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African-Americans were effectively enfranchised in southern states and moved en masse into the Democratic Party. As African-Americans moved in, White southerner conservatives crossed over into the Republican Party voting for Republicans at the presidential level before eventually moving down ballot. (Southern Realignment).

  3. A slower moving realignment whereby Republicans picked up seats in the south once held by Blue Dog Democrats while Democrats picked up seats in the northeast once held by Rockefeller Republicans. The result was ideological polarization at the elite level. (Rolling or Secular Realignment).  

 Amidst these changes, Geer’s thesis was relatively straightforward and intuitive. The partisan realignments of the past were less likely because contemporary candidates and parties have a wealth of reliable information about voters, their behaviors and their preferences at their fingertips.  There would be no grand scale electoral miscalculations as was the case when William Jennings Bryan in 1896 railing against the gold standard and fought for agrarian interests and farmers amidst the broader and more sweeping historical tides of industrialization and urbanization. In an environment with plentiful information, rational candidates and parties would adapt more quickly to a changing electoral landscape.

Geer could have never envisioned a candidate like Donald Trump. As campaigns have become increasing data centered, message-tested, and micro-targeted, Trump remains willfully resistant to candidate-based political polling and data-based approaches to strategic messaging. As Trump himself has recently declared (without giving due credit to Popeye the Sailor Man), “I am who I am!” 

Trump will cite the occasional poll when it is helpful to his campaign, imploring his detractors to “just look at the polls.” When the polls are less favorable, however, he claims to be the victim of a rigged political system, including biased media coverage and skewed polling. With apparently no knowledge of statistical sampling, the Trump campaign points to the size and enthusiasm of his crowds at campaign rallies and events as a counterfactual.

Geer’s underlying assumption was that candidates would be rational strategic actors and would update their understanding of the campaign based on new information. Trump gives us good reason to question that assumption, and, in doing so, may have opened the door to the sort of electoral miscalculation not seen since William Jennings Bryan.  “We are going to build a wall” in an increasingly flat and globalized world may one day be remembered at the modern equivalent of “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”   

 Geer’s thesis, however, extended beyond rational candidates to include rational parties. Candidates might fail in a single election cycle but parties would adapt and adjust to changing electoral fortunes. In this respect, the rational wing of the Republican Party is already distancing itself from Donald Trump in hopes of maintaining control of the U.S. House and Senate.

Assuming Trump continues to refuse to pivot and that no major external shock or Clinton foible resets the electoral map, the Republican Party will learn the lessons of 2016 and adjust course for 2020. Ongoing strategic miscalculations are, of course, possible but, in the information age, the Republican Party should not make the Trump mistake twice.