As an academic pollster whose research and teaching focuses on campaigns and elections as well as voting behavior I am used to people asking me to make predictions regarding election outcomes. What I’m not used to, are panicked inquiries. Increasingly, when the camera turns off or the radio segment ends, or when I’m stopped in the street, people want reassurance Trump will lose. There is a palpable fear of a Trump victory, and it’s a fear that cuts across party lines.
A False Equivalency
How has it come to be that at least 45% of American voters seem poised to cast a ballot for the first strongman, authoritarian, major party candidate in American history? How did we come to a place where an openly racist and known misogynist with serious self-control issues has become a viable choice for president for millions of Americans?
In his National Review piece titled, “Democrats Have Run Out of Language to Use Against Republicans” Charlie Cook argues that the heightened rhetoric the Democrats deployed against John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 desensitized the electorate to actual credible complaints about the dangers of Donald Trump. To be sure, Joe Biden warning that Romney wanted to return black Americans to slavery is a fair example of the ridiculousness of our modern political rhetoric, but Cook’s explanation is woefully underdeveloped.
Although overheated rhetoric from the left regarding McCain and Romney Administrations plays a role, another culprit is the overheated rhetoric deployed by Republicans in their efforts to undermine the Obama Administration and derail a Clinton candidacy. A rhetorical strategy that may have its roots on talk radio and alt-right websites, but which was ultimately sanctioned by Republican Party leadership who failed to stand up to more radical members of their own caucus; casting racially motivated aspersions on Barack Obama’s legitimacy and Hillary Clinton’s culpability in Benghazi which turned a national tragedy into a politically motivated witch hunt.
And so it is that as a country, we find ourselves in a situation where many “average” Americans report that they find both candidates equally unappealing even though the difference in the deficiencies of each candidate couldn’t be starker. On Clinton’s end, she clearly used bad judgment in deciding to rely on a private email server despite the fact that the use of such a system undermines public accountability and transparency and raises potential security concerns. A decision few doubt was motivated by her desire to subvert anticipated Republican attacks.
But her other problems are run- of-the-mill political problems. The possible convolution of donors to the Clinton Foundation and the her role as Secretary of State and the capitalization on her and her husband’s political resume to amass personal wealth although problems, are typical “scandals.” The outrage over them is purely partisan. Few doubt that her most vocal critics on these issues would be silent about it if it was a fellow Republican. To be sure, one needs look no further than the collective yawn the Trump scandals have elicited from his fellow partisans. From misappropriation of Trump Foundation funds, corruption in Trump University, pay for play in the Florida attorney general election, and the refusal by Trump to release his tax returns; Republicans are clearly willing to apply a double standard to protect their own nominee. A common political standard both parties engage in frequently. Politics as usual.
So both candidates bring blemishes and ongoing investigations with their candidacies that balance each other out and rightfully frustrate the public. But that’s where the similarities end. Voters see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as equally bad choices despite that fact that only one of these candidates is running on an openly racist and authoritarian platform at odds with many components of American political philosophy and long-standing democratic principles. And only one candidate has spent the last 16 months proving time and time again that they lack some of the most basic behavioral and temperamental attributes a president not only should, but must possess.
And it is for this reason that the non-elected Republican political class has engaged in activities few of us ever expected to see in American politics. Nothing encapsulates how unprecedented concerns surrounding a Trump presidency are then Mitt Romney’s speech during the Republican primary where he implored his fellow party members to turn away from what he argued was an anti-American, anti-Republican embrace of racial bigotry, intolerance, and ignorance.
But Mitt Romney is not alone. There is plenty of additional evidence that even in the eyes of many Republicans, one of these things is not like the other. Here are but a few examples:
3/16/16: The Economist lists a Trump presidency as one of their top 10 global risks
7/15/16: John Kasich, Republican Governor of Ohio and fellow Republican primary opponent announces he will skip his party’s convention in Cleveland, despite years of planning in advance.
8/8/16: 50 national security experts, many of who are Republicans, signed a letter denouncing Donald Trump’s candidacy and pledging not to support him
10/17/16: The Arizona Republic endorses Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump citing concerns over Trump’s temperament and self-control. It is the first time in the paper’s 126 year history they endorsed the Democratic Party’s nominee. And they are not alone. The Dallas Star, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Economist all came out with Clinton endorsements. The USA Today, despite never making an endorsement before, urges their readers to vote for “anyone but Trump. All told only 6 newspapers have endorsed Trump, none of which are major newspapers.
10/28/16: Stock market shows signs of nervousness at possibility of Trump victory. This is the first election in history the financial markets prefer the Democratic Party nominee.
11/1/16: 370 economists, including 8 Nobel Laureates implore Americans: “do not vote for Trump.”
Although concerns about Trump’s issue positions on economic matters (particularly trade) and national security matters (particularly Russia) drive some of the reservations by normal Republican constituencies, what is driving some Republicans to walk away from their own nominee is his behavior and temperament, which are antithetical to the stature of the office he seeks. From twitter wars to the reality show that was Trump’s 2nd debate strategy, Donald Trump has left absolutely no doubt that he is unfit to serve as the President of the United States. The polarized political environment punctuated by an endless stream of conspiracy theories and irresponsible rhetoric has left many Republican voters feeling as if they have only two options: vote for an unstable, racist, and misogynistic authoritarian bearing your own party label, or a nefarious "criminal" bearing the other party's label.
The false equivalency between Trump and Clinton is not just wrong, it’s dangerous. And the hour has grown late.