Transformation 2016: Which Way USA? (Teaching Election 2016 Part 3)

This is the third post in a series on approaches to teaching about election 2016. In this post I focus on an underlying theme, political change, rather than candidates and issues.

Some Presidential elections are corrections, others are affirmations, fewer are mandates, and very few are transformative. In a corrective election, the incumbent party is voted out of office because the public blames them or their candidate for continuing national malaise. Examples are the Clinton election in 1992, the Bush election in 2000, and the Obama election in 2008. Affirmations are essentially reelections, Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996, Bush in 2004, and Obama in 2012, although sometimes, as in the election of George Bush in 1988, the same party remains in power with a different candidate. There have been very few mandates that sweep a party to overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate as well as the Presidency. Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 definitely qualify as mandates, and maybe Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Transformative Presidential elections that realign politics in the United States for the long-term and integrate new political parties into the two-party system are exceedingly rare. The last time a new political party was swept into office was the Republican Party in 1860 in the midst of the crisis that brought on the civil war.

However other elections did mark new political alignments. Between the Civil War and 1928 the Republican Party dominated national politics and the Presidency. In 1932, a combination of urban immigrants who newly became citizens and were now eligible to vote with the Great Depression made the Democratic Party dominant until 1968. In 1968, White working class men, partly in response against the Civil Rights Movement and partly to due to the lose of skilled manufacturing jobs became to shift from the Democratic to the Republican Party. The shift was best exemplified by the relatively rapid movement of Southern Whites, who had been loyal to the Democratic Party since Reconstruction, into the Republican Party where they continue to remain.

In April, the New York Times ran an article, "Electoral Map Is a Reality Check to Donald Trump's Bid." The article focused on the electability of Donald Trump as a potential Republican Party candidate, but made the point that the appeal and positions that make it possible for a candidate to win a major party's Presidential nomination could actually put a candidate at a decided disadvantage in the general election.

In 1964 Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona who was to the right of the Republican Party mainstream and in 1972 Senator George McGovern of South Dakota who was to the left of the Democratic Party mainstream each secured their party's nomination and both went down to resounding defeats in the November election. The Times pointed out that as of March 2016, Donald Trump, who was leading in the Republican Party delegate count, trailed Hillary Clinton, his likely Democratic Party opponent, in every key state, including swing-states Florida and Ohio. The authors argued, "Mr. Trump could be hard-pressed to win more than 200 of the 270 electoral votes required to win."

In the Republican primary campaign Donald Trump's greatest support came from White male voters who felt alienated by political, demographic, and economic trends in the United States. However the same positions that endeared Trump to these voters appear to have contributed to his unacceptable rating by large majorities of women, non-whites, Hispanics, voters under 30, and voters with college degrees. According to New York Times and CBS News polls, each group viewed him unfavorably by a margin of 2-to-1. Of course public opinion polls do not always transfer into votes. Tracking polls and comparing them to final vote tallies can be an exciting middle school or high school project.

The New York Times composite public opinion poll on August 14 showed Clinton leading Trump nationwide by 46% to 39%. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist public opinion poll, after a series of missteps with Trump being Trump, the Republican candidate trailed Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in all the swing states vital for election. Nate Silver of the website FiveThirtyEight predicts that there is a good chance of Clinton winning with a landslide margin in the popular vote as great as Ronald Reagan's in 1984 or Lyndon Johnson's in 1964.

While it is not clear what kind of Presidential election 2016 will be, correction, affirmation, mandate, or transformative, a resounding defeat for the Republican Party Presidential candidate probably will not severely wound the party on either the national or local levels. According to an analysis of the two-party system by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson "predictions of a Republican crackup should be greeted with skepticism." They believe pundits pay too much attention to Presidential elections misunderstand recent Republican electoral successes "which rest less on effective governance than on attacking government, and especially the occupant of the Oval Office." After being soundly defeat by Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2008, in the 2010 midterm election Republicans gained more seats in the House of Representatives than any party had since 1938. Since 1988, the Republican Party has struggled in presidential elections, but has done exceedingly well in Congressional races, holding majorities in the House and Senate for much of the last three decades. Republicans have also increased their hold over governorships and state legislatures. Hacker and Pierson concluded that in the modern era of highly partisan politics "presidential contests are less likely to usher in dominance than to invite opposition," opposition that often leads to success in other electoral realms.

Political scientist Thomas F. Schaller argues that the federal system currently works to the advantage of the Republican Party in at least three ways. According to Schaller, over the last generation Republicans have gained strength in rural areas which creates an advantage in the Senate where less populated states like Alaska and Idaho get the same number of Senators as more populated ones like New York and California. The Republican Party has also benefited from the high concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas where the Republican Party virtually no longer functions. In 2012, Republicans had more than 30-seat edge in the House of Representatives, although Democratic Congressional candidates actually received more votes nationwide. Last, significantly lower voter turn out in non-Presidential election years has also helped Republicans hold onto state and local offices. This explains Republican success in Gubernatorial elections because more than 80% do not occur in Presidential election years.

Schaller's analysis suggests that even if the Democratic Party candidate wins a resounding election victory in the 2016 Presidential election, the Republican Party, rather than disintegrating, will likely hold onto state and local offices and maybe even the House and/or Senate.

Other social scientists predict more seismic political changes. David Voas of University College London believes support for Donald Trump reflects, in part, a process of long-term secularization in the United States that will diminish the importance of conservative Christian voters, a major part of the Republican Party coalition for the past three decades.

Kenneth Scheve of Stanford University sees an increasing disconnect between the anti-tax policies that benefit wealthy Republican donors and the party's opposition to social services that would benefit working-class Republican voters. The demographic shift and the social and economic needs of traditional Republican voters both suggest the 2016 Presidential race signals a more transformative election than many political prognosticators anticipate.

I assembling ideas for teaching about Election 2016 into a follow-up post. Email me at Follow Alan Singer on Twitter: