By Gail Hairston
Special to KyForward
One would have to be isolated to the point of sequestered to escape the tumultuous presidential campaign between Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Tuesday, finally, the nation chooses.
Before the results are recorded for posterity, three University of Kentucky political scientists and one historian agreed to comment upon the 2016 battle for the White House. Many Americans believe this campaign has been unlike any that has come before. Is this merely our limited perception of political history in America?
The experts agree. It is real.
As points of comparison, Associate Professor of Political Science Stephen Voss remembered the 1860 presidential election, which displayed “some of the same fictionalization” and the 1968 election “which had some of the same issues and the same high jinks.” But nothing in our history compares to the present, said the department’s publicity director.
“I think we are so far off the map now that I can’t give you a single parallel above the city council level to what’s going on in this presidential election,” said Voss, who is an expert in voting behavior, political methodology and racial/ethnic politics.
“Look, we’re making history,” he said. “We’re either going to get a candidate who hasn’t held office before, a female president, or — slight possibility — a third party victor. For sure, we’re making history; we just don’t know what it’s going to be yet.”
And a great deal of what Americans internally define as democracy could shift. If the election outcome is in dispute, constitutional law could be vitally relevant. In 2000, the Supreme Court felt compelled to determine if and how the Constitution applied. It is unclear if the court would take that role again, said Michael Zilis, assistant professor of political science and an expert in constitutional law.
Keeping in mind that many presidential elections help determine the future membership of the Supreme Court, the outcome of this election could influence how the Constitution is interpreted for decades to come.
“In some years this is a hypothetical concern,” Zilis said. “This year, however, the future of the court’s membership has been frequently discussed, since there is currently an open seat on the court. The next president will very likely place one, if not multiple, new justices on the bench. We can safely assume that Trump and Clinton would like to choose individuals with very different legal philosophies for the court, which can affect case outcomes in the future.”
The nastiness many perceive in this election isn’t “as unprecedented as you would think,” Voss said. “We’ve had presidential candidates who were accused, probably rightly, of having illegitimate children, affairs, all sorts of corruption.
“Thomas Jefferson was accused of … not being a devil worshiper, per se, but being part of a secret society that was linked to the devil,” he said. “So, almost any nastiness has happened before, but wow, we decided to get it all in (during this campaign). We’re almost at a scandal a day!”
David Hamilton, associate professor for the UK College of Arts and Sciences Department of History, said, “It’s not easy to put this campaign into historical perspective — at least not any kind of perspective for our recent political history. All presidential campaigns seem exceptional — and exceptionally nasty — before an election, but this one is highly unusual.
“We have two rather non-ideological candidates leading parties that are now intensely ideological,” explained Hamilton. “The efforts to demonize the other candidate seem to know no bounds.”
Hamilton attributes much of the personal attacks “to the partisan divide” that has shaped American politics since the early 1990s and to “the anger and resentment” generated by the financial meltdown of 2008-09.
“What we won’t know for a while yet is whether this campaign is unique … or does it mark a turning point in how campaigns are waged, the role of the parties in selecting candidates, and the issues that dominate American politics,” Hamilton said.
The award-winning author of 20th century political history could only add, “Stay tuned.”
It seems that “staying tuned” has kept many Americans obsessively checking the latest news accounts for months, trying to stay aware of the day’s shocking remarks or behavior. This has created, what many experts believe, is one of history’s best-informed electorate.
“The first question to ask about high information voters,” said Associate Professor in Comparative Politics Emily Beaulieu, “is how do they make up their mind about a candidate, because … we’ve come to a point where those who have selected a candidate are pretty settled in their choice.”
A voter’s preferred candidate many not change at this stage, but their actions on Election Day might.
“The thing that is interesting that we know from research is that — given the scandal-laden nature of this election — even for people who have made their choice, negative information late in the campaign can be de-mobilizing. In fact, that is one of the only places where we see negative information having any meaningful effect. When (negative political ads) come late in the campaigns after people have already selected (their candidate) — and if (the remarks) are against your selected candidate, that can work to have a demobilizing effect, (making the voter) less inclined to actually vote. They choose not to vote.”
Voss agreed immediately, “You know, we talk about those undecided voters, or undecided poll respondents, as if they are swing voters because they are undecided, and we think they could go either way. But the large numbers of those undecided voters aren’t actually voters,” he said. “They are undecided people who are going to stay home.”
But there appears to be another block of undecided voters with unusual traits — the undecided, but well-informed voter.
“I do think we have larger than usual number of people who are undecided and yet who are fairly well informed,” Voss said. “We have some people who are seriously cross-pressured; they have pressures pushing them in two different directions.
“I’m especially thinking of college-educated Republicans, especially female college-educated Republicans for whom Trump’s legacy of sexism pushes them very hard one way. But Hilary Clinton’s liberalism, which doesn’t give them the policies they want, pushes them very hard in the other direction.”
This is the group of voters that some analysts believe could swing the election one way or the other.
“We really don’t know what they’ll do in a presidential contest where they are being pushed so hard in opposite directions,” Voss said. “Staying home is a possibility, or they could decide to go with one or the other in large numbers.”
What has so many experts shaking their heads is that the old political science axioms are trembling.
“Politicians used to want to be near where the median voter is,” Voss said, “and that means being more moderate, more reasonable, more like a typical American and less like a hard-core Republican or Democrat.
“That logic has fallen apart.”
“What we’ve had is this pendulum effect as the election has favored first Democrats, then Republicans, all those middle of the road, bridge-building compromise people who can negotiate are being pummeled. It’s broken the political scientists,” Voss said. “Half the things we used to tell our students … most of the research we’ve done had assumptions in the background.
“We’ve never had a presidential election where one of the candidates had never run for office, never run a serious political campaign before so all that research that included two experienced candidates, doesn’t apply here.”
Beaulieu, however, has spent a great deal of time in a different political atmosphere, California, “where we send actors to public office. I don’t see Trump’s profile as a candidate as an anomaly.
“When this is all said and done,” she said, “does the Republican Party survive? What I see is that Trump is a real sign of the times. In terms of discontent among segments of our population — particularly over issues like the shifting demographics in this country — I don’t think Trump is anomalous; I think he’s a mirror for where we’re at as a country.”
“What destroys a party is internal splits,” Voss reminded. “To me it is not impossible that between Donald Trump representing one distinct faction of the Republican Party and most of the people who are currently serving in Congress who represent a different Republican Party … well, it is not clear they could coexist within the same institution for very long.”
For a podcast of a lengthier conversation with Voss and Beaulieu for “Behind the Blue,” visit this link.
Gail Hairston writes for UK Now. Reach her at 859-257-3302, firstname.lastname@example.org