Let the games begin: the 2016 presidential edition

Mr. Trump became the presumptive nominee last night. A couple things come to mind while contemplating the long, dark night before us:

  • I think it’s possible to overplay the importance of the historical data. Presidential elections happen so rarely that the actual sample size to work with is rather small. It’s true that since 1900 the Ds have had the White House for 3 terms in a row only 1 time. But there have been very few opportunities: 1920, 1940, 1968, and 2000. What does 1 victory in 4 tries tell us? Not much. Moreover, the data can be reframed quite naturally in ways that favor the Ds cause. Suppose we ask how many times since 1900 the Ds have won the White House after holding it for at least 2 terms. The answer is that they failed in 1920, 1968, and 2000 but succeeded in 1940, 1944, and 1948. To be clear, I’m not saying the historical data is unimportant; I’m just saying it’s not as important as I originally thought.
  • It’s also tempting to overemphasize Mr. Trump’s oversized personality in the current state of affairs. Now, one prominent line of thought is that much of his economic success in recent times has involved putting his name on other people’s work and taking credit for it[1]. And I *suspect* something like that is going on here too. Simplifying a bit, the real story of the 2015-6 primary season, in my opinion, is the revolt by (mostly) white, (mostly) less educated (mostly) men[2][3] against more conventional party-approved candidates. That’s happened in both parties this year, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence (though, of course, both Sen. Sanders and Mr. Trump each fish from other ponds as well[4]). The big question, for me, is what these folks do in the general election and how much influence they ultimately have. Perhaps it’s just the marxist in me, but I except the economic sub-structure to be doing most of the work; much of the superstructure merely supervenes on this. Followers of Thomas Carlyle need not (and will not) agree.
  • That said, it would be a mistake to ignore completely the personalities involved. I’m thinking especially about Mr. Trump’s favored tactics[7] which often include mud-wrestling[8]. This fact presented a real problem for his competitors in the R primary. Jeb! tried to ignore invitations to get dirty and in the process looked like a holdover for the 19th century. Sen. Rubio joined Mr. Trump and ended up looking just as filthy and juvenile. Sen. Cruz did a bit of both and saw his favorability ratings among Rs fall more than 50 percentage points. So it goes. But will these tactics work (i) with the general electorate and (ii) against a woman? (We have different norms for men and women in their public behavior. That’s sexist, full stop. But it would be foolish, I believe, to ignore sexism when predicting the outcome of this election.) I don’t know, but I’ll bet lots of focus groups are being run right now (and have been run for some time) in order to get a peek at the answer. Mr. Trump is already wildly unpopular with women[5][6]. Trying to man-handle HRC isn’t likely to help him with either men or women. To repeat, I think that this is mostly ephemera and that the election will be largely decided by deeper forces. But personalities might make a difference on the margins.
  • I think it’s highly likely that many R leaders and R voters will fall in line behind Mr. Trump, in part because of their existential horror at the prospects of a second Clinton presidency[8][9]. Sure, I expect some Rs will make a principled stand against Mr. Trump. Many Libertarianish Rs are pretty unhappy with their party’s presumptive nominee. Mr Trump’s neo-mercantilism and militarism have drawn criticisms from the pages of “Reason” for a while[10]. But these cases are the exception, not the rule.
  • As unconventional as much of this election cycle has been, I suspect the question of who’s in the White House for the next four years to be a drear and throughly gray flannel matter of edging out the other party in the swing states. CA and NY will be blue even if Godzilla were at the top of the ticket. TX and IN will go red even if most of the state gets raptured in October. But can the Ds coax Ohio into their camp? They’re less likely to do so if John Kasich is on the R ticket, but it’s not impossible. Can the Rs take CO? Perhaps, if they manage to mobilize Evangelicals (some of whom are pissed off about legalized pot) in places like Colorado Springs a little more than in 2012. We’d be asking these questions (and answering them in more or less the same way) if it was Jeb! who was running instead of Mr. Trump.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

(Something strange happened to my end notes, and I’m too lazy to fix them right now. Sorry.)

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/29/the-myth-and-the-reality-of-donald-trumps-business-empire/

[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/who-are-donald-trumps-supporters-really/471714/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2016/02/22/daily-202-bernie-sanders-is-running-into-a-demographics-buzz-saw-in-south-carolina/56ca76f2981b92a22d329d68/

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/13/bernie-sanders-supporters-consider-donald-trump-no-hillary-clinton

[5] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-35912640

[6] http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/trump-clinton-women-problems

[7] http://www.wsj.com/articles/republican-leaders-face-a-decision-on-donald-trump-1462318803

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/04/opinion/its-donald-trumps-party-now.html?_r=0

[9]http://www.slate.com/articles/video/video/2015/12/donald_trump_s_preferred_rhetorical_tactic_is_called_praeteritio_is_also.html

[10] http://reason.com/blog/2016/05/04/trump-is-so-a-republican-hillary-is-such

 

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