Primary Visions: A Tale Of Two Parties

Bob Shire

In late July, the Republicans and Democrats wrapped up their conventions. The conventions were early this year; they either have to be before or after the Olympics every four years, and the parties decided to hold their respective weeklong television events back-to-back in July rather than in late August and early September. While it had been effectively over for more than a month, the conventions brought the primary season to an official close with the nominations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The similarities did not end there, but they thin out very quickly.

Democratic Convention. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Democratic Convention. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Both parties have been roiled this year by a reorienting of the usual political spectrum. While policy positions and ideology have still been relevant and decisive for some voters (and will continue to be), the usual political spectrum presented by the median voter theorem has been upended this cycle. Typically, elections can be understood (although only poorly) through this theorem, which arrays voters on the Left-to-Right political spectrum; the candidate or party which offers the collection of policy positions most similar to the voter in the middle is the one who wins the majority, and thus the election. That’s a crude approximation of reality, but it is usually the framework for how election analyses are understood (think of Jon Huntsman or John Kasich being considered stronger general election candidates because of their moderate policy positions).

While the median voter theorem still matters (again, these are political science models approximating reality, not describing it in detail), the split which has roiled both political parties this cycle is best described not on a horizontal axis of policy positions, but as an elite-to-populist vertical axis. People who perceive themselves as having less political power and influence have rallied for their preferred anti-elite candidates (primarily Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders) out of frustration with an entrenched political class whose behavior, in effect, has not changed after successive waves of victories for both parties. While some people who would be considered elite by most other metrics are supporting the insurgent candidates, and others were attracted to them for ideological and political reasons, the anti-establishment sentiment these candidates expressed in their party primaries drove their candidacies against establishment forces, expressed through other candidates. The sentiment appeared to be very similar across the two parties. Sketchily simplified (as models do), the more a voter believed in the political system, thought it was not completely broken (albeit dysfunctional), or perceived the political elite to be responsive to his or her (or other gender identity) interests, the higher the voter fell on the vertical elite-populist spectrum and the more likely that voter was to cast a ballot for traditional, establishment candidates or their approximations. The more a voter felt disenfranchised, the more likely that voter was to cast a ballot for an anti-establishment candidate.

Republican Convention was held in Cleveland, Ohio.

Republican Convention was held in Cleveland, Ohio.

These challenges left both political parties reeling in similar manners. However, the Democrats had essentially a two-person race, while the Republicans had an incredibly fractured field of seventeen major(-ish) candidates, which rewarded the flashiest one who could break through the noise. Establishment Democrats and the party faithful rallied around Clinton to defend the elite half of the upended voter spectrum, sometimes beyond the scope of their duties. For a quick aside, Democratic Party staffers appeared to inappropriately support Clinton over Sanders, but Sanders would have still lost the election if that variable had been removed; Sanders permitted Clinton to run up huge margins in the southern states, and he fell victim to a similar strategy to that used by then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign against Clinton in 2008. The optics are important, but the delegates are counted in the end, and the Sanders campaign did not chase delegates; the Clinton campaign chased them all the way to Vermont, where staff was on the ground competing for votes in Sanders’s home state, which yielded his largest margin of victory. The Democratic establishment rallied around Clinton, even when some of them should not have done so per their duties, but the election was still decided, relatively decisively, by the voters.

So, is it the best of times for the Democrats and the worst of times for the Republicans? No. Conventional metrics have proven relatively weak predictors so far this cycle, and while the general election is inherently a different contest with many moving parts not seen in primary processes, the polls were (on the whole) more accurate than the Trump doubters believed in the presidential primary season.

The Republican election was also decided by the voters, but the fractured field meant the pro-elite portion of the upended voter spectrum, which usually dominates in Republican primary elections, was fractured. Right-wing radio and anti-establishment media on the Right had already weakened the Grand Old Party leadership apparatus in the eyes of voters; after successive victories for Republicans in 2010 and 2014, Congress and other elected Republican officials had not delivered on their lofty promises to deliver on policies; at their best, they played the gridlock game, which stalled policy momentum in government but did not alleviate the problems identified in the campaigns (at least, not to the extent advertised). U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a darling of the anti-establishment Right, sought to stall government activity, particularly efforts to raise the debt ceiling, by building coalitions with like-minded U.S. House members and making a point of not cooperating or being too friendly with others in Congress. When he ran for president, he was far from the only one running against the GOP establishment. All of this rhetoric, be it from Cruz and his political ilk, radio, television, or the internet, boosted the populist vote and helped upend the traditional voter spectrum. However, Trump was in a league of his own relative to the establishment; he looked, sounded, and behaved in a decidedly non-politician manner. This appeal did not reach everyone, but it reached enough of the populist vote to propel Trump ahead in a field of 17 candidates, as did his ability to attract media attention and rise above the more usual din.

Democratic Presidential Candidate HiLlary Clinton

Democratic Presidential Candidate HiLlary Clinton

The Democrats usually have a stronger populist streak than the Republicans, but their establishment candidate this cycle was much more universally recognized and accepted. However, both political parties went into their conventions with a fair degree of tension between the upper and lower ends of the upended voter spectrum. Stepping back for a moment, readers should remember that 1) nearly everyone at the conventions likely qualifies as elite by some metric, as they are inherently empowered by being able to attend and, for delegates, vote at these party conventions, 2) the Democratic convention is a much larger group of delegates, so a more raucous environment may be expected there, and 3) the people who come to the convention for a candidate are often the most committed supporters that candidate has. The conventions are not truly a proportionate reflection of where the party rank-and-file are, and they are also shows, so they are not necessarily representative of the divisions within the party.

The Republicans pounded home a theme in their convention: Hillary Clinton is terrible, and the United States will only be in worse shape under her leadership. The message was clear to primary voters, but the convention was not well-produced. The messages transmitted were not aimed at a general election audience, at least based on conventional wisdom (which may easily be upended, again, this year). But the convention used some of the same strategy and tactics that carried Trump to repeated surprise victories in the primary. There were technical glitches and some odd speeches (as there are at nearly every convention), but the viewership was relatively high, and one did not have to hear much of the convention to pick up on the themes and the GOP vision for the country. The lack of star power at the convention (many top Republican speechmakers stayed away) made the viewing less compelling, however.

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump

Despite the email scandal plaguing the Democratic Party in what might have been the story of the year in a different election cycle, the Democrats put forth a smooth, slickly-produced convention. Star power was not in absence, speakers smoothly transitioned from topic to topic, each night addressed the themes as advertised, and the fractious components of the Democratic Party in the convention all received attention, but were not so disruptive as to detract from the message. The Democrats also held a convention with a much broader range of emotions expressed than the GOP convention, from touching sentiments tugging heartstrings to brash, militaristic expressions of patriotism. The Democratic vision was presented to the extent it represents a diversity of aspirations and beliefs, which plays to a more centrist general election audience queasy about Trump. While Trump has clearly not needed much of a campaign apparatus to reach this point, if the conventions are any indication as to how coordinated the dueling presidential campaigns will be, the Democrats have a clear advantage.

So, is it the best of times for the Democrats and the worst of times for the Republicans? No. Conventional metrics have proven relatively weak predictors so far this cycle, and while the general election is inherently a different contest with many moving parts not seen in primary processes, the polls were (on the whole) more accurate than the Trump doubters believed in the presidential primary season. Pundits by the score scoffed at the polls, chalking them up to name recognition or wondering aloud days before the contests whether Trump voters would turn up (and Iowa, in part, supported their rationale for doing so). The Republicans may have a uniquely unorthodox candidate running a campaign on the fly, tweeting unpredictably and leaning on existing party infrastructure rather than bolstering it, but the Democrats hardly have a beloved figure at their head. Thus, the polls remain close key swing states and nationally, although the Democrats enjoy a built-in advantage in the electoral college. The Republicans will also continue to have well-run campaign operations at the state and local level for candidates down ballot, and if Trump’s campaign brings new voters to the polls on the GOP side, candidates up and down the ballot might vote for the populist message over the predictable, focus-group-tested message of the Democrats. With an upended voter spectrum, where the inflection point will be on Election Day is anyone’s guess. Don’t hold your breath.