Political Interview with Bob Shire

Sam Williams

 

Our Political Writer, Bob Shire and I have been emailing during this month about the current political climate. Bob, whose been great at writing unbiased and clear articles on the goings on in the political world, hasn't yet had a chance to only give his opinion. We at immix thought it was a good time to hear from him.


 

1 .      Pro-Trump candidates for congress have not been doing well in congressional primary polls. What do you think the effect of Donald Trump as the Republican Presidential Candidate will have the on the congressional elections this year? Will it hurt Republicans? Do you foresee a Democratic majority in the House and Senate this year?

Overall, a drag at the top of the ticket is never good down-ballot. Voters tend to know less about candidates as they move from the presidential level to the gubernatorial, congressional, state legislative, and local levels, simply because of the press coverage afforded to candidates who are vying for more voters’ attentions. Right now, Mr. Trump appears to be behind Mrs. Clinton in the polls, although he is pulling close to even in recent days and ahead in some key states, according to polling from some very respected pollsters. Given people have increasingly viewed political parties in a national context over the last several decades, the down-ballot races are definitely affected by the top of the ticket, and the language state and local candidates use reflects the presidential discussion; sometimes this is because of coordinated, poll-tested talking points, and other times it is externally driven and candidates are responding to events and media questions. The media loves to ask candidates from “swing” districts how they differ from the top of the ticket, and that is especially salient with Mr. Trump.

 

Mr. Trump will likely help some candidates, particularly Republicans running in districts that are poorer and whiter in place which have historically voted Democratic (think West Virginia, Kentucky, and some areas of the Rust Belt). He is more likely to hurt Republican candidates in suburban districts or districts with significant ethnic minority populations. Districts where folks are doing well, and people are less likely to perceive the “system” as “rigged,” may be less inclined to vote for him. Some people decide whether or not to turn out and vote at all based on the candidates at the top of the ticket, so Trump may drive higher turnout in some areas (although this did not happen to a large degree in the primaries) and improve Republican chances overall in those districts. Hispanic turnout may also be driven up by Trump, but in opposition to him, suggesting more southwestern and even southern districts may be competitive that would not be otherwise.

 

a.       Also will the support of Trump hurt the re-election chances of Congressmen/women like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio?

 

The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Trump will hurt these candidates, and the news media is certainly interested in forwarding that narrative. Representative Ryan is safe, largely because he is well-liked in his district among voters of all political affiliations. Members of the House of Representatives overall are much safer because of gerrymandered districts. The Republicans did very well in the 2010 state legislative elections and, in many states, had the opportunity to redraw district lines after the 2010 U.S. Census. This partisan redistricting makes it very difficult for Democrats to retake the U.S. House of Representatives or certain, previously-competitive state legislative chambers until after the 2020 Census. Of course, that assumes Democrats do well in the 2018 and 2020 elections, which they may not. The U.S. House will very likely stay in Republican hands, but notably, the U.S. Senate cannot be gerrymandered (state borders have been quite stable for many decades).

 

For the U.S. Senate, I am not convinced Mr. Trump will hurt these more moderate Republicans’ chances substantially, as I think usual, suburban Republican voters may be more inclined to split their tickets this year, voting for Clinton or not voting at the top of the ticket while voting for Republicans down-ticket. They may also desire to have “regular” Republicans in office to be a check against a Trump presidency. However, people turning out specifically against Mr. Trump may outweigh those split-ticket voters by voting straight-ticket Democrat.

 

2.       The DNC had a nightmare come to reality when their emails were hacked and leaked. What backlash will this create for the Democratic Party? Do you see it influencing the Presidential or Congressional elections in a major way?

 

This would have been the big scandal of the election if Mr. Trump were not a major party nominee. I think, however, that most of the influence it will have on the election has already been exerted. The folks who are so appalled by it that they will not vote for Mrs. Clinton have either already made up their minds, and will likely vote for third-party candidates in protest, or they will see supporting Mrs. Clinton as a necessary evil to stopping Mr. Trump. The Democratic Party leadership has hopefully learned their lessons. I do not think many of the general election voters who will be deciding the election, especially those who were not primary election voters, are swayed or attentive to those more “inside baseball” issues beyond a general sentiment, at most. Remember, the Democratic Primary electorate had a somewhat limited awareness of those issues and even of the candidates running, and those were the more engaged voters. The number of votes Mrs. Clinton received to win the Democratic nomination was just over of 16.9 million, while Sanders won 13.2 million. President Obama won the 2012 general election with over 65.9 million votes to Mr. Romney’s 60.9 million. Many more people, who pay much less attention to politics than most of those reading this interview, will participate and ultimately decide the election, relative to the Democratic Primary.

 

a.       Who do you foresee as the Chairman of the DNC?

 

I have no idea, but the interim choice of Donna Brazile was interesting, since she has made her name more recently by being a commentator on CNN. She is clearly qualified to run the Democratic Party (she ran Al Gore’s popular-vote-winning campaign, and served as interim Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair in 2011 as well), but it also shows the Party is acutely aware of its messaging for the general election. From an institutional perspective, recently the DNC has had elected chairs who are also serving as elected officials, but that was not always the case; sometimes former officials or former state party chairs served as DNC chairs. I do not know whether serving also as elected officials concurrently changes the effectiveness of the DNC chair; it likely varies much more from individual to individual. However, being an elected official concurrently may create external pressures that, either directly or indirectly, affect the job the DNC chair can perform. DNC chairs do make a substantial difference operationally at times; in my view, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s stint as DNC chair, during which he focused on building the Democratic Party infrastructure in all fifty states, did not get enough credit for Democratic victories, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives, between 2005 and 2008.

 

3.       Some political pundits, news show anchors, columnists and even everyday people say there are a lot of similarities between Donald Trump supporters and Bernie Sander supports (though as a previous Sanders supporter and now Clinton support, I disagree). Have you seen similarities between the two groups of voters (you mentioned “preferred anti-elite candidates” in your article).

 

The frustration with “the system” is similar. For those who want a strong personality to enter the political fray and knock some heads, in theory to break legislative gridlock, I think there is some crossover appeal. Both candidates ran, implicitly or explicitly, against their respective party elites. The populist versus elites dynamic is particularly strong this election cycle, so I do not think it is an insignificant factor. Campaign finance reform plays into this, although Mr. Trump has cooled on that topic since he started taking donations on a large scale from wealthy donors. International trade and foreign engagement also show some similarities, to the extent Mr. Trump has a clear policy on the latter subject. Both candidates also offered a clear vision that clearly evokes passion; Mrs. Clinton has had difficulty on these points. However, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump have drastically different policy prescriptions and tones for most of the day-to-day work and approaches to solving problems, and I believe a Trump presidency and a Sanders presidency would look extremely different. As a reminder, while the institutions surrounding the presidency are strong (often by design) and limit the actions a president can effectively take, all of the major presidential candidates still running after the South Carolina primaries offered very different visions for the country’s policy direction and would have been (or be, for those still running) strikingly different presidents.

 

4.       Do you feel the amount of candidates in the Republican Party enabled Donald Trump to come out as the victor?

 

Yes. Ranked-preference voting would clarify this, but I think it is fairly safe to say a majority of the early primary voters probably would not have preferred Mr. Trump. However, he did win clear majorities later in the primary process, so he was the clear choice of Republican primary voters as expressed through the existing system.

 

a.       Likewise why do you think the Democratic race came down to just two candidates?

 

Without Vice President Biden in the race, Mrs. Clinton was expected to be the clear nominee. She was polling astronomically high, with Democrats nationally favoring heavily and some polling indicating she was the preference of over 70 percent of primary voters. Most Democrats considering running for president decided to sit the race out, and the Clintons were likely personally known to, and respected by, other potential Democratic candidates. Mr. Sanders ran as a protest and a check, primarily, against Mrs. Clinton moving too far to the center. Of the other candidates, Governor O’Malley saw the opening, but he was not the best messenger to take advantage of it, and with his time as the Maryland’s governor ending, running for president to raise his profile, become a vice presidential nominee, or earning a cabinet position was an easy choice even if he did not become the president himself. Former Senator, Governor, Republican, and Independent Lincoln Chafee had an interesting and varied resume, but his run for president seemed to seemed to be more of a personal, quixotic, and long-shot exercise rather than a serious run. Former Senator Jim Webb was making a stand for the rural, largely white Democratic Party of the past, but the urban and more racially diverse components of the Democratic Party proved more dominant, and Mr. Webb’s campaign also appeared to be a half-hearted effort.

 

5.       Many Sanders supporters feel both of these things: 1) Super-Delegates should be abolished from the race and 2) Closed Primaries are unconstitutional and all primaries should become open. Your thoughts on these?

 

1)         Super-delegates already have a reduced role relative to the 2008 primary. Senator Obama, after winning the Democratic nomination, pushed for their role to be reduced, and superdelegates went from being 20 percent of the total delegate count down to 15 percent. Superdelegates are nothing new, but the increased attention on them will likely lead to additional reforms. The selection of superdelegates and regular delegates could certainly use more standardization, and rules regarding when superdelegates can publicly pledge their support could limit their psychological impact on campaigns running in second or third place. The Democratic Party put superdelegates in place to avoid electing candidates who would get wiped out in the general election (which happened a lot to the Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s), but they are less democratic than pledged delegates, and the Democrats would do well to eliminate their role or severely limit it, such as only allowing certain publicly-elected officials to serve as delegates.

 

2)         I am not an election law attorney, nor even a casual expert. With that caveat, primaries are not protected by the U.S. constitution, so closed primaries are not unconstitutional at a federal level. States have recognized parties more formally, but political parties and their primaries are not discussed or constrained in the federal constitution. Political parties are private organizations, which cooperate with states (often at taxpayer expense) to conduct primaries. Personally, I think all elections should have two rounds, where one round is completely open (all candidates, regardless of party, on the same ballot), and the top two from the first round advance to the second round. Versions of this system are already in place in Louisiana, California, and Washington State, and work quite well in many cases. Ranked preference voting is another way to better represent the electorate, although it is more complex.

 

 

6.       Do you feel as though the message that Clinton is terrible and ISIS (or ISIL or daesh if you prefer) needs to be stopped was an effective message from the Republicans? How do you think the Republicans will move forward in their messaging from here?

 

Mr. Trump has effectively portrayed himself as tougher on ISIS than Mrs. Clinton, although there are undoubtedly a lot of factors at play in that beyond surface-level political messaging. I think the Republicans do have traction painting Mrs. Clinton with a broad brush, especially considering the constant doses of controversy that surround the Clintons. Despite the limited nature of each individual controversy, the undetailed descriptions of “terrible” and “criminal” resonate with voters who are also frustrated and predisposed to think most powerful federal politicians are crooks. As for ISIS, an alarming number of people believe ISIS is a direct threat to their well-being. I suspect statisticians could make a strong argument for not getting one’s annual flu shot or deciding to drive to the store being much more of a risk to any given U.S. resident’s life than ISIS. However, downplaying the threat would be politically difficult for Mrs. Clinton to do (remember how well President Obama’s “JV” comment was received), and she has some value in keeping the threat of ISIS seemingly serious as well, as she characterizes Mr. Trump as having unserious, incomplete, and unworkable solutions. Going forward, Mr. Trump’s focus on Mrs. Clinton and sticking to his script seems to have helped him; I see no reason for them to deviate substantially.

 

a.       Your thoughts on Trump alluding that 2nd amendment “defenders” could stop Clinton, in what has been speculated to a veiled suggestion that Trump was saying someone could just shoot Clinton

 

Mr. Trump likes to make headlines, and he is very good at it. If this signals a return to his pre-teleprompter ways, he will (rightfully, at least by implication) offend moderate voters who would prefer their president not make such suggestions, however tangentially, in a serious setting. Mr. Trump’s campaign tried to spin this all as a reference to the power of the pro-gun lobby, which is exceedingly powerful, but such spin is likely just that.

 

b.       Your thoughts on Trump saying, if he loses it’s because the race is rigged.

 

Claiming the race was rigged, without objective evidence, would be particularly dangerous. Faith in the electoral system is critical for the legitimacy of democracy. Voters have already lost trust in many key institutions, and losing trust in the electoral system could undermine the operation of our institutions and societal cohesion even further. Voting systems should be robust and resistant to hacking, and could use some additional effort at all levels to ensure they are. However, Mr. Trump would better serve the country to not make such comments unless actual evidence of vote-rigging arises.

 

7.       Do you feel Clinton’s lack of a press conference is troubling, or in some ways notable?

 

It is notable, but she has been in many interviews. Interviews are a much more controlled setting, whereas with press conferences, journalists have more opportunities to pile on and ask follow-ups. These can be important exercises, but I am not certain, given the number of interviews Mrs. Clinton has participated in, that not having a press conference is particularly troubling. However, Mrs. Clinton would have to hold press conferences as president, and she would do well to be more open with the press. I see the counting of the number of days since a press conference occurred as an expression of legitimate frustration with the closed nature of this campaign on the part of journalists.

 

a.       Likewise do you feel the treatment of her email scandal by Congress and the FBI has been fair?

 

The email scandal is a real concern, but I think it has partially been enlarged as part of a media effort to be equally critical of scandals on both sides, and Mr. Trump has (at present) dramatically more scandals on a regular basis than Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton’s also has more substance and paperwork behind it than most Trump scandals, which often revolve around his vague statements (as we discussed above). As for whether the process itself has been atypical, I do not know enough to say if the FBI has been treating her differently than other comparable cases (of which there are few, if any), but politically it does not matter too much, as most voters are like me and do not know either.

 

8.       How to do you think the Democrats will move forward in their messaging for this years election?

Mrs. Clinton has put a recent emphasis on her policy positions, rather than solely attacking Mr. Trump. The problem is, for many voters, the best argument for her is that those voters should vote against Mr. Trump. We can expect the Democrats to continue to try typing all Republicans, at every level, to Mr. Trump’s most controversial statements. Voters do not need to be convinced that Mrs. Clinton has more policy experience and more detailed policy proposals than Mr. Trump; voters already perceive these points. The Clinton campaign will likely hold these narratives going into the debates, although I do not expect Mrs. Clinton to vigorously attack Mr. Trump in the first debate, at least unprovoked. She will find ways to provoke him, however.

9.       According to most polls, Trump is down in the Presidential Race? How do you see the race ending? What contested States will go who?

 

I expect the polls will change considerably as a result of the debates, unless the candidates play their hands in an exceedingly safe fashion. My guess is they will not, at least not by the third debate. The polls have tightened some, making Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina shift into the Trump column, but those states could flip back, and I am not convinced that North Carolina will vote in a less Democratic fashion than Florida or Ohio. I was thinking Pennsylvania would be closer than it is, but Clinton’s support appears to have solidified there. I think the Democrats would do well to shore up Michigan and Wisconsin, rather than reach for Georgia, but I think Michigan, Wisconsin, and (despite sparse polling) Minnesota are relatively safe for the Democrats. Iowa and Nevada appear to be more Republican this cycle, and Mr. Trump may at least flip Iowa. I also expect Trump to win northern Maine’s congressional district, and with it one electoral vote (Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes by congressional district). Mr. Trump may even win statewide in Maine (three of the four electoral votes), while Mrs. Clinton could have an edge for Nebraska’s Omaha-based electoral vote. Virginia, New Mexico, and New Hampshire appear to be relatively reliably in Mrs. Clinton’s column, with some fluctuations and close polls. Colorado is not a state I would have expected Mrs. Clinton to perform well in, but she seems to have a somewhat-reliable edge there. I will be watching North Carolina, Virginia, Maine, and New Hampshire early on election night, and I expect Colorado to be the state that puts Clinton over the top should she win. Democrats still have an edge in the electoral college.

 

a.       Do you trust the polling system/is there anything to the claim that the polling system is missing “embarrassed Trump voters?”

 

Polling may be missing embarrassed Trump voters, but the polls were relatively accurate at representing Mr. Trump’s support in the primaries. That was a different electorate, however. I am not aware of any particular concrete evidence supporting the claim, but it is a running theory and the election will provide valuable insight into whether those voters exist. Overall, polling is not wonderful, but the polls represent the best data we have, and they have done a decent job at being accurate.

 

10.   What news coverage would you recommend?

For any and all news coverage, especially from a non-print source, the PBS Newshour offers the best sober and thorough discussion of the issues of each day. Other than David Brooks not liking Mr. Trump, the discussions are quite balanced and civil.

 

 

Thanks Bob Shire!