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October 30, 2016

America Heading to the Polls

The Canadian Charger

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Donald Trump has been speaking aloud what Republicans have been dog-whistling—racial concern and xenophobia. That has been his strength in certain sectors of the population and his weakness elsewhere. So said Prof. Richard Johnston, University of British Columbia Canadian Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation. He was speaking recently at a Big Thinking event on Canada's Parliament Hill.

Johnston looked at the choosing of U.S. presidential candidates from a historical perspective.  Elections tend to be determined by how the economy is doing and the appeal of the president in power—“but not this time.”  

He traced the choosing of delegates to national conventions back to 1820.  There the bigwigs of the party met and decided.  All that changed after the disaster of the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, with rioting in the streets.  

Hence, since 1972 all delegates are chosen in some form of electoral process, in most states in primaries and in a few in party caucuses.  And the front runner is usually the one picked to be the candidate.

Johnston contrasted the 2012 GOP electoral process to the current one.  

In the “invisible primary,” the insider establishment power-brokers decided on Romney.  They signaled their followers that that is where the money was to go.  Challengers were cut off at the pockets.  The current situation is quite different.

This time around, he explained, there is just too much money around.  The social media were the game-changer.   

The Sanders campaign illustrated this fact.  Due to social media, candidates can last longer in the fight.  The gate-keeping role of the control of dollars was gone.  Republicans had a plethora of candidates, none of whom really stood out.  Then came Trump.  He was the least endorsed by prominent Republicans, but he was the honey of the media.  Television was in decline, but here was a guy who would say outlandish things that served as entertainment.  (This is the guy who complains that the media are conspiring against him.)

Regarding the Democrats, Johnston said that Hillary Clinton was the “most endorsed ever” by party powerbrokers.  She had minorities and unions on her side in the battle.  

However, he claimed, the policy positions of the two contenders were “almost identical.”  We might dispute that claim.  

It seems clear that Sanders and his supporters have nudged Clinton to the left.  And on foreign policy, Sanders, the Jewish kibbutz alumnus, is clearly more sympathetic to the Palestinian interests than is Clinton the Methodist.  Several Arab Americans have played a key role in his campaign and in efforts to influence the party platform.

Typically during an election campaign, Johnston observed, both candidates gain at the beginning.  

The one who is behind tends to pull closer till the end, when the predicted winner usually pulls it out.  This campaign is an exception.  

Clinton, the leading candidate, is widening the gap.  Yet, “there is more slack in the system.”  He thinks that the current high number of undecideds may consist of Republicans who are going to stay home.

So what does the current campaign tell us about the lay of the land?  

On the one hand, there can be political mileage in relying on white voters, and xenophobia and playing the race card are not necessarily fatal.  Johnston sees Republican gains in 2018 and possibly a “Trump-lite” running for the GOP in 2020.

On the other hand, the Trump coalition’s opposition to free trade is contrary to the Republican tendency to support it.  And demographics are against the ethnic narrowness of both the Trump-type and the dog-whistle variety.  Minorities are increasing in number.  Then there are the divisions among Republicans.  They may be too divided to make a choice.

He noted that Democrats need 54% of the vote in order to gain control of Congress, both because of gerrymandering and because of urban clustering.  Republicans are more spread out.

Johnston has fears about what will happen on election day.  It may be “rougher than usual” because of Trump’s call on his followers to go into minority neighborhoods to monitor voting, where he believes there will be fraud.  These visitors may not be welcomed very warmly.

At an international level, he observes “corrosion” as now “a phenomenon in Western democracies,” usually on the right, but on the left in Italy.  There is a loss of political stability.  And Trump’s America First utterances mirror to some degree the wave of international resistance to globalization.

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