Archived Webinar: Elections in America

Jacobsen-Vavreck-Bartels
Gary Jacobsen, left, Lynn Vavreck and Larry Bartels

In a year of important votes perhaps nothing has gripped the United States, and the world, like the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for the presidency of the United States. Besides the sheer spectacle of this election, the campaign has thrown up myriad fascinating questions about the evolving political landscape of the United States, the apparent triumph of polarization and the disappearance of a middle ground, and even what will the legacy be of America’s first African-American president.

September 2016 edition of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
September 2016 edition of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
In this archived webinar drawn from the scholarship in the September issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, three academics address some of those questions. The ANNALS issue aimed to provide evidence to explain how issues and ideology can influence the electorate, how racial and demographic change is affecting presidential politics, the nature of populism, and the impact of political campaigning. Among the questions the panelists — issue editor Larry Bartels and political scientists Lynn Vavreck and Gary Jacobsen — address below include the future of American political parties as we known them, whether Americans even care about the candidates’ positions, and whether campaign visits and television ads really turn the dial in voting.

Larry Bartels, the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University and co-director of Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. His scholarship and teaching focus broadly on American democracy, including public opinion, electoral politics, public policy, and political representation.

Gary C. Jacobson, Distinguished Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, where he has taught from 1979 to 2016.  He is the author a number of especially germane books, including Money in Congressional Elections, The Electoral Origins of Divided Government, and his most recent book, A Divider, Not a Uniter:  George W. Bush and the American People.

Lynn Vavreck, professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA and a contributing columnist to The New York Times. Her books, include The Message Matters, which Stanley Greenberg called “required reading” for presidential candidates, and The Gamble, described by Nate Silver as the “definitive account” of the 2012 election.

In addition to the archived webinar, the panelists addressed some of the questions they weren’t able to answer during the one-hour event. Their answers appear here:

Partisans at rallies cheer when candidates make promises, but supporters don’t seem to press either candidate for details on how they plan to accomplish these promises. Does that speak to a lack of real engagement by the electorate?

Larry Bartels: If voters focused on what candidates can actually accomplish, the political season would be even more disheartening than it is, since—as Professor Jacobson explains nicely in his concluding essay in our symposium—there are powerful constraints on what any president will be able to accomplish in the fragmented, polarized governmental system of the contemporary U.S. But, leaving that aside, the notion that ordinary citizens should be immersed in the details of policy implementation strikes me as an unrealistically high standard of “real engagement.” (Plug here for my recent book with Christopher Achen, Democracy for Realists.)

Are faith-based issues important in crafting the public persona of the candidates in this presidential election? And in terms of demographics, what do you make of Evangelical support for Trump over Ted Cruz?  

Lynn Vavreck: In data I collected during the primaries with my coauthors John Sides and Michael Tesler, we actually see Trump doing well across a wide range of groups — Tea Party/non and Evangelical/non included — so it doesn’t seem so much to be that he won the Evangelicals away from Cruz but that Trump had a sturdy baseline level of support across most of those groups that traditionally divided the GOP primaries.  Now, it isn’t true he had that level support across ALL groups you can think of. For example, he did much less well with people who have more liberal racial attitudes or more open views on things like immigration and who are less concerned about things that tap in to a sense of white group consciousness.  Whether we should — or recently have — thought of people with those views as a group is a good question, as is whether we should start thinking about them as a group now.

Should Trump win the election …

… would the Republican party push the country to the right – in essence, become more radical? Or would the United States likely become even more polarized by his policies?

 … how would it affect GOP unity, especially considering the ideological disparities between Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan?

Larry Bartels: Trump’s positions on immigration and trade (for example) might be termed “more radical” than is typical of Republican candidates. On other issues—social spending, gay rights—I’d argue that he is probably more moderate than his party. If he won, policy would be pushed to the right and the country would become more polarized, but less because of Trump himself than because the Republicans would have unified control of government for the first time in a decade. I don’t think the ideological disparities between Trump and Ryan would amount to much, especially because Trump seems pretty willing to delegate actually governing to others.

 In the UK we saw a failure of the polls in both the Scottish independence referendum and then Brexit to accurately predict an outcome due to what many called a “silent majority” — people under the radar when it comes to political analysis. Do you see a similar effect in the US? In that vein, is there a Bradley effect for Trump – people who will vote for him but won’t admit it publicly?

Lynn Vavreck: I suspect if there is a polling surprise waiting for us in November, it would more likely come from pollsters guesses right now at who is likely to turn out or their other misses at getting the composition of the electorate right.  In other words, it isn’t so much that there are people out there who polls are “missing” — and instead, maybe people’s party identification is changing more now than it does in typical campaign years. But we don’t know it’s happening, so weighting on contemporaneous party identification becomes problematic in ways that could potentially be affecting the poll results.  If the election tightens up, I might start to worry about this a bit more, especially because some polls that are weighting on reported 2008 vote choice are getting results that look a bit different than those weighting on same-time party identification.

If the election is tighter than many predict – and which you suggested you expect …

…  how reasonable is it to assume that one of the parties could challenge the results of elections? Is there any space for such the speculation based on candidates’ public statements?

… might we anticipate violence or significant political unrest from Trump supporters who will likely view election outcome as unfair or “rigged” if the victory goes to Clinton?

Larry Bartels: I doubt that the election will be so close that the result is plausibly in doubt. But the very prospect of unrest underlines how much the political tensions in our system have ratcheted up in recent years. The 2000 election was as close to a perfect tie as one could imagine, with the outcome hinging on a party-line vote of the Supreme Court. The losers grumbled loudly; but there was no serious unrest, and within a few months of the new president taking office it was as if nothing unusual had happened. There is some reason to worry that we’d demonstrate less resilience in the face of a similar shock in 2016.

Is Trump’s campaign a passing personality-based phenomenon, or does Mr. Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination reflect a more deep-seated, persistent divide in the American electorate and society at large? And did his success open the US political system to a populist, anti-immigration party?

Larry Bartels: Trump has certainly tapped into a deep-seated, persistent divide in America and within the Republican Party. The divide will outlast him, but it isn’t clear to me whether some other political entrepreneur(s) will be able to exploit it as effectively as he has. In any case, I don’t think it will lead to a viable populist party, simply because that’s too narrow a coalition to succeed in a two-party system, especially in the long term (given the traditional white nationalist tinge of the current strain of “populism”). I expect it to persist as an important strain within the Republican Party, as it has been for some time, more or less influential relative to other parts of the Republican coalition depending on circumstances and leadership.

 The Linz paper on the “Perils of Presidentialism” seems particularly frightening right now. We have multiple centers of power that don’t just oppose, but delegitimize, the other branches or political powers. Can the American system survive a scenario when the legislature simply will not cooperate with the president? Say, for example, the Senate refuses in perpetuity to confirm a Supreme Court justice for a President Clinton.

Larry Bartels: The designers of the U.S. Constitution intentionally left a lot of imprecision in the details of power relationships among the branches of government. Their assumption was that the political process would sort it out. The question is whether voters are up to that task. So far, they don’t seem very worked up about Supreme Court vacancies. If the Court is frozen for years and visibly ineffective as a result, perhaps voters will get sufficiently worked up to penalize obstructionists at the polls. Perhaps.


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