Election 2016:
The experts weigh in

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Staff illustration

Staff illustration

The nastiest, most divisive presidential election season in living memory comes to a head on Nov. 8. We asked university professors who make a study of politics to put it in perspective. Hey, one of the advantages of living in Ann Arbor: You can hardly swing a professor without hitting another professor.

Will we ever get along again?

Michael HeaneyThe author, Michael T. Heaney, is an assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at U-M. We asked him to answer this question: 

Trump is rude. Is this a one-time thing for a political candidate, or a predictor of a lack of decorum in the future?

To describe Donald J. Trump as “rude” is to fundamentally understate the threatening nature of his candidacy. Yes, it is extremely rude for him to refer to his political opponents using diminutive names, such as “Little Marco” (for Sen. Marco Rubio), “Lyin’ Ted” (for Sen. Ted Cruz) and “Crooked Hillary” (for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). Yet, it is truly frightening to see the way that he uses his prominent position — as the nominee of a major political party — as a platform to attack individual citizens, such as Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, actor Rosie O’Donnell and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.  

Trump’s attacks on individuals are often broadened to classes of people, such as journalists, immigrants, protesters, Muslims, Mexicans and fat people. Insults and suggestions of violence by Trump provide encouragement to his supporters to carry out their own attacks, either in person or through social media. Given that Trump’s emergence coincides with the rise of a right-wing, white-identity movement, it is not surprising that many observers have drawn parallels between Trump’s candidacy and the rise of Adolph Hitler in Nazi Germany.

Most seriously, Trump’s statements have challenged the core institutions and norms of democratic-republican government. He has repeatedly stated — without presenting any evidence — that the nation’s election is being “rigged” against him. He has called for his supporters to act as election observers to prevent the election from being “stolen,” an invocation that could spark violence at the polls on Election Day. Further, he has promised that if he is elected, he will throw his political opponent, Clinton, in jail.

Trump’s stances are a threat to the peaceful transition of power in a democracy. The losers must accept the outcome of elections and the winners must not promise to imprison their opponents. Otherwise, elections will, in fact, become rigged and violence will be commonplace in their aftermath.

Trump will almost certainly be defeated on Nov. 8 by Clinton, who will become the first woman to be elected president of the United States. Thus, we can begin to think about what the consequences of Trump’s candidacy will be for American democracy in the years to come.

First, Trump has shown that a brazen, no-holds-barred style of campaigning appeals to a wide swath of rank-and-file Republican voters.  He has demonstrated how well unabashed white-identity-based politics and economic nationalism linked to immigration and trade can play in the Republican primaries.  

Trump’s approach generally pleases the constituencies associated with the Tea Party movement of the post-2009 period. As a result, Republican politicians are likely to mimic Trump’s approach to courting these groups in future years. Tea Party politics is now a strong competitor to Christian Right politics in winning the hearts of Republican voters.

Second, beyond mobilizing already existing Republican constituencies, Trump has attracted new participants to electoral politics, many of whom have never voted before. These people are angry and want change. Many of them have been convinced by Trump that “the system is rigged.” The result of this situation may well be to strengthen the ranks of far-right political organizations and hate groups.

Third, Trump himself is not going away anytime soon. The election has given him the worldwide attention that he relishes. He will likely continue to press the causes that have made him popular in many quarters. A new television station that bears his name is in the works and could be a platform for his agenda. This year’s election may well be the start, rather than the end, of Trump’s high-profile place in American politics.

The question now is what to do about the mess that has become of our political system. What can be done to increase civility and strengthen public discourse? To be sure, the United States had many problems before Trump arrived on the scene. The rising inequality and partisan polarization that have provided tinder for this year’s electoral fire are long-term trends.  

Repairing our politics will require sustained and structural change. Doing so will be a massive endeavor that touches on nearly every aspect of our society, such as taxes, immigration, education, media, criminal justice and policing. This task is not only for our next president, but for all of us.


A two-party possibility for A2

Ken KollmanThe author, Ken Kollman, is director of the Center for Political Studies and the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of Political Science at U-M. We asked him to answer this question:

Michigan is a swing state. How does Ann Arbor factor into the overall election? 

If you’re a Republican, you would wish for most voters in Ann Arbor to stay at home on Election Day. There are more Republicans in Ann Arbor than many people think, but it’s still an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Ann Arbor, in statewide elections, balances off the more Republican west coast of Michigan, for example.

Michigan is somewhat of a swing state, but Democrats have had the upper hand statewide in recent years, especially during presidential election years when turnout is much higher than in non-presidential election years. This year Michigan appears to be more in play for the Republican national ticket than we would have guessed even a few months ago. Why? One sensible hypothesis is that Michigan has a lot of the types of voters that Donald Trump appeals to, especially on trade issues. 

Back to Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor has become a mostly one-party town in terms of the national party labels, Democrat and Republican. It will remain a challenge to win public office in the city as a Republican. This is mostly because of the reputation of the Republican Party on the national stage.  

Locally, the political splits on the City Council and even within the population have the feel of a Republican-Democratic split on economic issues. Some in the city are more pro-business and favor less regulation, lower taxes, and less government-driven development but more private sector-driven development. They tend to oppose union efforts. Others take opposite positions, are more pro-government in general, pro-union, with a willingness to pay more in taxes for more government services. Purely locally, we have our political differences and if those differences lined up directly with the national party labels and ideology, then we would have Republicans in office in Ann Arbor. But they occur within a single party label, Democrat (or some are independents), mostly because the vast majority of Ann Arbor people oppose at least some of the main policy positions of the national Republican Party, especially on so-called social issues. The Republican Party label in Ann Arbor is, for now, political suicide.

I happen to think that one-party government isn’t good in the long run, even at the local level. What would it take for Republicans to come back in Ann Arbor in terms of winning office? One of two things: The national Republican Party will need to broaden its appeal to people like the economic conservatives who live in places like Ann Arbor, or somehow local Republicans will need to distinguish themselves from the unpopular policy positions of the national party. Rick Snyder was able to do the latter somewhat when he ran for governor, and I’m sure moderate Republicans in similar kinds of locales have studied what he did in his campaigns. But Snyder threads a difficult needle, and is now saddled with the Flint water crisis. The national Republican Party’s reputation has not made it easy for politicians like Snyder.

Ann Arbor, of course, has many young voters, and they especially find many of the policy positions of the national Republican Party hard to take. The Republican Party is in deep trouble with young, educated voters of all kinds, especially in the Upper Midwest and the East and West coasts of the country. As for the Democrats, they are not exactly generating the kind of enthusiasm for their national ticket among young voters that Obama did in 2008. I just don’t sense at all the enthusiasm among students at U-M for the top of the Democratic ticket as was especially palpable in 2008. Turnout among young people is never very strong, and I expect it to be weaker this year nationwide and statewide. Many of us in my line of work expect turnout among students and other young voters to be lower this year than in 2008 and 2012. 

In this election, many people are retreating to their partisanship, and places like the west coast of the state, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Detroit and its suburbs, will vote pretty much along partisan lines as they have in the past. It will be interesting to see how Trump does in traditionally strong union locations within Michigan.

But what will matter is not just how the various parts of Michigan conform to their typical patterns, but also how much the two parties turn out their bases. Relative turnout, as it always does, will play a big role in this election. You can count on Ann Arbor to be a Democratic bastion, but how many Democrats will turn out in Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Detroit relative to how many Republicans turn out along the west coast of the state and the suburbs of Detroit? 


Republicans face tough choices

Michael TraugottThe author, Michael W. Traugott, is a political science professor at U-M and a researcher at U-M’s Institute for Social Research. We asked him to answer this question: 

Trump went off the rails. Is this the end of the GOP?

The near-term prospects for the Republican Party were sketchy before the nomination of Donald Trump, but since then they have diminished even further. This is not just a problem for the presidential campaign but one that affects the next cohort of young voters. While the party will retain its strength at the state and local level, its ability to wage a serious national campaign may not return for three or four cycles, almost a political generation.

The Republicans’ problems start with demographic trends in the U.S. population. The Bureau of the Census suggests that by the mid-2040s non-Hispanic whites will, for the first time, become a minority of the population. Residents of California and other southwestern states have already experienced this. In the 2012 election, the turnout rates of African Americans exceeded the turnout of whites for the first time.

The Republican national leadership understood this after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012 in an election where virtually every black voter cast a ballot for Obama and two out of three Hispanics did. The party discussed a number of proposals to reach out to minorities, but none were acted upon. A Republican Congress considered immigration reform legislation, but the nascent coalitions fell apart as 2016 presidential politics came to the fore.

Conflict between socially conservative and business-oriented Republican legislators cost John Boehner his leadership position, and an emphasis on issues that affected women negatively became prominent, especially debates about funding for Planned Parenthood. Even as the Supreme Court made same sex marriage the law of the land, many Republican elected officials railed against that decision and passed state laws trying to exempt individual citizens from following the law if they had personal religious concerns about it. The combination of such conservative principles in the Republican Party and expectations that the Democrats would nominate a female candidate for president heightened the emphasis on their perspective on such issues.

The Republican Party has suffered from a gender gap of 10 to 12 percentage points in voting for their presidential candidates in recent elections, especially potent as women now form a majority of the electorate, even voting at a higher rate than men. Young citizens, many of whom have not voted in their first presidential election yet, are more favorable to a heterogeneous society and gender equality, positions not generally associated with the contemporary Republican Party.

And then came along Donald Trump. One of his basic campaign appeals has been to Americans left behind by the slow economic recovery. He blames part of this on the transfer of jobs overseas and the increase in cheap labor in the United States from immigrants. So he described immigrants in extremely derogatory terms, especially Mexicans, and proposed building a wall across our southern border to keep them out. He singled out Muslims for “extreme vetting” at the border, ignoring the number of Muslim citizens who could have trouble simply traveling. He has also raised the prospect of hiking tariffs to keep foreign goods out of the United States, contrary to his party’s long-standing position in support of free trade.

Ordinarily this would have made a Republican victory more difficult, but he stayed close in the polling in August and early September because these are two of the most unpopular candidates to face each other in any American presidential election. His supporters were more enthusiastic than Clinton’s — because she faced stiff competition on the left during the primaries from Bernie Sanders, because of the continual coverage of a series of events surrounding her use of a personal email server, and because of accumulated baggage from decades of attacks from Republicans about her plans for health care, her work as secretary of State, and now from a stream of Wikileaks releases of stolen emails from her campaign chair, John Podesta.

But then we had the first presidential debate, for which Trump did minimal preparation, shortly followed by the release of an audio tape from a live microphone of a conversation containing vulgar statements about women.  In the short term, these events raised questions about Trump’s competency to serve as president and likely risk of expanding the size of the gender gap to the largest ever observed in a presidential election.  Trump has been through several changes in his campaign staff, especially at the top, but he seems to be uncontrollable on the stump when he speaks before large rallies. Frequently he is measured in his presentation when he uses a teleprompter, but more often than not he takes off on lengthy tangents. And his campaign has been notably bereft of detailed policy presentations. 


Never again in our lifetime

Aaron KallThe  author, Aaron Kall, is director of debate at U-M. We asked him to answer this question:

How will history look back on this 2016 election if Hillary wins? if Trump wins?

The 2016 presidential election season has been an unprecedented spectacle filled with numerous plot twists and turns. The end of the Obama presidency has created a political vacuum which was initially projected to be filled by a member of the Bush or Clinton dynasty. Donald Trump threw a wrench into the entire process and establishment by announcing his candidacy last June. The media and public have been transfixed by the former reality-television star, who remains the focal point of everyone’s attention.

The largest Republican primary field in modern political history and Democratic bench of candidates ended up producing the two most unpopular general election presidential candidates of all time. America remains a politically divided nation that will likely be extremely difficult to govern no matter who emerges victorious in the upcoming election. Despite the partisanship and antipathy, third-party candidacies failed to gain enough traction to qualify for the trio of presidential debates and become a legitimate threat to our two-party system. Whatever people think of Clinton and Trump, they face a binary choice in the voting booth and the takeaways from this election cycle will be thoroughly analyzed and studied no matter who ends up prevailing.

A Clinton victory would be truly historic and groundbreaking, as the country would coronate its first female president and the glass ceiling would finally be completely shattered. Her ambitions and career trajectory have been truly remarkable and Clinton would be credited with a methodical march to the White House. After a stinging rebuke by Barack Obama in 2008, she embraced her role as his secretary of State and built a formidable political operation that couldn’t be rivaled. After Clinton’s election victory, all eyes would turn to her governing style and relationship with House speaker Paul Ryan. Given the political divide in the country, she would likely pursue a moderate agenda that required Republican support and deal-making to fully implement. In the face of a populist challenge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s victory would confirm the strength of the political establishment and importance of a sizeable campaign staff and organization on the state level. As Trump said during the St. Louis debate, Clinton is a fighter and never gives up. Her election victory would be the ultimate validation of those characteristics.

While a Trump presidential victory seems like a longshot, anything can happen. A Trump win would probably be the biggest political comeback ever and a sense of euphoria would surround his administration in its early stages. A victory would confirm a substantial group of people ended up voting for Trump, but were afraid to tell pollsters about their intentions for fear of retribution. The media’s role in producing a Trump presidency would be a major story, as he received tremendous coverage because of his ability to deliver ratings and audience. His reality-television skills and ability to read audiences would likely be emulated by future presidential candidates. A Trump victory would enable media personalities like Mark Cuban or Kanye West to follow in his footsteps — and seriously be considered for higher office. Trump’s economic message to displaced American voters who have been hurt by free trade and outsourcing would have carried the day; he would have provided a voice to many Americans who feel excluded by a rapidly changing global economic system. Most importantly, a Trump presidency would shatter the traditional political establishment. Large rallies and organic support would have prevailed over traditional campaign strategies and methods. All future campaigns would be on notice.

No matter who emerges victorious, the end result will be historic. In spite of the country’s current political malaise, primary voting data and debate viewership numbers reached an all-time high. The sport of politics remains quite entertaining and has truly been Must See TV during this cycle. Future elections have their work cut out for them to be as riveting and engaging as 2016. We witnessed history in real time, and there will likely never be anything like it again in our lifetime.


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