In my article four years ago on the US presidential election of 2012, I mentioned several factors that could determine the winner. The candidates, Baraka Obama and Mitts Romney, were known politicians and each had a political record to review and judge. Moreover, their individual party was united and determined to win. Although the polls were close in the final days of that election, some analysts could predict the winner.
But in this 2016 election, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, the candidates, are different; different background and experiences. The race is open, there is no incumbent; there is division in each party, most noticeable in the Republican camp. There is a general mistrust with the establishment. The electorates are divided and are looking for a change. This division, mistrust, anti-establishment along with the feeling of insecurity of terrorism makes it difficult to predict this election winner.
I have endeavored, however, to discuss this election and to point out the elements which could determine the possible winner. First, let’s look at the background of the candidates.
Hilary Clinton, born 1947, came from a middle class background. Her father, Hugh Rodham, was a small business owner, operated a drapery company. She obtained her law degree from Yale University in 1973. As a lawyer, she worked also for the Children’s Defense Funds. She married her law school sweetheart Bill Clinton who became a governor of Arkansas and later US president. She served as a Senator of New York after Bill Clinton presidency and recently Secretary of States in Obama first administration.
On the other hand, Donald Trump, born 1946, came from a wealthy family. His father, Fred Trump, was an established and successful big businessman, a billionaire. Donald graduated from the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania. He worked with his father in the real-estate industry, buying properties, benefitting in the market crash, undergoing bankruptcies and but profiting in other business operations, including the Trump Tower, resorts and television shows. He is a billionaire. He never held an elected office as a politician, though he thought about running in previous presidential elections.
Trump blames the government and the established politicians for America’s economic and military security problems. While Clinton had difficulties defeating Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, Trump easily beat well known and powerful Republican politicians in the party primaries. He did so without spending heavily in advertisements in the media. He was the news and made the news.
Both candidates received a bump in the polls after their respective convention. This usually happens after a convention. The party receives focused attention in the national media and enjoys the effects. Clinton and Trump have been struggling in the polls months after the conventions. Although Clinton has been leading in most polls, her lead is small and therefore the race is mathematically tight. No candidate has comfortably reached or passed the 50% ceiling or has a comfortable lead so far. Some analysts find this troubling. Why it is that Hilary, with her political experience, has not taken a comfortable lead? As stated before, the answer can be found in the attitude of the electorates.
BBC interview with a Pennsylvanian family typifies the division of the American voters and gives clarity on the reality. In the interview, the father favored Trump while his wife preferred Clinton. Throughout the couple’s over 30 years of marriage, they have basically agreed on most issues, no major disagreement. The husband for instance, voted two times for Obama. But now he thinks that Trump is his man. To him, Trump is not a politician and will become a better leader. The wife believes that Clinton is more experienced and shows concern on problems facing the ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, their son, who is about to join the military, believes in Trump, citing that Hilary is a politician who will say anything to get elected.
Nationally, the above view is similar: A Washington Post poll shows that 69% non-Whites and 52% women support Clinton while 57% Whites and men favor Trump. Polls by other media show the same results with also higher percent of people without college education supporting Trump. Over all, most Americans do not trust either candidate, according to a New York Times and CBS news polls.
Most voters do not also appear to trust the government, do not trust politicians and do not believe that the government is doing enough to fight terrorism, according to public opinions. Thus with Clinton past role, she is seemed as a part of the establishment. Trump hammered this in the first and second presidential debates. But Trump in the debates, particularly in the first, did not look presidential and did not show his ability to be Commander in Chief. He performed poorly.
Presidential debates, however, should not be a telescope to see or know who will win. As others have observed, most voters have already made up their minds before debates. Al Gore in 1996 election won the debates but lost the election eventually, thanks to the US Supreme Court. The same happened in 2004 with Bush and Kerry. Though Kerry won the debates as viewed, he lost the election. Obama lost the first debate with Mitts Romney in 2012, but went on to win the election. The famous debates of Lincoln vs. Douglas in the 1850s also proved this to be true. Although Stephen Douglas, a Democrat, won the debates, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, won the 1860 election and became one of American great leaders.
Although Clinton is the nominee for the Democratic Party, she has not been able to win over majority of Bernie Sanders supporters. Sanders ran against her in the primaries. Many of his backers are holding out while the Democratic Party with its hierarchy strongly supports Clinton.
Trump on the other hand, does not have support of the Republican Party establishment. Recently 30 former Republican members of Congress denounced his presidential candidacy. In their opposition, the group said. “Sadly our party’s nominee this year is a man whom makes a mockery of the principles and values we have cherished and which we sought to represent in Congress”.
Moreover, Paul Ryan, US Speaker of the House of Representatives, a Republican, announced that he will no longer defend and campaign with Donald Trump. He made the statement just after the second presidential debate, in which Trump apologized for a negative behavior previously made toward women. Ryan added that instead he will campaign independently to stop the Democrats from taking over Congress this election. An analyst has viewed Ryan’s action to that of the Republican congressional establishment abandonment of Bob Dole presidential campaign in the closing weeks of the 1996 election. They abandoned Dole in order not to lose the House. Political commentator Charles Krauthammer called Ryan’s statement a bandage put off from a bleeding sore, referring to the Trump campaign. Certainly moreover, if the Republicans lose the House this election, Ryan will be out of power as the speaker
METHOD OF ELECTION
Unlike most presidential elections in the world, America elects her president not by popular or national votes, but by Electoral College votes. Each state, including the District of Columbia, has a number of votes according to its population. Larger states have more votes, while smaller states have less. For example, biggest states, such as California, Texas, Florida and New York have 55, 38, 29, and 29 electoral votes respectively, while each smallest state, such as Delaware, Vermont, Montana, and South Dakota, has 3 votes. In total, there are 538 Electoral College votes. A candidate must win the absolute majority votes of the state to carry that state. Meaning in order words, “winner-takes-all”, except in Maine and Nebraska, where the electoral votes, under a congressional district method, are divided. A candidate must also have a minimum of 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. After the election, members of the Electoral College, made up of electors representing the states, including the District of Columbia, meet in their states to vote based on their states popular votes in the election.
Like the total Electoral College votes, there are 538 electors, including 435 representing the total members of the House of Representatives, plus 100 presenting the Senate and 3 for the District of Columbia. The electors are nominated by their states or state parties. The electors must vote accordingly. An elector who fails to do so is called a “faithless elector” and is fined. The most recent incident of faithless elector occurred in 2004 election. Anyway, a violation of an elector does not and cannot change the outcome.
If no candidate receives 270 votes, the House of Representatives chooses the president and the Senate chooses the vice president. In the widest event the house cannot pick a president before Inauguration Day, January 20 noon, the vice president, chosen by the senate, will serve as acting president until the house selects a president. If both chambers cannot pick a president and vice president before Inauguration Day, the sitting Speaker of the House becomes acting president until a president and vice president are selected. The last time the nation came little close to such situation was in 2000 when there was not a president-elect after Election Day until the Supreme Court ruling.
HOW ARE THEY DOING?
As pointed out early, the race is tight as of this writing. Clinton narrowly leads in the national polls, 4-5 points. She also leads in the electoral votes, according to polls. She is solid in California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts while Trump is strong in Texas, Tennessee, Indiana and Missouri. The polls could change.
Are polls accurate? Scientific public opinion polls are not 100% accurate, but they are generally correct. The pollster takes a sample of the population, a cross section of the country and arrives at a conclusion based on the answers obtained. The larger the sample size, the greater the weight and accuracy with 3 or 4 points margin-of-error. In the 80s when I helped conduct polls for the Washington Post, we used link line phones. Now, with the advent of cell phones and the internet, pollsters can reach a larger audience and can conduct polls online.
There are other facts about polls that I need to discuss. The phrasing of the questions and the day and time of the poll matters. A poll conducted on a weekend late noon, particularly Sunday, would receive a larger response than that taken on a weekday late morning. Campaigns take polls seriously; polls can make a candidate stay in or exist from a race. Most campaigns have their own pollsters and listen to the poll numbers obtained in house and external. Jimmy Carter, on Air Force 1 on his way to vote, was told by his pollster that the president would not win. Carter cried. George Bush Sr. experienced the same.
Further, an early polls showing one candidate leading strongly might be misleading, making that candidate to become complacent and thus allowing the opponent to win. But also a candidate’s decline in the polls could be due to other reasons, including decrease in campaign funding, resulting in less advertising in the closing days.
Professor Allan Lichtman of the American University in Washington, DC, predicted that Trump would win. He based his forecast on a set of 13 true and false questions, stating that their answers favor Trump. The professor is said to have predicted correctly the winners of US presidential elections since 1984. On the other hand, most recently, Karl Rove, one of the leading and respectable Republican strategists, indicated that he does not think that Trump would win. “I don’t see it happening”, he said on Fox News. Rove had successfully strategized and predicted correctly George W. Bush’s victories, though his prediction for Mitts Romney’s win was incorrect.
Election projection is another form of predicting a winner. A network can project the winner during an election based on the votes cast and those remaining. Projections are usually correct. In 2000 election, however, CBS wrongly projected Al Gore the winner of Florida, but later recalled the projection. In a close election, some candidates are advised not to accept projections until the “Fat lady sings”, meaning until the bell rings.
RED AND BLUE STATES
States are generally classified by their voting pattern established historically. Democrat states are called blue states and Republican states are red states. New York, California and Massachusetts are examples of blue states while red states include Alabama, South Carolina and West Virginia. States which are neither blue nor red are Swing states; they can vote either way, red or blue. Swing states are also called battleground states, such as Florida and Ohio, because candidates campaign harder for their votes, spending more time and resources.
In the 2000 election, Florida was the main battleground. George W. Bush won it after the Supreme Court stopped the recounts and ruled, giving Bush the victory. In 2004, Ohio was the focus, going also to Bush. This election year, according to the polls, Florida and Ohio seem to be the main battlegrounds, as their votes have been switching between Clinton and Trump.
What are the factors that could determine the winner of this election? Like in most US presidential elections, turnout is a factor. A campaign which puts out a larger turnout stands a better chance of winning. A large turnout usually favors the Democrats. But this factor is tricky —-Turnout is particularly important for swing states, because these states have no allegiance to any party. They are neither Republican nor Democratic states. A party must heavily bring out its supporters plus independents on Election Day to win the Swing states.
Moreover, many voting age students do not turnout or vote on Election Day, as some experts have observed. They tend to stay home or go about other business. Kerry made a mistake to focus on students for turnout mobilization in 2004. Also he used paid volunteers while Bush utilized non-paid volunteers and campaigners committed to win.
Angelical Christians, a deep conservative religious group, have played a major role in previous elections. They carried out a “Jehovah’s Witness” style of campaigning, door to door religiously as noted particularly in the 2004 election. Commentator Carlos Watson observed and warned of their role in that election. They helped give Bush the win. This election, this group is supporting Trump.
Major event or damaging information could also shape the election. Going back to the Kerry and Bush election, a day or two before Election Day, Al Qaeda sent a message on the media warning America of what could happen after the election. This announcement sent the American people back to “911”. An event involving terrorism and national security could impact the election in the final days.
The saying that “united we stand, divided we fall” applies also to politics. A party that is united is stronger than that which is divided. Let take Douglas and Lincoln presidential battle already stated and other elections: Lincoln won primarily because the Democratic Party was divided. The party was also split in the 1980s with Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy in the election of 1980 and with Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and Jessie Jackson of the 84 election. The party lost the two elections. This election the Republican Party is deeply divided, giving the Democrats an edge. This election could remain close or could break open later for an electoral landslide. Let’s see.
Beside the above division, early American political history reminds us that in the 1850s and 1860s, the country was divided. Shortly after Lincoln’s election in 1860, eleven Southern states broke away from the Union and formed the Confederation of States of America in part in opposition to antislavery. This secession led to the civil war in April 1861. Prior to the election and during the early 1850s, the Republican Party replaced the divided and already demised Whip Party. The Democratic Party controlled the Southern states and supported slavery and depended on cotton plantation capitalism. The Republican Party was the opposite, controlling America north or Northern states, advocating freedom of the slaves, reconstruction and depended on industrial economy. But the two parties traded places in the 1930s during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, with the “New Deals”, which brought in many social and development programs, including job creation and the welfare system. Nevertheless, division within the parties continues, affecting electoral politics.
Just as political institutions can change over time, a person can also change his/her political affiliation as time passes. Take Hilary Clinton for instance, she was originally a Republican. Her father, Hugh, was a strong supporter and member of the party. In college at Wellesley, she was president of the Young Republicans, a Nelson Rockefeller group. She also volunteered in the Barry Goldwater 1964 presidential run. But she later changed to the Democratic Party and supported the presidential nomination campaign of anti-war advocate Eugene McCarthy in 1968. She and Bill Clinton campaigned for Democratic Party candidate George McGovern in his 1972 bid for the White House. McGovern lost big in that election to Richard Nixon. That was the second consecutive loss for the Democrats and the second win in a row for Nixon.
Personally, the first defeat in 1968 was heartbreaking. I was a member of the Young Democrats at Georgetown University. We supported and campaigned for Hubert Humphrey, Vice President to Lyndon Johnson, who decided not to seek re-election. Humphrey was not my first candidate. In high school I wanted Robert Kennedy to win the nomination, but he died by an assassin’s bullet while campaigning in California. Humphrey was the alternative. Eugene McCarthy, also a progressive, was too radical for the Democratic Party establishment. He did not get the nomination. His candidacy, however, drew a large number of young people; they shaved their beards, cut their longhairs and dressed responsibly and campaigned door to door for him.
During the national campaign, we thought that Nixon would not win. We viewed him as a born loser, for he had lost the 1960 election to John Kennedy and after that was again defeated in the race for governor of California. The 1968 election went down to the wire to the next day. In the morning after Election Day, late professor Carroll Quigley announced in class that Nixon had won California. The election was over.
We the Young Democrats were saddened. But we should have known that the country wanted change, that the American people were tired of the Vietnam War and of the administration. The 60s, that period, was the age of the “hippies”, the peace movement, the cultural moment, the Black Power movement and the African liberation and independent movement. We were of that movement and of that change, but we did not expect that it would affect us politically. The reality of that election was my first life lesson in American electoral politics.
Some of the lessons learned were that a prevailing event or condition can impact a political situation and that perception can define a political actor and can set as a basis for election or defeat. For examples, the Viet Nam war helped cause Humphrey to lose. Jimmy Carter was perceived as a weak leader, for his inability to free the American hostages in Iran. He lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan as a consequence. Michael Dukakis in the 88 election was viewed as being soft on defense and soft on crime. To demonstrate Dukakis’ softness on crime, a commercial with Willie Horton, a Black convict, a murderer and rapist, was shown on TV to associate with Dukakis, who as Governor of Massachusetts, granted Horton a parole, during which time Horton raped a White woman and stabbed her husband. The commercial was a negative portraying of Dukakis. It was damaging, yet his campaign did nothing, adding to his defeat.
Positively and internationally, in my native country Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the presidency of Liberia in 2005 in part because she was regarded as “iron lady”. Perceptions are creations, which may not be true. Their goals in politics are to achieve desired political results.
A negative perception of a candidate in the media must be addressed immediately by the candidate’s campaign. Otherwise, it could cause a lasting problem to the campaign. Lee Atwater, a Republican tactician and consultant, considered father of negative or attached commercial, was successful in defining an opposing candidate, as he did with Dukakis. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign team showed an effective way to address negative perception or attack, as exercised in the campaign’s “quick response” method operated by the “War Room”.
Back to the current election under discussion; political scientists or students of political science, particularly those specialized in American politics, sometime give reference to the Duverger’s law in discussing the role of third party in American electoral politics and system. Developed by Maurice Duverger, the law maintains that the absolute majority system, in which winner-takes-all, favors the two-party democracy and marginalizes third party participation. Third party in presidential elections in the US is not seemingly given serious attention, because it cannot win; would not be able to receive the required 270 electoral votes. Duverger argues that in order to do so, a third party needs to form a coalition or merger with one of the two parties. But that would disrupt the homogeneity of the two-party system and would be impossible. The two parties are financially strong and well established. In the United States, this statement or view is factual. However, in this close election, third-party candidacy could make a difference.
Judging from the polls, the involvement of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson appears to be taken votes away from Clinton and Trump, especially Clinton. Apparently, these votes are from independents or from Democrats and Republicans who do not like either Clinton or Trump and want to send a message; registering protest votes. Josh Katz of The New York Times observed Gary Johnson’s performance and wrote, “… 2016 could prove more favorable because of the unpopularity of both major party candidates, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump”. Presently, Johnson is receiving 10% of the national votes. He “is relying heavily on the backing of young people and independent voters disillusioned with the two major parties nominees. Over 70% of his backers are younger than 50, and over three-fifths are political independents”, said Giovanni Russonello, also of the New York Times. Although the votes are small and he will not possibly receive an electoral vote, in a tight race, an independent candidate can make a difference in Swing states. We saw this in 2000 when the candidacies of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan took votes away from Al Gore. Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992 is another example. He did not win, but he received an impressive number (19%) of the popular votes and made an impact, which helped Bill Clinton.
Some observers see Trump’s candidacy to that of Perot even though Perot ran as an independent. Perot, a billionaire businessman, had no experience as an elected politician other than his nomination as a presidential candidate. The Perot campaign was serious. The Commission on Presidential Debates qualified him to participate in the debates as an independent. He ran as an anti-establishment, ran against Washington. He was different, a new phenomenal and drew many independents to his camp. Perot was not for the win in my opinion. He wanted to send a message; and it was heard! He danced with his wife on the eve of Election Day to the tune of Patsy Cline classic, “Crazy”, and pledged support to Bill Clinton.
Gender votes should be crucial. As we have discussed, women and non-Whites favor Hilary Clinton and White men support Donald Trump. Trump is viewed publicly as anti-women, that he has little regard for women. Women are in the majority and their votes should help Clinton if the polls hold.
I will not add the economy as a determining element in this election. The economy has always played a role in an election, specifically when an incumbent is in the race. “Americans vote by their pocket book”, as the fact or the saying goes. But in this election, the economy seems not to be a factor. Maybe this is due to the fact that the candidates are newcomers to the race and have no past record on economic policy to judge as elected leaders. They can only tell us what each will do to improve the economy if elected.
I will end by saying that this election has been one of the exciting elections in US history. If Hilary Clinton wins, she will become the first female president of America. If Donald Trump wins, he will be the first person without previous political and elected position to become president of the US in modern time.
In the papers, on the radios, televisions, on the internet and around the world, people are talking about and discussing the election. One remarkable element of American politics is that after the election, after the votes have been cast, counted and the winner is announced, the losing candidate will gracefully concede, will congratulate the winner and pledge support. This exercise indicates love of country and best wishes for the nation. It shows the greatness and maturity of the country democracy.