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Friday, November 11, 2016

Perspective in the Aftermath of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

So ends another election season. Until the media starts the next one in two weeks, at least. 

This election truly had it all, and not in a good way. National security scandals, crotchety old socialists, and a guy with a silly haircut defended the size of his manhood on national television in a debate. 

And that's just scraping the surface. Now, less than a week after Hillary Clinton conceded to President-Elect Donald J. Trump, people are asking questions about the results. Let's take a look at some of them. 

Why did the Democrats lose when everyone expected Clinton to oust Trump, possibly in a blowout? 

Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, were predicted to carry most of the swing states in Tuesday's election. According to polling and the vast majority of predictions, only Ohio looked likely to be won by Trump. 

While Clinton managed to barely scrape a victory in New Hampshire and hung on to Virginia, she lost the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. 

The deciding upsets, however, came in states which had been considered relatively safe victories for her. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, neither of which had voted for the Republican nominee since the 1980s, both went to Trump.  Below, a comparison between the 2012 and 2016 elections:


While Secretary Clinton managed to maintain the urban vote in these three states, she was unable to win majorities in rural, predominantly white and working class counties that President Obama managed to win from Governor Mitt Romney. These communities which had previously been voting for Democrats, swung over to Trump's brand of populism and his often-repeated desire to bring American manufacturing jobs, a former hallmark in many of these communities, back from other countries. Clinton, meanwhile, stuck to a strategy of ensuring high turnout in diverse, urban communities. She did that reasonably well, but learned the hard way that urban votes alone do not win you every state, especially states that are as large as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. 

These results also imply Clinton may have underestimated Trump and his appeal because polling agencies time and time again said she would win. The fact of the matter is, the polls were largely inaccurate, possibly because some who voted for Donald Trump would not say they were voting for him. 

In addition, Trump's momentum always came back in the polls. After his first meltdown, where he insulted the family of a Muslim-American soldier who had been killed in action, his poll numbers plummeted. 

But they came back. FiveThirtyEight predicted Trump had about a 10-12 percent chance of winning the presidency after the incident. A month later it was nearly 50 percent. 

Then a video emerged of Trump, in choice words, bragging about how he could take advantage of women sexually because of his wealth. Republicans walked away from former endorsements en masse. Rumors swirled that the GOP might drop him and shove Mike Pence into his place. That never happened, but Trump looked as if he was finished once more. FiveThirtyEight again predicted Trump had about a 10-12 percent chance of winning the presidency afterwards.

But he chipped away once more at the polls. He did not manage the comeback he made the first time due to the proximity of Election Day, but he was on the rebound. And it translated when Americans went to the polls. 

Democrats gripe that they have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, dating back to the 1992 election that propelled Bill Clinton to the Oval Office. Whatever one's stance is on the Electoral College and whether it should remain part of American democracy, them's the rules. In terms of popular vote, however, many of these elections were very close-especially 2000, 2004, and 2016. The constant in these elections is not a curious voting anomaly, but the overall favorability of the Democratic candidate in that election. 

Al Gore was Vice President under the still-popular outgoing President Bill Clinton and he looked to carry that momentum into another Democratic victory in 2000. Unfortunately, Gore lacked the charisma and charm of his former running mate, while then Governor George W. Bush effectively played up his Texas roots with his folksy demeanor. Gore also chose to not campaign with President Clinton as he believed it would keep the President's sex scandal in the public eye. He failed to win his home state of Tennessee and also chose Joe Lieberman over Jeanne Shaheen for his running mate, a move that may have propelled him to a win in the small but electorally important New Hampshire, and therefore, the election overall. 

In 2004, John Kerry was chosen by the Democrats to oust President Bush. Kerry, while qualified, was not considered an exceptionally likable candidate. His looks were often lampooned as some compared him to Lurch from the Addams Family, and his tendency to flip-flop on many issues enabled the Bush campaign to run an iconic ad depicting Kerry windsurfing back and forth with the caption "Whichever way the wind blows". 

Clinton had the qualifications to be president, there's no doubt about that. But her nagging email scandal and various other skeletons made her unpopular and a haze of untrustworthiness hung over her. While Trump was also considered as such, Clinton was unable to present herself as a positive alternative, merely less bad. 

Identity politics may have also played a part in Clinton's loss. As mentioned before, Clinton lost white, working class voters in rural areas of the Rust Belt. These were areas where anti-establishment sentiment and distrust towards the government was especially high. Rather than rally possible voters, however, Clinton may have contributed to the overwhelming feeling of being forgotten in these areas by staying in more diverse cities that were likely going to vote for her anyways. Racist and xenophobic sentiment stoked by her opponent also contributed to this problem. Non-white people overwhelmingly vote for Democrats in America, where the majority of white Americans, particularly poor and working class white Americans, found an appeal in Trump that Clinton could not recapture even with former Democrats. 

 A stronger example of identity politics is evident in Turkey. Turkey has four large political parties: the right-wing and Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP*), the secular left-wing Republican People's Party (CHP), the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). Since the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has fallen into identity politics. Many Turkish voters do not vote on policy, but on which party is perceived to represent them. Conservative Muslim Turks often vote for AKP because of their faith, not because of conservative economic policy. The same can be said of secular-minded Turks and the CHP. Although secularism is a cornerstone of the Turkish Republic, the people outside the cities are still predominantly conservative and Muslim, and the CHP is unable to win elections on the grounds that their voting base is just too small. 

Could Bernie Sanders have won?

After Trump's victory, former supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign came out of the woodwork and speculated that he would have been able to win the election. 

It's possible Bernie would have been able to win in a head-to-head against Trump, considering he was perceived as much more trustworthy and genuine than Clinton and he did manage to win the Michigan and Wisconsin primary contests, but Sanders was not the perfect candidate many of his diehards swear he was. 

Bernie Sanders, being an independent Senator from a small and overwhelmingly rural state never received the same media scrutiny that Clinton had been dealing with. But some of his faults came out during the primaries. He may have been able to win the votes of working class and poor, rural white Americans but he lost black and Hispanic Americans by considerable margins to Clinton and may have been attacked for his supremely ironic and poorly thought out remark that "White people don't know what it's like to be poor or live in ghettos". His far-left economic platform would have alienated many in the centre of the political spectrum. He seemed largely uninterested in foreign policy. 

And while the Cold War is over, its influence remains. Sanders, a socialist, would have likely been attacked for his record of supporting or otherwise speaking positively of left-wing policies in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, his claims that bread lines were a "good thing" and his extended stay in the U.S.S.R. There's a reason that his fanatical supporters were mockingly nicknamed "Sandernistas", a nod to the Sandinistas. 

Well, who could have won? 

That's actually not too hard to answer. Many believe that the outgoing Vice President, Joe Biden, would have won convincingly had he faced Trump. Biden, unlike Clinton, does not have a haze of untrustworthiness around him, deserved or not. He can match Clinton toe to toe on policy. He has Obama's charisma and charm. And he likely could have shored up rural voters. 

How will Trump govern? 

The short answer is that we don't know. 

A slightly longer answer is that it depends on whether Vice President-elect Mike Pence got the same deal as Governor Kasich is said to have been proposed. 

John Kasich, Governor of Ohio, patron saint of the NeverTrump movement, and likely winner of the Presidential Campaign Eating Contest, was offered the Vice Presidential position on Trump's campaign. If we're to believe Kasich's staff, the Governor was offered the position with the promise that he would be in charge of foreign and domestic policy, while Trump would be in charge of "making America great again". 

Kasich turned the offer down and consistently refused to endorse Trump. 

Trump, meanwhile, found his man in Mike Pence, former Governor of Indiana. 

Stark ideological differences exist between Trump and Pence. On social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, Trump doesn't seem to care. Pence, however, is right as right can be. 

Mike Pence seems to be the man in charge of making Trump palatable to reluctant conservative stalwarts in the Republican Party. A political cartoon in the Indianapolis Star tellingly depicted Trump rabbling away at a microphone while Pence stood behind him dressed as a firefighter, hose at the ready. 

Cartoon by Gary Varvel.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, that may be a choice they regret. Mike Pence is not a popular fellow at home in the Hoosier State. In 2012, Pence rode outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels' coattails into office. Daniels, who is still very popular in Indiana, focused almost exclusively on expanding business opportunities in Indiana and largely ignored social issues. Pence, on the other hand, signed SB 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, into law in Indiana. 

It was a disaster. Democrats decried the anti-LGBT nature of the law. Republicans criticized its almost immediate effect of halting businesses from coming to Indiana. The Indianapolis Star, Indiana's largest newspaper, published a headline in protest that screamed FIX THIS NOW. 

Pence tried to ban same-sex marriage via constitutional amendment before his signing SB101, passed extremely restrictive abortion laws, his defunding of Planned Parenthood contributed to an HIV epidemic in the southern part of the state, and claimed he had the authority to ban Syrian refugees from being settled in Indiana, something no state governor can do. 

For these reasons and others including taking Governor Daniels' balance sheet to an extreme in tax cuts so far right the GOP-controlled state legislature had to stop it, shutting down popular preschool funding and an energy efficiency program with Daniels' approval, Pence was likely to lose re-election in Indiana, which, ironically, is a generally conservative state. 

Economically, Trump and Pence differ. Trump wants "fair trade", Pence advocates "free trade". A compromise may be possible, but how it becomes policy is still yet to be determined. 

On foreign policy Trump wants to be friends with Putin while Pence seemed to repeat the typical Republican line before Trump's rise in the Vice Presidential debate. In Syria, Trump is likely to hand the reigns over to Putin and Assad. Negotiating with Mexico regarding the possible wall could get extremely messy. Policy regarding China and Iran remains much of a mystery, especially considering the international nature of the nuclear deal. 

It's difficult to see much of a silver lining in this mess. 

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