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Posts Tagged ‘election’

Explaining Trump

Explaining how such an unfit candidate and such a bizarre candidacy succeeded has become a critical concern for journalists and scholars. Through sites like Monkey Cage, Vox, and 538, as well as academic papers, we can watch political scientists in real time try to answer the question, “What the Hell Happened?” (There are already at least two catalogs of answers, here and here, and a couple of college-level Trump syllabi.) Although a substantial answer will not emerge for years, this post is my own morning-after answer to the “WTHH?” question.

I make three arguments: First, Trump’s electoral college victory was a fluke, a small accident with vast implications, but from a social science perspective not very interesting. Second, the deeper task is to understand who were the distinctive supporters for Trump, in particular to sort out whether their support was rooted mostly in economic or in cultural grievances; the evidence suggests cultural. Third, party polarization converted Trump’s small and unusual personal base of support into 46 percent of the popular vote.

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Election Reflection

Mid-day, November 8, 2016. Not knowing the outcome and not being a scholar of elections, I thought I’d nonetheless make some comments on the election–hopefully informed ones.

The central question, the one that will occupy dissertations, articles, and books for many years to come, is how could about half of American voters, the great majority of whom are normal, decent, salt-of-earth Americans, choose as their president a self-admitted sexual predator and tax evader, policy ignoramus, major BS-er, unstable personality, and schoolyard bully who surrounds himself with neo-fascists?

(Does academic even-handedness require a similarly blistering description of Clinton? No, polite symmetry is not appropriate here. Clinton is in the historical range of somewhat-soiled presidential candidates–say, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy. That pillars of the Republican party such as the Presidents Bush and Mitt Romney at least implicitly and conservative newspapers explicitly–the Arizona Republic and the Manchester Union-Leader, for example–do not endorse Trump testifies to his exceptionalism.)

One feature of this year’s campaign is that we have been able to follow social science research on it in real time. Web sites like Monkey Cage, Vox, Five-Thirty-Eight, and others have provided not only a running score based on the polls, but also often substantive analysis directed at answering that question, How could Trump could have so much support?

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I spotted a bumper sticker as it passed through Berkeley on a blue Camry the other day. It read “McGovern-Shriver 1972.” It was a fresh sticker, not a 44-year-old relic, the driver’s wry comment on historical memory.

All but the shouting is over preparatory to the Trump/Clinton face-off this summer. (Full disclosure: I, like almost all “observers” excepting Norm Ornstein  and Sam Wang, dismissed Trump’s chances. For one post-mortem on how we screwed up, see here.) With the emotions of the primaries perhaps dampening, it becomes easier to inquire about the amazing age gap between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters.Sanders Clinton

In an April Field poll (pdf) of California’s likely Democrat voters, Clinton won the 65-plus crowd by about 3:1, but Sanders won the under-30 crowd by over 4:1. Age–much more than class, race, gender, or even ideology–differentiates pro-Clinton and pro-Sanders voters. (Full disclosure: I’m with her, as you would predict from my age.)

Why the canyon-sized gap? Maybe the Sanders vs. Clinton messages–boldness vs. pragmatism, frankness vs. calculation, independence vs. establishment, etc.–divide the young from the old. Maybe voters’ personal interests–say, student debt vs. protecting social security–do. But it is striking that age separates the two camps much more than how far left people say they are, their policy choices, or their social positions. One important explanation, I’ll suggest below, is historical memory, as captured by that bumper sticker.

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