'Politics Has Become Celebrity-Driven': How 2016 Surprised Political Thinkers

Jul 17, 2016
Originally published on July 17, 2016 7:34 pm

The 2016 presidential campaign feels like a political science dissertation (or 1,000) waiting to happen: two massively unpopular major-party presumptive nominees; a strong challenge for the Democratic nomination from a self-proclaimed "democratic socialist"; and the way that Donald Trump has conducted so much of his campaign via Twitter should provide Ph.D. candidates ample material for decades.

On the eve of the Republican convention, where the GOP is about to nominate Trump its standard-bearer, we'd share some thoughts we've gathered from people who think about this stuff for a living. Over the last month, we asked a group of political scientists and analysts how 2016 is changing how they think: what conventional wisdom is gone now; what surprised them?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of these answers revolve around the Trump phenomenon, but others say we may have to rethink what voters want — and how to measure those attitudes. The answers of 10 political thinkers are below. (And of course, these are their opinions alone; none of them reflect the opinions of NPR.)

These responses have been edited for length and clarity.


1. Maybe we've been measuring voter attitudes all wrong

"I know there's been a big fuss about the validity of The Party Decides, but for me, I've been most interested in seeing how Median Voter Theory applies to this election. I don't think anyone thought that Donald Trump would appeal to the median GOP voter, much less the general election voter, but we now have to consider that. This will necessarily prompt how we measure voter attitudes, particularly how we identify the attitudes that influence vote choice."

Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science, Emory University (For more on the debate over the book The Party Decides, see here.)


2. Race-based appeals seem to have worked

"The obvious answer to this is that Donald Trump's popularity and support have surprised me the most — not because we didn't know white consciousness or white identity or attitudes about race in general were important to people; but because he so explicitly framed his campaign this way — and people still hopped on board.

"Some prior work had shown that the way to combat implicit appeals to attitudes about race and ethnicity and identity was to make them plain — sort of the way Jesse Jackson did in 1988 with the ad called 'Revolving Door', which many thought contained implicit appeals with white voters' fear of black men. But here, we have a candidate who explicitly and plainly frames his campaign around attitudes about race and ethnicity and it doesn't backfire, it works.

"Even more surprising was the way Trump weaved national security into his messaging on race, ethnicity, and identity. It was a surprising messaging package because of its explicit nature. I would have expected to see this played with much more subtlety. I was also shocked that so many people thought this kind of rhetoric was acceptable — even if they hold the same attitudes. I was also a bit surprised that elites within the Republican Party didn't coordinate around one of the other candidates with enough time to keep Trump from the nomination."

— Lynn Vavreck, professor of political science and communications at UCLA and co-author of The Gamble


3. Are "data pundits" getting it wrong?

"This is a difficult question to answer. As a 'real' scientist, I regard most political science conventional wisdom as having a less secure foundation than natural sciences. In other words, their knowledge is provisional. So if an idea like The Party Decides goes down, that is not a total surprise. I am surprised to see 'data pundits' get caught between hard data and conventional wisdom, and then go down the path of conventional wisdom. That shows how hard it is to resist the pull of what others are saying.

"I am somewhat surprised to see how little difference there is between Donald Trump's overall pattern of support this year and Mitt Romney's in 2012. For the most part, purple states then are still purple states now. It seems like the Republican Party's base voters are open to a very wide range of candidates. It seems clear that this year, there is no realignment of voters — not yet, anyway.

"Conversely, political science is an area where it's nearly impossible to do what I would call a real experiment. Looks like Trump is about to do one for them. In the next four months we are about to see the results of a giant experiment in which we find out how many votes Republicans can get when their candidate doesn't have a real campaign apparatus and has sky-high negative ratings."

— Sam Wang, writer for the Princeton Election Consortium blog, which keeps a data-based battleground map. (He's also a Princeton molecular biology professor)


4. Race and geography, not social issues, are driving politics

"I want to make a point more generally about party politics: nomination battles in both parties have made me convinced that race and geography are driving features of American party politics, and social-issue divides are less enduring and influential. I had an inkling last year that the urban-rural divide in the Democratic Party didn't get enough attention (after attending the Wisconsin state convention), but few of my colleagues took that idea seriously. Now I think it's pretty apparent."

— Julia Azari, professor of Political Science, Marquette University


5. Celebrity has taken over Washington

"I think the extent to which politics has become celebrity-driven has just been epitomized and reached its logical conclusion in this election cycle. I remember 20-some years ago having some friends in D.C., and they either worked on campaigns or they were just going to school, and they were starting to take pictures with politicians.

"Politicians started to feel to me like celebrities. That was like 20 years ago, and I think we've just steadily continued that trend. And it's obviously epitomized in Donald Trump being the ultimate celebrity politician. The extent to which celebrity is prized in our society and has infiltrated politics is shocking to me. And the extent to which the mistruths and the falsehoods of the Internet have been mainstreamed into American politics....

"Things that are very easy to debunk are gaining currency in politics, and we've lost the gatekeeper. We've lost the ability to have rational conversations based on facts, and falsehoods are just not checked. And so I guess that has surprised me that we've gotten to this point. And I think it's not new; I think it's been building. It's just kind of exploded this year."

— Marty Cohen, professor of political science at James Madison University and co-author of The Party Decides (excerpted from NPR's June interview with him)


6. Maybe "the Latino vote" isn't as important this year as everyone thought it would be

"What [this election] does is it reinforces in a perverse way an argument I've made for a long time, at a time when one would not think — it's been said for many years now that Latinos would influence the presidential election. And this looked like the ideal time, given Trump, his anti-Latino positions, and the argument that Hillary [Clinton] needs Latinos. Well, in fact, it is my expectation that Hillary is really going to stomp Trump. And if I'm right, and I'll bet money that I'm right, Latinos will be absolutely irrelevant in this election.

"So there aren't many states where there's enough Latinos, where the margin's going to be so tight that Latinos make a difference. Hillary's going to win California, and Hillary, I don't think, will win Texas — both huge Latino states. And there will be a lot of people voting against Trump, not necessarily for Hillary. And Latinos will be in that group, but that group will be bigger than Latinos."

Rodolfo de la Garza, professor of political science, Columbia University


7. It's really, really hard to bust through political conventional wisdom

"What surprised me the most? The intransigence of conventional wisdom. So many pundits, politicians, 'strategists' and pollsters were heavily invested in the concepts that (1) The party decides, and (2) Trump can't win, that they ignored the resonance and power of Trump's message and the key dynamics of the race itself.

"They also failed to understand one of the key elements of 'the party decides' theory — the theory describes what happens when the party actually decides, but it says nothing about what happens when it doesn't. The assumption was that the party always decides. This year it didn't, and Trump was the result on the Republican side.

"I expect that conventional wisdom will continue to reign post-November with the media, politicians and others saying (if he is not elected) that Trump was a flash in the pan. My hypothesis is he is not. Trump's authoritarian, ascriptive message is not an anomaly in American history. Its success in 2016, however, is and represents a potentially concerning development for Madisonian democracy (and civil society). Trump's core support is firmly rooted in authoritarianism that, once awakened and stoked, is a force with which to be reckoned. Democracy is about compromise. Authoritarianism is about us-versus-them."

— Matthew MacWilliams, Ph.D. candidate, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, author of the theory that authoritarianism predicts Trump support


8. 2016 is an outlier, not a sign of things to come

"This HAS been a strange election. I don't believe the lessons political scientists have learned over the decades should be discarded because of one idiosyncratic presidential election in which many of those lessons don't hold. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me about 2016 is how an unconventional candidate with no political experience captured the nomination of a major political party through the use of celebrity and social media.

"Journalists and political scientists have understood the increasing role of social media in modern campaigns; however, the Trump candidacy has demonstrated that a candidate with great name ID and an understanding of social media can parlay that into a great advantage — particularly through earned media and as way to energize and communicate with supporters. The conventional wisdom among many political scientists — a view I do not share — is that campaigns do not matter; rather, variables such as the economy and presidential approval rating are viewed as the primary determinants of which candidate will be victorious.

"The election of 2016, however, is personality-driven — particularly on the Republican side. In a year in which Republicans should have an advantage in capturing the White House after eight years of a Democratic president, the Trump campaign — driven largely by the ramblings and direction of the candidate himself — provides evidence that the candidates and the campaign themselves can impact performance, as measured by polling, and election results, in both the nomination phase and general election. The big question is: is 2016 an outlier or a harbinger of future elections? I think it's an outlier."

— David B. Cohen, professor of political science, University of Akron


9. Trump created a new way of campaigning

"I thought [Trump] would be a flash in the pan. I didn't think a celebrity with as much fallibility and negatives would go so far. Part of the question became, can he turn that fear, that anger, that frustration and in some cases that hatred that many [in his base] were feeling into votes? And he did well enough to win the primaries.

"But he did it on a paltry budget. So this whole notion that has been around for a long time in American politics, of money in politics, and that the candidate that has the most typically wins. And even at that, the runner up raises a ton of money too, typically in a major campaign. Well, Trump defied that kind of model that has been existing for many years. He spent very little; he relied on the media and the mainstream media, primarily, that was only too glad to run with virtually any story.

"But as well, he didn't have much of an outreach staff in many of the places he was campaigning. And much of the staff that he had, the so-called senior staff, was very inexperienced. So he spun what it means to be a candidate, a competitive candidate, in a national political campaign on its head. Whether that becomes a partial model for someone else down the line remains to be seen. But he is a unique candidate."

Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus at California State University Los Angeles


10. The GOP could have had an easier shot at the White House

"I'm old enough to have closely followed the 1964 and 1972 presidential campaigns, so I've seen the parties commit suicide before. But in those two years, Presidents Johnson and Nixon were very unlikely to lose, so it wasn't as though a party was throwing away a winnable election. Not so in 2016. With a solid, appealing ticket, Republicans would have had a good shot at retaking the White House. Instead, they nominated an extremely controversial candidate, who appears quite unlikely to win, at least from the perspective of June.

"We all know some of the reasons — 16 non-Trump candidates split the money and support that could have consolidated behind one of them early on. Along with the rest of us, they didn't take Trump seriously and let him go without withering criticism for much too long. And many news media organizations made a Devil's pact with Trump — loads of endless coverage in exchange for the ratings he brought.

"Political scientists have insisted that party leaders decide presidential nominations by means of endorsements, money and other signals of backing. Maybe most of the time that's true. Yet the grassroots of the party can occasionally rebel and conquer the establishment, as Goldwater, McGovern, and most of all, Trump prove. Electability isn't much of a consideration for ideologues — or they convince themselves against the evidence that their own choice is the people's choice."

— Larry Sabato, professor of political science, University of Virginia

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