Explaining the Election

Political scientist Jeffrey Berry on why the parties have not determined the nominees, and what we have to look forward to as the presidential race continues
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
“In this polarized era, the illusion that now we’re at the starting gate of the real campaigns is wrong,” says Jeffrey Berry. “Most people have their minds already made up.” Photos: Michael Davidson (Clinton) and Gage Skidmore (Trump)
May 17, 2016

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With a dozen presidential primaries to go, one-time dark horse Donald Trump is the last man standing in the race for the Republican nomination, while Democratic Party favorite Hillary Clinton has lost a string of contests to a self-described democratic socialist. In other words, the political consensus has often been outpaced by political upsets.

“It has not been a good year for political scientists,” says Jeffrey Berry, the John Richard Skuse Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, who comments frequently on electoral politics for the media. Tufts Now spoke with Berry about the frontrunners, how Trump and Bernie Sanders—who appears poised to fight Hillary Clinton all the way to the convention for the Democratic nomination—have defied the law of “the party decides,” and what all this will mean going into the general election.

Tufts Now: Is there any possibility at this point other than Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump?

Jeffrey Berry: No.

What are the strengths of the two candidates?

Both are very smart. Clinton’s real strength is experience, which is sometimes a two-edged sword in American politics. People say she’s part of the Washington establishment, and Trump will certainly harp on that. But she has quite a resume, and it’s an important credential.

“While Donald Trump may not be their first choice, I think the vast majority of Republicans will unify or at least be willing to vote for him,” says Jeffrey Berry. Photo: Kelvin Ma Also, she’s very popular within the Democratic Party. She can be a credible candidate for all constituents within it, and Senator Sanders’ constituencies will eventually feel comfortable with her.

Trump is farsighted. He is able to think about politics in a fresh and different way. He has a brashness some people find appealing, although others are turned off by it. He certainly is aggressive and will be a fighter until the last vote is counted.

What challenges will the candidates face?

For Trump, it’s whether he can discipline himself and become a candidate of something more than anger and brashness, and whether he can articulate coherent policies toward national security and foreign affairs. He’s stumbled badly so far there.

For Clinton, it’s whether she can get beyond the unfavorable ratings to encompass broader support from the public and pull in independents who maybe find themselves wavering, whether she can sufficiently satisfy Sanders’ followers that she’s hearing them, and whether she can get beyond being conventional to being bold.

Who has the edge right now?

Democrats have a distinct advantage at this point in time in the Electoral College. If Trump turns out to be weaker than your typical candidate—think Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio—in the general election, then the advantage is even stronger, because the swing states are tilting toward the Democrats.

In some states—Nevada, Florida, Virginia—the rising number of minorities are making it increasingly difficult for Republican candidates to be competitive in the general election, and as we’ve seen so far in polling, minorities are particularly hostile toward Donald Trump, even more so than a generic Republican candidate. So Democrats can expect even bigger boosts from Hispanics this time around.

But if Hillary turns out to be as weak a Democrat as some Democrats fear because of her likability ratings, some swing states may go back to Republicans.

Are you surprised that Donald Trump has reached this point?

Yes. I did not expect six months ago that he would win the nomination. I’m not the only political scientist who was surprised.

He understood on a level that other leaders of the Republican Party didn’t that there was a real constituency for standing up to the Republican establishment, that the Republican establishment was not connecting with rank-and-file working-class voters. He really did connect with Republican voters.

There’s a saying in the military: You fight the last war. The Republican candidates were all fighting the last war except Trump, so he did offer something fresh.

How about Clinton? Are people excited about the first woman nominee for president?

One of the many surprises of this election season is that young women do not feel as strongly about her becoming president. Part of it may be the age gap. And although she’s pro-women’s rights, there’s an empathy gap—there may be a sense she can’t put herself in their shoes. But I think the excitement among women, particularly among young women, will grow as they get closer to the election and have the opportunity to make her the first woman president of the U.S.

And I think they will easily come around, because they are increasingly offended by Trump’s attitude. Trump is counting on a residual feeling among some Americans that women are not ready to be president. His message that she only got this far because she’s a woman is designed to appeal to some men who feel she’s not going to be as tough.

Can we talk about Bernie Sanders? How has he changed the equation?

Senator Sanders didn’t come close to winning the nomination, but the amount of money he raised in small donations is impressive and unexpected. What stands out is that the constituents who most identify as Sanders supporters are not wealthy people—they’re people in their 20s, who may not have very much discretionary income, and still wrote him a check for $50.

There are a lot of people in the U.S. on both sides who feel the system is rigged, and there’s some real unfairness built into the laws of the U.S. There are people who earn a lot of money and are using perfectly legal means of enriching themselves through tax avoidance. Moreover, there’s concentration of wealth, which people find unappealing and destructive to the well-being of the country.

Sanders has pulled Clinton more toward the left of the ideological spectrum. He has pushed her hard on income inequality and may put her on the defensive on foreign trade. The way Clinton has conducted herself as she has been pressed by Sanders, she can’t just quickly abandon that and go back to the middle.

And Trump—what will be the consequences of his rocky relationship with the Republican Party?

While Donald Trump may not be their first choice, I think the vast majority of Republicans will unify or at least be willing to vote for him. His problem is that Republicans are the smaller of the two parties, so he can’t afford to lose voters, particularly in the swing states.

What can we expect to see from the two campaigns?

In his speech May 3, after winning the Indiana primary, Donald Trump tried to hang NAFTA around Hillary Clinton’s neck because her husband signed the bill. There is clearly some anger in the country about foreign trade and a belief that American industry was dealt with unfairly by other countries. We’re going to see a lot more of that from Trump.

On the Democratic side, there was Hillary’s denunciation of Trump when he said she’s only where she is because she’s a woman. She said, ‘If playing the woman card means standing up for equal pay and women’s health, deal me in,’ which is a memorable phrase.

But in this polarized era, the illusion that now we’re at the starting gate of the real campaigns is wrong. Most people aren’t going to be influenced at all by the campaigns, other than that their initial predisposition will be reinforced. Most people have their minds already made up.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.

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