July 4, 2016
Happy 4th! Today we commemorate the 240th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson and friends officially breaking free of the British. Sure, it took several years of war, one that very much resembled a civil war, as plenty of colonials were in favor of remaining part of the British Empire, but ultimately Leave won out.
This wasn’t something that happened overnight. More than 150 years passed between the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and their descendants deciding to form a Union. In the 1750s, a Declaration of Independence would have seemed like lunacy. Twenty years later, it happened, even if the public was hardly unified behind the concept.
Similarly, until very recently, the idea of challenging the established two major parties was out of the question. Sure, every few generations (Ross Perot-1992, Teddy Roosevelt-1912) a third-party presidential candidate makes a dent, but they’ve proven completely unable to turn personal appeal into an ongoing alternative.
While fewer voters are officially registering as Democrats or Republicans of late, they’re still the majority. Many who are officially unaffiliated or independent actually aren’t. They consistently vote for candidates of the same party, particularly on the presidential level. No presidential candidate has won by a double-digit margin since 1984.
What would lead a sane individual to believe things are different now?
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In the past, we’ve seen candidates who are objectionable enough to push voting blocs or states into the other column on a semi-permanent basis. Vermont was the most reliably Republican state in the Union for over a hundred years. Two states voted to deny FDR re-election in 1936, Vermont and Maine.
From 1856 to 1960, the Green Mountain State supported the GOP candidate each time, win or lose. When Republicans won the general election, Vermonters supported them by more than the national average. It was the surest thing in American politics. Then Barry Goldwater showed up.
Lyndon Johnson defeated Goldwater in Vermont by a 2 to 1 margin. Republicans recovered a bit in future elections, but the spell was broken. They would win each of the next 5 times, but by decreasing margins compared to their national number. The last time a GOP candidate ran ahead of their national margin was 1976. George H.W. Bush (1988) is the most recent Republican to win what is now one of the very bluest states.
Sometimes it’s ethnicity, not geography. After the Civil War, African American voters were the most loyal Republicans you could hope to find. Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, while Southern Democrats were attempting to circumvent the 14th and 15th amendments, making it virtually impossible for African Americans to vote in many Dixie communities.
For generations, even in northern states, blacks usually voted Republican. In the South, where the GOP was persona non grata, African Americans often made up most of the party infrastructure. There were more faces of color at a Republican convention 100+ years ago then there are now, even with an increasingly diverse roster of elected officials.
When FDR skillfully managed to keep white southerners happy while extending New Deal economic assistance programs to African Americans, the tables began to turn. Seemingly overnight, black votes were up for grabs, not the guaranteed Republican rubber stamp of the previous seventy years.
JFK’s support for Martin Luther King while he was imprisoned during the 1960 campaign tipped the scales further, and remaining prominent African American Republicans like Jackie Robinson abandoned the party after Goldwater was nominated after opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Democrats became the party benefitting from black votes, and the balance is now as lopsided as 100 years ago, just in the opposite direction.
The shift can happen along religious lines. Prior to 1896, urban Catholics favored the Democratic Party, with votes being rounded up by big city machines, often controlled by Irish Catholics. Republican candidate William McKinley reached out to these voters with unusual vigor and brought many Catholic voters into the GOP coalition.
After Democrats nominated Al Smith (the first Catholic major party candidate) in 1928, the balance moved back to them. FDR was very popular with urban Catholics, and the nomination and election of JFK in 1960, pushed an even larger majority of voters to the Democrats.
However, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were able to appeal to these same voters later on, first on law and order issues, then by being resolutely anti-Soviet Union. We call these voters Reagan Democrats, but by now, many are either Republicans or deceased. You get the idea. Campaigns and events happen and a group that previously belonged to one party is suddenly up for grabs. Another push in the same direction and they’re affiliated with the opposite party.
Of course, that doesn’t put a third party in play. It just moves voters from one existing team to another. Normally, one party is the antidote to the other. If one party isn’t appealing to enough voters, it’s a net loss. Otherwise it’s a swap. Now New England supports the Democrats, the old Confederacy the Republicans. The two regions have rarely agreed over the past couple hundred years. If you add one, over time, you’ll lose the other.
But Trump and Clinton are unusually unappealing. Supporters of each concede this when their main argument is the implausibility of electing their opponent, rather than the wonderfulness of their choice. When one candidate is facing a fraud trial and the other just sat for an extended FBI interview as part of an ongoing investigation into their conduct, it’s a sign this isn’t business as usual.
Most days polling indicates they are the two least popular major party candidates since regular favorability rating polling began. When McKinley stole Catholics from Democrats, he was popular. So were FDR and JFK when they took them back, and Nixon and Reagan when the tables were turned one more time. Sure, Goldwater lit the GOP coalition on fire, but LBJ was hugely popular at the time.
If the split is along regional, ethnic, or religious lines, it’s easier to find equilibrium. Either the offending party corrects itself, or the opposing one puts out a welcome mat. One way or the other, the group finds a home inside an existing major party. Often, the inclusion of one group pushes other voters to the rival party because they don’t want to share the same tent.
But what if the offended group is distinguished by their age. What if they really don’t like either candidate? What then? If you’re 60, the two party system is fully ingrained in your thinking. If you’re a regular voter, the idea of making a binary choice is normal. But what if you’re 22 and just starting down the path of voting and political participation?
It just so happens this is the age group most disillusioned with the Trump/Clinton Slightly Lesser of Two Evils campaign. Several pollsters break out their data by age group. Many of these also give respondents the chance to pick Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and/or None of the Above.
Just as an example, a recent Economist/YouGov poll found only 61% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 30 were willing to pick Clinton or Trump. Quinnipiac was able to get 65% of respondents between 18 and 34 to pick one of the two. These are just two of the several recent surveys with reasonably similar results.
As it is, Trump and Clinton are pulling a smaller combined percentage of voters (even when Johnson and Stein aren’t an option) than normal. They often struggle to exceed 80% even when they’re the only game in town. The trend is exaggerated among the youngest voters, who don’t have the same history of holding their noses to pick Walter Mondale or Bob Dole, or whatever doomed candidate their party put up in a given year.
Some are Bernie enthusiasts. Others were old enough to vote for Barack Obama at least once. If they turned out for Obama, it was because they liked him well enough, not that they were horrified beyond recognition by Mitt Romney. Without the history of voting for Democrats, even those they dislike or aren’t inspired by, Hillary can’t count on their votes.
If they don’t turn out for her in 2016, she may win, but this growing demographic group is up for grabs in 2020. Normally, this would qualify as a great opportunity for the GOP. Except Trump. While Millennials are opposed to the major party candidates, they’re even more anti-Trump. Clinton leads him by double digits. A far larger percentage of young voters are non-white, and as we know, voters of color are either very opposed to Trump or lying to pollsters in a historic fashion.
Young white voters are giving Johnson almost equal support to Trump, so it’s not like he’s building an opportunity for Republicans to divide the country along racial lines going forward. Given the continuing lack of name and policy recognition for Johnson and Stein, these results indicate more of a none-of-the-above feeling than a groundswell of support for either of the current alternatives.
Trump is showing little ability to modify his content. He’s currently dealing with a controversy over using a Star of David on top of a pile of money that was cribbed from a white supremacist graphic to call attention to Clinton’s corruption. Meanwhile, she’s dealing with the FBI interview, and her husband deciding it was a good idea to meet with the Attorney General who will need to make a final indictment decision.
If these two can’t clear the path for a serious third option in 2020, it just isn’t possible.