The 2016 election may be more normal than you think
The 2016 election appears on the surface to be weird and different, with all the rules of politics seemingly broken every day.
But take a step back, and the General Election is behaving — so far, at least — exactly how it should, given that the Republican Party nominated a total outsider as its candidate. In an era of strong parties, the 2016 General Election is easily understood as being about ... parties.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton proved perfectly acceptable to Democratic party actors — the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, donors and activists, formal party officials and staff, and party-aligned interest groups and media. These Democrats control their party’s future and are solidly in control of it. Clinton received an overwhelming majority of their endorsements even before the primaries and caucuses. And almost all of the few party actors who supported Bernie Sanders wound up endorsing Clinton once the Vermont socialist had lost.
Though a lot is made of her unfavourable rating in national opinion surveys, Clinton is popular among Democratic voters. This isn’t a coincidence. The people who identify with a particular party tend to respond to unanimous signals from its leaders and activists.
As for the Republican side, party politics also explains most of what is happening, just under entirely different circumstances. A candidate who lacks conventional qualifications for the job, habitually violates party orthodoxy on policy, and often acts like a buffoon and a bigot nevertheless retains the support of most — but not all — Republican voters.
What we’re mostly seeing is party loyalty. Many voters may say they are honestly choosing the candidate, not just automatically following the party’s lead, but that is simply not true. What are the chances a voter would decide, independently, that Trump, Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush and Bob Dole were all better people than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore and Bill Clinton were (or vice versa)?
So don’t assume that GOP voters who stick with Trump are all bigots who want a candidate running a campaign that appeals to bigots. Most Republicans are just sticking with the party because it’s a strong habit.
Yet it is true that more than the usual number of Republican party actors and voters are rejecting their own nominee. That, too, is a party story.
It’s easy to understand why foreign-policy experts are the party actors most likely to abandon Trump, and even endorse Clinton. Trump’s positions on trade, Nato and Russia, for example, are so far from the party mainstream that Republicans whose main concern is national security feel that the party, by nominating him, is basically kicking them out. The picture is more mixed for Republicans who are chiefly concerned with economic issues. Trump’s stated policies sometimes violate party orthodoxy — he is as likely to promise government action as he is to advocate smaller government, for example — but he’s with the Republican mainstream on cutting taxes for rich people. These Republicans may also believe that Trump’s positions on taxes and spending are less relevant if he’s willing to simply acquiesce to whatever a Republican Congress gives him.
The most loyal group of party actors have been social conservatives. This, too, makes sense. Anti-abortion groups care most about the Supreme Court. They may not trust Trump at all to stick to the conservative-approved list of possible court nominees he has been touting. They shouldn’t. But if he picks names out of a phone book, he’s still more likely to produce more socially conservative justices than Clinton would.
The result of all this is a divided party, which means the message in the media will be weaker and more mixed, and that in turn means some Republican voters will fail to support Trump.
True, Trump’s nomination in the first place challenges what we thought we knew about the party process of choosing a candidate for president. But given that he was nominated, all our normal tools for explaining elections appear to be working just fine. At least for now.
• Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist