Reality Check in Election Politics

By Steve Kopperud, SLK Strategies

As this is being written, the United States (US) Congress is rushing to get out of town for the national party conventions and the traditional August recess. The full House and one-third of the Senate have until mid-September to campaign for reelection on November 8, while Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump kick their presidential campaigns into high gear. This “recess” is the longest in over 30 years.

Depending on your love of politics, polling, and punditry, this is either going to be the most fascinating summer and fall in recent memory, or the longest 90 to 120 days ever.

This national election cycle, at least as far as the presidential contest goes, is unprecedented in its shock, awe, and defiance of history, polling, and conventional political wisdom. Eighteen months ago, the White House was assumed to be Clinton’s for the asking; Trump was going to be a 24-hour news cycle. Yet, Clinton wound up fighting the election battle of her political career against “democrat socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who surprised every analyst with his demographic strength. Trump ended the primary cycle as the last man standing in a field of 18 GOP presidential wannabes.

So how does the political game play out over the next three months, particularly when it comes to the race for the White House?

Set aside congressional elections for now. It is too early to handicap what Congress will look like come November 9, but it is likely a safe bet the House will remain GOP controlled, plus or minus a couple of seats. The Senate is no lock for Republican retention. The current Senate make up is 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats. Of the 34 seats up this year, 24 are held by Republicans. Depending on the source, anywhere from 6 to 11 Senate races appear to be toss-ups and most of those are Republican seats. Democrats only need gain 4 or 5 seats to retake control. Whether Clinton or Trump will provide any kind of coattails effect is unknown.

The first hurdle for all good party members of either stripe is the July political conventions. Both events will likely threaten and deliver fireworks not seen at these national partisan gatherings in decades. At the same time, party platforms will be formalized with concessions made to the also-ran presidential wannabes, a vain attempt to bring those particular party documents in line with what the candidates have been preaching at rallies and in debates for the last 18 months.

Clinton and Trump are now formally locked in a one-on-battle for the White House, and giving truth to the promise of the ugliest presidential contest in recent memory. Vice presidential candidates are in tow, individuals chosen to balance out the personal and professional deficiencies of those at the top of the ticket.

When all is said and done, running mates and party platforms mean little when it comes to the outcome of a run for the White House. This is not to say they should not impact that result, but it recognizes the reality of how US presidential races have evolved. At the same time, campaign pledges and promises should be viewed as temporary indicators of how a candidate thinks, not how he/she will eventually act. The great reality check is Congress; there is very little a president can do without the cooperation of Congress.

At the same time – at the risk of being too cynical – election positions, statements, media releases, and so on, are all too fluid, shifting depending on events and the audiences addressed. While fodder for the media who dog the candidates, these “evolving” issue positions will likely never turn into program changes for the winner who moves into the White House in January 2017.

The candidates’ respective websites don’t give much insight into specifics of problem solving or policy positions, providing more platitudes than substance. Clinton’s website can be found at while Trumps’ website is at

Clinton’s positions tend to be very particular, seemingly embracing the full catalog of liberal issues. Her priorities include campus sexual assault, addiction, campaign finance reform, autism, climate change, disability rights, early childhood education, infrastructure, gun violence, immigration, labor rights, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender rights, affordable college, manufacturing, national security, paid family leave, protecting animals and wildlife, racial justice, rural communities, Alzheimer’s cure, small business, Social Security and Medicare, veterans and their families, voting rights, Wall Street reform, women’s rights, and “workforce skills.”

Trump issue positions are much broader, framed in the rhetoric of his campaign appearances. Again, weak on details but heavy on the emotional pull important to the middle/lower “disenfranchised” class, each issue is laid out by the candidate in video snippets. His website reveals his thoughts on “the establishment,” trade wars, “making deals with Congress,” law enforcement respect, competent leadership, the “drug epidemic,” gun rights/Second Amendment protections, political correctness, Israel, immigration, education, the military, “unifying the nation,” jobs, the economy, “life changing experiences,” and “live free or die, a motto for the whole country to follow.”

When it comes to the importance of party platforms, no one recognizes their symbolic status more than House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), the man who would have been vice president had Governor Mitt Romney won the White House in 2012.

Ryan has personally, politically, professionally, and publicly struggled with Trump as his party’s standard bearer, struggles that continue as these two individuals could not represent more disparate personal and conservative political philosophies. Ryan preempted his party’s platform writing committee by releasing six policy manifestos in July under the banner of “A Better Way.” Also referred to as “A Better GOP,” the plan covers new House Republican thinking on how to:

• reinvigorate the economy;
• comprehensively reform the federal tax code for both individuals and companies;
• take steps to address poverty;
• strengthen national security;
• maintain and preserve constitutional protections, particularly the separation of powers; and
• reform health care.

While similar in some regards, make no mistake these six key issue areas and the House GOP game plan differ in many ways from the positions and postures of the Trump campaign. Ryan is making the clearest possible statement that the winner of the presidency on November 8 ignores Congress at her/his peril. At the same time, the Senate Republican majority has been quiet on the House package, signaling there is likely greater agreement than not among that caucus, but all the while making sure they draw no untoward attention to themselves.

For congressional Democrats, it is all about Clinton embracing a party platform she likely would not have blessed if left to her own devices. She has been forced to adopt, at least for the election cycle, core positions taken by Sanders. To gain his endorsement, Clinton’s campaign had to move decidedly left of where her political record indicates she would most likely be at this point in time. Sanders laid down markers on free college tuition, forgiveness of student loan debt, free health care, his version of tax reform, Wall Street, and trade. It is fair to say the party platform probably reflects 70 percent or so of Sanders’ political positions, but Clinton’s camp hopes embracing these concessions will attract Sanders’ young and female support base, prospects who have until now been decidedly cool to the Clinton candidacy.

Both candidates suffer from distrust and dislike by the majority of voters, setting the November election up as the ultimate voter choice between the lesser of two evils, or as pundits opine, “Who are you voting against by deciding whom to vote for?” Running up to the political conventions, the two candidates shared nearly identical and unprecedented negative ratings, with 56 percent holding an unfavorable opinion of Clinton and nearly 60 percent feeling negative about Trump. President Barack Obama’s negative rating at the same time was less than 50 percent.

Trump’s biggest challenge for the rest of the campaign is to at least appear and sound presidential. He needs to shed his image of bombast, rhetorical bomb thrower the world gawped at during his primary runs. A dearth of public endorsements by elected Republicans is explained by the fact Trump did not dial down the volume early on and most House and Senate Republicans continue to hope he will moderate some of their positions as the election nears. However, to the party’s credit, the “never Trump” movement never caught fire and will likely die a quiet death in the GOP convention rules committee.

While many praise the New York real estate executive for giving voice to the frustrations of a lot of Americans – Trump won a record number of GOP votes and generated record turnouts throughout the primary season – his style and “shoot-from-the-lip” performances make many moderate Republicans and right-leaning independents uncomfortable at best.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who lost the nod to be Trump’s running mate, is the premier Trump surrogate who continually seizes electronic and print podiums to assure the public Trump is wickedly smart, deliberative, thoughtful, and can be/will be presidential if he wins. Trump needs to prove that over and over. The public tends to run with the last sound bite so the Trump ticket needs to dump the personal attacks and histrionics and seriously address employment, economics, immigration, and foreign policy issues, say presidential observers.

For Clinton, the issue is trust, or rather, a public lack thereof. As mentioned, the presumed inheritance of the Obama voter base has not materialized for Clinton and the trust issues are making it increasingly difficult to attract 18- to 35-year-old voters as well as Hispanics and female voters. The whole first-woman-president thing isn’t resonating nearly as strongly as Obama’s first-black-president excitement and voter turnout in 2008, leading at least one pundit to accuse her of “squandering the advantage of history.”

Take the inevitable baggage she carries from her husband’s presidency and layer it over this summer’s release of the Benghazi report, her husband’s ill-advised meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on a government jet in Arizona, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s scathing report of its investigation into her handling of classified e-mails on her private e-mail server, which stopped short of recommending a criminal indictment. With all this, Clinton is confronted with a steady drumbeat of reinforcement that she is part of the much-demonized inside-Washington machine.

Which way does this contest lean? It would be foolhardy to make any prediction so far out from the actual election, especially during this cycle of history-defying developments. However, to those who say Trump has it in the bag, keep the following in mind. Clinton has never lost an election where she was the anointed candidate. She has the money and the political connections – Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, former Senate colleagues, governors – to hammer the voting public for as long as she wants. In addition, when the brush is cleared away, Clinton is a known entity among older undecided Republicans and Independents, and she has a record on which she can run.

For those who say Trump does not have a chance, we must be reminded of professional wrestling star Jesse Ventura who was elected governor of ultra-progressive Minnesota in 1998. Ventura was a member of the state’s fledgling Independent party, spent just $300,000 on advertising, and pioneered Internet campaigning. He was dismissed by the Minnesota Democrat Farmer Labor and Independent Republican party establishments, yet he ultimately defeated a former Republican Senator and mayor of St. Paul, as well as the Democrat state attorney general, the son of former vice president and Minnesota political legend Hubert Humphrey. Ventura won narrowly and most agree it was because he gave voice to the great mass of self-defined disenfranchised voters, appealing to blue collar, middle and lower-middle class voters. He tapped into a deep vein of voter frustration, targeting the political establishment with the campaign slogan, “Don’t vote for politics as usual.” That election was characterized by record voter turnout – particularly among first-time voters.

Sound familiar?

August 2016 RENDER | back