Julia Azari is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. She is the author of Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate, and a regular contributor to the political science blog The Mischiefs of Faction, now on Vox, and to fivethirtyeight.com.
Political scientists generally failed to see Donald Trump’s primary victories coming. Worse than that, many of us (myself included) confidently predicted to friends, family and unsuspecting blog readers that Trump would never come close to the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. Many of us thought that the nomination battle would come down to a struggle between three candidates with solid mainstream credentials: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.
As of April, the nomination remains undecided, but all three of those candidates have left the race.
Despite the overwhelming and perhaps appropriate urge to self-flagellate, it’s possible that political science still has insight to offer. First, it’s important to note that the major misfire about the Republican nomination comes from a failure to correctly predict elite behavior more than, as Vaughn suggested, a failure to pay attention to voters.
Based on the arguments in The Party Decides, an influential book about presidential nominations, many of us assumed that party elites would coordinate around one of the “establishment” candidacies. We also, I think, assumed that Trump would get bored and drop out.
Mass political behavior is generally easier to predict. We have far more data points, and predicting how a lot of people will behave is paradoxically easier than coming up with models that correctly predict the behavior of a few elites. But there were some missed calls on the mood of voters too: political scientists, along with pundits, generally thought that any of Trump’s first 100 outrageous statements – notably about McCain’s military service – would end his support among voters. This hasn’t happened, and we should have seen it coming. There’s not a lot of evidence that “gaffes” of any sort matter much – and Trump’s support has been very steady in the polls. At some point, we probably should have realized that what we were seeing was signal rather than noise.
Although there has never been a major party candidate quite like Trump, there are some important contextual factors that should have provided some clues about his rise. First, political scientists – along with sociologists, historians and journalists – certainly have the tools at our disposal to understand politics and racism. Michael Tesler’s work has illustrated this well in the Obama era and Jamelle Bouie makes the case on Slate for Obama’s presidency giving rise to Donald Trump. But going further back than this work, scholars have for years observed the hierarchy of oppressions that inform American political culture: gender inequality, the racism of legal institutions and the hostility and xenophobia with which immigrants have often been met.
What makes this campaign unusual is Trump’s combination of unvarnished language in an era in which we are used to colorblindness and dog whistles, and his true outsider candidacy in which he has wrestled the nomination away from the control of Republican officeholders and other elites. We’ve known for a long time that presidential nominations were technically permeable through the primary process, which has been around in more or less its current form since the early 1970s. But until now, no one has actually permeated it the way that Trump has.
The signs of this anti-politically correct outsider combination should have been evident over the past few years as well. The Tea Party movement contained elements of both: more racially conservative attitudes than other constituencies within the Republican Party and a desire to throw establishment types out of office and elect “political outsiders” – including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have ironically become, in succession, the “establishment lane” candidates in the 2016 primaries. Republicans (and to some extent, Democrats as well) have been embracing outsider rhetoric while generally practicing politics as usual for years – even decades. Trump’s candidacy may partly be a sign that voters are onto the ruse, and will take matters into their own hands.
Finally, there’s been speculation about what will happen in the general election. Both Trump and Cruz inspire concern among mainstream Republicans in terms of their appeal to the broader electorate. One possibility that I’ve heard is that Hillary Clinton (assuming she’s the nominee) will move back to the center on business issues, therefore engineering a massive victory in the fall. If we’d been listening to what numerous observers of Congress and voters had been saying recently, we’d admit that the Republicans moving right while the Democrats tack to the center is perhaps the most predictable outcome of all.