The 2016 presidential election cycle thus far has been a study in frustrated attempts to analyze and understand a larger shift among the voting public.
We saw it a year ago, when the conventional wisdom saw Jeb Bush emerging on the GOP side to take on Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side.
“Not another Bush/Clinton race” was the common complaint. People were worried about a choice between two political dynasties.
In the end, that seeming inevitability, as so much has been this campaign season, proved half-right.
Clinton will emerge, barring the unexpected, from a Democratic primary process in which her most serious competition was a 74-year-old self-styled Democratic Socialist, who has managed to beat her in many more states than anyone would had predicted a year ago.
Turnout compared to 2008, when Clinton ran and lost to Barack Obama, is down roughly twenty percent year over year across the states that have voted thus far.
Does that matter? The national polls, except an outlier from Rasmussen, have Clinton up by double digits over Republican Donald Trump, dubbed the “presumptuous nominee” by Clinton in a feeble attempt to play the dozens.
The same Trump, it should be stressed, who decisively routed 16 other candidates on his way to winning a nomination from a party in which, a year earlier, did not even have him part of the conversation.
Republican turnout is up 64 percent over 2012, in aggregate, and the biggest spikes in voter interest have been in the later races, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The so-called ACELA primary in the Northeast presents the starkest contrast. Turnout in New York was up more than 430 percent from 2012. It was also up by 320 percent in Rhode Island and 250 percent in Connecticut, compared to four years before.
Illustrating aggregate turnout advantage in that same WSJ article: as of April 26, 25.1 million Republicans had voted, compared to 21.6 million Democrats.
Does primary turnout predict general election turnout? That’s the question that will be answered over the next six months.
However, what is already known is this. In a front-runner role, Clinton is not driving enthusiasm in the party’s base. And, while Trump may be anathema to the Republicans that were seen as the base before the primary process started, he clearly expanded the voter universe.
The question is why, and the answers advanced thus far have been fragmentary.
Some assume that the Trump voters are responding to racialist language, especially about Latin Americans. Others believe that Trump voters are responding to the candidate’s brashness in other areas.
Rare is the analysis that assumes that Trump voters are rational actors, much in the same way as those who voted for other candidates.
And that’s unfortunate. Understanding the last 15 years, and how members of the white middle class feel as they have been consistently left behind, is key to understanding how Trump’s appeal has succeeded thus far. And it is fundamental to understanding why the polls showing Clinton as the walkaway November victor need to be regarded more as snapshots in time, instead of inevitability.
Sure, Clinton can win in November, if Trump doesn’t recalibrate the persona he marketed to the Tea Party base that pushed him forward in the GOP primaries. And if Clinton isn’t damaged by Trump’s indictment of the last quarter-century, in which that same white middle class suffered economically in ways that still reap a bitter harvest.
Trump’s lack of investment in the bipartisan narrative of the last quarter-century has given him a unique rhetorical freedom. He can convincingly make the case that the North American Free Trade Agreement has been a sucker bet for Americans. And he can make the same case about the War on Terror of George W. Bush, now 15 years old and still reaping another bitter and expensive harvest, this one for American taxpayers.
Clinton is playing defense, meanwhile. Defense for the Clinton Administration and her husband’s peccadillos. But also a defense for an era that has not paid off, by the whole, for Trump’s reconstituted Silent Majority.
The race will not be won by a politician with the best resume, but by the best marketer, the best demagogue. And that’s Trump territory.
A.G. Gancarski is the Northeast Florida correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Column courtesy of Context Florida.