One of America’s top political analysts says he and just about every other expert were wrong about the 2016 elections, noting Donald Trump is unlike any of his predecessors and his win promises to gut much of the Obama legacy.
Dr. Larry Sabato runs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, where he teaches political science. He also heads up Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which predicts presidential, Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. In more than 40 years of tracking presidential races, has he ever seen a campaign like this one?
“Never, and no one in my field has,” said Sabato. “I’ve talked to a number of historians and people who focus on politics and political history. Everyone agrees that this election stands out in all of American history. Whether you liked the result or didn’t like the result, it’s just different,” said Sabato.
He says the Trump’s background is one of many things that distinguish him from previous presidents.
“Donald Trump is the only president-to-be who has not served in any political office or military office. He is an outsider complete and total. He’s the richest president by far. There’s just so many categories that make him unusual,” said Sabato.
When 2016 dawned, Trump was the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and other than an opening loss in Iowa, was the clear favorite throughout the chase for 1,237 delegates. Sabato says Trump benefited from a crowded GOP field.
“During the competitive part of the primary … Trump only received about 38 percent of the vote. Sixty-two percent of Republicans voted for other candidates. The problem (for the other candidates) was there was so many of them. So 38 percent was more than enough to win the nomination,” said Sabato.
All the supposed experts declared that Trump’s style, persona, and policy positions couldn’t possible win him the general election, but again Trump proved them all wrong. Sabato says it’s always hard for a party to win three consecutive terms in the White House. He says the only exception in modern history is the transition from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush.
Another big factor that Sabato says was overlooked was a massive enthusiasm gap between supporters of Trump and Hillary Clinton.
“The turnouts in small town America, in rural America among the blue collar workers and white working class were enormous. It was just enormous, whereas Clinton was unable to excite even solid Democratic groups like millennials and African-American voters,” said Sabato.
He points out that Clinton won those groups handily but their turnout numbers were way down compared with 2012.
Sabato also notes that the media became fixated on Trump’s negatives and failed to pay attention to Clinton’s unpopularity.
“Hillary Clinton was more unacceptable than we realized. Yes, we knew she had high negatives. That was obscured by the fact that Trump had even higher negatives so we didn’t focus on her negatives. But it turned out her negatives unenthused the Democratic base, to a much greater degree in the end, than Trump’s negatives unenthused the Republican base,” said Sabato.
While Democrats offer excuses for Clinton’s defeat such as the influence of the Russians and the FBI to the existence of the Electoral College, Sabato says the real answers cut much closer to home.
“Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to talk about her inability to generate a large turnout among Democratic groups. She doesn’t want to talk about her inability to attract the white working class that got Bill Clinton elected in good part in 1992 and 1996. She never had a message that reached them,” said Sabato.
“Her slogan, although technically it was ‘Stronger Together’ whatever that means, was really ‘It’s My Turn. It’s My Turn.’ Well, people rarely elect a candidate because it’s their turn. They want to know what’s in it for them,” said Sabato.
But Clinton was not the only loser on election night. Sabato says President Obama took one on the chin as well.
“It hurts him a great deal. Why did he campaign so hard for a woman who gave him such trouble in 2008 and very nearly won the nomination instead of him?” asked Sabato. “He understood, just as Ronald Reagan understood, that if you don’t get a successor of your party elected to succeed you, much of what you’ve done is going to be reversed rather quickly and probably easily.”
For Sabato, 2016 leaves him with two major takeaways about the state of American politics. First, he says we need to pay more attention to who the most motivated voters are.
“A constituency that is ignored and feels angry or abused is going to turn out in larger numbers. It may be African-Americans for Barack Obama in 2008 or it may be white working class, rural or small town voters for Donald Trump in 2016. Always ask yourself, where’s the energy in the electorate,” said Sabato.
However, for all the big wins Republicans enjoyed in 2016, they still have some demographic problems.
“Republicans still have some of the basic problems they had before Trump was elected. They still don’t appeal to many minorities. They still don’t appeal to millennials. They have to get a larger share of more groups in the electorate if they are to win not just the electoral vote but the popular vote in future elections,” said Sabato.