By Lee Hamilton
The next few weeks in politics are a little like the All-Star break in baseball. With the Republican and Democratic national conventions upon us, it’s a good time to step back and assess this year’s election. Which carries bad news for both parties.
The Republicans face a steep electoral challenge. If Hillary Clinton carries Florida (where polling shows a very close race) plus the District of Columbia and the 19 states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six presidential elections, she wins.
Yet victory for Donald Trump is hardly out of the question. He’ll have to retain the support he already has from white voters – especially working-class whites in swing states – and try to make some inroads among non-white voters. He’ll also need to hope that any third-party candidates take more votes away from Clinton than from him.
Trump floated through the Republican primaries by tackling the anger and discontent that course through this year’s electorate. His talk about a broken system and his emphatic, brash style appeal to a lot of people. His ability to dominate news coverage without spending much on advertising has been extraordinary. And even though he’s passed through a difficult period for his campaign, the polls have grown quite close.
On the other hand, the Republican Party is splintered and off its game. Its leaders are having a difficult time with a Trump candidacy. A sizable number of GOP stars found excuses not to attend last week’s convention, which is remarkable. Conventions are where parties fire up the faithful and gird for the general election; to find elected officials staying away is clearly a problem. And any revolt at the convention will be messy – though fortunately for the GOP, the months from August to November are an eternity in politics.
Yet the Democrats should take no comfort from this state of affairs. For starters, below the presidential level the party is struggling. Since 2008, Democrats have lost 69 seats in the U.S. House, 13 Senate seats, 12 governorships, and over 900 seats in state legislatures. Nor do they have much of a bench. The two most prominent Democrats this year, Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, are both senior citizens: Clinton is 68, Sanders 74. Despite President Obama’s relative youth, his years in office did not usher in a new generation of national Democratic leadership.
And while Clinton’s path to the presidency may be wider than Trump’s, that doesn’t mean she’s a strong candidate – at least, not for this particular year. She’s put out carefully thought-through, even impressive position papers on a wide variety of current issues that get very little attention in the press. At a moment when voters clearly want change, she appears to favor incrementalism as the way to get things done in Washington.
And despite the FBI’s decision that it wouldn’t bring criminal charges on her handling of emails when she was Secretary of State, the issue is clearly dogging her. She went into this election facing a lot of voters who simply didn’t trust her, and that has only gotten worse. In politics, you cannot talk someone into trusting you – you have to earn it, inch by inch.
Moreover, if Trump faces tough arithmetic in the electoral college, Clinton faces her own difficult equation: It is extremely hard for a political party to win a third consecutive term in the White House. It happened 28 years ago, when George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan. The last candidate before that was Franklin Roosevelt, in 1940.
The British vote on Brexit is a reminder that resentments and anger can fly under the radar. And Washington, where there’s money everywhere you turn, is a ripe target for “take-our-country-back” populism. The anti-establishment, anti-Washington mood captured by both Sanders and Trump should make both parties uneasy.
But then, so should the course of this election, which has put a premium on sound and fury at the cost of true engagement with the issues confronting the country. On that score, we all lose.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.