Live from Philly: Political Scientists Analyze Trump Presidency
Scholars shared their research in presentations at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Political Science Association.
President Trump Governs as a Candidate
William Crotty (Northeastern University) described the present political moment as a “difficult and tumultuous time.” Donald Trump’s presidency is a “carryover from the campaign.” Trump fully intends to implement what he campaigned on, yet his administration is “chaotic and unpredictable.” Trump was a salient candidate and appealed to his base better than President Obama did; however, Trump “was unprepared to be president and unprepared to govern.”
President Trump’s major success is found in reversing President Obama’s policies. Examples include ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, nullify the Clean Power Plan, remove protections for transgender students, abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, approve the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines, and ban foreign aid to groups that give abortion counseling.
Working through the executive branch, not with Congress, has been the primary means by which these changes have been executed. President Trump’s use of executive orders through October of presidents during his first term is nearly double that of President Obama and hired than every other president since Richard Nixon. Crotty contended that this is not too significant, given most presidents tail off with the use of executive orders. The question moving forward is if Trumps sustains this pace, for if he does, he will issue more executive orders than any other president.
Still Making Sense of 2016
Gerald Pomper (Rutgers University) contended that the fate of America today largely depends on how the 2016 election is interpreted. Pomper examines several potential explanations.
Explanations that focus on the fundamentals emphasize the variables of incumbency, party control of the presidency, and economic conditions. These fundamentals favored Trump. There was no incumbent, Democrats had won the previous two presidential elections, and economic conditions were improving from Great Recession, but in highly unequal fashion.
Structural explanations focus on how Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, which was accurately predicted by pollsters and Political Scientists. If the rules were different; however, and popular vote determined the outcome, candidate strategies would have been different. As he indicated, Trump would have campaigned more in states like California and New York, where he expected to lose and thus, did not campaign.
Another consideration was how many popular votes translated to electoral votes. Trump needed 154,000 popular votes on average to win an Electoral College vote. Clinton, needed 149,000 popular votes per Electoral College votes. Pomper concludes that it’s “not clear the Electoral College was the villain.”
Explanations that focus on the role of campaign focus on James Comey’s announcement of resuming investigation of Hillary Clintons’s email just prior to the election. Clinton is the most prominent proponent of this perspective, believing it was catastrophic so close to Election Day. Pomper contends that her lead was already eroding prior to the Comey announcement and few people identified this as a major factor.
The “Deplorables” explanation focuses on the bigotry associated with a segment of Trump supporters. “Racism and sexism did certainly spur the Trump movement.” The Trump campaign was slow to disavow this support. At the same time, “the nation has become more tolerant,” which has been reflected electorally with the election and reelection of President Obama and four new women senators in 2016.
Pomper favored an explanation focused on retrospective vote judgments, which contend that voters simply thought it was time for a change. This desire for change was rooted in dissatisfaction. Trump carried “a message of anger to return to a bygone America and hope for a restored nation.” This message resonated with white males, particularly without college degrees, who experienced a 16 percent drop in income since 2000. Once America led the world in providing educational opportunities. America now ranks twentieth out of twenty-three industrialized companies. President Obama was blamed for these economic developments. Democrats talked about the middle class, but not “the working class.” Economic appeals gave way to multiculturalism to the party’s detriment.
Swing State Populism
Scott McClean (Quinnipiac University) observed that since 1960, the number of competitive states has been shrinking, while the number of blowouts has been growing (10 point margin or larger). There were 16 blowouts that year. In 2004, there were 29 blowouts and in 2012, 35 blowouts, a new high. 2016 had 32 blowouts. Though these states were lopsided, all these elections as a whole were decided by a national margin of 4 percent or less.
Swing states, on the other hand, are defined as typically competitive (5 percent or less since 1988), bellwethers that swing toward Electoral College result, and flips from one party to another at least once since 1988. “Swing states are particularly well suited for populist politics,” both in terms of campaigning and governing.
Populism is a form of politics that has a particularly symbolic structure in understanding a country over time. This includes “authentic people” combating elites and foreigners, who are betraying and/or attacking the country and the authentic people within it.
Trump has learned that denying the facts, creating facts, or disputing facts, confuses swing state voters. “Positions don’t so matter as much as one can create cross cultural cleavages.” For instance, “real news” and “fake news” is culturally marked, not based on truth or even partisanship. “Trump doesn’t have to deliver on his agenda and in fact, does better when he fails, so he can blame his enemies.” Whether this translates into enough votes to be reelected is uncertain. Trump is not promising to make government work for the people. He wants people to trust him, not the government. This form of populist politics is contingent on disruption.
Swing states and populism were significant in 2016. Hillary Clinton’s campaign missed all the warning signs that Wisconsin was becoming a swing state, including a conservative shift at the state level. Clinton used the same organizational approach that Obama did, but unlike him, didn’t visit after the state after convention.
“It’s time to consider Pennsylvania as a swing state rather than a competitive Democratic state.” Clinton lost the state in counties outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which supported Trump in larger numbers than previous GOP nominees. Looking ahead, Arizona and Georgia are also posed to become swing states.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.