2016 Election Reflection Series: Leverage Politics and Implications for the GOP

2016 Election Reflection Series Background

Prior to the election, APSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Programs Office issued a call for submissions for a new PS Now series entitled 2016 Election Reflections. The call asked submitters to respond to one or two of the following questions:

  • Tell us about an original research project, article, or finding that you are working on, which sheds light upon political behavior and/or public opinion and the 2016 Campaign and Election.
  • Tell us about how you have incorporated themes relevant to diversity, inclusion, equity, or representation and the 2016 campaign and election into your political science teaching, research and/or service? 
  • What political behavior/ opinion patterns emerged from the 2016 campaign and election season?
  • What group(s) of the electorate does your research focus on and what policy issue(s) proved to be salient to them in the 2016 Election?
  • What role can/does political science research play in helping to make sense of the 2016 Campaign and Election?

All submissions were welcome. We were especially interested in featuring content that addressed the political behavior and opinion of individuals from the following groups: underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women, individuals with disabilities, first generation Americans, and the LGBT community. All submissions were reviewed by APSA staff political scientists.

What resulted is a series, covering a diverse collection of political science topics ranging across such sub-fields as public opinion, political behavior, political parties, race, ethnicity and politics, gender and politics, LGBTQ rights and politics, teaching and learning political science and classroom discussion strategies, and the complex intersectionalities contained therein. Additionally, a variety of research methodologies are brought to bear to address and shed light upon these topics and research questions.

We understand that this series is but a snapshot of the political science scholarship being done on the 2016 Campaign and Election. However, it is our hope that these pieces will contribute to election-related scholarship, critical thought, and informed discussion in the weeks and months to come. To that end, we invite your comments. You can find more information and the complete series at 2016 Election Reflections.

Kimberly A. Mealy, PhD
Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programs
American Political Science Association

The views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of the APSA.


Leverage Politics and Implications for the GOP

By Andra Gillespie, Emory University

Last week, I had the privilege of presenting at a conference about Jesse Jackson at the University of Michigan.  There, we discussed the many implications of Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.  As the late political scientist Ron Walters, who advised Jackson in 1988, argued in Black Presidential Politics in America, there was a value in insurgent candidates running for office, even if they lost.  If they were able to make a strong showing, even at the primary level, they might be able to turn their votes into leverage to change the inner workings of their own parties.  Jackson, while finishing second in the 1988 Democratic primaries, translated his support into demands which had a lasting impact on the Democratic Party.  From making the condemnation of apartheid a platform issue to paving the way for the ascension of a black man, Ron Brown, to the head of the DNC to moving Democratic primaries toward a more proportional allocation of votes, Jackson tilled the ground which allowed Barack Obama to emerge successfully from the Democratic field twenty years later.  As I argued in Ann Arbor, “sometimes you have to lose to win.”

It would probably seem obvious to many that Bernie Sanders ended up playing a leverage role in Democratic Party politics in this election cycle.  Though he did not secure the Democratic Party nomination, his candidacy did impact this year’s platform, which many would argue is the Democratic Party’s most progressive platform yet.  His coalition seems poised to further reform the Democratic delegate allocation system, which could have a huge impact on future nomination processes.  And, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, progressive voices will no doubt play a leading role in reorganizing the party and pushing it ideologically to the left.

Sanders’ relative success in gaining leverage stands in sharp contrast to the efforts of reform-minded Republicans.  While a clear #NeverTrump faction emerged in the Republican Party, they were neither large nor cohesive enough to seriously challenge Trump in either the primaries or the general election.

As scholars, we will spend the next few years trying to explain why a large and cohesive anti-Trump coalition did not emerge in 2016.  For now, let me throw out a few hypotheses.  I’m sure that part of the story is that the ideological sorting that many have noted over the last few decades has taken its toll on the party, isolating the remaining moderates and shrinking the ranks of “establishment” Republicans.  However, we should also be willing to explore the possibility that Republicans are averse to leverage politics.  Rather than being willing to forego an electoral victory to the despised Hillary Clinton, many establishment-minded Republicans held their noses and voted for Trump.  In short, they would have rather won this year than withdraw their votes, force a loss, and prompt a discussion about the long-term utility and normative appropriateness of winning elections by appealing to the racial resentments of some voters.

This reluctance to vigorously challenge those who would appeal to ethnocentrism, especially in the face of the most racially charged presidential election since the 1960’s, could have serious long-term consequences for the Republican Party.  As a result of the work of scholars like Edward Carmines and James Stimson, Katherine Tate, Vincent Hutchings, Nick Valentino, Tali Mendelberg, Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders, we have known for years about the racial undercurrent in Republican Party appeals that goes back to the days of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.  While economic and cultural issues no doubt played a role in Trump’s appeal to his base, it is also undeniable that he appealed to white racial resentment as well.

The problem is, while the “demographics is Democratic destiny” argument, which proffers that Democrats are poised to be increasingly successful as America becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, has not fully manifested yet in electoral politics, it does not mean that it will not eventually prove to be true.  The demographics of the country are still rapidly changing.  And while the Obama coalition was not as cohesive or as enthusiastic in 2016 as it was in 2008 and 2012, the reality is, as Vince Hutchings recently pointed out at a forum sponsored by Emory and the Carter Center, that a supermajority of racial and ethnic minorities voted Democratic in this year’s election.  If these patterns of voting behavior continue and Republicans elect to shore up their constituent base by appealing to the racial resentments of some voters, they will soon be making their appeals to a smaller and smaller constituency and may find it harder and harder to win national elections.

Beyond the demographic argument, though, is the normative question of appealing to racial resentment.  Do we really want to see another election like 2016?  As a society, do we want our candidates to win election by appealing to racial and religious resentments?

I am sure that many on both sides of the aisle were alarmed at the tone of this election.  And I hope that in the future, strong voices will emerge to challenge both parties to be vigilant against the racial excesses that plagued this election and previous elections.  In order to do that, though, sometimes party leaders will need to be willing to lose an election or two to force the discussion.  In this case, Republicans will have to ask if keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House was worth the vitriol and the subsequent potential policy proposals that were unleashed as a result of this election.

Andra Gillespie is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University.  She is the author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).