Sabato's Crystal Ball

President 2016: The Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer Politics

Larry J. Sabato, Director, UVA Center for Politics June 8th, 2016

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As we find ourselves at the end of the primary season, we can all look back in wonder: What hath the voters wrought? Last summer when he announced a candidacy, almost no political professional picked Donald Trump to be the GOP nominee — yet here he is. And no one we know thought that the big, complicated GOP field of contenders would sort itself out many weeks before the small group of Democrats — but Trump has been in general election mode for some time while Hillary Clinton has had a devil of a time shaking off a persistent foe.

As of this writing — Wednesday morning — Bernie Sanders remains in the race, but Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee and the first woman ever chosen by a major party on Monday night, according to the Associated Press, and she sealed the deal comfortably with big wins in California and New Jersey. In particular, the Golden State was critical for Clinton because her intraparty opponent had targeted it and planned to use a victory there as justification for a long struggle.

However, while Clinton won a majority of the pledged (elected) delegates, her majority amongst all the delegates rests on support from superdelegates, who overwhelmingly back her and are made up largely of establishment-style officeholders and party leaders. This reality, which was also the case for Barack Obama in his much narrower 2008 victory over Clinton, has left the door open for Sanders potentially to hold out until the floor vote at the convention. While it is technically possible for the party’s superdelegates to switch to Sanders (or even another candidate) between now and the convention, it seems utterly unlikely unless something dramatically bad happens to Clinton, such as an indictment for her use of private email while secretary of state. Sanders otherwise has no serious claim to the nomination: Clinton won millions more votes and hundreds more delegates in the primary and caucus season. In addition, the superdelegates are part of the rules for this year. Like it or not, as we all learned as children, you can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.

From the largest field of candidates in modern times (a total of 22: 17 on the Republican side plus five on the Democratic), the two most unpopular major-party nominees anyone can recall have emerged. Each has an intense cadre of supporters, but most people we’ve encountered are unhappy with the choice — and that’s putting it mildly.

Still, the odds are as massive as Mt. Everest that either Clinton or Trump, the latter currently possessing the higher unfavorable ratings, will win the White House, even as the candidate offerings grow (though perhaps not by enough to truly impact the election).

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Libertarians nominated an experienced ticket, with two former Republican governors at the helm, Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts. A few polls put Johnson, also the 2012 Libertarian nominee, at around 10% nationally, and there is the possibility — not great, but measurable — that he and Weld might gain entry into one or more of the fall debates, assuming in this crazy year that a major-party candidate in a fit of pique doesn’t drop out of the scheduled debates. A third-party or independent ticket needs to be polling at least 15% nationally in an average of five surveys selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates. As we noted in a previous Crystal Ball, the Libertarians have never topped even 2% of the presidential vote, but maybe their moment has arrived. In effect, they could be the none-of-the-above line on ballots around the country, and their platform is a mixture of GOP philosophy (small government, low taxes) and Democratic social issue preferences (pro-choice, pro-gay rights, etc.) There’s something for everyone to like, and dislike, in the Libertarian agenda.

Normally, Libertarians appear to take more votes from the Republican nominee, but that may or may not prove to be true this year. Let’s see how this complicated contest sorts itself out. The Green Party, which is likely to again nominate physician Jill Stein as its presidential standard bearer, could also attract a small number of disaffected Sanders supporters. But other than Ralph Nader’s 2000 bid, which won 2.7% nationally and arguably cost Democrat Al Gore the election, the Greens have barely registered as a national presidential force.

#NeverTrump conservatives, led in part by The Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, have cast about for a candidate to run in November as an alternative for anti-Trump Republicans. It appeared at the end of May that they had found a contender in National Review writer David French, but this mostly unknown conservative declined to run this past weekend. Kristol says he and his brethren will have the financial support to make a good showing, but they are back to the drawing board when it comes to actually finding someone to run, much less an impressive standard-bearer.

Meanwhile, Trump has already proven he has no intention of “acting presidential” — whatever that means in his case — now that he has secured the Republican nomination, nor is he going to stop running in his unique, controversial way. Attacking the Latina governor of New Mexico and calling out a “Mexican” judge (who is as American as any citizen) for his rulings on the Trump University civil suit are just part of his strange, free-flowing campaign. While the GOP rank-and-file has mostly fallen into line and the party leadership has reluctantly signed on as well, there remains a deep unease about Trump’s style in the traditional precincts of the Republican Party. Maybe Trump will win, these party-oriented conservatives say, and they have little choice but to follow him now — freely forfeiting their chapters in any future edition of Profiles in Courage. But they also fear Trump could fail spectacularly and take the party down with him. This year’s GOP is living with both its feet planted on banana peels.

Attention will soon be turning in earnest to the VP selections and the conventions. It’s possible that Trump will have a less-than-ideal list of possible options, thanks to his ever-growing list of outrageous comments. Discombobulated Republican officeholders are stumbling around, trying both to support Trump and decry some of his remarks: A prime example came over the weekend, when Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) struggled through an awkward interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week. This could not have helped his chances to become Trump’s vice presidential choice. Trump’s despicable, racially-based tirade against the federal judge handling the Trump University case has earned him condemnation even from Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, who have previously been friendly. Gingrich also has hoped to be Trump’s No. 2.

For Democrats, despite becoming the presumptive nominee, Clinton finds herself in a shaky position she could not have imagined last year. Weakened by the self-inflicted wounds of her email controversy and her inability to generate enthusiasm in major parts of the Democratic coalition, Clinton has been forced to spend precious time, money, and energy fighting Sanders right to the end. This tireless foe has tapped into the idealism of youth as well as pent-up anger about an economy that hasn’t produced for middle-class Americans since the 1990s (when, ironically, Bill Clinton was in charge). Sanders has tugged Clinton further to the left than she wants to be.

On the other hand, Clinton is due for a traditional polling bonus now the primaries are over and she has clearly won; Trump got his boost a few weeks ago. Another significant factor for Clinton is that President Obama, who remains quite popular among Democrats and now enjoys an approval rating around 50% in the polling averages, appears poised to endorse Clinton and campaign vigorously on her behalf.

Obama also will meet with Sanders on Thursday, which could be a prelude to the senator turning down the rhetoric or possibly leaving the race despite his repeated promises to continue on. However, even if he does drop out, the Vermonter and a good portion of his voters could be a thorn in Clinton’s side all the way through the Democratic convention, and possibly beyond. The prospect of Clinton limping into Philadelphia, forced to make compromises on the platform and getting Sanders’ sign-off on her vice presidential pick, remains a possibility, although winning California strengthens Clinton’s hand. Clinton must walk a fine line here: She needs to make some concessions to Sanders but cannot appear weak — and seeming to allow her rival to impose a VP candidate could be problematic.

Negotiations with Sanders aside, all Clinton can do is continue to give speeches like the one last week in which she roasted Trump so effectively that Democrats were cheered for the first time in quite a while. Based on past performance, Trump will continue to provide plenty of material for her fire.

Both parties, and especially the Republicans because of deep divisions and Trump’s antics, have a gloomy sense of foreboding that has dampened the usual excitement and euphoria accompanying the emergence of nominees. This matches the general public mood. Everyone knows the scorched earth campaign that lies ahead will be remarkably unsettling and unpleasant. Like a root canal that must be done, the selection of a new president is unavoidable — although at least the patient merits anesthesia for a root canal. We simply have to hope our fears for the autumn are exaggerated because no medicine exists that can deaden the pain of a potentially miserable, no-holds-barred campaign for the White House.