Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Fall Outlook: Fear and Loathing on the 2016 Campaign Trail

Larry J. Sabato, Director, UVA Center for Politics May 3rd, 2016

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“The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It’s come to the point where you almost can’t run unless you can cause people to salivate and whip on each other with big sticks. You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.”

— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973)

Probably our only real chance to understand today’s bizarre quest for the White House died with Hunter Thompson. Booze and acid fueled his writing, but piercing insight made his work timeless. A good bit of what he penned applies to the 2016 contest shaping up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Imagine how Thompson would have skewered Hillary and The Donald! After all, Thompson could call Hubert Humphrey, a good man who got caught up in a bad war, “a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current.”

As we watch with dismay the bitter, riot-inducing, slash-and-burn politics of 2016, fear and loathing is returning with a vengeance.

We’re left to our own devices to project this autumn’s gathering storm. The full picture is unknown as May dawns. Impressive as Bernie Sanders’ insurgency has been, the nomination will belong to Hillary Clinton — assuming the FBI doesn’t intervene. But will Sanders’ passionate troops ever embrace and work for a conventional politician many have grown to dislike intensely? With sky-high unfavorable ratings that aren’t all that much better than Trump’s, how can Clinton turn around a public that clearly dislikes and mistrusts her? Her minimal political skills and inability to inspire voters contrast sharply with Trump’s nerve and verve. As controversial as he is, few presidential candidates have equaled Trump’s fire on the stump. His millions of ardent followers have practically created a cult.

After months of obsessing over the delegate math, Ted Cruz’s exit from the race has rendered the calculations moot. John Kasich remains in the race, but he’s a minor candidate at this point. However, Trump starts the general election race in a precarious position. How will Trump reconcile the rest of the party to his leadership? The early signs are ominous. The Republican Party’s intellectual core is mainly irretrievably hostile; some (such as widely-read columnist George Will) have called for an active conservative effort to produce a 50-state defeat for Trump.

A handful of elected officials have come aboard the Trump bandwagon, but mainly there is public silence and private anguish. Perhaps that changes now that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has declared Trump the presumptive nominee and the #NeverTrump movement finds itself without a plausible opponent for Trump in the GOP primary. Still, major corporations that usually spend lavishly on conventions, and scores of senior politicians sharing a ballot with Trump, may avoid Cleveland altogether.

Another key unknown is whether the universe of candidates expands. Will a “real Republican” ticket file to give disillusioned conservatives the incentive to vote — and thus possibly save a GOP Senate and House, because they will join most of Trump’s voters in backing down-ballot Republicans? Will the Libertarian, Constitution, and Green parties find a way to take advantage of the major-party turmoil to expand their turf? Could this splintering produce a plurality president with well under 50% support in the electorate — or even, as improbable as it seems now, throw the election into the House of Representatives? We would bet against it, but months ago we couldn’t fathom that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee.

Our views on the Electoral College outcome of a Clinton-Trump match-up haven’t changed since we published our “Trumpmare” map a month ago. If anything, we wonder whether our total of 347 EVs for Clinton to 191 EVs for Trump is too generous to the GOP.

Still, party polarization will probably help Trump. In the end, millions of Republicans will hold their nose and vote against Hillary and for Trump, just as millions of Democrats will put aside their hesitations about Clinton to stop Trump. Negative partisanship — casting a ballot mainly against the other party’s nominee rather than for your party’s candidate — will be all the rage in November. This will be especially likely after the vicious scorched-earth campaign on both sides that is coming. Someone could make a fortune at polling places selling clothespins for the nostrils.

However, we do recognize at least some upset potential in Trump. Third terms for the White House party are difficult to secure. President Obama is, more or less, at 50% job approval — pretty good, in fact, for this president. But an unexpected economic plunge, major terrorist success, international crisis, or serious scandal could subtract critical percentage points from Clinton. Voters are not inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, so intertwined is her fate with Obama’s, and so fixed is her scarred image after decades in the hothouse of politics.

Just as important, Clinton can lose if she and her team smugly take victory for granted. You are halfway to losing when you think you can’t lose. Students of President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against the doomed Barry Goldwater recognize that LBJ wouldn’t let his lieutenants rest on favorable polls; he ran a superb if brutal effort against Goldwater, and never let up. Much the same was true for President Richard Nixon in 1972. While he and his team schemed to insure George McGovern became his opponent, using dirty tricks against some of McGovern’s Democratic foes, Nixon had tasted defeat and near-defeat too often in his career to rest easy for even a day. Will overconfidence generated by favorable surveys cripple the Clinton campaign?

Trump has forced the political world to ingest a sizable dose of humility. Even many of political science’s much-vaunted statistical models that attempt to predict election results cannot account for a candidate like Trump — either because he overrides or suspends some of the normal “rules” of politics, or because he proves that parties do not always nominate electable candidates.

The stakes are high in any presidential election, but for once, that old standby, “this is the most important election of our lifetime” may actually be true. In addition to the candidates’ dramatically different visions of foreign, domestic, economic, and social policies, the future of the Supreme Court is on the line — and maybe the shape or very existence of the Republican Party as well. Given the mood of Americans, one song with no chance of a comeback in 2016 is Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Back to the future with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: “Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?” Mr. Thompson, we’re about to find out.