SHU professor interprets presidential election
WESTPORT — When Sacred Heart University professor Gary L. Rose spoke in town last fall, he outlined Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s near-sure path to the presidency, noting she was spending double her opponent. But back in town last Friday, the political science expert said he was among those “very surprised by the results, to put it mildly.”
Rose returned to the Westport Center for Senior Activities on Nov. 18 to discuss “The 2016 Presidential Election: What Happened and Why?” before a packed room of more than 70, explaining how President-elect Donald J. Trump managed a shocking election night win to take the presidency.
Rose said a few factors primarily explain the results: Two-thirds of people wanted change; Trump’s campaign used micro-targeting effectively in the Rust Belt, as well as social media; a populist uprising played out against the established order; white voters without college educations shifted further into the Republican camp; and the voters that united for President Barack Obama did not align as Democrats hoped.
“The Obama coalition didn’t crumble, but it didn’t produce the way that Hillary thought it would,” he said.
Displaying turnout data for 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, Rose pointed out 69.5 million Democrats voted in 2008, compared to 59.9 million Republicans. In 2016, the figures dropped to 59.9 million Democrats and 59.6 million Republicans.
“The problem is that a lot of Democrats decided not to vote,” he said. “When it all shook out in the end, we noticed that a lot of Democrats chose not to participate.”
Of the Democratic voters, 89 percent chose Clinton, while 90 percent of Republicans cast their ballots for Trump, busting the idea before the election that many Republicans would abandon the party’s nominee.
“Well, they came home,” Rose said. “That’s what happens on Election Day; voters come home.”
The professor highlighted demographic shifts between the Obama-Romney contest and this year’s race. In particular, the women’s vote did not shift heavily to Clinton, an expectation that was among elements that had made her election seem likely when Rose spoke last fall.
“That’s a shocker to me,” he said. “Because that was supposed to be her avenue to the presidency.”
But the most significant demographic shift was the 11-point decline in white noncollege-educated voters choosing the Democratic nominee from Obama to Clinton. The shift of those voters toward the Republican Party was in play before the election, but it accelerated with a large boost in the election for Trump, according to Rose.
The country has all forms of division, “but there’s a new division that’s emerging,” he said, referencing the “diploma divide” between voters with and without a college education. The division has led to a realignment that is “changing the face of our parties,” Rose said.
Trump, for his part, spent significant campaign focus on the Rust Belt voters, Rose said, reaching voters that felt left behind by the global economy and targeting them effectively, in particular through a micro-targeting effort by his campaign. While Clinton had a bigger ground game, Trump outpaced her in social media followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well, Rose said.
The Republican nominee was ultimately able to penetrate the “blue wall” of states expected to hand Clinton nearly 270 electoral college votes and a “fairly easy path” to the presidency. But Trump flipped states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that were traditionally blue as few predicted, Rose said.
The movement, the past
For Rose, what swept Trump into power was a movement, rather than an established political party coming to power. What the U.S. experienced during the election, he said, was a populist uprising against a political, economic and social system perceived as unrepresentative of the working class and their needs.
Going into the Nov. 8 election, two-thirds of Americans polled said the nation was on the wrong track, and with that much dissatisfaction, Rose said, more should have perhaps expected the results — even despite polls.
Rose called Trump’s win somewhat reminiscent of the Jacksonian Revolution of the 1820s and 1830s. In both cases, he said, the established order was challenged and an outsider rose into office.
All presidents before Andrew Jackson were East Coasters with impressive resumes. The seventh U.S. president was seen as a Tennessee outsider and “rabble rouser” with a volatile temperament. On occasion, Rose said, voters do rise up against the political establishment.
“Hillary Clinton was a symbol of the political establishment, and right now the establishment is not looked upon positively in this country,” he said, calling Trump the “polar opposite” of all Clinton symbolized.
Providing several other examples, Rose said the country has had a “strain of anti-establishment politics” that periodically flares up and affects national sentiment.
While Trump’s victory bucked every major prognostic and poll, two professors got it right, Rose noted. Both longtime election forecasters, the academics used their own special formulas, spurning polls, and each predicted the outcome correctly.
Trump in office
“I think he was as surprised as many of us,” Rose said of Trump’s win.
For what his election will mean, he added, the first hundred days will be telling, naming the period generally taken as the measure of how a president will govern. Rose foresees tax and immigration reform, infrastructure improvement, some movement on foreign trade and elements — though not the whole — of Obamacare being cut, in the first 100 days.
The professor expects big initial changes, and cited a possible comparison in action to FDR’s active first hundred days in office in 1933.
While the political state is lined up in favor of Trump to take action, with Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, one element is not on the president-elect’s side, according to Rose.
“That is, our nation’s broken in half,” he said. “The biggest challenge for him — and I don’t know if he can do it — but the biggest challenge, which is really something a president’s supposed to do, is to bring the American people together.”
In the Cabinet, Rose said, getting rid of anyone considered part of the establishment would not be possible, but he expects a mix of insiders and outsiders. Rose said Trump’s “kitchen cabinet,” a president’s informal advisers, already seems it will involve his children in key roles.
For the Democrats moving forward, “the field has been cleared,” Rose said, and who will emerge as leaders of the party remains to be seen.
In nonpresidential races, predictions for Democratic candidates being swept into office with a Clinton win did not play out. While Democrats flipped a few seats in the House and Senate, Republicans still hold the majorities in each chamber.
Rose pointed out, as Republicans hold the majority of governorships following the election, 26 states have Republican “trifectas,” with leadership and both chambers of their state Legislatures controlled by the party. Conversely, Connecticut is one of just six states with a Democratic “trifecta.”
“The Republican Party is in really good shape to govern, if you just want to go with sheer numbers,” he said.
But Connecticut tells a different story, Rose said.
“It’s not even a contest anymore, in terms of fundraising and in terms of results,” he said.
Rose called an opponent running against U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a “sacrificial lamb,” and said congressional races in the state “are simply now noncompetitive.”
Republicans did gain a tie in the state Senate, though the Democratic lieutenant governor presides with a tie-breaking vote. The party made modest gains in the Democrat-controlled state House.
In response to a question from state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28, on Trump’s effect on the state, Rose said he does not see Connecticut on the newly elected Republican’s agenda as a priority state.
“It’s kind of to the victor go the spoils,” Rose said.
Rose is chairman of the Department of Government, Politics and Global Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, and is working on a book about the election.