A Framework for Chaos:
Dynamics of the 2016 Federal and
State Elections

Amy Walter, National Editor of The Cook Political Report, quipped that this was the year of “The Dramamine® Election,” as candidates surge up and down in the polls. She strove to identify meaningful trends in the campaigning and potential impacts on the States.

She introduced her comments with praise and appreciation for the difficult work undertaken by Senate Presidents. “Many Americans today view the political process and politicians as self-absorbed and self-serving. But I know you are good people trying to do good things, and I appreciate all that Senate Presidents contribute,” Ms. Walter said. Recognizing the sacrifices required to run and to serve, Ms. Walter, who interviews about 200 candidates each year, asks them why they face the conflicts and challenges of running for office. “The most frequent response is, ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’ Like you, they feel a responsibility to give back,” Ms. Walter noted.

The Dramamine Election

Swings in the polls have candidates bouncing up and down as the mood of the country ricochets in polarizing directions, leading to nausea all around, Ms. Walter observed. Both candidates are historically unpopular, which adds to the queasiness. “In focus groups, people asked to describe the ‘scent of this election,’ responded with ‘the smell of garbage, rotting flesh, or skunk farts,’” Ms. Walter reported.

Voter mood also seems to bounce up and down. At the start of the campaign, it seemed voters were ripe for change. The economy is stalled, there is deep frustration with institutions, and both the police and organized religion receive their lowest ratings, Ms. Walter reported. In May 2016, pollsters found that 53% of voters preferred a major change, even if it was not defined (favoring Mr. Donald Trump) over a steady approach (favoring Sen. Hillary Clinton). By August, the position switched with Sen. Clinton’s steady approach garnering a 3-point lead in the polls. As events unfold, the candidates continue to seesaw in the polls.

The Trump Campaign

The impression that Americans are angry, ready to lash out, and willing to start from scratch with a new government is not borne out in research, Ms. Walter reported. According to Pew Research polls, Americans, in general, are not any angrier. Only Mr. Trump’s supporters are angry.

Mr. Trump’s success, to date, can be attributed to several factors. First, non-college, white, working-class voters facing economic anxiety embrace Mr. Trump’s populist message. The system is not working for them, and hate is a strong driver. Second, the fact that the Republican Party is factionalized over economics and in-fighting is keeping them from getting organized. Finally, there is a deep dislike from the Republican base for its own leaders, whom they perceive as having compromised too much with President Barack Obama’s policies.

Changing Demographics

“Mr. Trump represents the mood, but not the makeup of the electorate,” Ms. Walter observed. Mr. Trump’s appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate may not be enough to win a majority victory in the Electoral College. In 1980, 88% of the electorate was white; by 2012, whites represented 72%; and, in 2016, whites will be only 70% of the electorate. Republicans continue to appeal to the same people—older white males. Republicans, including Mr. Trump, have not communicated with a tone or a message that is acceptable to the new American voters, including women, non-white and younger voters.

Educational demographics also have changed. Mr. Trump’s message resonates with non-college educated white voters, but this group is shrinking and now represents only 36% of the electorate. In contrast, the number of college-educated white voters has grown to 36% of the electorate, and polls show them favoring Sen. Clinton.

The Clinton Campaign

Given these changing demographics, why isn’t Sen. Clinton crushing Mr. Trump in the polls? Ms. Walter queried. One reason she cited is that Sen. Clinton represents the status quo. She moves against the “mood for change” and typifies steadiness. Also, Sen. Clinton has made the race a referendum on Mr. Trump’s fitness to serve, rather than on policy. Her campaign slogan of “Stronger Together” points a damning finger at the divisive racial, ethnic, and religious positions espoused by Mr. Trump. “But voters want to know what Sen. Clinton’s ‘Stronger Together’ means for them. Will it put food on the table? Make college more affordable? Get me a job?” In addition, the media attention garnered by Sen. Clinton focuses on bad news such as the email scandal and questions about the Clinton Foundation.

Down to the Wire

Historically, the candidate who is ahead in the polls 2 weeks before the election wins. It takes 270 electoral college votes to win. Sen. Clinton currently has 273 electoral votes to Mr. Trump’s 191. Five states are a toss-up between the candidates, including Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, and Nevada.

There are 12 paths by which Sen. Clinton could win the election. The easiest path for her is to win Florida, which would give her enough electoral college votes. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has only 3 paths to winning and must win both Florida and Pennsylvania to succeed.

 Electoral College Projection

As of 10/6/16.

The Federal Races

In US Senate races, Democrats have the advantage as they are playing offense in 8 states that were carried by President Obama. In recent elections, fewer voters have split the ticket. In 2012, split tickets counted for only 19% of Senate votes and 6% of House votes. “How the State goes for President, so goes the Senate,” Ms. Walter said.

However, the traditional halo or drag from a Presidential candidate down to State-level candidates is not apparent in this election. Voters are distinguishing between Mr. Trump and being “Republican.” Because of his policies and conflicts with fellow Republicans, Mr. Trump is not perceived as a Republican standard bearer. House and Senate Republican candidates are outperforming Mr. Trump is some states.

Who you prefer is affected by where you live. Traditionally Democratic blue-collar districts are flirting with Mr. Trump, while moderately upscale urban college-educated districts favor Sen. Clinton.

Senate and House candidates are distancing themselves from the top of the ticket and pursuing hyper-local campaigns. Their ads focus on what they have achieved for local people. The message is about what can get done in the US Congress to help families get medical care, education, and jobs.

Ms. Walter noted that Congressional districting has disadvantaged Democrats who will need a big sweep of 10 or 11 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives. Her prediction is that a Democratic Senate and a Republican House are likely to be elected, which sets the stage for even more gridlock.

Concluding Remarks

We have a polarized electorate, Ms. Walter observed. The election has highlighted two different Americas divided by race, gender, and education/class. This has been an issueless campaign, fought on personality, not policy. The voters do not agree on what the problems are, much less the solutions. Some 66% of Mr. Trump’s supporters say immigration is a key issue, while only 17% of Sen. Clinton’s supporters agree. About 70% of Sen. Clinton’s supporters identify the gap between rich and poor as a key issue, while only 30% of Mr. Trump’s supporters express concern about this issue. Mr. Trump’s supporters are adamant that terrorism is a key challenge, but not Sen. Clinton’s supporters.

Ms. Walter concluded that “This election marks the start of greater upheaval due to frustration over globalization and economic competitiveness, rapid cultural and technological changes, and an underlying belief that traditional establishment institutions have let us down.” If Congress becomes even more gridlocked, no problems will be solved and the desire for disruptive change will increase. “Buckle up for a time of great disruption,” Ms. Walter concluded.

Discussion

Tom Finneran: Sen. Clinton has been criticized for her opposition to the burning of coal. How will that affect voting in coal-producing States like Pennsylvania or Ohio.

Ms. Walter: Voters’ attitudes toward the coal issue depend on where they live. In the Ohio or Pennsylvania coal belt, people will oppose her position. But the largest percentage of the electorate lives in the urban areas such as Columbus, Ohio or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and they are either anti-coal or disinterested.

Sen. John Cullerton (IL): The electorate is now 52% to 53% female. Will gender be an advantage for the Clinton campaign?

Ms. Walter: Women make up a larger percentage of the Democratic Party, and women over 45 are strongly pro-Clinton. But it’s not clear if this preference is because she is a woman or because of her policies. Women are divided about the importance of electing the first woman President. Sen. Clinton is not a blank slate, she comes with more than 25 years of history. This is a challenge for some voters who feel she does not connect with them and their lives. Her campaign has not connected policy with personal impacts. Still, when pollsters ask, “Which candidate looks out for people like you?” Sen. Clinton is preferred over Mr. Trump.

Sen. David Givens (KY): Will passion and emotion overcome reason and logic in this election? If ISIS or North Korea takes an offensive action or a natural disaster strikes before the election, would these events affect the outcome?

Ms. Walter: There is great volatility in our world today. A major event would have a big effect on the election. There would be tremendous pressure on Mr. Trump to appear presidential in his response, and the Clinton campaign could make him look unacceptable. Sen. Clinton might be perceived as a better Commander-in-Chief in the face of a major terrorist or disaster event. Meanwhile, voters prefer Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on the economy about reining in Wall Street and shaking up the system; but his campaign platform does not include specific economic policies. Still, an economic disaster could benefit the Trump campaign. How the candidates react to any emergency will be a decisive factor.

The 90 minutes of the first Presidential debate on September 26 are critical for Mr. Trump. He must change the impression that he is unreliable, or Sen. Clinton will win. With today’s 24-hour news coverage and instant Internet communication, it is harder to change perceptions.

Sen. Bob Peterson (OH): The big question is “Who will actually show up and vote?” People are tired of both candidates, and this could depress the turnout.

Ms. Walter: Who will vote is definitely the billion-dollar question, and no one has a good answer.

The biggest predictor of voting behavior is whether you voted in the past. Targeting non-voters takes a lot of money and energy. It is costly to find non-voters. President Obama had 4 years to get out the black vote, and the Clinton campaign still has that infrastructure and intelligence in place. Focus groups find that African-American voters hate Mr. Trump and say he is a racist. But they also do not fully embrace Sen. Clinton.

We can’t predict who will turn out to vote, but early voting can predict the outcome. Ohio and Pennsylvania are key States, and a change in the number of African-American voters or white non-college voters who come out to vote could change the outcome.

Sen. Wayne Niederhauser (UT): How accurate are the polls?  In local elections, we found that people did not tell pollsters the truth. In Utah polls, Mr. Trump comes in last, but perhaps people won’t admit that they plan to vote for him.

Ms. Walter: Pollsters try to root out the false answers and find other ways to get to the truth. Socially unacceptable issues affect the polling outcomes. Some urban male voters will not admit to voting for Sen. Clinton, while white-collar voters might conceal their preference for Mr. Trump. There is the risk of scorn in social settings based on whom you endorse.

Partisanship is the biggest driver. Red and blue tribalism is stronger than ever. The outcomes could be affected based on the Hispanic and African-American voter turnout.

Sen. David Long (IN): The media coverage on allegations about Sen. Clinton’s email and the Clinton Foundation created an effective scenario that could be damaging to her. Meanwhile, accusations that Mr. Trump is allied with the Russians raise questions about his campaign. The problem is there’s no proof. If there were hard evidence for any of these allegations, would this be a game changer?

Ms. Walter: Most people already have decided what they believe about the candidates and their perceptions will not change, barring some dramatic revelation. The polls bounce up and down based on today’s spotlight. The candidates’ margins change from day to day, but they have never flipped.

Speaker Biography

Amy Walter

Over the past 14 years, Amy Walter has built a reputation as an accurate, objective, and insightful political analyst with unparalleled access to campaign insiders and decision-makers. Known as one of the best political journalists covering Washington, she is the national editor of the Cook Political Report and the former political director of ABC News. From 1997–2007, Walter served as senior editor of the Cook Political Report. She is a regular panelist on NBC’s Meet the Press, PBS’ Washington Week with Gwen Ifill, and Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier, and can also be seen on Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday. She provides political analysis every Monday evening for the PBS NewsHour.

In her presentations, Walter speaks with aplomb about the electoral process, congressional culture, and the Washington political scene. Her astuteness, wit, and range of expertise create an engaging, compelling presentation, and her reliable and accurate analysis has earned her numerous accolades. Exclusively represented by Leading Authorities speakers bureau, Amy Walter takes audiences on an insider’s tour of Washington through the eyes of the woman with her finger on the pulse of politics.

Political History. While at ABC, Walter oversaw the organization’s political coverage – including the daily political tip sheet The Note, guided the editorial content of all political news, and provided on air analysis. She co-hosted 2012 election night coverage for the Yahoo!-ABC News Network with Good Morning America weekend anchor Dan Harris. She and Harris also anchored the live-streamed coverage for the presidential and vice presidential debates. Before ABC, she was the editor-in-chief of The Hotline, Washington’s premier daily briefing on American politics. There she served as the political publication’s primary voice for three years, and she provided regular analysis of the national political environment in her weekly National Journal column, On the Trail.

Walter has provided election night coverage and analysis since 1998 and was a member of CNN’s Emmy-award winning election night team in 2006. She has also been a regular contributor to PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and has provided political analysis on virtually every major political program on television.

Accolades and Education. Named one of the “Top 50 Journalists” by Washingtonian Magazine, Walter was dubbed one of the most powerful people in politics in George Magazine for her insights into the mechanics that make the political machine run. She also won the Washington Post’s Crystal Ball Award for her spot-on election predictions and has been frequently quoted as a congressional election expert in newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the New York Times. Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, said, “Today, her work is trusted and respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. She knows how to get beyond bluster and spin to unearth – and explain – what really matters in a political arena. And, she has a proven track record of success, which is essential for those whose jobs depend on accurate political forecasting.”

Walter graduated summa cum laude from Colby College and serves as a member of its Board of Trustees. She was also a fellow in the fall of 2013 at the University of Chicago’s institute of politics.

Other Fall 2016 Forum Highlights articles:

Amy Walter

National Editor

The Cook Political Report

Swings in the polls have candidates bouncing up and down as the mood of the country ricochets in polarizing directions, leading to nausea all around.

Non-college, white, working-class voters facing economic anxiety embrace Mr. Trump’s populist message. The system is not working for them, and hate is a strong driver.

Republicans, including
Mr. Trump, have not communicated with a tone
or a message that is acceptable to the new American voters, including women, non-white and younger voters.

Voters want to know what Sen. Clinton’s ‘Stronger Together’ means for them. Will it put food on the table? Make college more affordable? Get me a job?

Senate and House candidates are distancing themselves from the top of the ticket and pursuing hyper-local campaigns.

This election marks the start of greater upheaval due to frustration over globalization and economic competitiveness, rapid cultural and technological changes, and an underlying belief that traditional establishment institutions have let us down.

Sen. John Cullerton

Sen. David Givens

How the candidates react to any emergency will be a decisive factor.

Sen. Wayne Niederhauser

Sen. David Long

Partisanship is the biggest driver. Red and blue tribalism is stronger than ever. The outcomes could be affected based on the Hispanic and African-American voter turnout.

The polls bounce up and down based on today’s spotlight. The candidates’ margins change from day to day, but they have never flipped.

Amy Walter

National Editor

The Cook Political Report

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