We are on the verge of a truly historic presidential contest. The media are caught up in the fact that a major political party has nominated a woman. And, in fairness, I am too. But what’s truly historic – in the sense that you have to reach back into history to find an appropriate analogy – is the fact that Republicans have nominated an individual whose views on race are about as advanced as those of the father in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
What the primaries have taught us about the electorate is that it is angry, it isn’t openly thrilled with the establishment, and it is voting in big numbers. The question in the presidential election is whether some of the advantages the Republicans may have in these factors are enough to overcome the racist, xenophobic, sexist and, frankly, un-American rhetoric from their party’s nominee.
Speaking of what the primaries have taught us, there are elements that we are going to have to un-learn in order to see the big picture for what it is.
There is a common refrain that while Donald Trump makes nonstop incendiary, obnoxious comments, he gets away with it. But the truth is, he isn’t exactly getting away with anything. Most voters do not like him; many hate him. His words have made him one of the most unpopular nominees in history and a true danger to Republicans who will appear on ballots below his name. But, you’re probably thinking, “Hillary Clinton is unpopular too!” We’ll get to that later.
New polling suggests that the race is tied. And it seems Trump is on a path to increasing his support. Given voters’ anger at a political system they feel has left them behind, one can see the appeal of a candidate who wants to tear it apart.
Even though the race is in a tie nationally and in some key states, keep in mind that polling right now does not take into account the consolidation of Democratic support that will happen as Bernie Sanders recedes into the background and President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren all work to unite the Democratic Party behind Clinton and in opposition to Trump.
As for Clinton’s low approval rating, I think it’s probably artificially low considering the intensity of the primaries and the antipathy Sanders supporters had for her.
Watch for her overall support to rise in coming weeks. But Trump has no more natural consolidation to push his numbers up in the same way. To the extent that there is a path for him to get more support, Trump is squandering it with comments about Latinos in general and Judge Gonzalo Curiel in particular. Trump would probably say he couldn’t get fair treatment from a judge who was Muslim, as well.
The one caveat I have is that an analysis of the voting patterns in the primaries and caucuses suggest that Sanders won white, non-college-educated voters everywhere except for the Deep South and Ohio. Those voters represent a chance for Trump to pick up more supporters. While it may be hard to believe that a Democrat of any stripe could consider voting for Trump, the people voting for Sanders weren’t necessarily doing it as a part of their fealty to the party – in many cases, it was the exact opposite.
In down-ballot races, Trump is creating problems big enough that some Republican leaders in Congress are doing their best to pretend to have nothing to do with the presidential candidate they support.
And though there are openings in Congress, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Democrats have a tall order to fill in making gains in the House. Republicans control almost all of the congressional districts that Mitt Romney won in 2012 and many that Obama won as well. In districts where Republican candidates and members of Congress have endorsed Trump, as Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and Reps. David Valadao and Jeff Denham have done in California, they are going to have to answer for the man they want to make commander in chief.
That certainly had to be on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s mind when he called the rhetoric from the presidential candidate he supports “textbook racism.” I believe that Ryan abhors those comments as much as any decent American, but that’s not to say there isn’t real political strategy as some Republicans try to distance themselves from their candidate’s words, even though they continue to support him to be president.
There are a lot of ways to make the argument against Trump and those who support him. But when I think of the campaign against him, I think it’s an emotional one. Those cynical political consultants (ahem) have already sliced this electorate up by race, gender, income and education levels, but the group that I think most about is parents who are watching this race unfold through the eyes of their children.
After years of progress in our country on race, gender, bullying and just basic American decency, is this the person I want setting an example for my children behind a podium with the presidential seal? Is this the man we ought to have at the helm of our Justice Department and military? Is this the person who ought to be picking justices for the Supreme Court of the United States?
Regardless of the demography of the electorate in November, I think those questions are going to make for a difficult time for Trump and Republicans running for office who think he ought to be president.
Bill Burton is California managing director of SKDKnickerbocker in Los Angeles, where he is a political and public affairs consultant. Previously he served as White House deputy press secretary and special assistant to President Barack Obama. Contact Burton at firstname.lastname@example.org.