Half of America Is About to Get Gut-Punched
No matter what happens on Election Day, tens of millions of Americans are going feel like they got punched in the gut.
Democratic Hillary Clinton supporters, while congenitally skittish, are incredulous that an immigrant-bashing, misogynistic blowhard could even make this presidential race competitive, and are taking to the bank the poll lead Clinton has held essentially all year.
Republican Donald Trump’s superfans, while convinced everything is rigged, found new optimism in the wake of the FBI’s review of Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s emails found on Anthony Weiner’s computer and the subsequent smattering of tighter polls. (Comey popped the balloon on the GOP's hopes of finding a smoking gun Sunday when he told lawmakers in a letter that, based on the new review, “we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton.” But Trump voters may still conclude that Americans are more primed than ever to imprison Clinton instead of elect her.) The Trump campaign had been feeding the optimism by stumping in blue states like Michigan and Minnesota where the GOP nominee has never held a lead. They believe America is on the verge of a “Brexit” moment, in which a silent nationalist majority outperforms the polls and humiliates the Establishment.
The two groups live in different worlds -- if not geographically then online. But by Wednesday morning, someone’s worldview will be shattered beyond recognition.
Certainly mine would if Trump won. I’ve argued in this space that he had a ceiling of about 45 percent support, constrained by his heavy reliance on white working-class voters at the expense of nonwhite and college-educated white voters (and he still has not cleared 45, though he’s now right around that point in the RealClearPolitics two-way race average.) I’ve said he’s sabotaged himself by failing to build a robust warchest and voter-turnout infrastructure. I’ve noted that late comebacks are exceedingly rare in presidential politics, while Clinton essentially has led wire-to-wire. Moreover, the incumbent president’s approval rating is healthy, gross domestic product is up, wages are up and job growth has been steady. For Trump to win despite all of these factors would negate everything I thought I learned about politics in my adult life.
But I’ve been politically punched in the gut before. In 2004, I was convinced Sen. John Kerry was going to win because President George W. Bush’s level of support was below 50 percent in the polls, and many assumed that was ominous for the incumbent because undecided voters tend to break for the challenger. Besides, Bush didn’t win the popular vote the first time and Iraq War was a mess. How could he win more votes than before?
I did not factor in that 2004 economic growth had been solid, buoying the incumbent, and Democratic credibility on national security was weak, mitigating the political impact of Iraq. (While exit polls showed 52 percent of voters thought Iraq was “going badly,” Bush picked up nearly one out of every five of those voters.) My biases took a beating that long election night, made all the more painful by misplaced faith in Ohio exit poll numbers showing Kerry with the edge.
Democratic despair ran deep in the aftermath. “The Democratic Party really is at a precarious moment,” Democratic campaign guru James Carville said 12 days later on “Meet the Press.” “Why Americans Hate Democrats … Depressed liberals analyze what ails them,” headlined Slate. Some presumed social liberalism was the party’s Achilles’ heel, with then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom fingered for sparking conservative backlash after declaring gay marriage legal without state or judicial approval.
Through that soul-searching process came adjustments. Democrats eventually doubled-down on opposition to Iraq but, in 2008 at least, treaded carefully on gay marriage and gun control. And they a found a candidate in Barack Obama more culturally in sync with modern America than the patrician Kerry. Things worked out for them soon enough.
The Democratic shame spiral after a Trump victory would spin a million times faster than what happened 12 years ago. But, on the presumption that I am now wiser than my 2004 self and am taking more factors into account, I suspect it is Trump Nation that will suffer the rude awakening Tuesday night.
The question will then become how do the Trump die-hards react? The assumption has been that they will decree the election rigged and reject Clinton as illegitimate, leading to a period of dangerous instability. I don’t discount the possibility. But Trump himself had moved away from that dark talking point in the wake of the first Comey letter, filling his fans reason to hope and reason to vote.
Most audaciously, his team is claiming their internal polls show a mere three-point gap in Al Franken’s Minnesota, and in turn, they tacked on a late campaign rally there. It’s not unusual for a campaign to make a showy final stop on the other side’s turf; it just doesn’t necessarily work out.
Jimmy Carter ended his 1976 campaign with a last-minute event in Michigan, President Gerald Ford’s home state. And George W. Bush stumped in California during the final days of the 2000 race. (That prompted CNN’s Robert Novak to ask campaign manager Karl Rove three days before the election, “Was this a dangerous gamble you made in going to California and spending money there at the expense of Florida?”)
Carter lost Michigan by five points and Bush lost California by 12. These campaign schedule missteps have been shrugged off by history because each candidate reached the Oval Office anyway.
But, after his relentless boasting, if Trump comes up empty in most of Blue America and doesn’t come close to 270 electoral votes, once-devoted backers might feel like the losers stuck holding the bag at the demise of a pathetic Ponzi scheme. If they conclude they were conned by Trump, instead of cheated by Clinton, their bond with the billionaire could break. And their political worldview could be open to reassessment.
Forward-thinking Republican Party leaders should hope so. They know that the party must reform to win the votes of the more racially diverse young generations, and to recover the college-educated whites they expect to lose on Tuesday. If Trump’s most committed voters remain more interested in raging against the Establishment then winning to get entry into it, then Republicans will have enormous difficulty convincing the base to sacrifice positions – such as building a border wall, banning Muslims from U.S. entry and denying climate science – out of electoral pragmatism.
One thing is for sure. Neither side is going into Election Day expecting to lose. Whichever party ends up being shocked by the results will have a protracted, painful, but perhaps rejuvenating, period of soul-searching ahead.