The Wrong People at the Wrong Time: Why the Clinton-Trump Election Exists
The 2016 election cycle has certainly been unusual. However, to understand what makes this election different, we must first establish what most American elections have in common. Generally, both parties nominate candidates that have prior political experience and are at least relatively popular. Opinion poll analysis blog FiveThirtyEight calculates that no candidate since 1980 has had net favorability ratings worse than -10%, and each candidate tends towards the center of the American political spectrum. Congress remains at moderately popular. These tenets have held true in every recent election; both parties choose a qualified, well-liked, non-radical candidate and the winner is decided by a number of basic factors, such as incumbent popularity or economy. Today, though, the governmental status quo is no longer holding.
The past eight years have taken a sledgehammer to the traditional model. During the Obama presidency, Congress has been uniquely incompetent. Whether actively obstructionist towards President Obama’s platform or unusually gridlocked, Congress has never done less. According to Govtrak, between 1972 and Obama’s election in 2008, the lowest number of bills passed was 337. However, all of the past three Congresses has passed fewer than 300 bills and the current Congress is on pace to pass the fewest ever. This has lead to record disapproval ratings. Gallup has listed the legislature's approval rating at 9% during the Obama administration while, before, it rarely approached a number as low as 30%. This discontent generated anti-government populist movements like the Tea Party that preceded the rise of Trump and left both parties struggling to find their identity. While never particularly well liked, the establishment had always been in control. Now, though, many see it as intolerable. Both parties fractured, most visibly as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a stunning primary to a far-right conservative, the Tea-Party-esque “Freedom Caucus” toppled John Boehner from his role as Speaker of the House, and Bernie Sanders’ populist “revolution” on the left.
Clinton and Trump’s nominations were direct reactions on opposite sides to the obvious division in the populace. Trump emerged from the chaos itself, a deeply divisive figure who stood opposite to the unpopular status quo and captured the deep animus of the country extremely effectively. He won despite deep resistance from his own party’s establishment. Clinton on the other hand was a calculated candidate, selected based on a belief that the aforementioned constant factors of elections would hold up despite the turmoil. She had experience, name recognition, and the full throated support of the Democratic establishment. In essence, she was the safe choice and resisted Bernie Sanders’ attempt to capitalize on the populist surge.
Coupled with the political backdrop, the two candidates have set in motion a distinct election. Most notably, both Clinton and Trump are uniquely unpopular. As mentioned, favorability for a candidate has never dropped below -10%, Clinton blows that mark out of the water at -20% while Trump dwarfs Clinton’s number at a startling -40%. Much of this can be attributed to factors outside of the candidate’s control; the country is divided and government is unpopular. However, that is far from all of it, and a large percentage of the unpopularity is the candidates’ fault. Trump has insisted on racist, xenophobic rhetoric while Clinton has consistently shown herself to be out of touch with the concerns of the populace. We’ve never had a candidate quite like Trump, whose fascist-libertarian rhetoric is founded upon little to no hard policy and, more notably, no political career. The bigger surprise has been Clinton’s stunning ineptitude, which has failed to counter the widespread, and often rightful, American mistrust of her. In essence, both would be exceptionally weak candidates in any other year, with Trump as a fringe outsider, while Clinton is a failed establishment member. The relevance of third parties is a collateral expression of the insanity of the election. In normal elections, they are not serious threats, but with these candidates, they are respected alternatives. The mix of explosive populism with inadequate candidates yielded a terrain American politics has yet to witness. America is coming to grips with the fact that the next president will likely start out less popular than any other in recent memory.