2016: The year conventional political wisdom was turned upside down

Shred the political playbook. The 2016 campaign will be remembered as the year in which the conventional wisdom was anything but wise. Most political pundits have been wrong. And almost every assumption about presidential campaigns since the birth of modern politics in 1960 with the first televised debate and widespread use of TV advertising has been debunked. Our political catechism has been upended. Consider the following:

1. Money trumps all (pun intended).

When the Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United case that corporations were people and therefore could spend unlimited amounts of money, in some instances, without disclosure, on political campaigns, Democrats and other critics warned that democracy was now for sale, that the candidate who raised the most money would invariably prevail over less well-funded contenders. Enter Jeb Bush, the Republican Party’s inevitable nominee who raised over $130 million for his campaign and Super Pac even before he formally declared. Eight months later, exit Jeb!, the “low-energy” candidate who, having spent the vast majority of the money he had raised, quit the race, dragging his exclamation point behind him. Donald Trump, by contrast, may be wealthy – just how rich remains in dispute — but he has spent less overall than any other candidate and, because of the non-stop coverage his slurs and antics have received, virtually nothing on tv advertising.  

2. Organization is everything.

Ted Cruz was supposed to win all the early GOP primary contests because of his heavy investment in his “ground game.” But with the exception of Iowa – which he first visited in 2008 only months after being elected a first-term senator from Texas – organization, like money, has meant little this year. Cruz won Iowa thanks to a large evangelical turnout after Trump decided to skip what turned out to be a critical debate days before the nation’s first caucus, but he has steadily faded ever since. Polls suggest that Trump won in Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina with the most modest of campaign ground organizations because of his powerful slogan of American revitalization, because he is seen as a consummate political outsider, a blunt businessman who says what ordinary people think, a problem-solver, and anti-politician, and because of his celebrity status and tempestuous rallies, complete with the by-now almost ritualistic ejection of a protestor. While Trump has repeatedly flown to primary states in his private jet, he rarely spends a night outside his baronial residence on Fifth Avenue.

3. Endorsements matter.

Apparently not this year. Almost no establishment politician endorsed Trump during his first three primaries. The only other celebrity politician who rallied to Trump’s side was Sarah Palin, whose rambling, incoherent 45-minute endorsement prior to the Iowa caucus, if anything, may have cost him votes there. Marco Rubio, the candidate who has garnered the most endorsements, has yet to win a primary and is unlikely to do so, despite his growing support from a still reeling Republican “establishment.”   

4. You can’t run against the media.

Trump has mocked this political platitude, repeatedly. If anything, one of the bumptious billionaire’s most reliable applause lines is his frequent declaration that the media are “terrible,” “among the most dishonest groups of people” he’s ever met.  Apparently his rivals have gotten the message. During the recent Republican debate before super-Tuesday, every candidate except John Kasich, who is running a poor fifth except in his home state of Ohio, attacked the press.

5. A candidate can’t prevail with high negatives.

Quite the contrary. In 2016, no candidate seems to be able to win without high negatives, given America’s deep political polarization. The nation’s bitter frustration seems to require candidates to make increasingly stark, even extreme appeals. The GOP field has no shortage of candidates with high positive ratings, especially Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, neither of whom has carried a single state primary or caucus. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has far higher favorable ratings than Hillary Clinton, who is widely viewed by potential voters of most ages, ethnicities and genders as “untrustworthy” and perhaps even “dishonest” in poll after poll. Yet Mrs. Clinton got 73.5 percent of the Democratic vote in the South Carolina on Saturday.

Many Trump critics continue to assert that he will ultimately stumble because no candidate can win his party’s nomination, or be elected to the nation’s highest office, without substantial prior political experience. While the 2008 election of a junior senator from Illinois whose resume featured only a brief stint as a community organizer began to challenge that political bromide, the crucial primaries on March 1st and March 15th will be the ultimate referee.  

Given the pundits’ predictive record so far, a degree of humility is in order. Trump, only once the “unthinkable,” may soon become “inevitable.” For better or worse, the 2016 race is anything but politics as usual.    

Douglas E. Schoen has served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton. He has more than 30 years experience as a pollster and political consultant. He is also a Fox News contributor and co-host of “Fox News Insiders” Sundays on Fox News Channel at 7 pm ET. He is the author of 11 books. His latest, co-authored with Malik Kaylan is “The Russia-China Axis: The New Cold War and America’s Crisis of Leadership (Encounter Books, September 2014). Follow Doug on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.

Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning writer and author, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She spent 85 days in jail in the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia in 2005 to protect confidential sources. 

comments powered by Disqus