By Jay Wrolstad
The rollicking, sometimes raucous 2016 presidential campaign rolls into New York State in the coming weeks, giving voters here and throughout the state a chance to weigh in on who will be the Democratic and Republican nominees in November.
The consensus among those in our area watching the presidential primaries closely is that this year’s run-up to the general election is unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory. There’s more anger, more bluster and more candidates vying for voters’ support.
“A couple of trends have emerged in this year’s presidential campaign. The U.S. economy is moving in way that has hollowed out the middle class and blue-collar working class. More Americans are experiencing job insecurity, income insecurity than was the case about 15 years ago,” says Robert C. Hockett, Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell University and a political consultant.
“Many Americans now feel something is fundamentally wrong with government, so a candidate who speaks to fundamentals is bound to be more appealing than a candidate who promises more of the same. What’s interesting is that we have two candidates who do not promise more of the same—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—and there is some overlap in their appeal,” notes Hockett, a financial adviser for the Sanders campaign. “If you are more hopeful than scared, you will go with Sanders; if you are more scared than hopeful, you will go with Trump.
Another trend cited by Hocett is that many people are tired of, and suspicious of, clichés in politics. “They don’t trust people who traffic in familiar slogans, and they have lost their patience with politicians.” He suggests that Trump and Sanders are both more unpolished, less likely to use sound bytes to deliver their messages.
“I think of Bernie and the Donald as ‘garage band’ politicians; do-it-yourself types that are more appealing because they have that aura of authenticity,” says Hockett. But the differences in personality are striking, he adds. “I can’t think of another candidate who is as demagogic, as self-absorbed as Trump. There is no parallel with any U.S. politician in our recent history.”
He notes that current polling data show that Sanders beats Trump head-to-head by a greater margin than Clinton beats Trump, and that there is so much overlap in appeal that Sanders could attract some Trump supporters.
“It certainly looks like Trump will get the nomination, but the wild card is that the Republican establishment is terrified of Trump, and they could engineer a different result at the convention. I can imagine Trump as a third-party candidate if he does not get the nomination,” Hockett says. “And if there is a coup by the establishment, so many people will defect that it will be a smaller party.”
Given the high unfavorable ratings for both frontrunners, if it comes down to Clinton vs. Trump in November, there may well be many people who will hold their noses and vote for Clinton because she’s not Trump, and those who will vote for Trump because he’s not Clinton, says Hockett.
Local party officials, representing both sides of the aisle, also recognize the extraordinary circumstances of this year’s presidential campaign, but with different perspectives.
“In the 35 years I have been involved in politics, this is the most unusual election cycle I’ve ever seen,” Tompkins County Republican Chairman Jamie Drader says. “Republicans had 17 candidates when the campaign started, which, in conjunction with the seven years of the Obama administration’s failed policies, has pushed many members of the party to support “outsiders” and become more vocal in their demands for change.”
Tompkins County Democratic Committee Chair Irene W. Stein suggests that Sanders and Trump, as non-establishment candidates, are doing well in the primaries “because they are tapping into strong feelings among people who have been hurt by the recession and have not rebounded. That’s more the case with Trump than Sanders; Trump supporters are also upset about the changes in demographics in the U.S. and social issues such as gay marriage.”
This campaign sends a message that the party establishment must change—perhaps more in the Democratic party, Stein says. “There is disarray in the Republican party, the choice of candidates shows a strong revolt against the establishment system.”
Trump is a representative of the anger and frustration among those who feel they are not being heard, Stein says. “His inappropriate behavior attracts attention, but I believe he is a weak candidate. Democrats are more in touch with the needs of the public, and I expect them to do well in November.”
Drader counters that the GOP candidates have proposed better policies than those pursued by Obama and the Democratic candidates this year. “Both Trump and Cruz have good qualities. They can turn around the economy, and they won’t be the chief apologist for our country, unlike the current president, who does a lot of apologizing for America.”
Republicans would be well served to come together behind one candidate before gathering in Cleveland this summer, Drader says. “I want a unified party before the convention. It could be a contested convention, which is not good for the party, but all of the candidates have said they will support whoever gets the nomination,” he says. “I don’t think the Republican establishment should count out Trump. We need to go to the convention with a clear winner.”
Eight years ago in the New York primary, Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in Tompkins County—the only county in the state where he won. Stein says that could happen again with Sanders getting the nod over Clinton. “I think he has the advantage here, people are leaning that way, but the Clinton campaign is working hard here,” she says. “But remember, these are primaries and the results do not necessarily reflect the number of people who will vote in the general election, or who they will vote for.”
The New York State presidential primary election will be held on Tuesday, April 19. Sample ballots can be viewed at www.votetompkins.com.
By Jay Wrolstad