Nov. 10, 2016

Political scientist Adam Levine recaps presidential election

Adam Levine spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in McGraw Hall Nov. 10 as faculty and students joined his American Political Campaigns class for a 2016 election recap.

Levine said Donald Trump’s victory should not have been a surprise to political scientists. According to the classic “fundamentals” model, the Republican candidate was favored to win by a slim but real margin.

“This model is based on how many times the incumbent has been in office, the state of the economy and the evaluation of the incumbent. The model is candidate neutral,” said Levine, assistant professor of government.

He contrasted this model’s assessment with statistician Nate Silver’s model, which used polling numbers on the same date. That model gave Democrat Hillary Clinton a 75 percent chance of victory.

“What we know so far is that fundamentals matter,” said Levine. “And partisanship affects the fundamentals because it feeds into perceptions of the economy and evaluations of the incumbent.”

The sense by Trump voters that they are not getting their fair share was a significant factor in the election, according to Levine, and that fed into racial resentments.

“Financial anxiety and racial attitudes strongly predicted Trump support in the Republican primary,” he said. “When you add in partisanship, these attitudes explain the general election Trump support. It doesn’t mean all Trump supporters are actually living near the poverty line – it’s about the subjective experience of financial anxiety. Perceptions of the economy under Obama have become highly racialized and partisan.”

In 1960, the main focus of debate in American politics was the economy: whether to have wealth redistribution, small or big business support, etc. But since then, the center of the debate has been changing – 1996 saw far more emphasis on social issues like welfare reform and “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules.

“In 2016, the cleavage has moved to primarily social issues,” said Levine. “This election was about race and identity, but whether this was a one-off or an emphasis that will continue, we don’t yet know.”

Another unknown was why Clinton’s ground game, so far superior to Trump’s, won her the popular vote but not by enough of a margin for victory in the electoral college.

“Trump raised less money than Clinton, ran fewer ads, had fewer field offices, and was less popular,” he said. “These things mattered in 2008 and 2012, but they don’t seem to have mattered in 2016. Turnout was down overall but especially for the Democrats.”

Levine noted that this was the first election that didn’t have the full force of the Voting Rights Act, “so it’s unclear still whether turnout was down because of a lack of enthusiasm for the candidates and/or because of voter ID laws and other such voter suppression tactics.”

Much still remains uncertain about the outcome of the election, he said, including how much the candidates actually matter in a general election. “They matter a lot in primaries and in elections other than the presidential, though, when candidates are typically less well-known,” Levine added.

What happens next regarding policies and procedures is also an open question, said Levine. “Although the government is unified under one party, as has happened before, Republicans don’t have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate,” he said. “Campaign rhetoric will now have to confront people’s lived experiences. Many established politicians in Congress don’t agree with Trump on issues like immigration. And although Trump has promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, people like having insurance.

“For all the rhetoric,” Levine said, “it’s important not to forget the people.”

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.