As Republicans take the stage in Cleveland for their first presidential primary debate tonight — with Donald Trump in the middle of it — one thing is already abundantly clear: A lot of voters are angry. Very angry. In fact, a lot of voters have been angry for some time. The phenomenon that we call “negative partisanship,” antipathy on the part of Democratic and Republican voters toward the opposing party and its leaders, has been on the rise since the 1980s, and today it is arguably the most salient feature of the political scene in the United States. Now voter ire appears to be shaping both parties’ 2016 presidential nomination races. The rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders in the Republican and Democratic nomination contests, respectively, is symptomatic of this increased anger in the American electorate.
Which candidate will emerge from the crowded Republican presidential field next year? Can anyone stop or at least slow down Hillary Clinton’s seemingly inevitable march to the Democratic nomination? Will Democrats be able to match the GOP in Super PAC spending? And will there be new revelations about Clinton’s e-mails or the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising practices?
These are some of the questions that are dominating discussion of the 2016 presidential election in the media and among Washington political insiders. What you need to know is that the answers to these questions, interesting as they might be, will have almost no bearing on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
The results of recent national elections in the United States have followed a clear pattern: Democrats have dominated presidential elections while Republicans have dominated congressional and especially House elections. Since 1992, Democratic candidates have won four of six presidential elections and the popular vote for president five times out of six. At the same time, Republicans have won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives in nine of 12 elections and a majority of seats in the Senate in six of 12 elections. As a result, Democrats have controlled both chambers of Congress for only six of the past 22 years.
The Koch brothers and their network of wealthy conservative donors recently announced that they intend to spend almost $900 million on the 2016 elections. This level of spending by a group operating independently of any candidate or political party would be unprecedented in American politics. In fact, it would exceed the combined spending by the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee during the 2012 election cycle. Understandably, this announcement reinforced concerns among Democrats and liberals that spending by the Koch brothers and other conservative groups could give Republican candidates a crucial advantage in key House and Senate contests and in the race for the White House.
With the 2014 midterm election in the rearview mirror, the attention of pundits and political prognosticators has quickly shifted to the outlook for the 2016 presidential election. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State, First Lady, and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton appears to be the prohibitive favorite to emerge as the nominee. On the Republican side, however, there is no clear frontrunner, and early maneuvering by prospective candidates has intensified with the announcement by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that he is seriously considering a run for the White House. In addition to Bush, several prominent current and former Republican officeholders have already signaled their interest in running, including 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
How politically divided are ordinary Americans? The recent release of a report on polarization in public opinion by the Pew Research Center has reignited a debate among journalists and academics about the depth of the divisions between supporters of the two major parties. One of the key findings of the report is that supporters of the two parties hold increasingly negative feelings toward the opposing party and its leaders. While some scholars like Morris Fiorina of Stanford University have disputed the significance of these findings, an examination of evidence from the American National Election Studies provides strong support for the conclusions of the Pew study.
Democrats face several challenges in trying to maintain their majority in the U.S. Senate in the 2014 midterm election. In addition to the normal tendency of the president’s party to lose seats in midterm elections, Democrats are defending 21 of the 36 seats that are up this year including seven seats in states that were carried by Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Moreover, six of those seats are in states that Romney carried by a double-digit margin.
How deep is the class divide in American politics today? According to some scholars and pundits, it is very deep indeed. In a recent post on the Washington Post ’s Monkey Cage blog, Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University, the author of Unequal Democracy and a highly regarded public opinion scholar, presented evidence from a multi-nation public opinion survey that showed the relationship between income and support for cuts in government spending was considerably stronger in the U.S. than in other industrial democracies. Because of the disproportionate political influence wielded by upper-income citizens in the U.S., Bartels argued that their strong support for spending cuts has had a powerful influence on elite attitudes and ultimately on government policies.
Between 1932 and 1994, Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives for 58 of 62 years. Since then, however, party control has changed three times, with Republicans controlling the House from 1995 through 2006, Democrats from 2007 through 2010, and Republicans since then.
Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential election represented one of the most dramatic shifts in political power in American history. In terms of both style and substance, the contrast between Obama and George W. Bush is perhaps as great as that between any incoming and outgoing presidents in the modern era. Yet the historic nature of this election should not blind us to the high degree of consistency between the results of the 2008 election and previous elections. New evidence on the results of the 2008 presidential election at the congressional district level reinforces this point.