An Interview With Prof. Rick Valelly

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Here is a transcript of an interview between Rick Valelly and Rick Valelly:

Were you surprised? Yes, completely. I will never forget the moment on Tuesday night when the shock came. Trump himself was obviously surprised.

I often tried, back in September, to imagine what it might be like to live in a country with Trump as the President. Those exercises never lasted more than a few minutes. Over and over, when I looked at the two standard polls of polls (Real Clear Politics and Huffington Post) I saw that they told the same story: Clinton was quite likely to win.

In any event the polls of polls were not wrong. It’s cold comfort, to be sure. But Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote.

One of the great ironies of this election is that the populist candidate did not win the popular vote. Here’s the related irony: that same populist, who seemed to know so little about the Constitution or care about what it teaches us, won the presidency thanks to the Constitution.

What about your discipline of political science? The day after the election I found myself thinking about political scientists who were likely not surprised. I do not know this for a fact but I think Lynn Vavreck of UCLA, whom I admire greatly, was one of them.

Vavreck says that there are only two kinds of campaigns. One kind of campaign runs a huge number of ads that relentlessly focus on standard macroeconomic news (growth, unemployment, inflation). Another kind of campaign ignores the standard macroeconomic news and instead adopts a ‘big’ theme that isn’t macroeconomic — such as ‘Love Trumps Hate’ or ‘Make America Great.’

Candidates can choose one or the other campaign – and there is no guarantee that a candidate will take advantage of the macroeconomic approach. An out-party candidate is certain to do it if the macroeconomy is in trouble. But an in-party candidate may skip over the news even when it is good.

Thus, Vavreck has highlighted something very important about the 2000 Gore campaign: that Gore decided not to trumpet the amazingly good macroeconomic news of the Clinton years. We don’t know why. But Gore won the popular vote and lost a key battleground state by a very narrow margin.

Hillary Clinton experienced a similar fate thanks to her choice not to say, constantly, ‘let’s keep the recovery going and build on the macroeconomic progress of the past 8 years.’ Over the past few months I kept thinking to myself, ‘Yup, Clinton is making the same choice that Gore did – but so far it looks like it’s not going to cost her.’ Tuesday night I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is like 2000.’

On the other hand, blaming Clinton is very likely beside the point. Here we get to a political scientist whose forecast model predicted that Trump would win. This is Helmut Norpoth of Stony Brook. A ‘forecast’ model is not polls-based and it is announced months in advance. No one believed Norpoth over the past few months – no one.

In hindsight it’s clear why he was right. One basic intuition of his model is that it is extraordinarily hard for the White House party to win a third term. The last time that Democrats did that was in 1940. ‘Time for a change’ sentiment otherwise reaches flood levels by the end of a second term.

Political scientists call Norpoth’s model a ‘political fundamentals’ model. Back last fall I remember talking with a friend at NYU who said, ‘it’s not good for the Democrats.’ I asked why, and he said, ‘the political fundamentals.’ I.e. getting that third term is a politically fundamental feature that was always going to be really really hard.

But not impossible! I think the real lesson of a ‘political fundamentals’ model is that in this type of presidential election, when the White House party is reaching for a third consecutive term, unique and unpredictable factors can depress or help that party’s candidate at the margin and in ways that will leave us debating about ‘what really mattered.’

There were lots of those factors this year. Some of them include Clinton’s fatal overconfidence in the last two weeks in pulling resources out of battleground states, the role of the FBI, the ‘whitelash’ swing toward Trump, and the impact of voter ID in Wisconsin. I think the right answer is that they all mattered.

What lies ahead? In my view we will see serious governance problems and possibly an enormous ethics crisis for the Trump presidency that will test our Constitution to the same degree that President Nixon’s ethics crisis tested the Constitution.

It is simply astounding to me – after 8 years of some of the best governance and execution of the office of the presidency which we have ever had — that there is now a certainty of poor governance.

In fact, either way we were in for a bad four years. A President Hillary Clinton always ran the risk of impeachment and trial – and she knew that. That’s why she diverted resources from battleground states in order to help elect a Democratic Senate.

The inevitability of a governance crisis is a shocking puzzle to me. How is it that one of the most prosperous advanced democracies in the world is reaching such an impasse in its politics?

Are you being too gloomy? Quite possibly! In fact, I hope so!

Featured image courtesy of McClatchyDC. 

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