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Briefing with Professor Robert Shapiro on the 2016 U.S. general election
MODERATOR: Okay. Hello, everyone. Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center. Today we have a really fantastic briefer for you about the 2016 general election. I know that you all are anxious to hear from him. Professor Robert Shapiro is the professor and former chair of the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. His research includes partisan polarization, ideological politics in the U.S., as well as topics concerned with public opinion and policymaking. He’s here to talk about the 2016 general election, the election process, and explanation of ethnic demographics and how that affects American elections, and really any other questions that you might have in the run-up to the 2016 general election.
We also have some handouts for you. I’d like to also say welcome and hello to those of you joining us from Washington. We’ll take questions both from New York and from Washington. So be patient if you’re there in Washington, and let’s go ahead and get started. So let me introduce Professor Robert Shapiro. Thank you.
MR SHAPIRO: Oh, delighted. Okay, thank you all for coming. What I want to do is two things. One is just to start just so we’re on the same page or computer screen or whatever you want to call it before I get to the heart of the conversation, which will be about the handouts that I’ve given out, I just want to kind of review for you what the election rules are in the United States. And one question that obviously comes up is why does the United States have this very crazy-looking candidate selection process involving primary elections and caucuses, and then also even though those elections are a little bit far away, why is it all starting early and now?
The system is basically set up is that the parties nominate their candidates as separate political parties. And it used to be it would be basically party leaders and bosses, as we used to call them – and I’m oversimplifying here – used to basically select candidates in the – what they used to – what are often referred to as the smoke-filled backrooms. Nowadays, they might be the smokeless backrooms. But that was a process that wasn’t very democratic – that’s democratic with a little D in nature. It wasn’t one that brought in the public into the process.
To make a long story short, after a lot of party infighting – it got very – very, very vicious in a lot of ways in the 1960s and ’70s. The parties have kind of stabilized with the current system in which there are a series of state primary elections, which are elections in which – that were designed to have party – people registered. Voters registered for political parties, vote for candidates in primary elections, or to have caucuses, which are not open primary elections, but these are very large meetings and forums where individuals who were registered for the parties get together and talk and debate about candidates, and then they vote at the caucuses for the candidates.
And then these votes that occurred don’t automatically lead – are not counted up – with the candidate with the most votes getting the – being nominated, but basically each state party nominates its own delegates to the national election. So what these primary and caucuses ultimately do are select the delegates to the elections. And each state has its own separate rules for selecting delegates. And so there’s no way for me to talk about how it’s done; it just depends on what state, and I’ll come back to that later on.
The candidate at the national convention who gets the – has the most delegates who – and the delegates vote at the election – the delegates vote and the majority of delegates – they go to one candidate, that candidate becomes the nominee. If there is no majority then there’s a lot of political wheeling and dealing that used to go on at the conventions. It hasn’t gone on in a long time because usually the primaries decide on who the candidates are, but it’s an open question whether we’ll ever have a fight at the convention in terms of determining who the delegates are.
Assuming that both parties’ delegates select their candidate then that leads to the general election. The general election in the United States is a campaign period that goes on during a campaign period from August through November. And the way the voting rules work in the United States is the votes are counted by states; each state has a certain number of what are called electoral votes; and the candidate who gets the majority of the electoral votes – not the majority of the popular vote – is the winner. So now we’ve got – when we stop and take questions in discussion I can – we can go into more of the details. But that’s – those are the basic rules.
Where are we now? We’re in the middle of the long campaign in the primary season.
You should all have the handouts in front of you. Now, these handouts are very useful and they’re designed here – some of you may know all this already and I apologize for that, but in terms of getting information, I for one think a free press is very important. The more information the press has, the more they can report about, the better for everyone in – well, better for everyone in the United States and I hope in your home countries as well. But in terms of getting information about the primaries – now, the primary system is complicated because the states have their primaries and caucuses on different days and there’s a schedule for it. And you all probably know that everybody’s focusing on the Iowa caucuses, which is the first, and then the New Hampshire primary, which is the second, but that’s only the beginning in the context of a very long process.
Okay. So the first page of this handout is the start of the – the document that I want to talk about. I’m not going to go over it in detail. I’m just going to go over things on a couple pages of it. But the crucial thing is that this source – it’s an online source called – it’s at thegreenpapers.com. This is the source that is the most – in my view – well, for me it’s been the best source to get information about not only the schedule of the primaries but the – but information about what the rules are in each state in terms of who’s eligible to vote and participate in the caucuses and primary elections.
In some states they have what’s called a closed primary, in which only voters registered in advance affiliated with a party can vote in their party’s primary or caucus. Other states have what’s called an open primary or caucus where the – where anyone can participate, not just people who’ve registered in advance. This is – and it varies by state. This is not a uniform thing. As each primary and caucus comes up, we need to ask that question.
In terms of rules with regard to how the delegates are allocated, the key piece of information you should know about for the moment is that in the Republican primary, every primary through March – and caucus through March 14th is required to allocate its delegates in some proportional way. That is, the delegates correspond in some fashion to – or is related to the proportion of votes that a candidate gets.
Beginning March 15th, the party – the states are allowed to have primaries and caucuses in which the rules are winner take all. Okay. This is very important because it has a way of – in a proportional system it has a way of keeping more candidates in the race rather than letting one candidate kind of sweep the field and get all the delegates for individual states. And it’s designed to kind of slow down the process to enable the ostensibly better candidates who have more – who have in the end more support to stay in the race.
Okay, so on the second page of the handout, the key part of the schedule that you need to know about is what’s going on first. And the – if you look on page 2, it’s Iowa and New Hampshire, and then jump ahead a little bit, there’s the Nevada nonbinding caucuses. And then the other big election is South Carolina, both for the Democrats and for the Republicans. And it’s important in the sense that a lot of talk has been about how some of the, for lack of a better word, fringe-type candidates seem to be doing better in Iowa and New Hampshire. And some people argue that the fair comparison of – in terms of candidates’ strength is what happens in South Carolina. Also if you go – if you just flip to page 3, everybody’s looking ahead to March 15th in Florida.
The important date is March 1st, on page 2, which is a day on which many states have their primaries. That’s often been referred to as a Super Tuesday kind of date. And so those are the basics here.
What’s nice about this greenpapers.com website is that you can get from the website – that is, all the things underlined in the handout – all those for the most part have hyperlinks to them where you can get more information about the rules in the states with regard to who’s eligible to vote and information about the delegate selection process. This is something that has to be updated, because all the states haven’t kind of worked out all their rules yet. And so this is just a very good source about – for getting information during the campaign.
I’m just looking at my notes here. Okay, so that’s – those are basically the rules. And I think the rules are very important, because with so many candidates in the race it means that the votes and delegates could be divided up in such a way that early on there may not be a clear leader who might be easy to predict in terms of getting the nomination. And this is a case where the rules matter, because to the extent that there are more states with proportional allocation of delegates, that has a way of leading to the process perhaps dragging out in a scenario which could lead to no candidate having – at least on the Republican side, no candidate having a majority of delegates by the time of the convention.
And the big question every year is, when things look close, is will we wind up having an open convention where there’s no candidate who’s entering the convention with a majority of votes. And here, I would argue that the rules matter a lot. They can actually affect how quickly and – candidates can pick up delegates and how large those numbers are. So I can’t emphasize that enough.
Okay, so that – so much for the rules, and most importantly, how to get more information – up-to-date information about the rules.
Okay. In the handout, if you go to page nine, the way they’re numbered – top right hand corner, page 1 is 1 of 9, and then it goes to 8 of 9, and then after 9 I’ve inserted a bunch of different things. There’s – and the number circled at the top or at the very top is the page number that I’ll refer to.
Okay, so the candidates. Now, you might ask – before I talk about the data in terms of support for the candidates at the moment, you might ask why is it that there’s so many Republican candidates and relatively few Democratic ones? On the Democratic side, there are relatively few basically because Hillary Clinton was seen at the outset as being basically a very formidable candidate and being someone who’s sufficiently strong-looking that in a sense that provided a disincentive for other candidates to run. Obviously, not enough of a disincentive for prevent anyone from running, but not a lot.
Also, it’s the case – now, this is not something that’s widely talked about, but the way political scientists talk about how – the question, how many candidates are going to run, they talk about it from the standpoint of the kind of the rational calculation of a candidate, “Is it worth me running?” And the first question the candidate, they argue – the candidates ask or should ask is, “Well, if I run, what are – what’s the likelihood that I’ll win the presidential election?” Now, this year is not a good year for Democrats. That is, they’re running after two terms of the Obama Administration with – and we can talk about this further – with widespread perceptions that the Obama Administration has not done very well. The economy’s picked up but there’s discussions about how wages have been sluggish, there’s inequality. Also on the foreign policy front there’s just been a succession of bad news there. And also this would be – it’s not – the data show that for a Democratic candidate running after a two-term president has had just disadvantages in some fashion, and we’ve actually seen that kind of thing in the past in recent years. So it’s not a good year – doesn’t look like a good year for the Democrats.
On the other hand, it looks like a real good year for the Republicans. I mean, the Republicans are riding high in terms of their control of Congress and the Senate – the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate could go either way in the next election. The House of Representatives looks like it’s going to be pretty entrenched Democratic for a while – Republican for a while unless something happens and the Democrats really triumph in 2016 or a subsequent election.
So the chances are – odds are from the standpoint of a Republican candidate that if I run for the Republican nomination, if I get the nomination, there’s probably a good chance that I would win, particularly compared to past elections. So that has a way of attracting candidates. And then the other thing that makes it easier for candidates to run is the fact that they – that while they’re limited in terms of how much money they can raise for their own campaign expenses, they have potentially unlimited money available to them spent by other organizations and individuals campaigning for them unless they – but they’re not – but those other individuals and organizations are not allowed to coordinate. So they have a lot more potential money available.
So if one candidate has one big donor who’s ready to put on the line millions of dollars, that candidate has resources that he can count on later on. They key thing, though, is the candidate also has to raise enough money to spend on his own campaign activities, and that’s where Perry – Governor Perry and Walker were running into trouble.
Okay, so that’s how we basically got to where we are. Okay, so on page nine – the most important piece of information on page nine is the answer to the question: Where can I get data on the latest polls in terms of the primaries and caucuses? Now, there are a number of websites that you can go to. There’s pollster.com, there’s 538. These sites are what are called aggregators of polling data. There are others as well. That is, they assemble the data from all the available polls. All the polling organizations who are doing polls post them on their website, make them available, and they kind of collect them.
The one that I’ve just found most convenient and useful at this point is a website called realclearpolitics.com. And for the most part, when the American press and the pundits and everybody talks about the opinion, the latest polls, they’re either looking at the latest poll reports they’ve read or they just go to realclearpolitics.com or pollster.com to see what the latest is. And these sites are what we call aggregators of polls in the sense they assemble all the available polls that have been done. And then what they also do as part of their own analysis – they do their – they have their own methods of averaging the polls. Any one poll has many sources of error – sampling error, other errors associated with polls; the polls are done using different methodologies.
If you want to find out more about how a poll was done, if you look on page nine, for example, you see what – in the table, the – at the left, the RCP average, that’s their average of all the polls. But going down that left-hand column, the first poll listed is IBD/TIPP. Now, I have to tell you I have to click on the link and get reminded who that organization is, but what I usually ask about those polls is questions like how many respondents they have, are they polling only registered voters or likely voters, what’s their coverage and so on; but also what method they use. And the things to watch out for in terms of methods is are they using standard telephone survey methodology or are they doing robo-calls – automated phone calling – or are they doing some kind of internet panel survey. And those have – there are debates about different sources of error in each, but the main thing is you have that information available to you there. The polls have different sources – have sources of random and other kinds of errors. The averaging has a way of kind of canceling out the errors; that’s the basic argument. Of course, it’s the case if all the polls are bad, you’ve just – you’re just averaging bad numbers and this is irrelevant.
But the polls, at least to the extent that they are good or bad, they tended to be surprisingly similar in a lot of ways. And so in terms of the latest polling data, the national data are shown on there, and there you see the big story about how Trump, Carson, and Fiorina have been leading. We can talk about that. And then in terms of the more mainstream candidates, Rubio and Bush have looked – looked a little bit better there. Now, of course, the national polls are giving a – provide a general sense about how the candidates are doing nationally, but you have to keep in mind what matters is what’s going to happen in the states, and most importantly, what’s going to happen in the early states. Because the early states are important because candidates who do well in the early states can use that to – not only to kind of bolster their support nationally in terms of votes and have credibility, but they can attract campaign contributions. And that’s – that really is the name of the game early on.
And so all this talk about these fringe candidates doing well, well, the argument is – the pundits argue that they’re going to – their support will eventually fall off, but that’s – I think that’s probably true, but the better they do in the primaries, the more positive attention they get, the more contributions they could attract. I mean, the big question is will Trump accept – start accepting contributions in any kind of big way. So the national data only tell us so much.
The next couple of pages have the Republican results for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. And what you can see there – and we can just focus on the averages. It’s Trump, Carson – you have basically the Trump, Carson, Fiorina story, and then there’s Rubio and Bush and Cruz in there.
New Hampshire, same story. These polls didn’t play out this way a few months ago. Things have changed in the course of the Republican debates. The Republican debates have been a great opportunity for the Republicans – well, to – for the candidates to showcase themselves, but it’s also been a great opportunity for them to bash the Democrats and the Obama Administration, which is going to be crucial in the general election.
South Carolina – now, this is a state that’s not thought of as being peculiar in the way Iowa and New Hampshire are, and we can talk about their – the peculiarities of Iowa and New Hampshire if you want. But even there, Trump and Carson are doing – really doing extraordinarily well, much better than any political scientist I know would have predicted.
And Florida, which should be a place that would be the bastion of support for Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, Trump is in the lead there, Bush is second, Carson is third, and then there’s Rubio and Fiorina. So there’s kind of a similar pattern playing out across the board there.
Next page, on the Democratic side, this is where we see the well known lead that Hillary Clinton still has nationally. It was greater earlier on. Now, just to point out here, the polls reported here are the ones that were taken during the September through October 1st. If you want to see the earlier data, all of the earlier polls are on the real politics website. I just haven’t printed them out here for you to look at. But she’s well ahead of Sanders, and they’ve included Biden in the mix as well even though Biden has not announced. Biden, obviously, is the big wildcard here.
The big story, however, is how things are playing out in Iowa and New Hampshire, where in Iowa Clinton has had a consistent lead, but the lead isn’t – is not particularly great. This is on page 15, if you look at – just look at the averaging. And of course, the big story is New Hampshire, where she’s now running – well, she’s now running behind Sanders and – behind Sanders in the race.
Now, when I look at these data, I often wonder, well, are these data good and reliable and so forth. The polls that are being relied on there – the NBC, CNN, and WBUR – seem to be reputable, kind of standard telephone polls. But one thing you have to notice is that in all these polls, the sample sizes are relatively small. They’re not the more typical sample sizes of 1,000 or 1,500, but since they’re focusing on likely voters in the primaries, then the sample sizes are on the order of 400. So they have a lot of sampling error in them. But the – but just the consistency of Sanders being in the lead lends reliability to these particular findings.
Page 17 – South Carolina. Now, when you get outside of Iowa and New Hampshire, polls for the most part have been showing Clinton pretty sizably ahead. And in South Carolina, she’s way ahead of Sanders. Biden does better there. Where Clinton’s source of consistent strength is can be seen in the comparison in the available data. And there’s not a lot on this, but comparing white voters with nonwhite voters, among white voters nationally – and I’m not sure in South Carolina, I haven’t seen the data broken down – she basically holds a slight lead. But it’s among nonwhite voters – African Americans – well, they’re usually lumped together as just nonwhites because the samples sizes are so small you really can’t get big enough samples of Latinos and Asian Americans. But my bet there would be that her support compared to Sanders is just much greater among Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans who are registered Democratic voters.
And then if you look in Florida, you see the basic same kind of pattern – Clinton far ahead of Sanders, with Biden actually doing as well as Sanders, if not better, as we saw in the case of South Carolina. And then O’Malley, Chafee, and Web are – I mean, they’re really just very far behind and it’s almost surprising that they’re still in the race. Now, why are they still in the race? They’re in the race because they can still raise enough money to be active in Iowa and New Hampshire. And what they’re banking on – what the candidates who are further behind are banking on is that in Iowa and New Hampshire they can do well enough – not necessarily win, but if they do well enough to basically contradict expectations, they’re going to become a story given the way the press looks for interesting things to cover and people might be interested in the fact that all of a sudden they’re going from 1 percent to 20 percent. That would be a significant kind of story.
And obviously, the role of the media in all this is very crucial, and the media have been particularly important to the Republican Party in the context of the debates, where the debates were televised, got a lot of attention, and then all of the story after the debates was about the debates. So the Republicans have been able to dominate the news in a lot of respects because they have the more interesting campaign, but because they’ve been – they’ve been active, doing a lot more, and doing things that are newsworthy.
The next page is – and these are the least reliable and informative data. These are the data – these are the trial heats; how would a particular Republican candidate do against a particular Democratic candidate. And we can look – you can look at particular numbers here, but the thing that’s very striking is that basically no matter what pairing you see, things look pretty close. I mean, especially this far away, where the polls can’t be good predictors of what happens in the general election. That is – all signs are here is that this is probably going to be a close presidential election, and judging by recent elections it’s going to very close. The Democrats and the Republicans are just very competitive in competing for the presidency.
The one change that – big change that’s occurred in American politics is that it used to be the case from the 1940s on till 1980 the Democrats for the most part dominated the aggregate congressional elections; that is, they controlled the House and the Senate. Beginning in 1980, the Republicans got control of Congress on the coattails of Ronald Reagan. 1994 was a very important election; that was when the Republican Party captured, with Newt Gingrich leading the Republicans, the House of Representatives. And ever since then, the Republicans have been very competitive for the House of Representatives and also the Senate.
So what’s at stake in the upcoming election is whether or not the Republicans will be able to get unified control of the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. There’s a lot at stake in the election. From the standpoint of the Democrats, there’s a lot to worry about.
And I’m going to stop there for questions.
MODERATOR: So we’ll take a few questions from New York and then we’ll move to Washington if Washington has any questions.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Shapiro, for this briefing. Stephane Bussard from Le Temps newspaper, Swiss daily. I have two questions. First, what’s your take on the fact that now it’s up to the TV – cable TV to fix the rules for the debates, for example, and no longer up to the DNC or RNC? That’s – in terms – in democratic terms it sounds a bit shocking to me.
Then second question: Why – how do you see the fact that the DNC, for example, is trying to prevent a candidate like Lawrence Lessig from appearing on the debate?
MR SHAPIRO: Okay. That’s a very good question, and there are two pieces of that. One is – that I’d like to emphasize. One is the role of the media. Well, the media are important because the parties don’t control the airwaves. They can’t – they basically can’t get on without that. They might have a shot at C-SPAN in some ways, but that’s not going to attract a big crowd. And – but working in their favor is the fact that they’re going to get a lot of media coverage, and I think they like that.
Now, what they don’t like is the fact that they’re not – they’re not able to select who’s participating in there. And the thing that’s controversial about – for one, it may be controversial that the media are selecting, but they’re selecting based on their evaluation of the opinion polls, assuming there are opinion polls. Now, remember, polling is one of my areas of specialization. Polls are not automatically done. The government doesn’t do polls. Polls are done by organizations that spend their own money to do polls, and a lot of the media organizations themselves spend money, so that’s for one thing.
Okay, so the – but assuming the polls are there, the next question is what polls do you count. And if there’s been – and there’s a whole debate in the public opinion world, my public opinion world, about what poll is good enough to be counted, and there’s no real clear agreement on this. And remember, Fiorina was allowed to participate in the last debate because she argued that there were not enough polls since the first debate to give her – provide a fair calculation for her, and so she was allowed to participate for that reason. I actually think the polling part is in some ways more controversial than the political part that you mentioned.
MR SHAPIRO: Oh. That the Democrats don’t want him participating – yeah. Well, that’s where the – the media are looking for presenting a good debate to attract large audiences. The party is looking for a serious debate with their – with what they think are serious candidates. There’s a conflict there.
QUESTION: Hi. Heidi Skjeseth from Dagsavisen, a Norwegian daily. I was wondering if you can talk a little about the Bush and the Clinton names and if the anti-incumbent feelings or these anti-establishment feelings will hurt these dynasties – and if you want to call them political dynasties.
MR SHAPIRO: Yeah. The U.S. has its political dynasties. Nowadays it’s the Clintons and the Bushes; in the old days it was the Adams family with two presidents and the Roosevelts, of course. And then, of course, the biggest dynasty of all in a lot of respects – well, the biggest family name was obviously the Kennedys in that particular context.
I think the question about the rejection of mainstream candidates goes beyond Bush and Clinton. I – we can’t run the experiment of what the campaign would be like without a Bush or a Clinton, but it seems to be clearly the case that the Republican primary and caucus voters who participate in opinion polls at this time have really rejected mainstream establishment candidates in a very big way. So there’s that phenomenon, and Bush and Clinton are kind of crossing – are part of that or caught in the crossfire here, so to speak. But no, they’ve obviously contributed to that kind of thing as well.
I mean, the big question is is that – do we – what does it mean to have a Bush and a Clinton running. It is the case – we do have sort of a dynasty effect at work here, but my view of this is a little bit more positive and constructive; that is, they – granted, they had – they obtained a big advantage politically by virtue of their names. But once they started running for office, they were in effect on their own; that is, they had to get elected. And then once they were elected, they established a certain amount of credibility that – we can debate this – that I would argue that they were able to maintain because of their performance in government – Bush as governor of Florida, Hillary Clinton – well, we can talk about whether her first lady is a qualification here, but she was obviously a senator from New York State and also she was a – the Secretary of State. So at the time of this particular election, both of them were formidable candidates anyway.
On the other hand, being a Clinton and a Bush gives them automatic name recognition and attention early on, which has the ability of attracting voters. Voters know who they are, and also it has advantages with regard to fundraising. Is there something unfair, some level of inequality about this in terms of ordinary people aspiring to politics? The answer is yes. But there are a lot of other sources of inequality as well, like money.
QUESTION: Vasco DeJesus Rodriguez, VascoPress Communicacoes, Brazil. I’m wondering, who establishes the law and oversees the system of contributions? What kind of limitations are imposed on the candidates in this realm? Thank you.
MR SHAPIRO: Yeah. The rules with regard to campaign contributions in national elections, okay – now, we have to distinguish national elections versus state elections. Individual states make the rules with regard to electing governors and state legislatures, okay. But in terms of federal elections, there – it’s basically laws that were passed by Congress and signed by the President, and also rulings by the courts, in particular the Supreme Court.
Currently, the – there are strict rules with regard to how much individuals can contribute to individual candidates. The limit is $2,700 per person per race, but of course, that means that a family can – a husband and wife can contribute twice that amount. It’s also possible that the campaigns can orchestrate contributions by having what they call bundlers, individuals who basically attempt to raise money and bundle people together so they – so each individual contributes 2,700, but if you have 10 people, we’re talking about $27,000. And that – those are funds that can be used by the candidate to pay for campaign expenses.
In addition – and this just – the Supreme Court has greatly simplified this – there were laws passed by Congress in – over the last 15 years that restricted other kinds of contributions, but the current system is basically this: Anyone or any group can contribute an unlimited amount of money to an organization or just themselves – or just do it themselves to spend supporting a candidate, mentioning the candidate by name in campaign ads, ground activity, and anything like that. The only restriction is that they can’t do this in consultation with the candidate; that is, this can’t be anything that the candidate has any say in or control.
The upside is – well, the downside is from the standpoint of – if you were in favor of limiting the unlimited money is that, well, there’s no limit, and also the candidates will know who are the people. I mean, the world will get out who the people are contributing the large money. Also, a lot of the money is coming from individuals who are giving millions and millions of dollars. So there’s a sort of inequality there that’s really, really tremendous.
On the other hand, the fact that the candidate doesn’t control that money – it means that the candidate can’t spend that money on things he or she wants to spend it on: running his campaign offices, doing things he or she wants to do. And without getting just at least a critical mass of contributions to his or her campaign, it could cause difficulties for them.
Now, for the moment at least, the amount of money in the game is probably enough to sustain a lot of candidates through Iowa and New Hampshire. After that, things can get a little more difficult for candidates who can’t raise the money for their campaigns, even though they might have other groups and organizations ready to spend a lot on their behalf. But the answer is it’s the federal – it’s the laws and Supreme – and the courts.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Kristoffer Ronneberg with the Norwegian daily Aftenposten. I have two questions. One is about polling. There was a PPP poll out in August regarding Donald Trump’s supporters where it was revealed that two-thirds of them believe that President Obama is a Muslim and that he was born outside the U.S. How seriously should we take polls like that? Because I mean, there’s an argument on the other side that goes that people will say anything about people they don’t like. So how seriously should we take that?
And the second question, more in the present: How damaging for the Republicans do you think Kevin McCarthy’s comments about the Benghazi committee and its political nature have been?
MR SHAPIRO: Okay. So with regard to the PPP poll – okay, so the way I think about any poll result, the first question I ask is: Who did the poll? PPP is a polling organization that has Democratic leanings to it. It’s also a polling organization that does automated polling supplemented with internet surveys. That’s how they pick up cell phones. Okay, that’s the – but their polls seem to be in line with other polls.
That particular finding about Trump supporters believing that Barack Obama’s a Muslim, also believing that he was born somewhere else – the level of – well, the proportion of people who believe that, first of all, are disproportionately Republicans and conservatives. These are people who opposed Obama and they’re inclined to disbelieve that. This is something that’s been – that was – this is something that was talked about beginning in 2007, 2008, when Obama was running. Whether they really believe that is not fully clear. That is, they’ll say that in a poll. My friend Gary Langer, who polls for ABC News, argues that if you ask a follow-up question in which you ask, “Do you really believe that, or is that your kind of general – or is it something that you generally sense or think?” And they’ll say – they’ll back off, and they’ll say it’s something we generally sense or think.
But those kinds of beliefs in facts that are untrue is symptomatic of the high level of emotional partisan conflict that exists in American politics today. The different – those opinions, they are driven by partisanship. And a lot of us have talked about – I’ve written about this, but a lot of other people have written about it, too – is that Democrats and Republicans live in two different worlds. That is, they see the world differently. They see global warming and climate change differently. The see Obama being a Muslim differently – actually, it first – it became first most visible for me and other people when it was determined that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A lot of people still believe there were – disproportionately Republicans. The fact – things might have been a little murky in terms of what the CIA was telling the President. But also believed that there was an al-Qaida connection between Saddam Hussain and the Iraqis, which was patently untrue. The CIA was actually on the record saying that there was no – but the thing that’s kind of prevented that from dissipating is that a lot of Republican party leaders are – don’t visibly just state the truth about that. That is, they’ll kind of hedge and haw, and sometimes they’ll even repeat these things and say they believe those kinds of things themselves. And the big question is: Do we blame the psychology of ordinary voters here, or do we blame the leaders who are just fomenting this kind of thing? I think it’s a problem.
MR SHAPIRO: Okay. Oh, that was – well, first of all, that was consistent with what the Republicans – some of the Republican leaders stated at the outset after Obama was elected in 2008, that they were going to do everything they could to basically make sure he was a one-term president. Now they’ve shifted to make sure that Hillary Clinton is not a one-term – first-term president. It really – it’s a devastating comment given the context. Benghazi was a tragedy, and rather than doing fact-finding to find out really what happened, they basically turned – McCarthy basically turned this into a political maneuver.
QUESTION: Professor, hi. Sherwin Bryce-Pease, South African Broadcasting in the middle down here.
MR SHAPIRO: Yeah.
QUESTION: Hi. Earlier, you said that political – you knew of no political scientists who would’ve predicted the current frontrunners, be it on the Republican side; I imagine the Democrats as well – Trump, Fiorina, Carson; Sanders, Clinton on the other side. Why is that?
MR SHAPIRO: Well, the way political scientists think about this is that early on, it’s possible for a fringe candidate to get this kind of attention. And Trump had gotten it earlier. Now, if you want to read about this, the place to go is – look at the writing of John Sides for the Washington Post in the part of the online newspaper called the Monkey Cage. He’s written this; he’s also written a book with Lynn Vavreck called “The Gamble,” which they kind of track the dynamics of the elections. And a lot hinges on candidates emerging, getting money, and then also media coverage.
Trump initially getting a lot of attention and support was not unusual. The thing that’s unusual is that he’s lasted so long. Because once he gets – once he becomes the leader, he gets a lot of attention. He then – the press then put him under a microscope. And usually what happens is that the more that gets reported on the candidates, the more they dig up things that work – that should work in the candidates – work against the candidates. What’s striking here is that hasn’t happened yet. That is – and it hasn’t happened yet because of the dissatisfaction among the Republican electorate for mainstream candidates, that even when he says – even when he and Carson and Fiorina say outrageous things, they’re – they may acknowledge that it’s outrageous, but their dislike for the mainstream – mainstream politics at this moment is such that they’re still supporting them.
With regard to Sanders on the Democratic side, this is sort of classic in-fighting in the Democratic party in terms of the extreme liberal wing of the party versus the more moderate wing of the party here. And with what’s going – and then Barack Obama is situated in all of this as well. If he were running for re-election, things would be very different, but he obviously can’t run for a third term. And we didn’t see this in his – in 2012. Hillary Clinton represents the kind of – sort of the mainstream moderate liberal wing of the party. I’d say initially she was sort of identified with Obama, being his Secretary of State and so forth. Sanders basically is able to capitalize on and reflect the dissatisfaction that the Obama Administration didn’t push things further to the left and try to battle the Republicans, even though they really couldn’t get anything done given the fact that Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.
And so there’s a wing of the party that really wants to push the party to the left. And at this moment, the upside for them of supporting Sanders is that they may not realistically think he can get the nomination, although I don’t think that’s necessarily far-fetched, but his running can push Hillary Clinton to the right – to the left. And we’ve seen this already. The latest thing was when she just announced in the last day or so that she’s against the Asian trade treaty – case in point. And the big question is that – how far is she going to go to run against Obama? And will – it even raises the question, will she go out of his way to try to get his support and have him campaigning for her. And there – we can have a long conversation about that.
MODERATOR: We’re going to take a question from Washington. Washington?
QUESTION: Hi. Can I —
MODERATOR: Go ahead, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Thank you, Dr. Shapiro. I just want to follow up on the last question about Donald Trump. You say his high approval rate won’t last long, so when would he expect his approval rate to come down?
And the second question is about Joe Biden. I noticed there is the handout – approval rate about Joe Biden is quite high. And would you see he’s – as a threat to Hillary Clinton, and when would it be? Thank you.
MR SHAPIRO: Okay, so let’s take Trump first. Okay, there’s this lead in these pre-election polls, and there’s his approval rating. Now, his – we’re talking about his approval rating among Republicans and conservatives. In the public as a whole, he’s not widely approved. But in that – but in the relevant constituency for the election, he’s doing well. Just for the record, I was one of the people who would’ve predicted that he would not have lasted this long. And the fact that Carson and Fiorina have been – have done well is a little bit mind-boggling to me at the moment, especially someone who studies public opinion and wrote a book called “The Rational Public,” so – (laughter) – I’m wondering a little bit about that.
With regard to how long it’ll last, I – at this point, barring him saying even something even more outrageous – and it’s hard to believe how much more outrageous he could get in some respects – I think this will last at least to Iowa. And the thing to watch for in Iowa is whether one of the mainstream candidates is able to either win or do much better than expectations, because then the focus will shift. It could shift in the context of the next debates or other things that happen along the way. But it looks as though he – at the moment, at least, he’s got staying power at least to Iowa, and he’s got his own money to spend, so – which he can spend on his own campaign expenses. He’s not relying on other groups.
Biden – in terms of Biden’s overall general approval, that’s – it’s very solid. In the pre-election polls, however, he’s been – well, no. He’s been running behind Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, he hasn’t announced his candidacy yet. So it’s not necessarily a fair comparison. He’s the candidate who could really do a lot of damage to Hillary Clinton in terms of attracting some of her voters. He’s probably less likely to attract Sanders’ voters, and his entering the race could be – well, it could hurt Clinton, but it could also be a boost for Sanders, who could wind up being – basically having a – conceivably having a plurality of support once the vote’s been divided. And so the big question for the Democrats is – it’s the classic question of kind of waiting for the candidate. In one of the past elections, it was waiting for Mario Cuomo, and now we’re waiting on Joe Biden.
QUESTION: Professor, actually the question from the – today’s briefing announcement, how different ethnic groups in the United States influence American elections, and if I may add religious group, how these data is important.
MR SHAPIRO: Yeah, okay. I was posed that question early on in terms of preparing for the briefing and I did a lot of homework on this with regard to the primaries. The problems is is in all these primary election polls, the samples are very small. And also, on the Republican side, we’re really – when we say we’re talking about conservative Republicans, we’re talking about whites, for the most part. So there’s no racial element in there. The religious element in there, however, is the – basically the evangelical wing of the Republican party, the segment of the party that’s conservative on social issues. And what’s pretty striking here is that Trump is not getting his support from that group, or if he is, they’re kind of casting their religious values out the window. Carson, however, is; Fiorina has been trying to. And I think the – how those evangelical Protestant voters vote in the primaries and caucuses is very important. But Trump for the moment has defied logic on a lot of that.
All of the mainstream Republican candidates have been trying to make pitches to that group as well, and in particular, Rubio has done it and Cruz has done it. Cruz has been very effective on that front but hasn’t been able to kind of break out of the pack in terms of support, and Bush has obviously been trying. It’s pushed those candidates to the right in terms of taking conservative positions on social issues like abortion, gay rights and gay marriage, and the like. So religion is important in the party.
On the Democratic side, based on the data I’ve seen, it’s basically – Hillary has her largest base of support among Democrat primary caucus participants, and in particular, nationally and in states with significant proportions of African Americans, her support is extraordinarily strong. Now, that was the case actually in 2008 as well, but Obama was able to move that by the time of the South Carolina primaries.
In this case, she’s not running against Obama or another African American candidate. Her challenger here – well, Biden could pose a challenge. Sanders poses a general challenge, but he has not broken through yet with regard to the ethnic and racial base of the Democratic Party – that is, African Americans and Latinos, and Asian Americans have emerged as well, but the Latino vote and the Asian American vote is a vote to watch in particular states in the general election. And there are identifiable states and particularly for Latinos, like Nevada and Colorado. There’s a lot of talk about how the Democrats can make breakthroughs in states like Arizona and Texas, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to be in the cards. But it’s the general election where those divisions become more important.
MODERATOR: Let’s do another question from New York and then we’ll go to Washington. I know there were a couple questions over there against the wall.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Marija Sajkas. I work for Novi Magazin from Serbia. You said earlier that Trump is still not under microscope. Do you mind telling us your opinion why is that? And then the other one is if he ends up capturing all the electoral votes, does he automatically becomes the nominee, or he still needs to be approved by Republican Party? Thank you.
MR SHAPIRO: Okay. In terms of Trump being – the thing is is that Trump has been under the microscope and he’s been able to survive it simply based on the fact that these – at least in these polls, the conservative Republicans who were responding, the Republicans who were responding to the polls, are basically willing to give him a – basically willing to ignore that given the fact that they oppose mainstream – the mainstream candidates. And also it’s basically his own just – their perception of his general leadership qualities and kind of saying vague things, but basically being persuaded that he could be a more – a stronger and more forceful leader. And the juxtaposition here is between him and Obama, not him and the other candidates.
With regard to the selection of Trump as the Republican nominee, if he gets a majority of delegates in the primaries and caucuses, he’s the – and the delegates vote faithfully, because they have to actually vote at the convention, and if they vote the way they’re supposed to vote, he would get the nomination. The Electoral College comes into play in the general election. If he were to run in the general election and got the majority of electoral votes, he’s the president. But once – but a majority of delegates, there’s nothing – there’s no – there’s no higher authority after that.
MODERATOR: Let’s take the next question from Washington, D.C.
QUESTION: Hi, Dr. Shapiro. My name is Mineko Tokito and I’m with the Yomiuri Shimbun Japanese newspaper. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I just wanted to ask – earlier you mentioned that a scenario in which no candidate would have the majority of delegates by the time of the convention, and I was just wondering how much of a chance we have for – to see a brokered convention. Thank you.
MR SHAPIRO: That’s a good question. Well, we haven’t had one in a very long time. We’ve got to go back to the 1950s, ’60, for that kind of thing. But in recent years, the – what I’ve always found very interesting is that in the last several elections we have the campaign playing out, but no one starts to talk about the rules and the allocation of delegates until a few primaries and caucuses have occurred. And they start counting, and then they kind of realize that, well, there’s no candidate breaking out of the pack here, and what if this kind of thing continues?
The kind – now, what we did see in the last election is it took quite a while before Mitt Romney got a majority of delegates. Also for the Democrats in 2008, it took a while before Obama clearly – had clearly taken the lead. So things get dragged out there. The question then is what about the prospects of it really getting dragged out to the end or even close to the end. And what makes – I would argue that it becomes more likely in the current election because of the number of candidates, the existence of rules in a lot of the states with proportional allocation of delegates. It’s only until later where it’s possible for a Republican candidate to kind of run the table, so to speak, in terms of winning successive states that have winner-take-all states – assuming it’s one candidate who does it. If that starts to shift among candidates, it means that the field might get narrowed but one candidate might not get enough.
Also what pushes in the direction of a more competitive election is that the candidates having more money available because of the unlimited money spent by private individuals and groups, PACs and so forth, so there’s more – the money could be less of an issue unless the candidate runs out of money for his or her daily – day-to-day operations. So I would argue that – I actually thought the prospects weren’t bad, or good, or however you want to talk about it, in 2008 and 2012 with regard to the Democratic Convention getting – possibly going to the convention and the Republicans possibly going to the convention. I think the chances are higher this time that the Republicans will go. On the Democratic side, I don’t see it. I think there will be a breakout. Somebody will start taking the lead by the time of South Carolina, and certainly by March 1st.
And whether that will, in fact, be Clinton – at this stage, given Clinton’s support and so forth, I mean, the nomination is still hers to lose.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Anna Guaita. I’m with Il Messaggero; it’s a daily in Rome. My question is about districting and how strong a role it has on the lock on Congress, and if there is any possibility that it will become more flexible again in the future.
MR SHAPIRO: That’s a very good question. There’s been a lot of debate and dissent and fighting about the problem of congressional – this is – we’re talking about the drawing of the boundaries of districts for the House of Representatives. And the favored phrase used is a phrase called gerrymandering, where the – where within the states the process shakes out in such a way that the districts were drawn to the advantage of one of the political parties. Now, both parties are fighting on this.
In the states right now, one key factor kind of drawing attention to that is that the state governments in the United States are disproportionately dominated by Republican legislatures and governors that are involved in the rule making. And the big question – one question has been is the Republicans’ lock on Congress, or the difficulty the Democrats have taking it, an artifact of the fact that there – that the Republican vote is basically districted in a more efficient way so that they have – they dominate in a lot of places where – by small – by margins that are big enough but not enormous so that they can take hold of the congressional districts, whereas the Democrats tend to win a lot of congressional districts by huge votes but are less competitive in a lot of other places.
And the question is how much is that due to redistricting, the drawing of boundaries, or how much of that is due to where people choose to live. And political scientists have studied this, and the best studies to date suggest that part of this is, in fact, due to redistricting. That’s contributed. But the biggest factor is – well, the finding is that even without redistricting, in terms of alternative scenarios for drawing boundaries, just based on where people live and drawing reasonable – I mean, to give the Democrats more of an advantage you’d have to draw even – you’d have to gerrymander even odder districts to give the Democrats an advantage. It’s more a function of where people are living than redistricting.
So redistricting contributes, but the bigger problem is simply the distribution, which means for the Democrats they have to widen their appeal in terms of the range of voters that they get to vote for them, which means attracting more white voters.
QUESTION: Well, in that case, today’s New York Times has an op-ed on voter ID in Alabama, and it says these laws have proliferated around the country, nearly always enacted by Republican-controlled legislatures, at the expense of minorities, the poor, and other groups who tend to vote Democratic. Do you think this is going to have a further effect?
MR SHAPIRO: That’s a different and very important question. Now, the relevant rules here are basically these are laws – these are voting rules that are decided by the states, by the states, not by the federal government – that is, they set their rules in terms of eligibility of voters. That’s become a very highly partisan issue. It’s clearly the case – there were a certain number of outrageous statements by Republican state legislature and so forth basically saying that the intention really is to do this for political reasons.
This began – this became visible after 2000. I know the TV networks – I worked at ABC News on election night for a couple presidential elections, and they always had a legal team on – basically on the set ready to talk about the effects of basically voters being deprived of the right of vote, not showing ID. It hasn’t played a role yet. It could potentially play a role. It could also backfire for the Republicans in the sense that what the response might be is that the Democrats and the more progressive elements in the states might just get organized and makes sure everybody has their IDs, and that issue will be used as an issue in the election to work against the Republicans.
But that’s definitely been politicized. It does come into play – gerrymandering – I mean redistricting could come into play in terms of how states create their own state legislative districts and how that plays out at the state level. I’m less familiar with that. But that’s – I think that’s a very important separate issue from the general issue of redistricting.
QUESTION: Syed Zareen, an Afghan journalist from Afghanistan. I have heard from many Americans who say that in general election day, the participation of voter is not very high. I mean, it may be different from time to time. Could you please throw some light about from like historically the least number and many numbers who participated? Thank you.
MR SHAPIRO: Well, by international standards, voter turnout in national elections in the United States is low. We’re talking, at best, participation in presidential elections being on the order of 60 percent or a little bit more among the voting eligible population. Among registered voters it’s high, it’s much higher than that, but in terms of everyone who could vote it’s lower.
Historically in the United States, during the early days of the American republic into the 19th century, the voter turnout was higher but the electorate was much – was much more limited; that is, early on the only people eligible to vote were men, and in the early days you had to be property owners and so forth. So among a narrower electorate the voter turnout was very high.
Voter turnout increased in the 20th century, peaking at around 1960, 1964. It peaked at around 65 percent or so and then dropped – after that dropping to close to 50 percent or even a hair below 50 percent in presidential elections. And then in more recent years, it’s actually gone up so that the trajectory is up.
The big question is, is that what are the implications of that for democracy, and we can talk about this very philosophically. What does it mean to have a country where you have that – you have such a low level of participation? On the other hand, one could argue maybe it’s a good thing that people who don’t vote don’t choose to vote and we don’t – we need not worry about them.
In terms of what to do to increase voter turnout, the – I would say that the increase in voter turnout in recent years has been due to the fact that that – that rules with regard to voter registration have become more liberalized. To vote in the United States in most places, you have to be registered to vote, you have to register a certain number of months before the general election. The election is held on a Tuesday. That’s a day that people work, it’s not a day off, it’s not a weekend. What’s led to increases in voter turnout is they – some states have allowed early voting; people can vote a few days before the election, or it’s more convenient for them to vote.
What I think has also contributed to increasing voter turnout is the fact that the elections have become much more exciting and competitive and there’s a lot more voter mobilization going on by the parties. That’s increased – that kind of thing as well. So it’s kind of a complicated picture. It’s sort of a – might be viewed as a dismal picture compared to other countries that have higher turnout rates, and the fact that America talks about the vibrancy of its democracy but it’s a democracy that not 100 percent of the citizenry participates in on election day.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Morten Bertelsen with Norway’s Business Daily. The House appears to be in chaos today after Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race for speaker. What are the implications for the election, the presidential election? How can that – could it have an impact at all?
And my second question is this idea of a ground game. How important is that going forward, especially for candidates like Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina and so forth?
MR SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, in terms of the implication of who the speaker is, I think basically, partisan conflict is sufficiently great at the moment that it probably didn’t matter who the speaker was. Although it was the case – I think McCarthy became sufficiently controversial at this point that he became a liability for the Republicans. And so there – we’ll have to see how it shakes out and who that turns out to be. But I think the consequences of that for the general election probably, at least at this moment, are not sufficiently great.
But what was your second question? I’m sorry.
QUESTION: The ground game —
MR SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah.
QUESTION: — or the lack thereof for candidates like Trump and Carson and Fiorina.
MR SHAPIRO: Yeah. That’s a very good point. At this point, they really haven’t had to worry very much about this idea of a ground game. The ground game has to do with what the campaigns do literally on the ground with their campaign workers during the election to get out the vote, to try to persuade people to vote for them, and so forth.
The thing about these primary elections and this primary election period and caucus period – it’s such a long period that the candidates can basically make do with a lot in terms of – just based on media coverage, and they’re basically getting some attention when they visit the states themselves. The ground game becomes very important at the time as the election nears where you’re really concerned about getting the vote counting. There’s a question about how sophisticated the campaigns will get in this era of big data in the national – in the presidential elections. I mean, the parties really have enormous databases, they have statisticians working for them, they try to target voters and so forth. All that becomes just crucial as the election nears.
I think in the case of Trump, I think he’ll eventually have to get around to this. I don’t think – I think there’s no way around that. But for now, it’s basically the press and the debates and so forth.
QUESTION: My name is Adesina Anidugbe. I report for Ogun State Television in Nigeria. I want to ask you if there is the possibility of the foreign policy direction of any of these candidates vis-à-vis promotion and encouragement of best governance and political practices in third-world countries, particularly the African continent, of any advantage in the election?
MR SHAPIRO: That’s a very good question. I don’t think any – at the moment, I don’t think anything can be said specifically about that. In terms of how to think about that in the context of the campaign, it really comes down to the – to what extent the candidates and the winner of the election has a vision for U.S. foreign policy that includes some variation on promoting certain kinds of democratic nation building abroad. And at this moment, the candidates haven’t really focused on that thing, but what they’ve really focused on are those areas of weakness of the Obama Administration, and that particular issue isn’t one that’s come up. It’ll be interesting to see if anything like that comes up in the context of the debates. But from the standpoint of national politics, that’s – at the moment that’s not one of the central issues, but it could be.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. My name is Melanie. I’m a French TV reporter and my questions concern the coverage for us, like foreign media. So far it
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