Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Alternate Reality of Election 2016

We're about a week from Election Day, and I find myself wavering between thinking we are living in an alternate reality or the End Times.

It could be both, I suppose, although I prefer to think of it as the former. As bad as that might be, it need not be final. The latter certainly would be final; you can come up with plenty of alternate–reality scenarios in which we can pull back from the precipice.

It definitely is not business as usual. That may be the real story of this election when all the votes have been counted.

Conventional wisdom used to hold that people really didn't start following presidential campaigns until after the World Series. But conventional wisdom has meant little in this election — and here we are in the middle of the World Series. People aren't starting to tune in to the campaign. If anything, they're tuning out.

Maybe they've seen enough already. If so, then they may be looking forward to the end of the campaign. But I've got news for you. It never ends. Only the current campaign ends, and one of the candidates recedes from the national stage. Unfortunately, though, we'll be stuck with one of them for the next four years.

Alternate reality could be defined as denying reality, I guess, and I certainly have known my share of folks who denied reality, even (or perhaps especially) when it was a reality that had been made possible by their own behavior. The first step in dealing with any problem, they say, is acknowledging that there is one.

But if this is an alternate reality, few are acknowledging there is a problem — at least in the sense of discussing what should be done and how it can be achieved. The situations we face call for a statesman who can bring disparate sides together, understanding that neither side can have everything it wants on issues like immigration, national security, jobs, economic growth, education, energy, etc. Despite a lot of bluster, most political observers see the Senate being closely divided and the House still in Republican hands when the dust settles on Nov. 9.

That clearly leads to the conclusion that compromises will be necessary if anything is to be done under the next president.

The thing that has increasingly alarmed me about this election is the constant decrease in the emphasis on the issues that we absolutely needed to discuss before deciding who should be our president for the next four years. Before you can choose who to follow, you have to be sure that person is going in the direction you want.

I'm not just talking about the fall campaign between the two nominees. I include in that the spring party primaries when the nominees were chosen. If issues have been mentioned at all, it has been incidental.

Instead the election is conducted in slice–and–dice terms. Demographics alone matter. Candidate X will win in State Y because there are too many/few minorities or more/fewer men than women or whatever — as if all members of any group think the same.

Of course, such a notion is idiotic — and anathema to the concepts of individualism and free thought. Nevertheless it is how many people see things these days. Sadly.

I sometimes think of the reaction many of my acquaintances with University of Texas degrees had when they learned that their alma mater had hired Charlie Strong, a black man, to be the new head football coach a few years ago. Strong had some good credentials — in the previous four years as a head coach at Louisville, he led the Cardinals to victories more than 70% of the time, and they reached bowl games every year — but I heard no talk of that or what he could bring to a program with Texas' national stature — or how the quality of the opposition at Louisville might (or might not) be comparable to the quality of the opposition at Texas, thus preparing him for the Austin Hot Seat.

What I heard Texas Exes say when Strong was hired was what a great thing it was that Texas had hired a black coach, that this would negate Texas A&M's recruiting advantage with black prospects (the Aggies hired a black coach in 2012). That was an angle that was worth exploring, but it ignored more long–term concerns — like whether the coach had demonstrated that he could build a legacy of success that would outlive his tenure.

Now, one can argue whether Kevin Sumlin (the Aggies' coach) has done that, but a few things cannot be disputed. (1) While Sumlin has only marginally more experience as a head coach than Strong, he has a winning record; (2) Sumlin is 3–1 in bowl games at Texas A&M, and midway through this season the Aggies have already won enough games to qualify for their fifth straight bowl appearance under Sumlin. Strong, on the other hand, appears unlikely to qualify for a bowl this season even if he somehow keeps his job.

That demographic mindset is essentially the same one used by Hillary Clinton's sympathizers when they speak of what they hope will happen in the Electoral College this year. James Pindell of the Boston Globe wrote recently about what might be different about the Electoral College map this year, starting with the possibility that states like Arizona, Missouri and South Carolina could be in the Democrats' column while states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Nevada could vote Republican.

Anyway, I was musing about states that could flip in this year's election in a post I wrote about two months ago, and I labeled states that gave 53% of their vote or less to the candidates who won them last time as potential flips.

Some of them seemed outrageous, I'm sure, and some of them seemed plausible, but from where I sit it looks like most of them are potentially up for grabs.

One of the states I mentioned probably seems about as farfetched as it can get — Minnesota, home of Democrat icons Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, as reliable a state as you could find in American politics, I suppose. Minnesota hasn't voted for a Republican since voting for Richard Nixon in 1972. It was the only state to resist Ronald Reagan in 1984.

But the margins in Minnesota frequently have been narrow. Barack Obama received less than 53% of Minnesota's vote when he sought re–election in 2012. That was still a difference of more than 200,000 votes (in a state in which more than 2.9 million votes were cast). Four years earlier, when Obama first sought the presidency, Minnesota gave him just over 54% of its vote. He won that time by about 300,000 votes (more than 2.9 million Minnesotans voted in that election, too).

John Kerry defeated George W. Bush in Minnesota when Bush was re–elected in 2004. Kerry got just over 51% of Minnesota's vote — a margin of about 100,000 votes in an election that drew more than 2.8 million Minnesotans to the polls. In the infamous 2000 campaign, Al Gore carried Minnesota with a plurality of just under 48% of the vote. He beat Bush there by about 60,000 votes in a campaign that drew more than 2.4 million Minnesotans to the polls. If one assumes, though, that Gore would have received most if not all of the votes Ralph Nader won in Minnesota, his share of Minnesota's vote would have been about 52% or 53%.

Bill Clinton got about 51% of Minnesota's vote when he was re–elected in 1996. With Ross Perot on the 1992 ballot, Clinton carried Minnesota with less than 44% of the vote. Michael Dukakis received just under 53% of Minnesota's vote against George H.W. Bush in 1988. Native son Mondale managed to beat Reagan in Minnesota by less than 4,000 votes in 1984. Jimmy Carter, under whom Mondale served as vice president, won Minnesota with less than 47% of the vote in 1980.

Carter began Minnesota's 40–year run of voting for Democrats when he received nearly 55% of the vote there in 1976. In the nine elections since, no Democrat has received that great a share of Minnesota's vote. I suppose it helped to have the winds of Watergate at your back.

So as you can see, Minnesota's support for Democrats has been steady but not spectacular.

What is the demographic story in Minnesota? Well, the population is nearly 83% white. Slightly more than 5% of the population is black so the kind of racial politics that is being used in other states won't work in Minnesota.

More than one–third of Minnesota's population has a high school education or less. Just under one–third of the population has had some college, but only about 22% completed college degree work, and a little over one–tenth of the population has done postgraduate work.

"Based on my 53% threshold for considering a state at risk for flipping," I wrote, "Minnesota should be on that list. But Minnesota has been consistent in its support for Democrats if not overwhelmingly so. Put an asterisk next to it. It might flip — but it probably won't."

Ah, but what if it did? What if Donald Trump, as an outsider, appeals to the same maverick undercurrent of Minnesota electoral politics that propelled a professional wrestler into the state's governor's mansion and a comedy writer into a Senate seat?

That is the kind of question that will make Minnesota worth watching on election night.

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