Electing the President 2016: What Unites Us

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

Editor’s note: Head of state, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief, guardian of the economy – Americans are fixing to elect another president, so we asked Notre Dame’s in-house pundit to put the moment, the issues, the candidates and the choices in context and perspective. Bob Schmuhl’s commentary on American politics and journalism frequently appears in major print and broadcast outlets in the U.S. and abroad. His exclusive observations on the 2016 presidential election will run on magazine.nd.edu every two weeks.

Now that the Republican and Democratic national conventions are history, one common denominator of the 2016 presidential campaign stands out in bold relief. Both major parties this fall will be united by high-decibel hatred of the nominee of the other party.

As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton target visits to states they consider competitive and roll out television ads intended, in some cases, to scare undecided voters, they start the three-month slog to Election Day with a large segment of the electorate less than enchanted at the prospect of either a Trump or a Clinton White House come January 20, 2017.

Illustration by Anthony Freda

According to the website RealClearPolitics, the average of eight polls computing Trump’s favorability and unfavorability in July showed 36 percent of those surveyed as favorable and 57.1 percent as unfavorable. Clinton’s numbers weren’t much better — with an average last month of 38.4 favorable and 55.6 percent unfavorable.

Even more troubling for Clinton is the late July CNN/ORC International poll that reported only 30 percent of voters considered her “honest and trustworthy,” while 68 percent had the opposite opinion. In the same poll and category, Trump did considerably better — 43 percent viewing him as “honest and trustworthy” and 55 percent seeing him as not.

Taken together, these numbers point in one direction. Prepare yourself for a World Series/Super Bowl/Stanley Cup of political gamesmanship that will play every trick to hike the unfavorability marks for the two contenders during the next several weeks. Television viewing alert: Citizens who abhor negative campaigning might want to suspend their cable service or disable their dish until after November 8.

For all their choreographed planning, each convention presented moments of unexpected drama. Early in Cleveland, questions about the authorship of Melania Trump’s speech supporting her husband assumed sideshow status at the Republican conclave until a staff member admitted she’d mistakenly included passages from what Michelle Obama said to the Democratic convention eight years ago. Late night comedians had a field day.

While that crisis faded, Ted Cruz proved to his party and the public at large why so many people who know him just cannot stand him. A rough calculation of the size of the senator’s ego leads to the conclusion that it encompasses more acreage than his home state of Texas.

The Democrats’ proceedings in Philadelphia began with supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in a combative, this-battle-isn’t-over-yet mood. The “political revolution” Sanders advocated for so long wasn’t going to burn out just because the losing candidate held up his hand to stop efforts on his behalf.

In addition, as Democrats gathered, revelations circulated that the party’s hierarchy had put its large, institutional thumb on the electoral scales to create a definite advantage for Clinton. This information arrived in America courtesy of what is alleged to be the hacking of party email accounts by Russian geeks with the purpose of defeating Clinton.

At this point — given what FBI Director James Comey called her “extremely careless” handling of her email as Secretary of State — Clinton probably regrets the invention of cyber communication in any form. If the Russians did break into the Democrats’ computer system with the explicit goal of influencing the American election, the Watergate scandal that occurred in 1972 might have an international and 21st-century rival.

Shortly before each convention, the presumptive nominees announced their vice-presidential choices. Trump’s selection of Mike Pence proves that lightning can strike outside the realm of climatology.

Observers of Hoosier politics viewed Pence’s decision in 2012 to leave the U.S. House of Representatives after six terms in order to run for governor as a deliberate move to gain executive experience and position himself for higher office in Washington. Facing a difficult-to-dicey reelection campaign this fall — his statewide approval mark hovers in the low 40s — the Indiana governor now occupies the second spot on the Republicans’ national ticket.

Given Trump’s outsized self-regard and unbounded enjoyment of performing in front of cameras, the more restrained Midwesterner assumes a coast-to-coast profile without casting so much as a sliver of a shadow on his running mate.

Interestingly, the Republican ticket reflects today’s marriage of the media and politics in America. Trump became a household name by starring on a reality television show, and Pence served as the host — “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” in his phrase — of a talk-radio program that spread his views across Indiana before he won his seat in Congress.

Like Pence, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, has served as a governor. The Virginian’s climb up the political ladder reads like a textbook case of step-by-step advancement — city council member in Richmond; mayor of Richmond; lieutenant governor; governor, and now U.S. senator.

Kaine, a Catholic, refers to himself as “boring,” his way of signaling to the wider political word that Clinton needn’t fear being upstaged by her No. 2. His fluency in Spanish will undoubtedly prove useful in speaking to Hispanic crowds worried about the construction of the Trump-proposed wall and the possibility of deportation.

What deserves scrutiny as the campaign gains more steam is whether the level of negativity from each ticket becomes radioactive. If it does — and that’s a genuine fear, given the stakes and the two standard bearers — citizens could end up shaking their heads and deciding they have better things to do than vote this Election Day. As Donald Trump might tweet: “Sad!”

Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. This fall he’s teaching a class focusing on American political culture and the 2016 election.