In trying to predict which party will win the White House next year feel free to ignore the gaffes and just focus on the economy.
I suppose it was just coincidence, but the events of this week juxtaposed two very different ways of thinking about next year’s presidential election. Simply put if you want to know which party is going to win next year’s presidential election you should spend more time thinking about China and the Federal Reserve, and less time thinking about Donald Trump’s latest antics.
The first even happened on Tuesday evening when Donald Trump decided to throw Univision’s anchor Jorge Ramos out of a press conference for the crime of asking a question about immigration.
A lot of liberal writers were quick to point out how dangerous this could be for the Republicans next year. Ramos isn’t well known outside of the Latino community, but he’s a dominant figure when it comes to news inside of it. Think of someone as respected and revered as Walter Cronkite was back in the 60’s. In fact there’s a strong argument that Ramos is the most influential journalist in America today.
As Ed Kilgore put it, “If I were in charge of Latino outreach for the RNC, I believe I would have watched the video last night and had an unhappy hour of about ten tall drinks.”
The second event was the huge downtown in the Chinese stock market, which has roiled other markets around the world.
So which of these kind of events, big macro level changes in the economy or gaffes and screw ups from the campaign trail, are likely to affect the outcomes in November of next year? Well the answer from political science literature is pretty clear; gaffes and other screw-ups that dominate news cycles rarely have a big impact on election outcomes in the long run, especially in presidential races. Indeed the fact of the matter is that politician’s gaffes don’t tend to hurt the much in presidential races. As Jonathan Bernstein pointed out back in the winter:
The real story isn’t that politicians who flub interviews are punished by bad publicity and have to walk back their remarks. The real story comes later: The controversy goes away, and almost always leaves no trace.
Mitt Romney, as Yglesias reminds us, committed a gaffe when he said that “corporations are people.” But it didn’t cost him the 2012 election. Nor did his “47 percent” comments. Likewise, Obama wasn’t hurt by his “you didn’t build that” comment about business. His awful performance in the first debate that year didn’t hurt him either.
This stuff has only a marginal effect if any on general elections. Or on the approval ratings of incumbent presidents. At best, gaffes might matter significantly in wide-open primary elections, when voters (and even more sophisticated party actors) have little reason to favor one candidate over another and have to choose.
Yet even though the risks turn out to be negligible, politicians are paranoid and risk-averse. And after all, even if nothing is lost after a gaffe, there’s not much to be gained by free-wheeling interviews, so it isn’t as if the cost-benefit calculation is completely nuts.
To be sure Trump’s bullying style, which is overwhelmingly directed and women and racial minorities, is pretty outrageous. And it’s hard to argue that he’s not a bigot when it come to talking about immigration. But since he won’t be the Republican nominee and most voters aren’t paying attention right now it’s really unlikely that he’ll be the cause of Republican defeat next fall. And while there is some danger that Trump will pull his party of out the mainstream when it comes to issues like immigration, the eventual winner of the Republican nomination will still have all of next summer to tack back to the center.
Rather the big risk for the GOP is that Trumpism might be the final straw for a whole generation of Latino voters who will just write off the Republican Party, the same way African Americans have. That would have a big impact on American politics for decades to come, but it’s not at all clear that The Donald has done that. And we won’t know for quite some time if that’s happened anyway.
Meanwhile we do know that the state of the economy during an election year is very much linked to whether or not an incumbent party will hold or lose the White House. Since the economy is growing but not exactly booming right now that points to a close fought election between Hillary Clinton and whoever the Republicans nominate. To be sure risks to the American economy from a Chinese stock market crash, or a correction on Wall Street for that matter, aren’t that big. But when you look at stagnation in Japan and Europe and risks to developing economies in the rest of the world it’s hard to predict an economic boom between now and November 2016. Which probably means holding the White House will be a little harder the for Democrats than it was a few weeks ago.
Which is a long way of saying that if you want to know which party will win the presidency next year pay attention to a broad base of economic indicators between now and Summer 2016. And yes, feel free to ignore Donald Trump.
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