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2016: An Unanchored, Puzzling Presidential Election | Commentary

By Andrew Kohut

So far, the 2016 presidential campaign is not about anything very much, excepting issues specific to the leading and emerging candidates. It has been mostly about controversies swirling around Hillary Rodham Clinton, including the legacy question, which she shares with Jeb Bush. And more recently the focus has turned to the qualifications and electability of the emerging GOP newbies, from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who stand in the way of a possible third Bush presidency. In none of this do we see anything that speaks to the general state of the nation or mood of the electorate. At this point, 2016 seems more puzzling and less defined than other modern era non-incumbent races.

Consider 2008: The overarching themes were quite clear — discontent with the outgoing George W. Bush administration and broad disapproval of the Iraq War. Then, there was the 2000 race taking place during a historic economic boom era. The public was so laid back about the way things were going in the country that while the Supreme Court was deciding who actually won the election, polls found Americans willing to embrace either outcome. Gallup reported 8 out of 10 Americans said they would accept the Supreme Court’s choice as the legitimate winner of the election. Imagine that in these polarized times!
But this time around, it is not so easy to get a handle on the mood and temper of the times that will animate the electorate in 2016. Indeed, a close look at current polling raises a number of basic questions about what kind of election this is going to be. First, the most fundamental question about the outcome of presidential elections is: Are the voters looking for continuity or for change? On the one hand, high levels of discontent with Washington, and a continued low rating for the state of the nation strongly suggests it will be a change election. However, rising economic confidence, an unemployment rate that has declined markedly and an incumbent president whose approval ratings have increased significantly may argue for continuity.
Secondly, it is very unclear which political party has an advantage. In three of the past four presidential campaigns, the party with the most favorable image won the presidency. Polls today show very conflicted public views about both political parties with neither clearly outshining the other.
Thirdly, each party has a candidate challenge. On the Democratic side, mixed views about an unchallenged Clinton, even before current controversies, is the mega puzzle of this election. For the Republicans, will the increased rightward movement of the Republican base doom the chances of a viable right of center candidate?
Fourthly, will foreign policy emerge again as a key issue in this campaign after years of taking a backseat to the economy and domestic issues? With an ever growing concern about Islamic radicalism, and a return of American forces to the Middle East, will voters once again be judging candidates on the basis of their world views and national security competence?

Continuity Versus Change
President Barack Obama’s job approval ratings have begun to move out of negative territory for the first time since 2013. The Pew Research Center’s March survey had the president’s ratings about evenly divided between approvers (46 percent) and disapprovers (47 percent). The Gallup Poll had an even higher rating for Obama, (50 percent to 46 percent).
A January Pew Research survey noted Obama was being helped by a steady improvement in public views of the nation’s economy. In January, 27 percent said national economic conditions are excellent or good, up from 16 percent a year earlier. And almost twice as many expect the economy to be better than worse a year from now (31 percent vs. 17 percent).
For the first time in five years, more Americans say Obama’s economic policies have made conditions better (38 percent) than worse (28 percent) and Obama engenders more public confidence on his handling of the economy than do the leaders of the new Republican majority in Congress.
At the same time, national polls find just about 1 in 3 Americans saying they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country. Pew Research surveys identify three continuing sources of discontent: While there are fewer who complain about the job situation than any time since the onset of the great recession, a 57 percent majority continue to say jobs are difficult to find in their community.
Although inflation is at almost zero, 55 percent of Americans, held back by low wages, continue to say they are falling behind the cost of living.

(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Fully 72 percent say that, in general, the government’s policies since the recession have done little or nothing to help middle-class people, and nearly as many say they have provided little or no help for small businesses (68 percent) and the poor (65 percent).

Which Party Has the Advantage?
In recent years, for the most part, the Democratic Party has been better liked than the GOP. Threats of government shutdowns, especially in 2013, took a toll on the image of the Republicans. Its national favorability rating fell into the 30s in response, while the Democrats’ ratings remained in the mid-40s. Pew Research’s most recent poll finds the GOP rating improving to 41 percent favorable, compared to the Democrats’ 46 percent.

Reflecting that narrow margin, a February survey revealed how conflicted Americans are about the two parties. It concluded “Majorities say the Democratic Party is open and tolerant, cares about the middle class and is not ‘too extreme.’” By contrast, most Americans see the GOP lacking tolerance and empathy for the middle class, and half view it as too extreme.
“Nonetheless, the Republicans more than hold their own with the Democrats in views of which party can better handle major issues,” the survey found. “The Republican Party runs even on the economy and immigration and holds double-digit leads over the Democrats on terrorism, foreign policy and taxes.”

There is little here to suggest either party has a positive enough image to give its presidential candidate a significant advantage, which has not been the case in the last three presidential elections. In 2003, the GOP was better regarded than the Democrats, while in 2007 and 2011 the opposite was the case.

The Candidate Challenges
Even before the overwhelming impact of Clinton’s email controversy, a close reading of polls revealed the public had very conflicted attitudes toward the former first lady’s candidacy. While a generally popular Clinton bested all comers in the Democratic Party and all possible Republican opponents, Americans held mixed views about her as a potential president. Notably, an ABC News/Washington Post survey in October found just 51 percent of its respondents thought she would make a good president, while 41 percent thought she would not.

The Clinton problem on the Democratic side dwarfs the GOP’s issues, but Republicans also face a major challenge. The Republican base is even more dominated by ultra conservative right voters in 2016 than it was in 2012, raising the issue of whether centrist candidates will be pushed even further from the mainstream than in past nominating contests.


In this light, it is not surprising that while Bush and Walker run slightly ahead of the field in the Real Clear Politics average of Republican voter survey results, Cruz, Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson are all in striking distance.

Foreign Policy, Once Again
The Pew Research Center led off its annual national priorities report noting the public mood had changed. “As views of the economy improve and terrorist threats persist, the public’s policy priorities have changed: For the first time in five years, as many Americans cite defending the U.S. against terrorism (76 percent) as a top policy priority as say that about strengthening the nation’s economy (75 percent).” The survey also found strengthening the U.S. military had also increased markedly. The number of Americans saying that should be a top priority jumped from 41 percent in 2013 to 52 percent currently.
While the public’s focus for the most part remains on domestic issues, it is also clear the threat of Islamic terrorism has once again raised the profile of national security as a public concern and potential basis of candidate evaluation.

Andrew Kohut is founding director of the Pew Research Center.

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