The Election of 2016 - a Personal Reflection

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The 2016 election was not all that unusual in its individual characteristics. Harry Melkonian
Harry Melkonian

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Having rather clear recollections of 13 previous Presidential elections, by 2016, I had seen a fair number of the possible twists and gyrations in the electoral process. Perhaps somewhat to the surprise of many readers, to someone with my background, the 2016 election was not all that unusual in its individual characteristics – virtually all of the peculiarities had happened previously. Where 2016 was unique was in the confluence of so many eccentricities. To me, the outcome was not surprising – it was bound to be a coin-toss, and it was.

Initially, I am perhaps a dinosaur in this age of partisanship. I am what the late Elliot Richardson called 'a radical moderate.'1 That is, without an ideology except a passionate commitment to moderation and doing what seems right regardless of whatever ‘ism’ that attaches to the act. I suggest that the most recent truly moderate President was Dwight Eisenhower who urged balance, caution and the avoidance of costly panaceas. In this era where moderates have been pushed to the fringes by both major Parties, I had the unique perspective as an impartial and somewhat despondent observer in 2016 as opposed to being a participant or supporter.

On the evening before the 2016 election, I was asked to speak to a large gathering of students and parents at a prominent Sydney school attended by my sons. At that time, I explained the electoral process – which always fascinates Australians – and which is rarely understood by Americans. During the Q & A, I awaited the dreaded question - ‘who is going to win?’ I recoiled at the question because the only honest answer was that it was just too close to call – it was a matter of who got the breaks. As it worked out, the breaks fell to Donald Trump – but it could just as well have been otherwise.

On the other hand, on Election Day itself, before the vote count had begun, I was confident that the Donald would pull it off. This was not based on any scientific analysis but on superstition built on 13 prior elections. The moment I saw that the Clinton headquarters at Javits Centre in New York had fireworks in place ready to launch; I was certain that she had lost. Talk about jinxing an outcome – whoever thought of that awful idea must have been a real novice.

Donald Trump’s team knew that he just might win and their final two-week strategy reflected this belief. Trump campaigned at an unsustainably exhausting pace – appearing in a half dozen marginal States. Besides making far fewer appearances in the final days, Secretary Clinton dissipated her effectiveness by spending time in places like Ohio – where she had virtually no chance of winning (and lost by nearly 10%). As was the case with most of the major polls, her private polling was apparently woefully deficient. On the other hand, Trump concentrated his efforts in mid-western industrial states that could have gone either way. And, he won almost all of those states by the thinnest of margins.

Trump’s success in many states by thin margins is reminiscent of the 1960 election in which John Kennedy prevailed through a similar outcome. While the popular vote reflected an almost even contest, the state-by-state vote told a different story. Richard Nixon carried states by larger margins than JFK; but JFK won more electoral votes by narrowly defeating Nixon in many large states. In the US electoral system, winning massive majorities in California, Massachusetts and New York simply doesn’t cut it. It is much better to squeak-through in lots of places. By analogy, the Clinton campaign bore all the traits of Malcolm Turnbull running a national campaign based on a strategy of winning all the votes in Wentworth – his home constituency!

In terms of modern historical analogy, the 2016 election bore significant similarities to the Republican nomination of 1940 (slightly before my time) and the election of 1968 (where the similarities were very pronounced).

In 1940, before the era of primaries, there were two highly qualified Republican Senators, Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg seeking the nomination at the national convention. Both suffered from being abysmally boring, but admittedly they were very policy-oriented. As a late-comer, the dynamic young and progressive New York City racket-busting prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey also sought the nomination. But in 1940, Dewey was still relatively unknown. He would later be nominated for President twice (and lose) and serve several terms as Governor of New York. Try as they might, none of this trio could assemble the requisite delegate votes to be nominated.

In addition to the three Republican candidates, there was a fourth – a businessman who had never served in any public office and who had never been known as a Republican. Wendell Willkie, originally an Indiana lawyer, formerly President of the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation – an electric utility, was in 1940 a high-powered figure on Wall Street. His support was built through the Associated Willkie Clubs of America and was independent of the Republican establishment.

At the beginning of the Convention, the Willkie candidacy was treated as somewhat of a joke by the Party pros. As the balloting began, Willkie was a long-shot – favoured by boisterous crowds of young people in the galleries but with few supporters among the delegates. But, with each ballot the professional pols faltered and Willkie gained. On the sixth ballot the so-called ‘barefoot boy on Wall Street’ was nominated. There had been no vetting. Had there been, it would have been discovered that Willkie was reputedly no longer living with his wife in Indiana but was cohabiting with another partner in New York. This thinly disguised secret didn’t matter to his fans and for various reasons, Franklin Roosevelt did not make this a campaign issue.

Willkie lost to President Roosevelt rather handily – in part because Republicans discovered that Willkie was rather a progressive Democrat, supporting trade unions and federal intervention in local affairs. Five days before the election, Willkie called the GOP National Chair, Congressman Joe Martin, and asked how the election looked. In something reminiscent of 2016, Martin replied that it was all down to 12 or 14 states ‘that hang in the balance’ and will ‘be decided by a small margin.’ Martin added that if Willkie could get 'that last week’s pay-up, we can win.' Martin concluded by saying that Willkie’s problem was that he needed to win all 14 marginal states2. On Election Day, Willkie lost in all of them.

Wendell Willkie and Donald Trump were both high-powered New York City businessmen whose first foray into politics was as presidential nominees. Willkie lost but, then again, he was challenging the incumbent Franklin Roosevelt who was a rather formidable candidate3. 1940 simply demonstrates that nominating a political unknown like Trump had precedent in the Republican Party. In fact Trump’s nomination was easier to predict than Willkie’s. In 1940, nominees were selected by convention delegates who were in turn selected by Party leadership. There was not a mechanism for a populist lacking Party backing to force a nomination. By 2016, the Republican Party nomination was entirely through popular primaries.

Now, before addressing the similarities between the 1968 and the 2016 elections, the difference in the nominating process of the two major parties is worth a mention – and again, the election of 1968 is the key event. In 1968, as in 2016, there was not an incumbent seeking re-election. In both Parties, the nomination was up for grabs. On the GOP side in 1968, the contest was among Nixon, Romney (who dropped out), Rockefeller and Reagan (a latecomer). Neither Rockefeller nor Reagan challenged Nixon by forcing primaries and Nixon’s nomination may have been inevitable. But, the Democrats presented an entirely different political landscape.

President Lyndon Johnson, after having been humiliated by Senator Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, withdrew from the race4. For the next few months, Senators McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy challenged each other in primaries. At the end of the primary cycle, Kennedy lost in Oregon but quickly recovered by winning the California primary. Tragically, he was assassinated on the evening of his victory. With Kennedy’s death, Senator George McGovern entered the race. But, at the national convention in Chicago, Hubert Humphrey, handpicked by Lyndon Johnson as his successor, won the nomination even though he had not even entered a single primary. Humphrey went on to lose to Nixon in the general election.

After Humphrey’s loss, the Democrats were determined to never again have a nominee who shunned the primaries and who relied on political bosses for the nomination. The result was the McGovern Commission that re-wrote the Party rules so that candidates would only be chosen through primaries. In 1972, under the new Party rules, the Democrats nominated George McGovern (chair of the reform commission) who went on to lose the 1972 general election by carrying only one state plus the District of Columbia.

Putting aside the impact of Nixon’s dirty tricks, the McGovern candidacy was a disaster – the candidate simply had very little appeal to the average voter. So, the Democrats had their ‘Counter-Reformation’ and by the time of the 1976 election, had in place a nomination process that consisted of delegates chosen in popular primaries plus a very large block of Super Delegates, consisting of Party leaders as well as elected government officials such as governors and members of Congress. The Super Delegates were intended to be a fail-safe mechanism to prevent a repeat of 1972. However, this came back to haunt the Democrats in 2016 as both Senator Sanders and Donald Trump publicly assailed the Democrats as having a ‘rigged’ selection process.

Having won in both the 1968 and 1972 elections, the Republicans largely avoided the reform turmoil self-inflicted by the Democrats. By 1976, the GOP had, without incident, adopted a nominating process based almost entirely on popular primaries. Not having suffered a 1972-like debacle, the Republicans have not tampered with the popular primaries – there are no Super Delegates in the Republican nominating process5. Since the GOP nomination was simply a matter of winning primaries, this paved the way for a celebrity non-politician to capture the nomination; with Party officials helpless to impede his progress.

With this background, the similarities between the 1968 election and 2016 make for an apt comparison. Richard Milhous Nixon, Congressman, Senator, and Vice-President appeared as one of the most qualified people in history to seek the Presidency. He barely lost the 1960 election and was widely regarded as an authority on foreign policy. But, Nixon was a divisive figure and a large portion of the American public simply found him to be nothing short of loathsome. Former long-time Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas referred to Nixon as 'that ugly fellow with the chinquapin eyes'6 and liberal intellectuals shunned Nixon with 'less a reasoned reaction than an allergy.'7 But, by 1968, Nixon was touted as the 'New Nixon.'

After the debacle of the 1968 Democratic Convention, Nixon had a comfortable 20 point lead over his rival. But, for the next few months, as people saw that the New Nixon seemed to resemble the Old Nixon – shifty, partisan and mean; his lead slowly diminished. And, near to the election, President Johnson declared a bombing halt in Vietnam, made meaningful peace overtures and Vice President Humphrey intimated that his Vietnam policy would not parrot Johnson’s. With these events, moderates and centrist Democrats returned to the fold and by election eve, the election was a dead heat. Nixon won but he easily could have lost.

Looking at 2016, the similarities to 1968 were uncanny. The Democrat establishment candidate was someone with strong credentials (like Nixon’s). Hillary Clinton had been a popular Senator from New York, served as Secretary of State, and had narrowly lost the 2008 nomination to a junior Senator from Illinois. Further, she would be the first woman President and through her long-time Party connections, she had the Super Delegates safely in her camp. But, the mere mention of her name created an allergic loathing among conservative intellectuals and voters. Further, by 2016, conservative Fox News was a force to be reckoned with.

Senator Clinton also faced an unlikely challenger – an independent socialist Senator who was not even a Democrat – who mounted a surprisingly strong primary challenge. New Englander and septuagenarian Bernie Sanders, without Party support and without big contributors, defeated Clinton in primary after primary. But, it was to no avail because Clinton only had to win a minority of primary delegates and would still sail through the nomination courtesy of the Super Delegates. Sanders countered by criticising the nominating process. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump joined this chorus. Because of her strong connection with the Party machinery, this claim took a dreadful toll on Hillary Clinton’s outlook in the general election.

Senator Clinton started out with a massive lead over the hapless Donald Trump. But, as the campaign wore on, that lead began to slowly drift downward – which is natural for any front runner. But, then there were events that turned the tide. First, Trump never let up on the ‘Crooked Hillary’ epithet. This name-calling was buttressed by earlier claims about a rigged nomination and was firmly cemented by the highly questionable FBI statements about her emails. Second, Clinton – preaching to her faithful made the nearly obscene reference to Trump supporters as including a basket of ‘deplorables.’ She apologised but that was a meaningless act – she had rather convincingly reinforced all the negatives about her and the New York/Massachusetts elite. Third, Trump administered what may have been the coup de gras when he promised to ‘drain the swamp’ referring to a purge of the permanent Washington legal/political elite. This must have not made conservatives at the American Enterprise Institute any more comfortable than their liberal colleagues over at the Brookings Institute.

By election date, both Clinton and Nixon had lost their seemingly insurmountable leads. Humphrey lost by a narrow margin while Trump won. Either election could have had the opposite outcome. It is also not difficult to explain these two different outcomes.

For the last two weeks of her campaign, Hillary Clinton was largely ineffective but she did not perpetrate any misconduct. The same cannot be said of Nixon. As his seemingly insurmountable lead over Humphrey started to evaporate in light of President Johnson’s efforts to end the Vietnam war, Richard ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon lived up to his name and embarked on what I believe to be the most despicable act of treachery since Aaron Burr’s antics in the early 19th Century. Nixon surreptitiously, through intermediaries, made efforts to scuttle the peace process – efforts which seemed to work. The result was Nixon won the election, and another 30,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese would ultimately lose their lives as a result of this despicable act.8

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. While the 2016 election seems without parallel to observers who base their knowledge on the past 25 years, the analysis really changes once the time-universe is expanded. The parallels to 1968 are uncanny, with some 1940 events thrown in. As for how it all will work out, that will be another story for another time.

Footnotes

  1. Elliot Richardson was Secretary of Health Education & Welfare, Secretary of Defense and Attorney General in the Nixon administration; Secretary of Commerce and Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the Ford administration and Ambassador at Large in the Carter administration.
  2. Joseph Martin, My First Fifty Years in Politics (McGraw-Hill, New York 1960) 119-120. Willkie went on to join the prominent Wall Street law firm that continues to bear his name – Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
  3. Willkie went on to join the prominent Wall Street law firm that continues to bear his name – Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
  4. McCarthy actually lost in New Hampshire but garnered such a strong vote that Johnson could see the handwriting on the walls. Largely due to McCarthy’s near-success, Johnson’s nemesis, Senator Robert Kennedy, also announced his candidacy.
  5. Had Trump lost, I believe that the GOP would have likely adopted some form of Super Delegates.
  6. Chinquapins are a small brown edible nut.
  7. Steward Alsop, Nixon and Rockefeller – a Double Portrait (Doubleday, New York 1960) 30.
  8. Nixon’s backchannel communications with the government of South Vietnam to scuttle the peace accords is now well-documented. See Ken Hughes, Chasing Shadows – the Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (Univ. Virginia Press, 2014). President Johnson, aware of Nixon’s perfidy, advised Senate GOP leader Everett Dirksen of what Johnson termed Nixon’s ‘treason.’ Dirksen did not disagree. Humphrey chose not to make this information public because he was unsure of public reaction and his private polls evidently showed him winning without taking the risk of this disclosure.

First published . Last updated 20/08/2018. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Harry Melkonian

Harry Melkonian is a freelance writer, educator, commentator and lawyer with a focus on US politics. He has conducted short courses on US politics in Sydney on topics ranging from current elections to historical issues including well-known events such as the Kennedy Assassination and Nixon and Watergate to less well-known American history such as When No One Was Elected – the Presidency and Vice Presidency 1974-1976. He has periodically appeared on the ABC and SBS as a commentator for Australian elections. Harry was previously a partner at the law firm White & Case in the US, and is licensed to practice law in the jurisdictions of New York, California, England and New South Wales. He is now an Honorary Associate at Macquarie Law School, specialising in US constitutional issues as well as media and defamation law.