By Janet Veach, Marketing Administrator, Advia Credit Union
No one really expected Donald Trump to beat Hilary Clinton in what seemed like the longest, nastiest and most divisive presidential campaign in recent American history. Just three days after the election, InterCom welcomed WMU Professor and Chair of Political Science John Clark to our November Second Friday Speaker Series, where he helped members and guests make sense of an unsettling campaign season and the surprising election results.
John agreed with our national news coverage that a nationwide desire for change drove Americans to elect a candidate who was a political outsider, politically incorrect and a former reality TV star who upended all of society’s norms and conventions.
John’s takeaways from the election cycle:
1. Suspend for a moment who won and who didn’t.
Not much happened in this election cycle that wasn’t expected — including a tight race. Twice in the last five election cycles we have had a candidate win the popular vote but lose the electoral college vote. It’s also very difficult for a candidate from the same party as the incumbent to win the White House. Voters typically shy away from the party currently in power and with Obama in office for eight years, Hillary had an uphill climb in this campaign.
We reward our politicians for self-interested behavior during an election and we don’t reward them on public policy decisions and for doing what’s right for the country between elections. The American public puts too much emphasis on the election itself, when it’s what happens between elections that matters.
2. This election wasn’t about public policy but about identity.
Both candidates were appealing to different identities and emotions. For professional women, it was a very big deal to vote for the very first female president. While Hillary appealed to women, minorities and young people, Donald dominated among white voters, especially non-college educated men who feel they have been left behind and out of the conversation.
This population, due to social or economic dislocation, used to have a certain status in the world and they have lost that status. Despite being politically incorrect, Donald spoke to these men and connected on an emotional level. He is a New Yorker, yet he resonated better than any candidate who didn’t share their background.
Republican candidates also do very well in rural areas where fewer people live. In rural counties, where there are fewer educational and job-related opportunities, people tend to vote more Republican. Many of the people who voted for Trump also weren’t interested in policy issues. Conversely, those who live in college towns have access to more opportunities and tend to be more Democratic. For example, Kalamazoo County – home to WMU, Kalamazoo College and KVCC – voted Democratic.
In Michigan, when the final tally came in the morning after the election, Trump had edged out Clinton by about 15,000 votes. It’s the first time Michigan has gone red since the election of 1988.
Apathy towards both candidates kept many people away from the polls.
3. Both parties are in disarray.
The Republicans have been in disarray since they took control in 2010. Now they have a president who is a marginal Republican and who is at odds with their party. Of note were the partisan results – it was the first time ever where in the states Hillary won, Democratic candidates also won; where Donald won, Republican candidates won in those states as well.
John concluded by saying that the campaign has left the American people with a challenge: We need, as a society, to decide and define what is acceptable behavior and what is unacceptable behavior on the national stage. We need to expect everyone to model the behavior we define.
A challenge for communicators
As a society, we are confronted with the challenges of getting real and accurate news in a fast-changing media landscape. Now that we get to choose the news that we prefer through social media channels and digital news sites, based on our individual philosophies and views, we can’t count on receiving the same message as our neighbors. We have lost the foundation that used to bind us together as a community on how we perceive the world. As professional communicators, this presents unique challenges. We were left with the question, “How does society get on the same page to understand the world?”