With the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump just hours away, the media hype about this campaign event is in full-swing. Pundits are promoting the debate as a “make-or-break” performance for both candidates. Cable news networks have spent the better part of the weekend leading up to the debate discussing the strategies that each candidate will use and today will feature CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC over-analyzing everything from moderator Lester Holt’s political affiliation to what the candidates will wear.
Despite the hype, the reality is that presidential debates rarely change the dynamics of the campaign that are already established this late in the election season. Political science research demonstrates that even the most memorable moments over the last five decades have really produced no game-changers, despite claims to the contrary.
Political scientists Robert Erickson and Christopher Wlezien performed regression analysis on the pre and post-debate polling results from 1960-2008 and found little difference in the support for each candidate after the debates, even though many believe that major changes occurred.
For example, in 1992, President George H. W. Bush was criticized for looking a his watch in the three-way debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot with pundits claiming that he was disinterested. The data show, however, that his action had no difference.
The one debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976 appears to be the outlier. There we signficant differences in the polling results after the debate in which Gerald Ford infamously commented that Eastern Europe was free from Soviet domination. However, contrary to public memory, the direction of public opinion was toward Gerald Ford, not away from him. He began the campaign against Jimmy Carter almost 30 percentage points behind, primarily because of his pardon of Richard Nixon in 1975. By Election Day, even after the Eastern Europe gaffe, Ford closed Carter’s lead and lost the election by two percentage point–hardly a game changer that hurt him.
If history is a lesson, then tonight’s debate will not change the overall dynamics of the race between Clinton and Trump. Polls show that the race is close, but that Clinton has a narrow lead in national surveys. Unless something really extraordinary happens–well beyond what we have seen in previous presidential debates–even a gaffe of Trumpian proportions may affect this race very little.
For most of 2016 voters have been bombarded by absurd campaign promises by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Building a wall across our southern border with Mexico, rapidly defeating ISIS, or quickly reducing income inequality are impossible or unrealistic in the short term. Likewise, voters have been subjected to media stories too often focused on things only tangentially related to a president’s ability to govern.
As the campaign for the presidency approaches the final weeks, voters need to cut through the clutter and focus on the leadership qualities that each major contender would bring to the job. In our constitutional system, presidential leadership is highly institutionalized and presidents must mobilize support from the bureaucrats, Congress, and the public.
Effective presidential leadership is a complex calculus of many different qualities. In examining whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton has the potential for presidential greatness, their skills need to be judged against a set of criteria for effective leadership.
Using political scientist Fred Greenstein’s six criteria for effective leadership, the following observations can be made of Clinton and Trump:
Effectiveness as a public communicator. An effective political leader must be able to persuade citizens about policy positions. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan used very different rhetorical styles in getting public support around many of their major initiatives. Neither Clinton nor Trump comes close to the persuasive skills of those or other effective presidential communicators.
Hillary Clinton’s public communication style can best be described as efficient. Her speeches are logically organized and demonstrate a thorough understanding of policy issues. Clinton’s rhetoric rarely soars, even in her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech. At her worst, in speeches and interacting with the press, she lacks an emotional connection with her audience and can revert to sarcasm, as she did in characterizing many Trump supporters as “deplorables.”
Donald Trump favors unscripted communication events where his natural bombastic style can energize supporters and anger critics. His speeches tend to ramble and repeat soundbites rather than make substantive policy arguments. Trump draws energy from his audience and, at his worst, makes unsubstantiated and outrageous comments that divide rather than unify.
Organizational Capacity. An effective president must assemble a strong team and use that team to vet policy positions. Those on the team should have the ability to disagree with the president to reduce the likelihood of poor decisions. Franklin Roosevelt was well known for encouraging his advisors to disagree with one another and him on policy matters, while Dwight Eisenhower encouraged advisors to articulate very different points of view on foreign policy matters. Both Clinton and Trump prefer loyal, but silent, advisors.
Hillary Clinton values loyalty among those around her, which can create a cohesive team of advisors. However, while these loyal advisors can defend Clinton against outside attacks, they can be less effective in arguing with Clinton over her ideas and approach to politics. Creating a team with more devil’s advocates might have prevented many of her troubles with her late decision to oppose the Iraq War or her stubbornness in dealing with the email controversy.
In business Donald Trump always values his instincts and hires people to carry out his plans, not disagree with his ideas. Throughout much of the presidential campaign, Trump has exhibited disdain for advisors who attempt to change his way of thinking. Only recently with his third campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has Trump exhibited a willingness to follow advice.
Political Skill. Effective presidents recognize that the executive branch is only one part of the federal government and use their interpersonal skills to persuade, cajole, or threaten their way to getting legislation passed. Lyndon Johnson was the modern president whose political skills were the most successful in getting a sometimes recalcitrant Congress to pass legislation. Hillary Clinton demonstrated political skill as US senator, while Donald Trump relies on bullying to get results.
As a senator, Clinton demonstrated the ability to work with Democrats and Republicans alike. For example, she worked with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on legislation rewarding US manufacturing, and, after 9/11, worked closely with military leaders to promote more benefits for the military and keep US bases open.
Policy Vision. Effective presidents often create a consistent, transcendent vision out of their policy positions. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are two presidents whose policy visions inspired citizens to believe in their leadership. Neither Clinton nor Trump exhibits such a clear policy vision and this lack of vision creates problems for both on the campaign trail.
Hillary Clinton often has visionary ideas, such as the health care plan she prepared for her husband’s administration. Too often, however, Clinton retreats from policy positions, like on the Iraq War or the Trans Pacific Partnership, therefore appearing less visionary than opportunistic.
It is rare in presidential politics that a candidate, like Donald Trump, appears to have no policy vision. Trump has relied more on his campaign slogan and superlatives about his abilities than on clearly connected policy statements. Even on the one issue he has staked his campaign on—immigration—Trump vacillates on the means and goals of his policy.
Cognitive Style. Presidents must understand the complexities of policy issues and use vast amounts of
information to craft positions on these issues. Even before he entered the White House, Richard Nixon understood the changing dynamics of foreign policy toward the USSR and China and created an innovative approach to move beyond the Cold War policies of earlier presidencies. In terms of strategic intelligence, there is a vast different between the analytical approaches of Clinton and Trump.
Hillary Clinton possesses an analytical mind that reduces problems to their component parts. When she studies an issue like health care or how to renovate and modernize public schools, Clinton pours over data, talks to experts, and becomes a policy wonk on the issues. Having such an analytical approach can be problematic for Clinton because, like with her email controversy, it makes her fail to see the broader implications of the policy.
In business and politics, Donald Trump has an intuitive approach to problems. He follows his instinct and does not delve deeply into the intricacies of policies. Possessing above average intelligence, Trump shows little interest in learning about policy matters, putting a lot of pressure on his advisors who must accurately and succinctly analyze issues and give Trump policy options.
Emotional Intelligence. Effective presidents must manage their emotions and not be ruled by them. George H. W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower generally managed their emotions when facing domestic or foreign situations, or on the campaign trail. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was ruled by his temper and paranoia to the point that it led to his downfall. Although far from perfect, Clinton rarely is controlled by her emotions, while Trump’s emotions hold him hostage.
For almost three decades in public life, Hillary Clinton has managed her emotions in public through scandals, investigations, and difficult policy matters. She never appears to make an important decision when angry or frustrated. The emotional intelligence skill that is Clinton’s greatest challenge is demonstrating empathy. Her comments about West Virginia coal miners, for example, created many problems for her.
While Donald Trump’s supporters treasure his ability to state what he is thinking, Trump is often ruled by his anger. After discovering that the Mexican president disclosed that he told Trump that Mexico would never pay for the wall between Mexico and the United States, Trump angrily changed his major policy speech on immigration to reflect the toughest possible stance on immigration and contradict statements Trump made earlier the same day.
This analysis demonstrates that both Clinton and Trump have leadership deficiencies, but that Donald Trump lacks every leadership quality associated with presidential greatness.
Since Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency, he has regularly attacked politicians as incompetent. Republican and Democratic politicians alike have been excoriated by Trump with Hillary Clinton receiving his toughest criticisms for her work as Secretary of State. When he becomes president, Trump argues, he will clean up the domestic and foreign policy messes because of his competent leadership.
Trump and his surrogates routinely tout the business successes of Donald Trump, including his competence at everything from operating a piece of heavy equipment on a job site to negotiating a deal. Convention speakers from the business world have consistently praised Trump’s competence in all business matters and make the claim that this will make Trump an effective president.
The convention itself, both in terms of planning and execution, should give voters pause about Trump’s premise that he is the most competent person to lead the country and that other leaders, particularly Hillary Clinton, lack both the character and competence to fix the country’s problems.
Last Saturday Governor Mike Pence was named as Donald Trump’s running mate. At the same time stories were circulating in the media that Trump had second thoughts about Pence as late as midnight the night before he was named as his running mate. This decision, long considered to be the first important decision made by the presumptive nominee should have been an easy one for Trump who has been proclaimed to be an excellent judge of talent in the business world and someone whose visibility was enhanced by his long-running reality show “The Apprentice” in which he chose a strong leader for the Trump Organization.
Once the convention began, the behaviors of Trump and those close to him again raise questions of his competence as a leader. On Monday, Melanie Trump’s speech which plagiarized Michelle Obama’s 2008 address and was written by Trump Organization employee Meredith McIver demonstrated the basic inattention to detail by Trump and his people that should signal problems should a Trump administration take office.
The invitation to Ted Cruz to speak at the Republican Convention without a promise of an official endorsement demonstrates Trump’s lack of understanding about politics, but also poor managerial competence. Cruz’s blatant snub of Trump was troubling itself, but considering that the Trump team had his speech text two hours prior to the address and neither Trump or his people intervened is inexcusable for an event that was supposed to project party unity.
There are other examples of incompetence in terms of executing the convention, such as the selection of poor speakers or a schedule that simply dragged and deflated delegates and guests alike. For a candidate who wants to shake up the political system, the 2016 Republican Convention seemed like a poor rendition of previous conventions.
At some point in the presidential campaign, voters, including Trump supporters, must address whether the rhetoric of Trump’s competence as a leader matches the reality of his inattention to detail, poor planning, poor management of employees, and other characteristics that people use to judge this quality.
It became apparent to me soon after I arrived at the Republican National Convention that many Republicans don’t really want Donald Trump to win the presidency of the United States. Instead, they want revenge, pure and simple.
As the recent Washington Post/ABC poll indicates, Donald Trump its considered less qualified by most voters (Washington Post/ABC Poll on Qualifications of Trump and Clinton) and other surveys have indicated that Trump’s approval rating, even among Republicans is under water.Yet, as the Post poll and others indicate, the Trump-Clinton race is very tight.
When I attend conventions, I spend more time watching the crowd in the arena than listening to the speeches. Rarely do the speeches deviate from the talking points and themes well established over the previous year. I want to see what gets convention attendees to get out of their seats. In 2016 Republicans the idea that activates Republicans is the revenge fantasy that Hillary Clinton will be imprisoned for past actions.
During the speeches, delegates and guests will often break out into chants of “Lock Her Up.” Sometimes these are prompted by speakers, while at other times, the crowd will do this even while the speakers are talking about something else, including Donald Trump.
Last night several speakers tried to extol Donald Trump’s virtues as a candidate and potential president. The Trump children–Tiffany and Donald, Jr.–told warm stories of the candidate as father and mentor. Chris Christie talked about his 14-year friendship with Trump and the general manager of Trump Winery spoke about Trump’s managerial advice. These speeches were politely received.
The delegates and guests responded with emotion primarily when Hillary Clinton’s name was invoked, especially when Chris Christie prosecuted Clinton for her behaviors as Secretary of State and Ben Carson discussed Clinton’s admiration for Saul Alinsky and his praise of Lucifer. It was during these speeches that the loudest and most sustained chants of “Lock Her Up” happened.
Even beyond the arena itself, it is clear that Republicans want to punish Hillary Clinton and, by extension, President Barack Obama, more than they really want to elect Donald Trump. Although there were plenty of Trump t-shirts and other campaign swag being sold and worn, the number of t-shirts and buttons proclaiming to want Clinton jailed or worse was running a close second. Plus, the loudest protestors were often ones who claimed to have additional evidence of Clinton’s treason.
One of my students asked me, in a serious tone, whether Republicans would intimate impeachment proceedings soon after Inauguration Day should Clinton be elected. My initial response was to rationally say why this would never happen. After being in Cleveland, however, my response was “I hope not.”
Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary garners a level of attention completely disproportionate to the paltry 23 delegates it will send to the nominating convention. But New Hampshire voters will answer some key questions that will ultimately determine how the Republican primary race shakes out.
New Hampshire is used to being an important state in the Republican nominating process, despite its small size and population unrepresentative of the country’s demographics. It has a strong record of its winners going on to take the nomination. There is little doubt that New Hampshire will help clarify the Republican nominating process again this year.
What remains to be seen is whether the Republican nominee will have a strong shot at winning the presidency in November. The Republican campaign has evolved into a bloody intra-squad scrimmage with the leading candidates trading cheap shots and jabs to gain headlines.
Although the GOP seems damaged, New Hampshire is an opportunity for Republicans to right their ship and produce a viable candidate for the general election. Three things we stand to learn on Tuesday will show whether the GOP stands a good chance to win the White House.
Where will independent voters cast their ballots? New Hampshire’s open primary process means the independent voters, historically 45 percent of the electorate, can vote in either party’s primary. A recent WBUR survey found that 48 percent of these undeclared voters lean Republican, while 39 percent lean Democratic. Many are as angry and frustrated as the party bases and both parties offer outsider candidates. However, businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz offer different leadership and a fundamentally smaller government, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side is about a more activist government with more programs.
Where New Hampshire’s undecideds vote will either signal that the middle wants a less activist government or that the middle wants more government. A large majority of undeclared voters in New Hampshire participating in the Republican primary may signal that voters are looking for a change in the country’s executive leadership.
Will the GOP candidates pivot their appeals to be more inclusive? The GOP candidates were so focused on Iowa’s evangelicals that they seemed out of touch to many important voters around the country. Even Trump stressed his faith and character rather than talking as much about restoring the country’s economy and international prestige.
Republican candidates have typically pivoted to try to address broader groups of voters once they leave the Iowa caucus. One of the keys to Ronald Reagan’s political comeback in the 1980 New Hampshire primary was developing a message that appealed broadly to groups he used to win the presidency: conservatives, evangelicals, defense hawks and moderate voters who would later be called Reagan Democrats. It showed he learned his lesson from four years earlier when he lost New Hampshire to Gerald Ford after positioning himself as a rock-ribbed conservative in contrast to Ford’s more moderate image.
Can Republicans regain the control over their message? Republicans have traditionally been considered the party of message discipline, but Trump’s presence in the nominating process and the saturation coverage by the media has all but displaced the basic Republican message of government accountability and international strength. Instead, the leading GOP candidates are defined by journalists and each other as hypocrites with reactionary policies who can’t get things done.
Although George W. Bush lost the 2000 New Hampshire primary to John McCain, it was a turning point in his path to the nomination and, ultimately, the presidency. After the loss, the Bush team felt as though the McCain campaign had defined Bush as part of the establishment and unable to reform government. Starting with the South Carolina primary campaign, the Bush team adopted the new theme “Reformer with Results” to highlight his effectiveness as as a reformer while serving as Texas governor.
The question for Republicans is whether they can control the chaos that they are bringing into New Hampshire and give voters a clear idea of how the nominee will govern with a Republican Congress.
Despite critics who argue that New Hampshire is too small or too homogeneous in its population to be in such an important position in the nominating process, candidates and their campaigns have learned important lessons that last far beyond the nominating process. In the next few days we will see if Republicans will stop their mud wrestling to learn from history.
Note: Published in US News and World Report, February 8, 2016
Making predictions for politics in 2016 feels like predicting the winning numbers for the lottery. Six months ago, I was one of the many analysts who predicted that Donald Trump was a flash-in-the pan candidate and would not last as the leader for the Republican presidential nomination. I failed to understand the lasting power of Trump’s celebrity status and how he channels the anger and frustration of many Americans.
The good news is that the political world is not just the Republican nominating process. Elections for Congress, governor, and state legislatures will be determined by more traditional forces such as fundraising, electoral district lines, and issues. The Supreme Court continues to operate as an institution made up of justices with very different views of the Constitution. International events remain shaped by long-standing economic, political, and religious differences.
It is with this belief in the stability of most national and international politics that I offer 16 predictions for the next year.
- The two presidential nominating fields could not be more different. The Republican Party, which traditional favors a candidate who has served his time in the political trenches, currently has a celebrity outsider who has held many positions favored by Democrats. Democrats, on the other hand, who have often turned to outsider candidates has the ultimate political insider leading in the polls. When things shake out in early summer, the Republicans will have a Rubio-Fiorina ticket, while the Democrats will have a Clinton-Kaine
- The US Senate will end up with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans after the fall elections. Republicans have more seats up in this election cycle and Democrats pick up key wins in Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire to put the Senate into a deadlocked position.
- The Democrats pick up five seats in the US House, far from the 30 needed to retake the House. This prediction assumes that Republicans choose Rubio or another experienced politician as its presidential candidate. The nomination of Donald Trump could lead to the Democrats picking up 4-6 more seats in the House.
- Of the 12 governor’s races this year, Democrats currently hold eight of them. Unfortunately for Democrats, there is likely to be bad news as they are likely to lose their hold of the governor’s mansion in West Virginia and may lose Missouri. That puts a lot of pressure on the North Carolina governor’s election. In the end, Republicans will have a net gain of two governorships.
- Speaking of North Carolina and its governor’s race, it will come down, unsurprisingly, between Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper. Although both have primary challengers, neither should have difficulty in winning their respective party nominations.
- The legal cases in the court systems over North Carolina’s redistricting will result in the primary and general elections going as planned with the current district maps. Although opponents of the Republican-drawn maps hold hope that the US Supreme Court will rule the NC districts invalid, using the Alabama ruling as precedent, the Court will not rule similarly on the NC maps.
- The legal case over the NC voter id law will also fail to overturn this provision of the 2013 law, since lawmakers passed a revision to the law making it easier for voters to cast their ballots.
- The US Supreme Court will uphold the idea of “one person, one vote” in Evenwel v. Abbott and not allowing districts to be drawn on the basis of eligible voters. This will allow the growing Latino population to continuing shaping congressional and legislative districts.
- The Supreme Court will rule a second time in Fisher v. the University of Texas. The Court will rule against the University of Texas and effectively end affirmative action.
- The major emphasis of US foreign policy will shift to the Iran-Saudi Arabia crisis. If these two regional powers get into a shooting war with one another, instead of a proxy war in Yemen and other places, this will undercut much of what the US is doing in Syria, including defeating ISIS. On the presidential campaign circuit, there will be a lot of talk about US failures with Iran, but little substantive discussion of how to manage the Iran-Saudi Arabia crisis.
- After a productive end to 2015 in terms of legislation, Congress reverts back to moving very few pieces of legislation through that will likely be signed by President Obama. The Federal Aviation Administration will be reauthorized by early March and a bailout for Puerto Rico may be the only major bills signed during the election year, with the Trans Pacific Pipeline and immigration reform being rescheduled for after the next presidential inauguration.
- Back to election predictions, Senator Richard Burr will win reelection only because the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other major donors will put their money in other races,
- Governor Pat McCrory will narrowly win reelection as the Democrats fail to produce the Obama coalition of voters from 2008 and 2016.
- Incumbent Council of State members Dan Forest, Steve Troxler, Wayne Goodwin, Elaine Marshall, Beth Wood, and June Atkinson win reelection. Challenger Charles Meeker beats incumbent Cherie Berry for Commissioner of Labor. Josh Stein wins the Attorney General race, while Dan Blue is elected State Treasurer.
- The $2 billion bond issue in North Carolina passes comfortably with bi-partisan support.
- Hillary Clinton wins the presidency because of the “blue wall” of electoral votes. She loses North Carolina 52-48%, but wins Florida, Ohio, and Virginia—all keys to her victory.
Despite all of the discussion about an angry electorate, the voter turnout will not be historically high. This election appears more like the 2004 election cycle, rather than 2008. In the end, neither Democrats nor Republicans will be completely excited about their presidential candidates and many voters will stay home.
The fallout from Wednesday night’s Republican debate hosted by CNBC was predictable. Now, the NBC family of networks may lose the ability to host future debates, while Republican candidates scored points with their base constituents by attacking the media.
But the real loser on Wednesday night was the American people. Unless we rethink the essence of political debates, we are going to end up less informed about substantive policy positions and more cynical about how we choose our nation’s leader.
Let’s be serious, these are not debates. Academic debate, like that established by the Oxford University Union and practiced by college and high school students around the country for decades, is designed to make the debaters smarter. Does anyone seriously think that the debate prep used by Democratic and Republican candidates for president has caused them to learn more about the issues facing the country?
Political campaign debates in this country started as an attempt to educate and persuade Americans about an issue dividing the country—slavery. The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates gave the candidates for the US Senate from Illinois extensive time to develop their arguments for and against this issue.
What have Americans learned from the 2015 debates so far? Donald Trump is rich. Hillary Clinton has changed her position on key issues. Marco Rubio is from modest circumstances. Bernie Sanders wants us to stop talking about email.
Worse yet, the skills needed to do well in contemporary debates have nothing to do with presidential leadership. Debates reward style over substance as debaters give snappy answers instead of reflective ones. The entire goal for contemporary debates is for an individual to tear down an opponent, instead of working on solutions with someone with different policy positions.
It is unlikely than any of the four titans on Mt. Rushmore would have made it through the primary process if they had to slog through today’s contemporary debates.
Before debates devolve even further, we need to make substantive changes:
1. Change the format of the debates—the current debate format of having as any as ten candidates on stage competing for the opportunity to talk for one minute about silly or substantive issues must be transformed. Let’s go back to the Lincoln-Douglas model of having two people with fundamentally different policy positions debate for an hour. Watching Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate Wall St. reforms for an hour or Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham debate military intervention against ISIS would be both good viewing and a test of how each person would think about issues and lead on them.
2. Get rid of all moderators—Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and CNBC’s John Harwood are not only a distraction, but unnecessary for true debate. Changing the format to a series of single-issue debates featuring two candidates at a time only requires a referee to make sure the candidates follow time limits and don’t get off subject. Someone like veteran NFL referee Ed Hochuli would be a great choice. Even Donald Trump would be intimidated by Hochuli’s stern admonitions.
3. Change how public opinion and networks influence campaigns—the Republican debates have demonstrated the limits of public opinion polls. Using a series of national polls 12-15 months before the 2016 election to select candidates to be in the main and undercard debates is absurd, especially when polling margins of error makes the determination of each lineup scientifically invalid. Public opinion polls can continue to play a role in political debates, but only in determining the topics for the single-issue substantive debates. Polls are pretty reliable and stable when they seek to determine which issues Americans find important.
Political debates can be an important part of the campaign process in this country and help voters make informed choices about candidate’s policy positions and leadership skills. Unfortunately, current debates may yield a president whose abilities and ideas are not what Americans thought they were getting.