Lessons and depression from the primary elections

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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I have not written anything about the primary elections this year, partly because everyone has been commenting on them, and partly because I found them so depressing.

I also held off from writing because the exit polls rarely provided data about Catholic voters. Catholic Republicans in the 2012 primaries were essential to the nomination of Mitt Romney. In 2008, they also helped nominate John McCain. Catholic Democrats in 2008 began by supporting Hillary Clinton, but gradually warmed up to Barack Obama.

But this year, because of the lack of data, it is all guess work. When it comes to religion, the only religious people pollsters and secular pundits care about are the evangelicals.

But it has been quite a ride. Here are four lessons we have learned from this election season.

First, religious leaders who play politics are generals without armies.

We already knew that from earlier elections when Catholics ignored the bishops and voted for pro-choice candidates, but now it has been confirmed that evangelical leaders are also generals without troops. For the most part, the leadership loved Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, but they could not deliver the vote for him.

It is true that evangelicals who go to church liked Cruz better than those who stayed home on Sunday, but as a group, evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.

Earlier election cycles had shown similar results for Catholics. Those who went to church on Sunday were more likely to reflect the views of Catholic bishops and vote Republican. But Catholics, especially Hispanics, were more likely to vote Democratic than were white Protestants.

We even saw a similar phenomenon from black ministers in 2008. At the beginning, they saw Barack Obama as a young upstart and they backed their old friend, Hillary Clinton. Black ministers switched to Obama only after their people ran off without them. The leaders had to play catch-up.

The lesson from all this is that religious leaders do not command many troops. They have Potemkin armies. When they do have a following, they are simply reflecting the views already held by their congregations. They are as much followers as leaders.

Second, economic concerns trump values. Populism trumps ideology.

Abortion and gay marriage got little traction during this year’s primaries. Trump waffled all over the place on abortion, but only the media cared. He still won the Republican nomination. Like Ronald Reagan, he was able to switch from pro-choice to pro-life without much fuss. Again, like Reagan, he was even able to switch parties. The candidate’s appeal is emotional not intellectual.

Republicans are now trying to make bathrooms a political issue, but although it is currently making a splash in the media, it is not clear that transgender politics is going to have an impact on the November election.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders got attention and support by stressing economic issues: inequality, Wall Street, and the big banks. But his appeal to college students may have had more to do with promises of free tuition than concern about social justice.

Meanwhile, on economic issues, Trump ran to the left of the Republican field. He made job losses from trade agreements into an electoral issue even though his clothing line was made abroad. And the traditional Republican obsession about the debt did not mean much to a man who has gone through four bankruptcies. Can the U.S. declare bankruptcy and leave the Chinese holding the bag? Why not?

Third, character does not matter, except for your opponent's.

When it comes to conservative evangelicals, it would be impossible to describe a worse candidate in terms of character than Donald Trump: multiple divorces, a braggart about his sexual exploits, a casino owner, and an egomaniac who says he does not need to ask God for forgiveness. Yet evangelicals ignore all this while obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s emails and Bill Clinton’s sex life.

Likewise, secular progressives, who normally would never put sex and morality in the same sentence, say they are appalled by Trump’s personal life. After decades of saying that personal morality does not matter, like Captain Renault, they are "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

Fourth, this primary season could be titled "The Revenge of the White Male Working-Class Voter."

The Democrats began losing Southern whites with the enactment of civil rights legislation during the Johnson administration. Busing and other integration battles in the North angered the white working class outside the South. Richard Nixon exploited this in his election strategy and the Republicans have continued to follow his playbook ever since.

Meanwhile, Democratic rhetoric aimed at mobilizing women, blacks, and Hispanics further alienated the white working class. When Democrats talk of empowering women and minorities and legalizing immigrants, what white working-class males heard is, "You are going to take my job and give it to one of them."

All this was made worse as the middle class part of the economic pie shrank, with fewer and fewer jobs in manufacturing and construction for men without a college education.

Nor did it help when liberal commentators and academics wrote off the white working class as racist. Their parents may have benefited from white privilege, but today these folks feel like victims. Not only were they losing ground financially, they were disrespected and treated like ignorant bumpkins. The politics of resentment was born.

Republicans milked this resentment for all it was worth, but once in office, they did nothing for their working-class constituents other than offer trickle-down theories that produced nothing.

Large military budgets did produce some jobs, but not many for uneducated workers put out of work by cheap imports and the real estate crash. The military industrial complex is a high-tech industry with no room for the uneducated except as cannon fodder. And during peacetime, not even the Army wants them.

Both parties bought the economic theory that said free trade is good for the country, but neither understood how disruptive globalization would be in the short run. Little money was provided to retrain or to help workers transition into other jobs. Without a college education, white men who thought they would do better than their parents found their lives unraveling.

They revolted by voting for the anti-establishment candidates: Sanders and Trump.

Hatred of the establishment appears to be bipartisan. Only in politics does experience become a handicap. Americans seek expertise and experience when it comes to doctors, mechanics, and athletes, but in politics we think that the amateur is specially blessed. We would never ask an amateur to operate on us, fix our car or be on our sports team, but we think inexperience is a virtue when it comes to running the country.

The antigovernment rhetoric and conspiracy theories from both the right and the left have turned us into a country of anarchists with no trust in political parties or leaders. Disastrous economic policies (financial deregulation) and military adventures (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan) made this rhetoric credible to millions of Republicans and Democrats.

What should we look forward to in the general election? I am looking for two things.

First, as we move beyond the primaries and the conventions, it will become clear that general elections are not about persuading swing voters but about getting out your supporters.

Obama perfected this model in the 2008 election. He put together a coalition of blacks, Hispanics, professionals, and women, and pretty much ignored white working-class males.

It is cheaper to get an additional supporter to the polls than it is to persuade an undecided citizen who is likely not to vote anyway.  Focusing on turnout is simply a more cost-effective strategy.

Computer databases and targeted appeals allow retail politics to bypass local elites in national elections. Local elites, like local shopkeepers, have become obsolete. 

This was and still is a winning Democratic strategy for presidential politics, but it does not win swing congressional districts where there are few blacks or Hispanics. The Democrats can win the White House but continue to lose the House of Representatives, which means nasty partisan politics will continue.

Donald Trump, however, does not put his faith in technology but rather in his personal charisma to get out the Republican base of evangelicals and angry white men. He is leaving databases in the hands of the Republican National Committee, something a Democratic presidential candidate would never do. 

The demographics are against the Republicans, but no one should make the mistake of underestimating Trump again, especially among those Sanders working-class voters for whom Trump is their second choice.  

Focusing on the base rather than on swing voters results in highly partisan campaigns aimed at motivating lazy and inattentive voters with anger and prejudice. It is not going to be pretty. 

Second, all of the above may not matter.

Oddsmakers and political forecasters note that it is rare for the party of the president to win after he has been in office for eight years. This is especially true if voters perceive that the economy is not growing and salaries are stagnant.

On the other hand, Obama is higher in the polls than he has been for most of his presidency. Perhaps he looks good in comparison with the alternatives, even among voters who only a little while ago blamed him for the country's problems.

Rising home prices are also making homeowners happy. And, ironically, what may save the Democrats is fracking.

Fracking, which is hated by environmentalists, has brought down the price of oil and gas dramatically. This has hurt the oil and gas industry, but people in that industry would never vote for a Democrat anyway, so that is not a problem. On the other hand, automobile and truck drivers are happy. They never thought they would see gasoline prices like this again. People are once again buying bigger cars and trucks.

Economically, the impact of lower prices for natural gas, heating oil, and gasoline is the equivalent of a middle-class tax cut. If environmentalists had gotten their way on fracking, oil prices would still be high and the Republicans would have a better chance of winning the White House.

It is still a long way to November, and anything could happen. A terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or an international crisis could make the country turn to a self-confident autocrat who is willing to break the rules to get something done. It has happened elsewhere, it could happen here. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org.]

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