Welcome to the last fully complete Election Tuesdays blog post! Eight years after Barack Obama’s historic win, Democrats were hoping to break another significant barrier. For the Republicans… well…
Get ready for the last 2016 take you’ll ever read!
The Last Four Years
President Obama’s greatest achievement, the Affordable Care Act, faced opposition from conservatives even after its passage. They utilized the courts to strike down pieces of the legislation, although it mostly survived intact. In 2012, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the law’s requirement for every American to have health insurance, but overturned its additional requirement for all states to expand their Medicaid coverage. Instead, the expansion became optional. Two years later, the Court sided with the craft-supply store Hobby Lobby in their decision to nullify the requirement for employers to provide contraceptive coverage under the act. Obamacare’s biggest challenge, however, was with the creation of its website for federal insurance exchanges. When it launched, users experienced an array of technical difficulties that severely reduced the site’s functionality. The embarrassing rollout dominated media narratives for months, and its public perception was greatly damaged. Political controversies aside, Obamacare did successfully slow the rising costs of health care and reduced the number of uninsured Americans from 18% to 11%.
Congress remained deeply divided into Obama’s second term. The Republican majority in the House continued their obstructionist strategy. The failure of the “super committee” to reduce the deficit triggered an automatic “sequestration” (meaning spending cuts) in 2013. Later that same year, the federal government was forced to shut down for two weeks when budget negotiations stalled. Far-right Republicans, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, insisted on a budget that would defund Obamacare. Moderates eventually agreed to a deal, accepting the sole concession of stricter income verification health insurance exchanges under Obamacare. Several other domestic issues highlighted the liberal vs. conservative “culture war” that had emerged as a consequence of increased polarization. An increasing number of mass shootings prompted renewed demands for gun control legislation. Of course, all attempts were blocked by Republicans. Although Republican leaders hoped to use bipartisan immigration reform to improve the party’s reputation with Latino voters, newer members were much more willing to cater to their growing xenophobic base and oppose such attempts. When Republicans took control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, President Obama was forced to rely on executive actions to complete his agenda. He unilaterally signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), which prevented deportation of illegal immigrants who were brought to the US as children. Other executive actions included increasing restrictions on carbon emissions from coal power plants, vetoing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and closing the gun show loophole for background checks. Of course, the nature of these actions made them vulnerable to being easily undone by future presidents.
Although Republican obstruction was the main theme of Obama’s second term, their concerns were focused on domestic issues, leaving the President relatively free to pursue his foreign policy agenda. He successfully hit his goal for disengagement of active combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014, though he acknowledged that the fight against the Taliban was far from over. The latest threat came from the Syrian civil war, in which dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against civilians. Sensing war fatigue from the American public, Obama chose not to authorize missile strikes against Assad. His administration instead relied on Russia’s ability to persuade him from engaging in further chemical warfare. The situation worsened when a new, even more brutal terrorist organization rose to power in 2014. A former al Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took advantage of the on-going crises in the region to gain territory on both sides of the countries’ shared border. The Obama Administration initially underestimated the threat posed by ISIS. The group steadily gained more territory and released graphic videos showing the beheading of two American journalists. Obama announced his intention to use counter-terrorism efforts against ISIS in September 2014. He increased the number of American troops in Iraq to more than 5,000 by 2016 and conducted over 10,000 air strikes. The Middle East remained unstable throughout Obama’s time in office, resulting in a refugee crisis in Europe.
Since the 2000 election, Americans had become increasing aware of the political importance of the Supreme Court. Obama appointed two justices during his first term: Sonia Sotomayor (the first Latina justice on the Court) and Elena Kagan. These nominations were not particularly controversial since they did not significantly change the Court’s ideological makeup. That tolerance ended, however, when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that Congress would not consider any replacement nominees during the presidential election year. While there was precedent for the Senate to deny a nomination during a President’s final year in office, it had never outright refused to consider a nominee (just to be completely clear — McConnell’s argument was not that the Senate had a right to reject a nominee of the opposing party, but specifically that no nomination hearings should even take place during an election year). Republicans hoped to regain control the White House after 2016, though some even declared their intention to block all liberal nominations for an entire four-year presidential term, if needed. In an attempt to call their bluff, President Obama nominated moderate judge Merrick Garland. McConnell did not flinch. Garland did not undergo Senate hearings.
The federal government had reached historic levels of stagnation. Everyone was mad at each other! Republicans continued to cater to an increasingly radical base that was anti-Obamacare, anti-immigration, anti-equal-rights, and frankly, anti-anything-propsed-by-a-Democrat. On the other side of the aisle, Democratic voters hoped for a candidate that could resolve all of the outstanding promises of the Obama years.
The Democratic frontrunner seemed to have been destined to become president for decades. Hillary Clinton had been building her resume ever since her time as First Lady. She served as a Senator from New York and, after her narrow loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, she became his Secretary of State. Other party leaders made plenty of room for her nomination. Vice President Joe Biden, the only politician believed to have a chance at defeating her, chose to sit out of the race due to the recent death of his son. But an unlikely challenger brought her nomination into question. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, traditionally an independent, ran to Clinton’s left as a Democrat. He proudly considered himself a democratic-socialist and had a long, long record of progressive policy proposals, most notably universal health care. Like another candidate I have yet to name, Sanders was initially not taken seriously by the media. He quickly grew an impressive base of grassroots supporters, mostly young people. One of the most important ways he distanced himself from Clinton was to refuse campaign donations from corporations, the financial industry, and Super PACs. He proudly emphasized his $27 average donation statistic. Surprisingly, much like Clinton’s 2008 run, early primaries and caucuses were neck-and-neck. Clinton won Iowa by only two delegates. Sanders won New Hampshire, but Clinton followed up with wins in Nevada and South Carolina. She slowly built up a delegate lead, while Sanders continued to perform just well enough to remain in the race. Leaked emails from the Clinton campaign later in the year supported conspiracy theories that the DNC engaged in favoritism towards Clinton during this time period. Sanders eventually dropped out on June 16. Despite the bitter nature of the race, Sanders endorsed Clinton and went on to headline 39 campaign rallies on her behalf during the general election. Hillary Clinton became the first woman in American history to receive the nomination of a major political party. For her running mate, she selected Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Many political observers (including yours truly) struggled to understand this uninspiring choice. Kaine’s benefits were his foreign policy expertise from the senate, as well as geographic balance towards the South.
Republicans had a few more candidates in the running. In fact, with seventeen candidates, they had the largest field of all time! Also-rans included ohio Governor John Kasich, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (son of 2008 and 2012 candidate Ron Paul), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and many more! The frontrunners were former Florida Governor Jeb! Bush (son of George HW and brother of George W), Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Thanks to his family connections, Bush was considered the establishment favorite. Cruz, best known for forcing the 2013 government shutdown over Obamacare, was expected to dominate the anti-establishment lane. Rubio hoped to attract voters looking for a more youthful candidate and, along with Cruz, offered a chance for a more ethnically diverse party (something leaders called for following the 2012 election).
But the candidate on everyone’s minds was not part of this long list. Donald Trump turned what was widely considered a joke campaign into a surprisingly strong grassroots army. He was first known in pop culture as a flashy New York real estate mogul and later found success as a realty television host. As a businessman, he had close ties to many local and national politicians from both parties. In past decades, he had identified himself as a Republican, Democrat, and independent. He briefly sought the nomination of Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 2000. More recently, he was best known in conservative media as the most prominent proponent of the racist conspiracy that Barack Obama had secretly been born in Kenya (and thus ineligible to serve as US President). Trump’s 2016 campaign catered to the emerging “alt-right” by opposing illegal immigration (under the catch-phrase “Build the wall!”), the neoliberal consensus on trade, and “political correctness.” He borrowed the slogan “Make America Great Again” from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Trump and his supporters were notably hostile towards the media, arguing that their objections to his rhetoric were an attempt to undermine his campaign. His frequent controversial statements in speeches, debates, rallies, social media, and television kept him in the news at all times. A “short” list of his controversial statements included: claiming Mexican immigrants were criminals and rapists, mocking a reporter’s physical disability, calling for restrictions on Muslim immigration, degrading former Republican presidential nominee John McCain for being a POW, using various personal insults against opponents, and frequently encouraging physical violence at rallies. Most of his speeches relied on misleading or completely false claims. In the beginning, it was clear that Trump’s candidacy was simply an act of self-promotion (and, as we’ve learned since, likely an attempt to pull himself out of deep financial troubles). Most pundits, political rivals, and party leaders did not take him seriously. They believed voters would not consider him a true Republican and his momentum would die out. In spite of this assumption, Trump’s support only grew.
While most observers ignored Trump’s strengths, early political analysis focused on Bush, Cruz, and Rubio. As the race continued, Trump’s controversial views successfully infiltrated the political discourse. Other candidates struggled to hold the spotlight as they were constantly forced to spend time refuting Trump. One of Trump’s favorite tactics was to use nicknames to degrade his opponents. “Low Energy Jeb,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Little Marco” stumbled against these lowbrow attacks. Cruz won the Iowa Caucus, but the party establishment failed to unite behind a single alternative to Trump. Victories shifted between the mainstream candidates while Trump slowly built a delegate lead. The race eventually narrowed to Trump and Cruz (plus Kasich, who stayed in the race for as long as possible without having much of a chance). Ironically, the original anti-establishment candidate became their only hope. Trump’s victory was inevitable and he easily secured the nomination. In hindsight, polling showed that he should have been the frontrunner all along. Many Republicans, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, initially withheld their endorsement of Trump, but most fell in line just in time for the general election. Trump chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. Pence filled in the gaps with religious conservatives due to his opposition to abortion and LGBT rights.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were considered two of the most unpopular nominees of all time. Clinton suffered from her status as the obvious establishment pick, a decades-long smear campaign from conservatives, and difficulties uniting the left wing of the party. And Trump was, of course, too offensive for many moderate conservatives. As a result, third parties gained a newfound importance in this election cycle. The Libertarian nominee was former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. He earned support from many “never-Trump” Republicans, but several gaffes prevented him from being taken seriously. His inability to discuss key foreign policy topics, like identifying a major city in Syria and naming foreign leaders, made him seem uninformed. Another conservative challenge came from Utah native Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer running as an independent. McMullin hoped to earn just enough electors to prevent a Clinton or Trump victory, thus throwing the decision to the House of Representatives instead. On the left, Clinton’s vote share was threatened by Green Party nominee Jill Stein, a doctor from Massachusetts.
Hillary Clinton ran a relatively conventional campaign. She focused on her extensive political experience and her obvious contrasts with Donald Trump. She expected her opponent’s nonstop offensive comments to turn off moderates, women, and people of color — demographics she considered her strengths.
Trump, on the other hand, employed the same crass tactics he used during the primaries. Despite obvious lies, the accusations he made against Clinton gained traction due to their prevalence in the media. His most effective strategy was to focus on the many less-than-reputable scandals of “Crooked Hillary.” One accusation was that she failed to prevent a terrorist attack against the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and conspired with President Obama to downplay the crisis in order to bolster his 2012 re-election campaign. The biggest target on Clinton was the allegation that her use of a private email server as Secretary of State left confidential information exposed. After a long-running investigation, FBI Director James Comey seemingly resolved the issue in July when he recommended that no charges be brought against Clinton for her mishandling of the emails. Many Clinton supporters pointed out that she was not the first (nor the last!) high-profile executive branch member to use a private email server. Of course, Trump’s attacks did not stop. At rallies, he led crowds in chants of, “Lock her up!”
Several “October surprises” shook up the campaign late in the election cycle. A copy of Trump’s 1995 tax returns, obtained by the New York Time, revealed a $916 million loss. This indicated that he may not have paid taxes for up to eighteen years. The discovery was a massive refutation a Trump’s wealthy outward appearance. The story was of particular significance because Trump had infamously refused to release his tax returns, something all major candidates had done since Gerald Ford. His excuse was that he could not release his returns while under-going an audit, though the IRS later clarified that there was nothing preventing their release. Trump also defended himself by asserting that it was smart for a businessman to not pay taxes. A week later, a 2005 recording surfaced of Trump preparing for an appearance on the television show Access Hollywood. In the video, Trump bragged about committing sexual assault and claimed it was a perk of his celebrity status. Afterwards, more than a dozen women came forward with additional sexual assault allegations. Many prominent Republicans subsequently withdrew their endorsements (for a short period) following this scandal. Trump offered a rare apology for his statements, but also deflected criticism by referencing the well-known affairs of Bill Clinton. Lastly, less than two weeks before the election, James Comey announced that the FBI was investigating a new batch of personal emails from Hillary Clinton. The messages had been discovered during an unrelated sex offender case involving former Congressman Anthony Weiner, the husband of prominent Clinton staffer, Huma Abedin. Although Comey later verified that no important information was revealed, it was too late for Clinton’s reputation to recover.
Another important aspect of the 2016 election was the direct effort by the Russian government to interfere with the American democratic process. Through the website Wikileaks, Russian hackers were responsible for an email leak from the Democratic Party, spurring a wide variety of conspiracy theories. Russians also engaged in a disinformation campaign on social media, spreading fake news and encouraging undecided voters to either stay home or vote for a third party. After the election, American intelligence agencies determined that the Russian government may have been in contact with the Trump campaign as a unified effort to undermine Clinton, though no official connection has ever been proven.
Clinton was undoubtedly considered to be the likely winner of the election. In reality, polls showed a constantly changing race that was easily affected by trending news stories. Many pundits foolishly interpreted modest Clinton leads as proof of her eventual victory. Due to the unpopularity of the candidates, many voters actually remained undecided. The final Comey Letter set polls on a trajectory to be a simple polling error away from a toss-up.
As the night went on, the impossible became a reality. Trump won narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, states that most people considered to be safe Democratic wins. Clinton’s strongest regions were in the traditionally blue regions of the Northeast and West Coast. Her VP choice did pay off, though, as Virginia was her only Southern win. There were seven faithless electors in the official vote count. Aside from 1872 (in which losing Democratic nominee Horace Greeley died between election day and the electoral college vote), this was the highest amount of faithless electors since passage of the 12th Amendment. These votes were awarded to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Ron Paul, and activist Faith Spotted Eagle (the only Native American to ever receive an electoral vote).
Donald Trump won, becoming America’s 45th president. At 70 years old, he was the oldest elected president in American history. He was also the only presidential election winner to have never served in a prior public office. The electoral score was 304-227. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about three million votes, totaling 48% to Trump’s 46%. This was the fifth time in American history in which the popular vote winner did not win the electoral college, the most recent being 2000. With 3% of the national vote, Gary Johnson had the best third party performance since Ross Perot in 1996. Evan McMullan had the best third party performance in a single state, earning 21.5% in his home state of Utah. Jill Stein only won 1% of the vote. Republicans held control of both houses of Congress, giving them complete legislative control.
What Did It Say About America?
Republicans finally found their outsider candidate. Continuing the long-standing trend, many voters gravitated to the candidate who offered change, in any form. Clinton was seen as too establishment and too deep in scandal. On top of this, she failed to excite the Democratic base in a way that matched Obama. Many Trump voters believed that his unconventional style would shakeup the gridlock in government. Many others simply didn’t believe he would actually win. Trump’s base was built on racists and sexists (who Clinton infamously referred to as “deplorables”), the economically disenfranchised, and Republicans who were willing to fall in line. Despite their objections to his personality, the media’s constant coverage of Trump’s daily outrageous statements provided free advertising for his campaign. “Both-sides-ism” unfairly labeled Clinton as equally bad. The shift towards social media as a news source was easily exploited by Russian agents, the alt-right, and the Trump campaign to spread fake news. The next four years were going to be rough.
Was It The Right Decision?
Fuck no! I wasn’t the biggest fan of Hillary, but I mean, come on. While labeling Trump the worst president ever is debatable, I do believe he is the worst person to ever become president. Other bad presidents at least believed that they were doing the right thing for the country. Trump is nothing more than a selfish person, whose ego has been inflated by kiss-ass lackeys for decades. I truly believe that Trump did not intend to win the Republican nomination. As we now know, he was desperate for a follow-up to his reality television fame as a way to dig himself out of debt. It’s very clear that his main motivation for running was to profit off of conservative media. There have been a lot of takes on Trump throughout the last five years, but the one that stuck with me the most was this — the best car salesman in the world doesn’t need to know how to actually drive a car.