- - Monday, June 13, 2016


Appearing unpresidential isn’t the problem this election; the problem is appearing too presidential. Virtually every element voters find unappealing in this year’s race has a worse precedent in previous ones. What makes this election so unusual is that these negatives are appearing all at once.

A recent nationwide Rasmussen poll shows how alienated voters are from this race. While the headline was a narrow 40-39 percent lead for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, it was the “missing middle” who were most notable. Of those neither Democrat nor Republican — and who ultimately decide American presidential races — 37 percent preferred someone else or were undecided.

The many reasons for such alienation can be captured under a single complaint: The campaign and candidates do not measure up to voters’ expectations of a presidential contest.

First, it is divisive. The two parties are riven by intra- and interparty animosity. Second, it is negative in tone. Finally, the two major nominees have extremely negative public opinion ratings.

However as alienating as these factors may be, none is unique to this race. Put into historical context, the current examples are far from presidential races’ worst examples.

When it comes to internal divisions, both the 1912 and 1968 races were far worse. In 1912, former President Teddy Roosevelt bolted from the Republican Party to run as the Progressive Party’s nominee. He did so against his handpicked successor and close personal friend, the incumbent President William Howard Taft, in a visceral personal contest won by Woodrow Wilson.

In 1968, George Wallace similarly split the Democratic Party with his independent run. That same year, Chicago’s Democratic Convention set the modern standard for violence — even in a period regularly marked by riots.

As far as divisions between the parties, 1860’s led to war. And today’s anti-elite “populism,” so prominent in both today’s nomination races, in 1892 gave rise to an independent third party, the People’s Party, which carried five states and 10 percent of the popular vote in the 1894 congressional elections.

As for this election’s negative tone, it still has a considerable way to go to match those of the past. The modern standard remains LBJ’s “daisy” commercial against Barry Goldwater, in which the image of a girl picking daisies switches to footage of a nuclear explosion.

The 1884 election between Republican James Blaine of Maine and Grover Cleveland was a nonstop dialogue of diatribes. Blaine had twice failed to get the nomination due to evidence he sold political favors. The result was an opponent chant labeling him a “continental liar” and another reciting his bribery letter instructions to “burn this letter”: “Burn, burn, burn this letter!”

Republicans responded with charges that Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock. Their chant of “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?” would be turned back on them after Cleveland’s victory with the coda: “Gone to Washington, Ha, Ha, Ha!”

Nor are very negatively viewed politicians a presidential novelty. Every election features politicians, who already start low on America’s favorability totem pole. Still even with this low standard, earlier candidates have easily transcended today’s. In 1976, Richard Nixon’s political ghost was still so repellent that it dragged down Gerald Ford. Eight years earlier, LBJ was so unpopular that the incumbent had to withdraw from the race.

Even if the argument is made that this is a particularly perilous time for a race many feel already vacuous, 2016 is hardly unique. The 1916 campaign was waged during the greatest war the world had ever seen and the winning slogan was Wilson’s simple “He kept us out of war” — a circumstance no longer true just a year later.

What makes 2016 unique is not that its elements are so different, or even worse, than its predecessors’. American politics has seen just about everything under the sun. What makes 2016 different is that it is having so many of yesterday’s negative elements simultaneously — translating them into today’s vernacular and transmitting them through today’s technology.

This year’s race is jarring and alienating to so many because American elections are normally comparatively staid. Chaos is unusual. Our presidential contests have a wrinkle here and there that differentiate them, but for the most part they fall within the middle of a very narrow political spectrum.

U.S. elections are so balanced on the nation’s political center that any serious disturbance can determine the outcome — usually tilting the contest away from the party in which it occurs. This election the many disturbances are largely canceling out each other.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

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