Republicans must choose: Are they the party of Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump?

Reagan’s sunny, inclusive vision and principles are the antithesis of what Trump preaches

By Marcus M. Witcher, Ph.D. author of Getting Right with Reagan; The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016

original published in the Washington Post; 08/24/2020

This week, Republicans will nominate Donald Trump for the second time for president. Trump has built a cult of personality. In the past month alone, he has tweeted about potentially postponing the election and asserted he had the right to limit mail ballot usage — neither of which he has any constitutional authority to do.

These assertions are a stark contrast to what Republicans claimed to support in the last decades of the 20th century — small government and limited federal power. And this is nothing new for Trump. From his comments about Charlottesville, to his family separation and detention policy at the border, to his trade wars with half the world, to his assault on international institutions, to his reckless disregard for separation of powers, Trump has redefined conservatism. He has moved it away from Reagan-era Republicanism — a belief in the rule of law, free trade, civil society, decentralization and working though international organizations abroad. What’s worse is Trump has done so with few objections from many elected Republicans who claim to be Reaganites.

A loss by Trump in November will lead to a moment of reckoning for Republicans and conservatives. But to build a party for the future, they must understand how they got to this moment and how Trump’s brand of conservatism rose to the fore.

Trump’s style of conservatism is not new. In both its ideology and policy positions, it is most similar to the paleoconservatism of Patrick Buchanan, who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations and was a political commentator. In the wake of the Cold War, some conservatives in the early 1990s began to focus on immigration and a more militant nationalism, as well as reinvigorating the culture wars. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan was given a prime-time speaking slot after challenging President George H.W. Bush in the primary and receiving almost a quarter of the vote.

Buchanan proclaimed there was “a religious war going on … it is a cultural war.” And who were the enemies in this new war? They were feminists, immigrants in the country without authorization, free traders, internationalists and other purported barbarians who would destroy the fabric of Western civilization. One political journalist, Molly Ivins, quipped the speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”

Immediately after Buchanan spoke, however, Ronald Reagan, addressed a Republican convention for the last time, painting a stark contrast with Buchanan. Reagan called on Republicans to recognize that they were all — regardless of religion, color or creed — “equal in the eyes of God.” But he insisted this was not enough, that as Americans “we must be equal in the eyes of each other.” In contrast to Buchanan’s divisive message of America at war with itself, Reagan reminded the audience “in America, our origins matter less than our destinations.”

The former president mentioned the progress that had been made, but he emphasized “with each sunrise we are reminded that millions of our citizens have yet to share in the abundance of American prosperity … many languish in neighborhoods riddled with drugs and bereft of hope [and] still others hesitate to venture out on the streets for fear of criminal violence.” Reagan asked those present in the convention hall and those at home to pledge “ourselves to a new beginning for them.” He concluded Americans must “apply our ingenuity and remarkable spirit to revolutionize education in America so that everyone among us will have the mental tools to build a better life.”

According to Reagan, only by working together, united as one America, could the country provide equal opportunity and a prosperous future for all Americans.

Commentators recognized the two very different messages being presented. The Washington Post asserted Reagan’s remarks were “a model of sensitivity compared with the hate-filled harangue of Pat Buchanan that preceded it.” The Wall Street Journal noted it was “impossible to imagine Ronald Reagan talking in the way Pat Buchanan does about keeping foreign people and foreign products out of the U.S.” It concluded Reagan would never “give the impression that his political actions drew their energy from reservoirs of bitterness and antipathy.”

Throughout the 1990s, the two different versions of conservatism on display that night in Houston continued to compete for the soul of the movement. In 1996, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “We Knew Reagan and Pat Buchanan is No Gipper,” in which it explained that Reagan’s nationalism “was muscular but also optimistic,” whereas “Buchanan’s darker nationalism flows from a perception of national decline.” While Reagan hailed “America’s immigrant past and future,” Buchanan wanted “a five-year halt in legal immigration.”

At the time, Buchanan’s views lost out. Bob Dole beat him in the 1996 Republican presidential primary, and in his acceptance speech, Dole made clear for “anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion,” the exits were “clearly marked.” And Dole was emphatic that he would not compromise on this inclusive vision.

While Dole lost, George W. Bush won a narrow victory four years later preaching compassionate conservatism with a focus on education, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and welcoming immigrants. Buchanan left the party, running on the Reform Party ticket in 2000.

But Buchanan’s divisive, nationalist, anti-immigrant conception of conservatism never went away, helping to scuttle bipartisan attempts at comprehensive immigration reform in 2006, 2007 and 2013-2014, while often being voiced by an increasingly influential group of conservative commentators.

And in 2016, defying conventional wisdom that to win Republicans needed to reorient their party, especially on immigration, Trump captured the White House by wielding Buchanan’s playbook. Buchanan recognized this, telling Politico in 2017 he was “elated, delighted that Trump picked up on the exact issues on which I challenged Bush. … And then he goes and uses my slogan [Make America First Again]. … It just doesn’t get any better than this.” Reporter Tim Alberta put it succinctly: “Buchanan’s boldest achievement — and perhaps the most lasting aspect of his legacy — was being Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Yet the party of Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan is not the party of Ronald Reagan. Though certainly not without flaws, Reagan offered an optimistic, forward-thinking and more inclusive brand of conservatism on which to build. Indeed, Reagan provided Americans with some of the most quotable passages about the benefits of immigrants to the United States.

The conservative movement is at a crossroads. It can continue the culture wars and welcome the label of hyper-nationalism, xenophobia and even racism — and in the process become all the things critics on the left have claimed it to be all along. Or it can take a step back and reflect on its past. Revisiting the tenants of Reagan conservatism would be a start. Perhaps conservatives could begin by embracing Reagan’s goal that history remember him — and by extension, conservatism — as someone who “appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence, rather than your doubts.”

About the Author Marcus M. Witcher is a scholar-in-residence in both the Department of History and the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the coeditor of Public Choice Analyses of American Economic History, Volumes 1–3.

Do Running Mates Matter?

Authors Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko have focused their careers on studying the Vice Presidency, and have published the first detailed study on what, if any, impact a running mate has in a Presidential election. With Joe Biden set to announce his running mate, we’re happy to share the introduction to Devine and Kopko’s Do Running Mates Matter; The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections.

In January 2015, there were no declared candidates for the next presidential election. It was just too early. Yet the veepstakes already had begun. Rumor had it that Ohio’s senior US senator, Sherrod Brown, was a leading contender for the Democratic vice presidential nomination. On paper, he was the perfect running mate: an experienced, two-term senator from a key battleground state, a vigorous campaigner, and a bona fide progressive who also could appeal to blue-collar swing voters. Many Democrats wanted Brown to run for president, in fact. But, like so many other credible candidates who doubted that Hillary Clinton could be defeated for the party’s nomination, he declined. So, speculation shifted to the next best thing: a slot on the presidential ticket, as Clinton’s running mate. There was one problem: Brown didn’t want it. Not at all. In his words: “I have zero interest in being vice president” (Terris 2015).

Who Wants to be the Vice President?

Brown’s proclaimed disinterest in serving as vice president was not surprising. Throughout US history, the vice presidency has been derided as a dead-end job for ambitious politicians whose talents are spent on helping the presidential candidate to get elected rather than helping the president to govern once in office. In the words of one former vice president, Walter Mondale, “The office is handmade for ridicule and for dismissal. In the nature of it, you always look like a supplicant, a beggar, a person on a string” (Woodward and Broder 1992, 196).

Vice Presidential Power(lessness)

The vice presidency owes its unenviable reputation—notwithstanding many informal expansions of power since the 1970s (see Goldstein 2016)—to its institutional design. Indeed, the US Constitution grants few formal powers to the vice president. These include, first, presiding over the US Senate (a power that Harry Truman’s vice president, Alben Barkley, last exercised with regularity; see Goldstein 2016, 22); second, casting tie-breaking votes in that body (rarely); third, in the presence of the US House and Senate, opening the sealed certificates containing each state’s votes in the Electoral College, and then overseeing the electoral vote count; fourth, and most important, assuming the office of president of the United States upon the president’s death (eight times in US history), resignation (once), removal from office, or incapacitation, and when a presidential election remains unresolved at the time that a new presidential term is scheduled to begin.

Dismissing the Vice Presidency

No one has been more critical of the vice presidency, or so eager to make jokes at its expense, than the vice presidents themselves. Take, for example, John Nance Garner’s dismissal of the vice presidency as being “not worth a bucket of warm spit”—or the favorite tale of several vice presidents, including Thomas Marshall (Milkis and Nelson 2011, 486), Alben Barkley (Smith 2008, 177–178), and Hubert Humphrey (Unger and Unger 1999, 255): “A mother has two sons; one goes off to sea, the other becomes vice president. Neither is heard from again.”

The first vice president, John Adams, famously called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Lyndon Johnson, who served for nearly three years as John Kennedy’s vice president, said of his tenure: “I detested every minute of it” (Baker 2013, 60). Gerald Ford, who briefly served as Richard Nixon’s vice president, reportedly described this as “the worst eight months of [my] life” (60). And Nelson Rockefeller, who was nominated and confirmed to the office following Ford’s succession to the presidency, often referred to the vice president as mere “standby equipment.” He explained: “I did not want to be Vice President. I’m a doer by nature, an activist. And I always felt, and I told Dick Nixon that in 1960 when he asked me to [be his running mate, allegedly], that it was standby equipment and I just wasn’t cut out for it.” Rockefeller added: “I’ve known all the Vice Presidents since Henry Wallace. They were all frustrated, and some of them were pretty bitter.”8 Dick Cheney, one of Rockefeller’s successors, later would concur: “I’d never met a vice president who was happy.”

Conflicted?

Yet many of the same vice presidents and potential running mates who have dismissed the office as ridiculous at other times have betrayed a more conflicted—or, at least, a more nuanced—view of the vice presidency. In a follow-up interview to the one excerpted earlier, Nelson Rockefeller offered a very different assessment of the office:

“I totally disagree with John Nance Gardner [sic]. I think the office is a very important one, depending on the relation between the President and the Vice President and at least during the first 2/3rds–3/4ths of the time I was Vice President I’ve never been busier—heading commissions, undertaking special projects for the President and traveling at home and abroad. It’s a very useful function in terms of both ceremonial activities that relieve the President and which are interesting and important, plus, depending on the experience of the individual, the opportunity to use that experience to undertake assignments for the President.”

Dick Cheney, who initially resisted entreaties to run alongside George W. Bush in 2000, and bluntly recalled the unhappy fate of previous vice presidents, nonetheless said at the end of his two terms in the office: “I don’t regret it for a minute. It’s been a tremendous experience” (Malcolm 2008).

And then there is John McCain. After failing to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2000, McCain brushed off speculation that he would join the ticket as George W. Bush’s running mate. “The vice president has two duties,” he scoffed. “One is to enquire daily as to the health of the president, and the other is to attend the funerals of third world dictators. And neither of those do I find an enjoyable exercise.” Four years later, amid speculation that John Kerry would ask him to run for vice president on the Democratic ticket, McCain joked: “I spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, in the dark, fed with scraps. Do you think I want to do that all over again as vice president of the United States?” (Halbfinger 2004).

Yet in 1996, when Bob Dole reportedly weighed selecting him for the Republican ticket, McCain expressed a more sober, reverential view of the vice presidency. “John Nance Garner described the office as not being worth a bucket of warm spit, but I hold the office in higher regard than that,” McCain said. “It is certainly prestigious and would be a wonderful opportunity for some” (Pittman 1996). Then, in 2008, while once more—and this time successfully—seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, McCain said in a debate that “the vice president of the United States is a key and important issue, and must add [sic] in carrying out the responsibilities of the President of the United States.”

Playing the Vice Presidential Game

It is a good indication of the vice presidency’s actual value that—jokes and public disavowals of interest notwithstanding—plenty of qualified individuals are willing to be selected as the running mate and undergo an intensive vetting process for that purpose. In fact, many ambitious politicians actively lobby for their selection, behind the scenes.

Take Dan Quayle, for example. George H. W. Bush’s decision to name Quayle as his running mate in 1988 came as a shock to nearly everyone, including many Bush campaign staffers. But Quayle had been plotting, along with two of his top Senate aides, to secure a slot on the Republican ticket since the day after Bush won New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary, six months earlier (Woodward and Broder 1992, 15). This “sub rosa campaign” was designed to raise Quayle’s profile nationally, and with Bush in particular. In early 1988, Quayle began delivering more speeches in the Senate, issuing more press releases, and writing more newspaper op-eds, particularly on issues of national defense, than at any point during his previous seven years in office. Quayle also tried to make himself more visible to Bush and his inner circle by increasing contact with senior campaign advisers, more regularly visiting the vice president’s office in the US Senate, and taking a more vocal role at the weekly Senate Republican lunches that Bush attended, as vice president. To anyone witnessing these efforts, Quayle’s intentions were clear. As one Republican Senate colleague, William Cohen of Maine, said: “It looked like there was a game plan to get Bush’s attention because Quayle thought he had a shot [at being chosen as Bush’s running mate].”

Yet Quayle would not readily acknowledge his campaigning for the vice presidential nomination, even four years later while serving as vice president. He did so only reluctantly, after Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and David Broder presented Quayle with irrefutable evidence of his efforts. Why play coy? Because, Quayle acknowledged, “You don’t run for vice president.” Rather, to avoid the stigma of failure if passed over—and, probably, to avoid alienating the presidential candidate by seeming overly ambitious—“you keep expectations down and do things as quietly and subtly as possible” (Woodward and Broder 1992, 15–16).

In fact, Quayle had designs on the vice presidency ever since being elected to Congress in 1976, at the age of twenty-nine. At that time, he explained in a 2002 interview, “Obviously you’re thinking about running for President or Vice President. It’s there.” But, he cautioned, “You don’t do it overtly. It’s something you have in the back of your mind and you set out a path to do it.” Quayle followed that path to the US Senate, from where, he observed, most recent vice presidents had come. He described this as a “stepping-stone” to the vice presidency, and ultimately the presidency. “I was positioning myself to eventually run for President,” Quayle explained. “Now, obviously, the Vice Presidency was a stepping-stone to that. I mean, that’s why people want to be Vice President [emphasis added].”

Joe Lieberman also wanted to be vice president, in 2000—but he, too, could not say so. “You’re not supposed to campaign for the vice presidential nomination,” he explained later. “You can’t even acknowledge that you are under consideration for it” (Lieberman and Lieberman 2003,). When Al Gore’s campaign asked to vet Lieberman for the nomination that year—a process so invasive that Lieberman likened it to “a colonoscopy without anesthesia” —the prospective running mate consented and then, with the help of a close friend, “developed a strategy not simply for surviving the vetting, but for pursuing the nomination.” That strategy included “reach[ing] out, in a very discreet way, to a very few people who we thought might be talking to Gore about this selection,” as well as key constituency groups within the Democratic Party. In all cases, “These contacts were to be made subtly, quietly.”

Lieberman also sought out advice from Chris Dodd, a fellow senator from Connecticut and his most trusted colleague. Dodd counseled, “You should make sure you do everything you can so you will never look back to this time and say, ‘If I had done just one more thing, I might have been the vice presidential nominee.’” But, Dodd acknowledged, “Of course I understand that you can’t go out and campaign for it” (Lieberman and Lieberman 2003, 14).

Even after being selected, Lieberman would disclaim any ambition to the vice presidency. Wondrously, he recalled someone telling him, “This is like the ministry. You’re called to the ministry, you don’t seek it” (Barstow with Seelye 2000). But, of course, Lieberman had sought the vice presidential nomination—enthusiastically and methodically. He wanted to be the vice president. He just could not say so publicly at that time.

Quayle and Lieberman are only two examples, but they illustrate what seems to be a well-known strategy among politicians aspiring to the vice presidency: publicly deny that you are interested—better yet, laugh off the idea as ridiculous—all the while privately working with associates and campaign contacts to cultivate interest in your candidacy. Then, after the selection is made and the election is over, you can publicly admit it: yes, of course, I wanted to be the vice president. I really wanted it, in fact.

And that brings us back to Sherrod Brown.

Zero Interest?

In July 2017, Sherrod Brown gave another interview to Ben Terris, the Washington Post reporter to whom he had protested two-and-a-half years earlier: “I have zero interest in being vice president.” A lot had changed since that time. In the summer of 2016—despite reiterating that April, “I’ve made it clear [that] I don’t really want the job” (Raju and Schleifer 2016)—Brown agreed to be considered for selection as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. He even participated in a vetting process that Connie Schultz—his wife, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist—described as “excruciating.” Brown was a finalist for selection; in fact, according to two highly placed sources, he was the first runner-up to Virginia senator Tim Kaine, whom Clinton selected only after initially favoring Brown (Terris 2017; but see, e.g., Allen and Parnes 2017; Baumgartner 2016). Perhaps the biggest strike against Brown was that, if elected, his replacement in the closely divided US Senate would be appointed by Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich.

For a man who had expressed “zero interest in the vice presidency,” being passed over for the position should have come as a relief. But Brown was disappointed—devastated, in fact. “By the end,” he admitted, “I really wanted it.” Brown wanted it so badly that he envisioned, in Terris’s words, “liv[ing] out of a bus” and barnstorming across the Midwest throughout the fall campaign. Might this have changed the election’s outcome? In Terris’s article—titled “Sherrod Brown Thinks He Could Have Helped Democrats Win in 2016. But What about 2020?”—Brown answered cautiously: “I don’t pretend that my being on the ticket would have made [Clinton] win. I don’t know. I mean, if I had gone to Wisconsin and Michigan a lot, anything would have changed those two states.” But then, perhaps to cover this tracks, he added: “My wife thinks we would have won. She thinks we would have won Ohio.” Of course, Donald Trump won Ohio instead—helping him to become the next president of the United States. And Brown was left to wonder whether he could have made the difference in the Electoral College, apparently haunted by the regret that he did not get that chance.

As it turns out, Sherrod Brown really wanted to be vice president.

A Fundamental Tension

The preceding examples illustrate a fundamental tension in public opinion about the vice presidency as a governing institution. On the one hand, everyone is aware of the office’s institutional weakness and its beleaguered reputation. This makes it easy to dismiss the vice presidency as a joke, and to belittle or reject the prospect of seeking that office. Yet many of the news or opinion articles that repeat those jokes—including, almost invariably, a reference to Garner’s metaphorical “bucket of warm spit” (and, just as invariably, a caveat noting that he probably used more graphic language)14—or report a potential running mate’s lack of interest in auditioning for the role, ironically, if not hypocritically, also engage in fevered speculation about the vice presidential selection process or the running mate’s likely effect on the presidential race.15 And, as we have seen, many of the vice presidents or prospective running mates who have disparaged the office or foresworn interest in seeking it at other times have celebrated its significance or actively campaigned for selection behind the scenes.

We do not argue that every such dismissal of the vice presidency or the prospect of running for it is insincere. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Sherrod Brown’s initial denials of interest in the vice presidency were genuine, and that later he had a change of heart—or that, in Terris’s (2017) words, “Sherrod Brown never wanted to be vice president, until one day he did.” Nor do we contend that a vice president plainly contradicts himself when he is quoted both lamenting and praising his experiences in that office. For example, Nelson Rockefeller truly might have felt like “standby equipment” at some times and like someone serving “a very useful function” at others. Such inconsistency, we argue, is indicative not of insincerity but of a pervasive conflict—or a “fundamental tension”—in attitudes toward the vice presidency, among political elites and within the mass public generally. In short, the vice presidency’s public image—truth be told—is not that of an inconsequential institution or an immensely powerful one (at least by its design); rather, it is an institution characterized by obvious strengths and weaknesses, the relative weight of which is difficult to calculate and often context-dependent.

John Adams provided perhaps the most profound articulation of this truth when he said: “I am vice president. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything” (Milkis and Nelson 2011, 486). Here he was referring to the possibility of succession to the presidency. In the era of the “modern vice presidency” (Goldstein 2016), when the power of that institution remains constitutionally stagnant but informally expansive, the tension between viewing the vice presidency as powerless and powerful is that much greater.

Who Cares About the Running Mate?

This book is about vice presidential candidates, not vice presidents. But the two roles are intertwined—and not just because, barring extraordinary circumstances, serving as the former is a prerequisite to serving as the latter. It is also because the (perceived) weakness of the vice presidency, as a governing institution, has shaped perceptions of the vice presidential candidate, as an electoral institution. Given the vice president’s limited constitutional powers, and the remote possibility of presidential succession, running mates traditionally have been selected (by party conventions and then, starting in the 1940s, by presidential candidates) on the basis of electoral considerations, typically in order to provide geographic, demographic, or ideological “ticket balancing” (Baumgartner 2012; Baumgartner with Crumblin 2015; Goldstein 2016). Even so, most voters have had little incentive to weigh the running mate’s credentials when voting in presidential elections, at least not to the extent of casting a vote on that basis, since only the president is guaranteed to exercise substantial power once in office. Recent expansions of vice presidential power might have altered that equation somewhat, but—as indicated by the evidence presented earlier, and by the predominant caricature of vice presidents in popular culture as buffoonish incompetents—for the most part, the office’s unenviable reputation is engrained and enduring.

A Fundamental Tension (Continued)

It is, therefore, no mystery that the same fundamental tension that characterizes attitudes toward the vice presidency also extends to vice presidential candidates. On the one hand, political observers and practitioners recognize the limited powers of the vice presidency, and so they are duly cautious about overstating the running mate’s (likely) influence on presidential voting. Often, they do so by repeating well-worn aphorisms to downplay veepstakes speculation—referring to it merely as a “parlor game,” for instance. Or they cite the conventional wisdom that “Vice presidential candidates can’t help you, they can only hurt you,” and that “People don’t vote for a vice president, they vote for a president.” We do not argue that such folk wisdom is wrong, necessarily; in fact, some of the empirical evidence that we present in this book would tend to support these claims. Nor do we contend that expressing such skepticism is insincere or contradictory, on its face. But it is important to recognize that these sentiments often exist in tension with other statements or behaviors that directly express or clearly imply a perception that running mates are electorally significant and potentially helpful—even decisive. In chapters 1 and 2, we provide evidence of such tension in the attitudes expressed by presidential candidates and voters, respectively. For now, consider one prominent and consequential example.

When asked to describe his criteria for selecting a running mate in July 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain said: “First, you want to make sure you have a candidate that’s not going to hurt the ticket” (J. Mason 2008). In 1996, when discussing then-Republican nominee Bob Dole’s selection of a running mate, McCain expressed essentially the same view by saying that the selection process sometimes “brings you the person who might not necessarily help you the most, but hurt you the least” (Pittman 1996). At the same time, he indicated that a running mate might confer significant electoral benefits by suggesting that Dole select someone who appealed not only to Republican voters but also “to those that make the difference between winning and losing campaigns”—presumably, Independents.

Yet, when it came time to select his running mate, in 2008, McCain passed over the quintessential “do no harm” candidate, in Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (the runner-up), and instead accepted his campaign advisers’ recommendation to choose a risky but potentially “game-changing” vice presidential candidate, in Sarah Palin. McCain made this choice after meeting the Alaska governor only for the second time, and following a rushed seventy-two-hour vetting process (see chapter 1). This hardly fulfilled his top criterion: “mak[ing] sure you have a candidate that’s not going to hurt the ticket.” In fact, following her rocky vice presidential campaign, Palin was widely perceived as hurting the ticket in exactly the way that McCain previously had warned against—a perception validated by subsequent empirical analyses (e.g., Court and Lynch 2015; Elis, Hillygus, and Nie 2010; Knuckey 2012).

McCain illustrates the fundamental tension apparent in many people’s—including presidential candidates’—expressed views regarding running mates’ electoral significance. He repeatedly stated, and he genuinely might have believed, that the overriding principle of vice presidential selection is “First, do no harm.” But, as is the case with matters of public opinion more generally (Zaller 1992), McCain’s judgments on the matter seem to have drawn on a mix of considerations. Thus, when pressured by campaign advisers to adopt an alternative approach, he sampled from those conflicting considerations to arrive at a decision fundamentally opposed to his oft-stated conviction. In other words, no matter how confidently McCain stated this conviction in public, and when discussing vice presidential selection in the abstract, to some extent he also believed that it was possible—maybe just in these special circumstances—that a running mate could yield transformative electoral benefits, and that the chances of this happening in 2008 were good enough to justify picking Sarah Palin.

What to Believe?

It is ironic that McCain, of all people, would stand out as the presidential candidate who most obviously threw a “Hail Mary” pass, with his choice of a running mate, in order to win an election. Yet, because he at least entertained principles directly in conflict with his oft-stated, and quite possibly genuine, philosophy of vice presidential selection, we suspect that McCain is not a hypocritical outlier but an exemplar of the fundamental tension that characterizes much of public discourse regarding vice presidential candidates and their electoral significance.

Indeed, McCain’s is the same type of conflicted opinion that we see in the journalist (Chris Cillizza) who declares that “the vice presidential pick—viewed through the lens of history—has almost no broad influence on the fate of the ticket and, to the extent the VP choice has mattered, it’s been in a negative way”—yet, when ranking veepstakes contenders, regularly dangles the prospect of a decisive home state advantage (Devine and Kopko 2016, 14). Or the scholar (Stuart Rothenberg) who scorns veepstakes speculation as “a game” to be played at “cocktail parties or around the kitchen table” before condescending to remind readers that this year’s election actually is between two presidential candidates—yet in other writings, indeed in the same year, plays precisely that game by rating contenders largely on the basis of their ability to deliver swing states or the party’s base (13). Or the presidential candidate (George W. Bush) who writes, “I believe voters base their decision on the presidential candidate, not the VP”—yet also speculates that several other vice presidential finalists on his list might have delivered their home state in the general election (see chapter 1).

Like McCain, these actors state their convictions about running mates’ electoral effects definitively—with little, if any, hint of nuance. And, like McCain, it is entirely possible that they have expressed their convictions sincerely. (Bush, for example, did choose a running mate with little electoral appeal and no prospect of delivering a swing state.) But there is also good reason to believe that they, like many other actors in the electoral process that we analyze in later chapters, are more conflicted about running mates’ electoral significance than they let on. In reality, they probably entertain a mixture of views and therefore, under a particular set of circumstances (e.g., a close election, a popular governor, a divided party), might draw on considerations that conflict with their prevailing philosophy to determine that a (potential) running mate really could make a difference in the election—maybe this one time.

That is why one must be careful not to take the conventional wisdom about vice presidential candidates at face value, no matter how frequently or confidently it is publicly pronounced. As is true of the vice presidency itself, evaluations of the running mate’s electoral significance are complex, and often they reveal, on close inspection, quite a bit of internal conflict, especially when moving from the abstract to the particular.

In this book, we take nothing about running mates’ electoral significance for granted. Whatever our preconceptions about their effects on presidential voting—and it would be fair to describe us as skeptics—our commitment is to let the empirical data speak for themselves.

Do Running Mates Matter?

Recognizing the fundamental tension in public attitudes toward vice presidential candidates, described earlier, in this book we ask: Do running mates matter? That is to say, do they influence voting in presidential elections? And, if so, how? Do running mates influence voters, in general, or only targeted subsets of the electorate? Do they, in fact, “deliver” their home state or region? Affiliated demographic groups? Ideological allies? And, to the extent that running mates influence elections, is this because voters actually cast votes for (or against) a vice presidential candidate? Or is it because running mates help to shape voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidate who selected them, thereby exerting an indirect effect on vote choice?

To emphasize the practical significance of this research, and the manner in which we present it, our fundamental research question may be reformulated as follows: Do running mates do what people—namely, presidential candidates and voters—think they do, electorally speaking? Our objective is to answer this question, by testing perceptions of the running mate’s (potential) electoral significance against the relevant empirical data. To do this, we divide our research into two essential and integrally related parts. In the following, we briefly describe each chapter’s methods of analysis and its empirical results.

Part I: Perceptions of Running Mate Effects

Part I (comprising chapters 1 and 2) analyzes perceptions of the running mate’s electoral significance. In particular, we evaluate, first, whether, and to what extent, presidential candidates and voters believe that running mates influence vote choice in presidential elections; and, second, what criteria—particularly in terms of electoral versus governing considerations—they use to evaluate (potential) vice presidential candidates. The purpose of this analysis is to set the agenda for the empirical analyses that follow in part II. In other words, we seek to establish—based on systematic evidence, rather than mere assumption—that it is relevant to ask whether running mates matter in the first place. Moreover, we seek to identify the nature of these perceived electoral effects. Having done so, in part II we can test whether running mates matter in the way that people—particularly, those who select and elect them—think they do.

Chapter 1: (Why) Do Presidential Candidates Think That Running Mates Matter?
In this chapter, we use qualitative evidence from the 1976–2016 elections (i.e., the era of the modern vice presidency) to evaluate presidential candidates’ perceptions of running mate effects. In particular, we seek to determine whether, and why, presidential candidates think that running mates have the potential to influence election outcomes. We have gathered evidence for this analysis from a diverse range of sources, including public speeches and interviews, media coverage, personal memoirs, oral histories, and archival materials from presidential or other public libraries.

Our analysis indicates that most presidential candidates perceive vice presidential candidates to be electorally consequential—and, in some cases, determinative—but in public they downplay or deny such considerations, so as to focus on governing qualifications. In fact, presidential candidates in nearly all recent elections have publicly communicated a remarkably consistent set of selection criteria: that running mates must be qualified to serve as (vice) president, first and foremost; next, they must be personally and politically compatible with the presidential candidate; finally, as something of a bonus, they may provide a modest electoral advantage. But privately, or in subsequent public comments, many presidential candidates emphasize electoral considerations quite a bit more, and governing considerations less, than they do in public during the campaign.

While we cannot generalize across all selection processes, it is fair to say that most presidential candidates think that running mates matter, electorally speaking, and might even prove decisive in a close race. Such perceptions have the potential to influence the actual selection of a vice presidential candidate—and, in turn, who serves in office as vice president.

Chapter 2: (Why) Do Voters Think That Running Mates Matter?
In this chapter, we analyze public polling data on vice presidential selection, mostly from the 2000–2016 presidential elections. The purpose of this analysis is to determine, first, whether voters think that running mates influence their votes, or election outcomes more generally, and second, what criteria voters use to evaluate (potential) running mates, such that we might characterize the nature of their electoral appeal.

Our analysis indicates that voters have mixed, or conflicted, perceptions of running mate effects. Generally, survey respondents affirm the importance of vice presidential selection, in the abstract, and in many cases they report being more or less likely to vote for a given presidential candidate based on his or her choice of a running mate. Yet, at the same time, respondents rate vice presidential selection as less important than nearly all other electoral considerations; fewer than one in ten respondents say that a running mate ever has changed their presidential vote; and when given the opportunity to explain, in their own words, why they support or oppose a particular presidential candidate, few, if any, respondents cite the candidate’s choice of a running mate.

Also, voters seem not to have fixed criteria in mind when evaluating (potential) vice presidential candidates. However, they do prefer running mates who balance a given ticket by compensating for the presidential candidate’s perceived deficiencies. This is evident with respect to attributes of professional experience, in particular, but not demographic characteristics. Indeed, voters seem to value the running mate’s qualifications very highly, and for the most part they do not give credence to electoral considerations.

Part II: Evidence of Running Mate Effects

Part II (comprising chapters 3–5) tests perceptions of the running mate’s influence, as established in part I, against the relevant empirical evidence. Essentially, our objective in these chapters is to evaluate whether running mates matter in the way that relevant political actors think they matter. Each chapter examines a distinct—but not mutually exclusive—process whereby running mate effects might occur: first, by directly influencing vote choice among voters, in general (chapter 3); second, by directly influencing vote choice among targeted subsets of voters (chapter 4); third, by indirect means—that is, by influencing voters’ evaluations of the presidential candidates, which, in turn, directly influence vote choice (chapter 5). For this analysis, we use a diverse range of data sources and research methods. Indeed, the depth and breadth of our analysis of vice presidential candidates’ electoral influence are unprecedented in the political science literature.

Chapter 3: Direct Effects

In this chapter, we evaluate the running mate’s direct effect on voting, generally. First, we do so by providing descriptive statistics on presidential versus vice presidential candidate preferences, based on data from the 1968–2016 American National Election Studies (ANES). Next, using the same data, we estimate the relative influence of vice presidential versus presidential candidate evaluations on vote choice, via logistic regression analyses. Finally, and for the first time in the literature, we test the causal effects of dynamic changes in running mate evaluations (i.e., favorability ratings) on intended vote choice, as well as presidential candidate evaluations, over the course of a campaign. We do so using time series (i.e., rolling cross-sectional) data from the 2000 and 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES).

Our analyses indicate that running mates do, in fact, directly influence vote choice, but only to a limited extent. Indeed, vice presidential candidate evaluations have much less influence on vote choice than do presidential candidate evaluations. Furthermore, our vector autoregression analysis indicates that while running mates can influence intended vote choice during a campaign, in most cases their effects last only for a few days. This analysis also indicates that presidential and vice presidential candidate evaluations are interdependent (or endogenous) over time. Such direct evidence of interdependent intraparty candidate evaluations is important because it shows that running mates are not just shadows of the presidential candidate. Rather, voters view vice presidential candidates, in part, as a reflection on the presidential candidate—such that reevaluating the former may cause them to reevaluate the latter.

Chapter 4: Targeted Effects

Perhaps, then, running mates are most effective at influencing vote choice among particular groups of voters that presidential campaigns may wish to “target” in order to win an election. To evaluate this possibility, in chapter 4 we examine running mates’ “targeted effects” on vote choice among groups of voters with whom they share a salient geographic (i.e., home state or region), demographic (i.e., gender, religious), or ideological (i.e., liberal, conservative) identity. For example, we assess whether women were more likely than in other years to vote for the Democratic ticket in 1984 or the Republican ticket in 2008, both of which featured a woman running mate (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, respectively). Our analysis draws on three distinct, high-quality data sources—the American National Election Studies (1952–2016), the National Annenberg Election Studies (2000–2008), and The American Panel Survey (2012–2016)—and estimates running mate effects by using a multimethod approach that includes linear or logistic regression analyses, for cross-sectional data, and an adaptation of Lenz’s (2012) three-wave test, for panel data.

We find little evidence of targeted running mate effects. For instance, cross-sectional data indicate that Catholics were no more likely to vote for the Democratic Party in 2016, when Tim Kaine was the vice presidential nominee, than in previous elections. And panel data indicate that the effect of Catholic identification on intended vote choice did not change from the period before versus after Kaine’s selection. Likewise, we observe no significant change in women’s voting behavior in response to the Ferraro or Palin selections. The only clear evidence of a targeted effect comes from 2012, when conservative support for the Republican ticket significantly increased following Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, and ultimately influenced vote choice. In all other cases, we see no such effects at any point during the campaign, or, at best, a temporary increase in support that fades away by Election Day.

Chapter 5: Indirect Effects

In chapter 5, we expand the scope of our analysis to include indirect running mate effects—or the effects of vice presidential candidate evaluations on presidential candidate evaluations, which, subsequently, influence vote choice. This, we argue, is the most realistic conception of running mate effects. Yet indirect effects have gone almost entirely unexplored in the scholarly literature, to date (two exceptions are found in Kenski, Hardy, and Jamieson [2010] and Romero [2001]; but see chapter 5, note 6). In this chapter, we provide an unprecedented analysis of indirect running mate effects, using data from the ANES (1968–2016), NAES (2000–2008), and Knowledge Networks (2008), and a multimethod approach comprising logistic regression analyses and structural equation models (cross-sectional data), vector autoregression (rolling cross-sectional data), and an adaptation of Lenz’s (2012) three-wave test (panel data). Moreover, we evaluate indirect effects based on a diverse range of candidate evaluations, including ones pertaining to ideology, experience, and various professional or personal attributes, as well as general favorability.

Our analysis of more than two hundred statistical models provides overwhelming evidence that running mates influence voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidate who selected him or her. We also present structural equation models demonstrating that running mate evaluations indirectly influence vote choice. In other words, running mates have indirect, as well as direct, effects on voting—although the former appear to be much stronger than the latter. To provide one example of such an effect, in 2008 respondents were significantly more likely to approve of John McCain’s judgment if they believed that his choice of a running mate, Sarah Palin, was ready to be president. Specifically, respondents who rated Palin as “extremely” ready to be president, versus “not at all,” rated McCain’s judgment 2.2 points higher on a scale of 0 to 10. This, in turn, decreased the respondent’s likelihood of voting for the Democratic ticket by 7 percentage points, according to our structural equation models. Nor are these effects limited to perceptions of judgment. Indeed, we find strong and consistent evidence that respondents’ perceptions of the presidential candidate—across a wide range of attributes relating to leadership skills, trustworthiness, and competence—are shaped by their evaluation of the running mate, in terms of overall favorability or experience.

Chapter 6: Why Does This Matter?
This book’s final chapter emphasizes the practical implications of our research findings by discussing several key takeaway points that may help to better inform future deliberations over vice presidential selection among political practitioners, journalists, and the public at large. We present these takeaway points as five recommendations to presidential candidates and their campaigns, when engaging in vice presidential selection. Our recommendations are as follows:
1. Pick someone who can be a good vice president.
2. Don’t just say it; mean it.
3. Ask whether the running mate will matter enough.
4. Don’t expect the running mate to “deliver” a key voting bloc.
5. Don’t just take our word for it.
In each case, we summarize the research findings that inform our recommendation and discuss their implications for vice presidential selection, presidential campaign strategy, and presidential administration. In the course of this discussion, we also consider the limitations of the present research, opportunities for future research, and the role that vice presidential candidates may play in the 2020 election.

So, What if Running Mates Matter?

To be sure, we are not the first scholars to analyze the electoral significance of vice presidential candidates. The existing literature on “running mate effects,” in fact, attests to the importance of a subject that easily can be mistaken as insignificant or even frivolous. And this literature provides valuable perspective—in terms of theory, methodology, and substantive conclusions—that helps to guide our research, while also raising questions that we hope to answer, with a greater measure of clarity, in the pages that follow.

Scholarly Literature
Numerous studies examine running mates’ effects on elections generally (e.g., Adkison 1982; Burmila and Ryan 2013; Devine and Kopko 2016, chap. 8; Grofman and Kline 2010; Ulbig 2010; Wattenberg 1984, 1995; Wattenberg and Grofman 1993), and with respect to specific considerations such as party identification (Court and Lynch 2015), ideology (Court 2012; Krumel and Enami 2017), demography (Jelen 2018), and geography (J. Campbell 1992; J. Campbell, Ali, and Jalalzai 2006; Devine and Kopko 2011, 2013, 2016, 2019; Dudley and Rapoport 1989; Garand 1988; Heersink and Peterson 2016; Holbrook 1991; Kahane 2009; Mixon and Tyrone 2004; Morini 2015; Rosenstone 1983; Schultz 2016; Tubbesing 1973). We review these literatures in the relevant chapters to follow. Also, many studies examine secondary matters that we reference in this book, including media coverage of vice presidential candidates (e.g., Ulbig 2010, 2013) and the vice presidential selection process (e.g., Baumgartner 2012, 2016; Hiller and Kriner 2008; Sigelman and Wahlbeck 1997). But the existing literature has two significant limitations.

First, many of these studies narrowly focus on one aspect of running mate effects, such as geography (e.g., Devine and Kopko 2016) or media coverage (e.g., Ulbig 2013). Second, other more comprehensive studies analyze vice presidential candidates, as an electoral institution, within the broader context of the vice presidency, as a governing institution, and with a predominant focus on the latter (e.g., Baumgartner with Crumblin 2015; Goldstein 2016). Such studies represent tremendous contributions to scholars’ understanding of the vice presidency, which we make no attempt to challenge or to significantly revise here. However, these studies do not provide a comprehensive, empirically driven analysis of running mates’ electoral effects, along the lines of what we present in this book.

In fact, no book to date has been devoted exclusively to the subject of vice presidential candidates’ effects on presidential voting, in general or along several dimensions at a time, such as ideology, geography, and demographics. Also, ours is the first study to systematically examine voters’ perceptions of vice presidential candidates’ electoral influence and their criteria for vice presidential selection (chapter 2). Finally, ours is the first study to analyze how voters’ perceptions of a vice presidential candidate’s characteristics (e.g., readiness to be president) influence their perceptions of the presidential candidate’s characteristics (e.g., judgment), as well as how these perceptions may influence vote choice (chapter 5).

Running Mates and the Vice Presidency

A clarification of terms is in order, also, before proceeding with this analysis. The title of this book, and our central research question, asks: Do running mates matter? We are not asking whether vice presidents matter. Goldstein (2016), in particular, has answered that question rather definitively, and in the affirmative. Although vice presidents have little constitutional power, since the inception of the “modern vice presidency,” under Jimmy Carter, they have wielded significant and growing power as a result of informal institutional changes. In particular, as Goldstein explains, this power comes from serving as a senior adviser to, and troubleshooter for, the president, with the support of extensive personal access and in-house resources. Indeed, many of the most recent vice presidents—including Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden—have played a major role in shaping administration policy on foreign and domestic matters, and in advancing the president’s agenda through their work with Congress and foreign leaders.

Unfortunately, we think, it is all too common—particularly among journalists—to treat the terms “vice president” and “vice presidential candidate” interchangeably. Needless to say (but we will, anyway), the two roles are different, and they coincide only when an incumbent vice president is seeking reelection. In fact, we see the study of vice presidential candidates, as an electoral institution, as quite distinct from the study of vice presidents, as a governing institution (although there is good reason to draw relevant connections between the two at times, in the same way that, say, studying judicial nomination and confirmation processes is connected to, but distinct from, studying judicial behavior). That is why, as noted previously, we explicitly characterize our work as a study of vice presidential candidates, not vice presidents. And it is why, in hopes of limiting confusion about our subject matter and research objectives, we emphasize that distinction by framing our title, research question, and much of the language to follow in terms of “running mates.”

This discussion also provides a useful reminder as to why it is important to know whether, and in what ways, running mates matter. Regardless of their electoral influence, running mates ultimately matter because, if successful, they become vice presidents. And, as the research cited earlier demonstrates, vice presidents are highly, and increasingly, influential actors in American government. If it is the case that presidential candidates (at least sometimes) misjudge the nature of running mates’ effects on presidential voting—perhaps by overestimating their ability to “deliver” a home state or an affiliated demographic group—then they might select someone who is unqualified, or at least less qualified than other credible alternatives, to serve as a partner in government and next in the line of presidential succession, simply because an electoral consideration tipped the scales. This may seem like a remote possibility, but—perhaps depending on one’s political views—it is not difficult to think of a time when it nearly happened or actually did (e.g., Dan Quayle, John Edwards, Sarah Palin).

To the extent that our research validates some perceptions of running mate effects, perhaps it will help to inform presidential candidates, their campaigns, and members of the news media when gaming out viable electoral strategies. But, to the extent that our research challenges errant or oversimplified perceptions of running mate effects, then perhaps it will help to divert attention away from illusions of electoral advantage and redirect it toward efforts to identify the person best qualified to serve as vice president.

About the Author

Christopher J. Devine is assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. Kyle C. Kopko is associate professor of political science, associate dean, and director of the legal studies major at Elizabethtown College.

You May Also Enjoy: Our Binge-Worthy Books.

As the global battle against COVID-19 stretches from weeks into months, many people are bound to their couches to binge-watch another show. The staff here at UPK is no different. As an opportunity to turn off the tube, may we suggest some analog matches for your digital favorites.

 

If you enjoyed Ozark’s story of the mob in Kansas City, you might like Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Pendergast Era. Edited by Diane Mutti Burke, Jason Roe, and John Herron, the book dives deep into the interwar period when political boss Tom Pendergast reigned and Kansas City was said to be “wide open” because of the vices available.

 

Did you get caught up in the Tiger King drama (Carol did it, right?)? You might also enjoy Dan Flores’s American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, which tells the history of when large cats and other big game naturally ruled the middle of the map.

 

If you can’t wait for Sunday evenings so you can watch two more episodes of ESPN’s brilliant The Last Dance, you might enjoy spending Monday throughSaturday reading Andrew Malan Milward’s Jayhawker: On History, Home, and Basketball. In this book that begins with one fan’s passion for a game, Milward takes a deep dive into sports culture, team loyalty, and a shared sense of belonging—and what these have to do with character, home, and history.

 

Speaking of basketball, if you enjoyed the beautiful story of a Navajo high school team in Basketball or Nothing, you might also (definitely, actually) enjoy Native Hoops: The Rise of American Indian Basketball, 1895–1970. The Native American passion for basketball extends far beyond the Navajo, whether on reservations or in cities, among the young and the old. Why basketball—a relatively new sport—should hold such a place in Native culture is the question Wade Davies takes up in Native Hoops.

 

Now that you’ve mastered every single recipe featured on The Great British Baking Show, you may also enjoy cooking something a bit closer to home. The New Kansas Cookbook: Rural Roots, Modern Table offers modern makeovers of Midwestern mainstays like sloppy joes and sweet custards to dishes influenced by a wide variety of world cuisines. These recipes bring Kansas tradition into the twenty-first century with a new burst of flavor and sense of fun.

 

As the natural world works itself back to normal, binge-watching Our Planet can be inspirational. The End of Sustainability: Resilience and the Future of Environmental Governance in the Anthropocene might be a good fit. The book examines how the continued invocation of sustainability in policy discussions ignores the emerging reality of the Anthropocene, which is creating a world characterized by extreme complexity, radical uncertainty, and unprecedented change.

 

If watching historical reenactments of religious compounds, as shown in Waco, is fun, you may also enjoy Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s stunning God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right. The first full ethnography of this infamous presence on America’s Religious Right, her book situates the church’s story in the context of American religious history—and reveals as much about the uneasy state of Christian practice in our day as it does about the workings of the Westboro Church and Fred Phelps, its founder.

 

Are you binging old episodes of Veep? Maybe get some proper background of how the vice presidency has evolved with Joel Goldstein’s The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden. The book presents a comprehensive account of the vice presidency as the office has developed from Mondale to Biden. Or check out our upcoming book Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections. In the first book to put this question to a rigorous test, Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko draw upon an unprecedented range of empirical data to reveal how, and how much, running mates influence voting in presidential elections.

 

Maybe you’ve been watching the president’s daily press conference and are interested in an explanation of how the executive branch got to this point. Check out The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal by Stephen F. Knott. Taking on an issue as timely as Donald Trump’s latest tweet and as old as the American republic, the distinguished presidential scholar documents the devolution of the American presidency from the neutral, unifying office envisioned by the framers of the Constitution into the demagogic, partisan entity of our day.

Stock and Lauck discuss “The Conservative Heartland: A Political History of the Postwar American Midwest”

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election there was widespread shock that the Midwest, the Democrats’ so-called blue wall, had been so effectively breached by Donald Trump. But the blue wall, as The Conservative Heartland makes clear, was never quite as secure as so many observers assumed. A deep look at the Midwest’s history of conservative politics, this timely volume reveals how conservative victories in state houses, legislatures, and national elections in the early twenty-first century, far from coming out of nowhere, in fact had extensive roots across decades of political organization in the region.

Focusing on nine states, from Iowa and the Dakotas to Indiana and Ohio, the essays in this collection detail the rise of midwestern conservatism after World War II—a trend that coincided with the transformation of the prewar Republican Party into the New Right. This transformation, the authors contend, involved the Midwest and the Sunbelt states. Through the lenses of race, class, gender, and sexuality, their essays explore the development of midwestern conservative politics in light of deindustrialization, environmentalism, second wave feminism, mass incarceration, privatization, and debates over same-sex marriage and abortion, among other issues. Together these essays map the region’s complex patchwork of viable rural and urban areas, variously subject to a wide array of conflicting interests and concerns; the perspective they provide, at once broad and in-depth, offers unique historical insight into the Midwest’s political complexity—and its status as the last real competitive battleground in presidential elections.

1. What is your elevator pitch for The Conservative Heartland? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

Stock: The 2016 election reminded political observers everywhere of the importance of conservative politics in the Midwest.  But what many did not realize is that Midwestern conservatism is nothing new.  In our book, contributors examine conservative political tradition in eleven states over the course of a transformative period, 1945 to the present, when “new conservatism” came to change American politics forever.

Lauck: Since the election of the Midwesterner Ronald Reagan in 1980, the dominant political orientation of the United States has been conservative, especially in the interior sections of the country. Unfortunately, we know very little about modern conservatism in the American Midwest, which is often seen as the heartland of the nation. This book is a major step toward addressing that historical oversight.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the political history of the postwar American Midwest?

Stock: Personally, I have been inspired to do political history by the grass-roots political work–stuffing envelopes and going door to door–that I did as a young girl in Minneapolis. My father was active in the Independent Republican Party and supported moderate IR candidates like Arne Carlson through the 1960s. Increasingly in the 1970s, however, IR politics began to change, with more far right candidates appearing in elections as hyper-local as those for the Minneapolis Park Board.  Since becoming a historian and moving to New England, I have continued to be fascinated with the region as a whole–even the question of how it became seen as a region in the first place. Most of my research and writing has examined the interactions between the federal government and the rural people.  I can still remember the arguments between my maternal grandparents, originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota, over the question of whether FDR had “ruined the country.”

Lauck: It is a bit annoying to hear coastal commentators opine about what is “really” going on in the interior of the country. I think it’s far past time for a deep and serious dive into the actual history of the Midwest and to get past stereotypes and anecdotes.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of compiling and editing the book?

Stock: We had far more terrific proposals than we had room for!  Also, we were looking for chronological, geographic, and thematic breadth so that was hard too!

Lauck: There is not much historiography to build on. We are starting from scratch in many cases.

4. How has the political influence of the American Midwest evolved over the past 100 years?

Stock: In one of our chapters, we show how the Midwest had been the most-frequently visited region of the country by presidential candidates throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Certain states like Ohio retained the reputation of being “bellwether” states even to this day.  But other Midwestern states, with fewer Electoral College votes, quickly became “fly-over states” in modern presidential campaigns.  And yet this too may be changing. It is quite striking to see how the Trump administration has returned time and again to small rural states with large percentages of his supporters, like North and South Dakota, to remind those voters that rural people are no less important to his coalition than urban voters.  Of course, the creation of the Iowa caucuses put rural, largely white, America front and center, but after the debacle of the 2020 primary I doubt it will continue to have that place of privilege, at least for the Democrats.

Lauck: Since the explosive growth of the Republican Party in 1850s as a Midwestern regional party to the Midwest GOP’s 50-year reign of dominance after the Civil War to the more recent rise of Reaganism the Midwest has been central to American politics. It is now the last swing region which will determine who captures the presidency this fall and in subsequent cycles.

5. How have single-issue voters influenced political trends in the Midwest?

Stock: I think that the rise of new conservatism cannot be boiled down to single issues–but there are some single issues that certainly made a huge impact in the region’s growing support for new conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s.  Support for the military is an understudied part of the appeal of the New Right in the Midwest; anti-abortion politics is better understood and, of course, seen as a critical component in this shift.  In our essay we also look at the impact of cultural issues like marriage equality, the increased numbers of evangelical Protestant congregations, and the appeal of often racially coded calls for “law and order.”

Lauck: Issues like farming, steel, and trade along with conservative social issues and defenses of American traditions have been major issues in the Midwest in recent decades and will likely remain so.

6. National attention turned to the Midwest after the surprising results from the 2016 Presidential election. Do you sense the region is being monitored more closely by political parties prior to the 2020 election?

Stock: Nearly every day (or at least before COVID 19!) major media outlets have published or broadcast pieces on Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio and their extremely important roles in the upcoming elections. It is now a truism that Hillary Clinton may have lost the 2016 election by neglecting to travel to Wisconsin.  No candidate will make that mistake this year!  Similarly, there are new articles examining the question of the Democrat’s supposed “blue wall” in the Midwest.  In our book we question whether there ever was a blue wall in the first place!

Lauck: Absolutely. The growing number of stories about Michigan and Wisconsin, for example, speak to that increased attention. The Democrats’ decision to have their convention in Milwaukee is no accident.

7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

Stock: That conservative politics have always been an essential part of Midwestern politics and that the region itself may be the last true battleground region in the country!

Lauck: There is a dense civic culture underlying the politics of the Midwest and people need to understand that and focus less on the day-to-day stories of polls and the horse race. People also need to understand that regions and smaller micro-places still play a role in politics and so we need to understand particular places better than we do. To do that we have to break out of the information bubble created by producers and editors in New York and Washington DC.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Stock: I would like to go back in time and have Hillary Clinton read it in 2015!

Lauck: Both Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Pete Buttigieg of Indiana. They could have teamed up, formed an all-Midwest ticket, and fought a good fight for the region. They dropped the ball and left the Democrats with an old Washington insider who hails from Delaware. They should have played the regional angle better and emphasized they were fresh voices from a new generation.

_____

Catherine McNicol Stock is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ‘72 Professor of History at Connecticut College.

Jon K. Lauck is the founding president of the Midwestern History Association, editor-in-chief of the Middle West Review, and adjunct professor of political science at the University of South Dakota.

The Supreme Court, the President and Impeachment

by Joshua E. Kastenberg, author of The Campaign to Impeach Justice William O. Douglas; Nixon, Vietnam, and the Conservative Attack on Judicial Independence

The Constitution does not expressly set out a specific legal standard for impeaching a president or judge, but it does use the term “high crimes and misdemeanors” as an operative reason for removal. Certainly, it is possible for the House of Representatives to impeach a president, cabinet official, judge, or Supreme Court justice for noncriminal behavior: Gerald Ford tried this against William O. Douglas. Ford argued that “high crimes and misdemeanors” and “good behavior” was a malleable standard, one that was “whatever a majority of the House believes it to be at a given time.” In 1970, Ford failed to convince the House that Douglas merited impeachment.

It may be difficult to draw parallels between Justice Douglas and President Trump because Douglas had served on the Court for three decades and did not come into office with vast wealth (or the claim of vast wealth). Yet there is a parallel between then and now. Ford accused Douglas of unethical behavior, consorting with foreign entities, and misconduct by receiving money from the Mafia. However, there was no evidence to substantiate the latter two allegations. (Douglas may have crossed the line by publishing a book and several articles in a magazine reputed to be pornographic, and Douglas’s extramarital affairs were the basis for other impeachment demands).

Democrats who have argued for impeaching President Trump are alleging an abuse of power by coercing or aligning with the president of Ukraine to damage a political opponent. There are also investigations into his finances as well as payoffs to mistresses.

Thus there is a parallel of sorts. Of course, a president is commander in chief and generally gains office by an Electoral College vote; meanwhile, a Supreme Court justice gains office by a presidential nomination and Senate approval. But the standard for impeachment—notwithstanding Ford’s claims to the contrary—is the same. Ford acted on April 15, 1970, by demanding impeachment and claiming that the Central Intelligence Agency had “dirt” on Douglas’s foreign activities and that the Securities and Exchange Commission and Internal Revenue Services also had proof of Douglas’s malfeasance. None of these agencies produced evidence against Douglas. Nor did the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Justice Department provide evidence (even though Attorney General John Mitchell promised evidence would be forthcoming).

It appears to be the case that in our present circumstances there is evidence, by President Trump’s own admission, of seeking foreign help against a political rival. There’s also the questionable timing of President Trump withholding military aid, followed by the release of congressionally appropriated monies after the Ukrainian president promised that a new prosecutor might relook an investigation into Hunter Biden.

Bribery is a specified offense in the Constitution. There is a prima facie case of it in regard to the president. Douglas was unpopular with conservatives: he engaged in extrajudicial activities that are prohibited by codes of ethics today but were not at the time. Somewhere in all of this, it is time for the House to employ a constitutional, rather than Ford’s, standard.

Joshua E. Kastenberg is associate professor of law and the Lee and Leon Karelitz Professor in Evidence and Procedure at the University of New Mexico School of Law. His many books include To Raise and Discipline an Army: Major General Enoch Crowder, the Judge Advocate General’s Office, and the Realignment of Civil and Military Relations in World War I and Law in War, War as Law: Brigadier General Joseph Holt and the Judge Advocate General’s Department in the Civil War and Early Reconstruction, 1861–1865.

Nixon, Trump and Courting the Silent Majority

by Seth Blumenthal, author of Children of the Silent Majority;Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980

Listening to White House aides such as Kevin Phillips, who urged a shift to the right on social and race issues during the 1970 midterm campaign season, President Richard Nixon attempted to lure Democrats into the Republican fold with rhetoric that channeled the frustrations and concerns shared by the voters he labeled the “great silent majority.” Just days before the election, in the wake of a raucous and violent demonstration against his speech in San Jose, California, earlier that week, Nixon pleased one Arizona crowd with his trademark tough talk. “The time has come to draw the line,” Nixon fumed against “the haters.” “The time has come for the great silent majority of Americans of all ages, of every political persuasion, to stand up and be counted against appeasement of the rock throwers and the obscenity shouters in America.” However, rather than gain seats in Congress, Nixon watched several coveted campaigns fail to provide the mandate he anticipated, instead puncturing his claim to a new majority. In retrospect, even Nixon admitted the approach went “too far overboard.” In the weeks following the 1970 election, Nixon’s staff scrambled to explain the poor showing and the shortcomings of his “law and order” appeal to America.

Ever since Nixon coined the term “silent majority” in his 1969 address concerning the Vietnam War, commentators became obsessed with debating this voting bloc’s contours and its character throughout his presidency and beyond. Rick Perlstein defined the silent majority’s amorphous impetus as follows: “The silent majority is always going to be a state of mind. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of dispossession. And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when things seem to be changing, when all that’s solid melts into air.” This vague sentiment still resonates today as President Donald Trump and his voters continually call themselves the “silent majority.” Comparing Nixon’s definition—or definitions—of the silent majority and Donald Trump’s coalition reveals similarly dubious patterns in conservatives’ claim to a majority and their explanation for this majority’s silence. Meanwhile, Cheri Bustos, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chair of Heartland Engagement who guided 2018 candidates in twelve states, attempted to steer the silent majority in a different direction: “If you look throughout the heartland,” Bustos hoped, “there’s a Silent Majority who just wants normalcy, just wants to see that people are going to go out to Washington and fight for them in a civil way and get something done.” Unfortunately for Bustos and other Democrats borrowing this conservative phrase, even when defined in moderate terms by its civility the history behind this mythologized voting bloc demonstrates the crucial role that the concept of a silent majority plays in backlash politics.

Despite the 1970 campaign’s failures, Kevin Phillips continued to paint a backlash image of Nixon’s silent majority: “Young policemen, truck drivers, and steelworkers,” who Nixon sought to include in his constituency along with Sunbelt suburban voters, “lean towards a kind of hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’ in the [Governor] George Wallace vein.” The secret to politics, Phillips once said, “is knowing who hates who.” In Phillips’s attempt to map a political majority, this quote meant targeting young leftists but also opposing civil rights legislation and channeling racist resentments to win white voters from the Democratic Party. As he claimed, “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.” Phillips’s view of the silent majority connected this voting bloc to Wallace, a firebrand segregationist, and garnered important conservative adherents within the White House such as Tom Huston and Pat Buchanan. Not all of Nixon’s aides agreed with Phillips’s assessment.

Capturing the perspective of the moderate, middle-of-the-road advisers who suggested Nixon temper his approach to court the silent majority, a revealing memo from his White House aide, Daniel P. Moynihan, offers a lens into this internal discussion. Moynihan, a Democrat in a Republican administration, understood the potential of backlash politics and encouraged Nixon’s attacks on countercultural permissiveness, but he added that Nixon should balance this tough approach with a more civil and positive embrace of patriotism and the United States’ political and cultural traditions. While Moynihan also explored a populist vision of a resentful silent majority, he maintained that these voters required finesse and demanded an intellectual defense of their traditions in the face of the 1960s challenges from the Left. Moynihan explained, “The silent majority is silent because it has nothing to say,” as he believed these voters begged Nixon for a convincing counter to the robust debate raging between the political extremes on the Right and the eft.

The real problem, according Moynihan, was that the majority of Americans had no response to the challenges to capitalism and “American virtues.” As he advised Nixon, “The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near to silencing the representatives of traditional America.” Citing the “fourth rate minds around the administration” and worrying that the “only persons with vigor in their argument are the real right wingers,” Moynihan complained about the dearth of outspoken, effective communicators of conservative virtues that he defined as “moderation, decency, common sense, restrained ambition, attainable goals, comprehensible policies.” “You may have more troops,” Moynihan conceded, “but the other side has more firepower. Infinitely more.” Thus, Moynihan hoped that if Nixon and his administration could give these voters a moderate voice to marginalize the extremists across the political spectrum, it would provide the silent majority with the rhetoric and confidence to stand up for the middle and prove they outnumbered the “authoritarian left.” Hardly the “hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’” Phillips advocated.

Furthering his contrast to Phillips’s backlash thesis, Moynihan warned Nixon about the dangers of wading into student politics. Especially after the Ohio Army National Guard’s traumatic shooting of four unarmed students during a Kent State demonstration in 1970, Moynihan feared that “the general impression is that we have been running against the kids.” After all, William Scranton’s Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest reported that Kent State’s student body “are predominantly the children of middle class families, both white collar and blue collar, and in the main go on to careers as teachers and as middle-level management in industry.” These students belied the notion that all protesters were fringe radicals, or a minority. Still, even though Moynihan urged caution when confronting the “sons and daughters of the silent majority,” he demonstrated the racial limits of moderation when he supported Nixon’s targeting of “black militants” and “racial extremists.” Despite Moynihan’s distinctions, conservatives often conflated black and white protesters to separate both groups from the majority.

While Nixon and his advisers debated the silent majority’s significance, conservative activists on campus targeted antiwar voices and dismissed them as a minority. One conservative group at the University of Tennessee distributed a flyer on campus during the (predominantly white) student strike following Kent State, asking, “Who helped these long haired, unintelligent, dark skinned, poorly dressed . . . protesters?” The term “silent majority” always carried racial connotations because the word “majority” claimed political power and appealed to white fears that the minority gained preferential treatment under LBJ’s Great Society and urban programs to combat poverty. As Perlstein points out, “To say majority is to say minority, and everyone knows who minorities are. They are people in America who are not white.”

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

The term “silent majority” continues to prove resilient and influential because it motivates a conservative voting constituency’s political identity in contrast to the Left. As one Trump supporter complained, “The reason why we’re silent is because we’re not allowed to talk.” He continued, “My favorite thing about Trump is that he wants to get rid of political correctness.” Though similar to Moynihan’s claim that that the silent majority lacked a voice, Trump’s version of this coalition leans more toward the anti-intellectual, vitriolic strain Phillips identified and blames the Left more directly for intentionally muzzling conservative perspectives. Even this more recent claim that the silent majority has been silenced is rooted in racial politics. In fact, Trump’s rhetoric reveals the exact expressions of patriotism and white identity politics that his voters feel unable to discuss in what Moynihan called “terms that will win a respectful hearing.” For example, due to this revived sense of “dispossession,” loyal Trump supporters believe the president’s racist appeals work with the predominantly white silent majority today. Greg Gallas, a county GOP chairman in Minnesota, recently bragged that Trump’s targeted criticism of Representative Ilhan Omar is “awakening a ‘silent majority’ of supporters.” As he gushed, “I love it. It’s called winning.”

From its inception, the silent majority’s racial boundaries—who it included and their interests—have been shaped and debated by political experts. Van Jones, a liberal commentator on CNN, recently challenged the contemporary vision of a backlash-driven silent majority when after Trump’s rally in North Carolina where supporters chanted “send her back” he claimed, “I think there’s a silent majority of people who have been getting increasingly uncomfortable with what Trump is up to.” However, Jones and other Democrats looking to borrow the phrase also espouse the same emphasis on civil moderation that Moynihan exaggerated, and they overlook the crucial role race, resentment, and alienation played in framing the silent majority. Thus, while these voters aren’t always silent nor a majority, they always stand in opposition to a minority that is perceived as disproportionately influential and growing, no matter the reality. Certainly, considering its history, asking the silent majority to resist Trump’s politics seems a quixotic exercise.

Seth Blumenthal is a senior lecturer at Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences. His work has appeared in the Journal of Policy History and The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture.

 

[1] Richard Nixon, “Remarks at Phoenix, Arizona,” October 31, 1970, John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-phoenix-arizona.
[1] Kevin Phillips, “‘Kidlash’ a Possibility: Important Changes Could Come from Vote of 18–21 Year Olds,” Post-Crescent, May 2, 1971.
[1] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Memorandum for the President,” November 13, 1970, Nixon Library, https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/virtuallibrary/documents/jun09/111370_Moynihan.pdf.
[1] President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, “The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest” (Washington, DC: US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Institute of Education, 1970), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED083899.pdf.
[1] Flyer, University of Tennessee Special Collections, Folder: Student Unrest 1970s.
[1] Sam Sanders, “Trump Champions the ‘Silent Majority,’ but What Does That Mean in 2016?” NPR, January 22, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/01/22/463884201/trump-champions-the-silent-majority-but-what-does-that-mean-in-2016.
[1] Judy Keen, “Trump-Omar Sparring Influences the Fight for Minnesota in 2020,” StarTribune, July 29, 2019, http://www.startribune.com/trump-s-feud-with-rep-ilhan-omar-influences-the-fight-for-minnesota-in-2020/513297212/.
[1] Ian Schwartz, “Van Jones: Silent Majority of People Uncomfortable with What Trump Is Up To,” RealClear Politics, July 19, 2019, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/07/19/van_jones_silent_majority_of_people_uncomfortable_with_what_trump_is_up_to.html.

President Trump and His Wall

by Louis Fisher, written for Penza News

President Trump’s determination to build a wall on the border of Mexico has led to a shutdown of many federal agencies. 800,000 workers are laid off, putting at risk many essential governmental programs.  The Food and Drug Administration has suspended all inspections of domestic food-processing facilities, creating health hazards for the general public.  Farmers are unable to receive subsidies to plant crops.  The capacity of airports to conduct checkpoints to ensure safety is under increasing strain.  Damage is being done to national parks.  Many federal contractors are out of work.  In this climate, various shops and businesses have lost their customers.

(AP Photo)

Although the House of Representatives, now under control of the Democratic Party, has passed a number of bills to reopen executive departments, Senator Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republican-run Senate, has made it clear he will not allow votes on those bills unless President Trump intends to sign them. On Saturday, January 12, the shutdown became the longest in U.S. history.  Which political party will be blamed the most for this economic and political damage?

President Trump has claimed he can declare a “national emergency” to build the wall if Congress fails to enact the funds he has requested. Some discretion exists for funds appropriated but not yet obligated, as those in the Defense Department.  However, no authority allows the President to take funds from the Pentagon and use them for programs operated by another executive agency, such as the Department of Homeland Security.  Such efforts would amount to transferring the constitutional power of the purse from Congress to the President.  The violation would be particularly clear if Congress had refused to provide funds for the wall or any type of discretionary authority.  Trump would provoke not only litigation but even possible impeachment and removal.  His Republican base could decide if this type of presidential initiative is “making America great again.”

Louis Fisher is scholar in residence at The Constitution Project in Washington, DC, and visiting scholar at the William and Mary Law School. From 1970 to 2010 he served in the Library of Congress as senior specialist in separation of powers at Congressional Research Service and specialist in constitutional law at the Law Library. His many books include Constitutional Conflicts between Congress and the President, Sixth Edition, Revised; Presidential War Power, Third Edition, Revised; Military Tribunals and Presidential Power, winner of the Richard E. Neustadt Award; and Supreme Court Expansion of Presidential Power, all from Kansas.

The 2018 Election – A Tale of Two Elections

Throughout 2018, Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy, veteran political scientists and authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century, have written about the mid-term election. This latest post is their end cap on the coverage. You can read their previous pieces here:

Following the 2018 Election – A Preview

Following the 2018 Election – Why Elections Matter

Following the 2018 Election – Why Money Matters

The Shape of the 2018 Election – New Volunteers, New Movements?

The Shape of the 2018 Election – The Blue Wave in 2018

The 2018 Election – A Tale of Two Elections by Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy

The Blue Wave came, especially in many Midwest states, but it did not sweep away Trump or Trumpian Republicanism. When the dust settled, the Republicans still controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives.

The Democrats made gains most importantly in the suburbs. Republicans became ever more entrenched in the rural areas.

The youth vote grew almost exponentially and the Latino vote expanded dramatically. Still many of the elections turned on the persona of the candidates and issues that mattered to different local constituents. As Speaker Tip O’Neal famously said, “All politics is local.” And that was true of the 2018 elections. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all election despite issues discussed nationally such as pre-existing conditions in health care, the caravan approaching the border, or immigration more generally.

It was the most expensive mid-term election in history. In the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in the nation’s history; in winning the governorship of Illinois, Democrat J. B. Pritzker donated over $170 million to his campaign and Republican Bruce Rauner spent almost $70 million of his own money. That meant that Pritzker paid $79.20 a vote.  Most congressional candidates who defeated incumbents spent over $4 million each.

Beyond the huge amounts of money, the candidates who won their races in 2018 mostly followed the fundamentals of campaigns set forth in our book, Winning Elections in the 21st Century: A clear theme or message distinguishing themselves from their opponent; a strong “free media” campaign; a paid media campaign; direct mail and phone campaign; sufficient volunteers to work key precincts guided by voter analytics; and a sophisticated social media effort. This assumes that the candidate was attractive and had clear issue positions on those questions that most concerned the voters in their district.

There were some clear trends in the election. Republicans retained most of their U.S. Senate seats even as Democrats won at least 30 House seats, giving them at least a majority of 225-200 with 10 seats still undecided as of November 10.

One of the biggest changes came in gubernatorial elections. Democrats lost high-profile gubernatorial races in Iowa and Ohio. But they were able to flip Republican gubernatorial seats in seven states — Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin. The Florida race is close enough for a recount. This diminishes the GOP’s previous control of state governments to now 26-23 with the Georgia gubernatorial election also still to be decided. Democrats also flipped seven state legislative chambers and gained a veto-proof majority in Illinois.

In addition to results favoring Democrats, this election may well be noted as one that began more active participation in politics from nontraditional political actors. One important development was how women, nonwhite, and LGTB candidates ran for office across the nation, changing the political landscape. For the first time, Hispanic voters matched their share of eligible voting population and nationwide, 69% voted for Democrats. Women became more active in politics not simply as supporters, but as candidates on all levels.

Overall, the women’s vote was equally divided 49-49, but minority and youth turnout was higher (both groups favoring Democrats), giving women Democratic candidates an edge nationwide. In the U.S. House, at least 102 women were elected (6 races still undecided in which women are running). Twelve women were elected to the Senate (with one race still undecided) and nine women were victors in gubernatorial races (with one undecided). Many women and minorities of both sexes decided to run as Democrats for suburban and other local offices that had previously gone unopposed, often tapping into the power of the grassroots organizations generated after Trump’s election. Many of these candidates won, changing the geopolitics of suburban America and providing a base of experienced Democratic candidates for future races.

All of this sets up the 2020 Presidential election year as a critical election to decide the future direction of the nation and the two political parties. President Trump remains hugely popular with his base but they are a minority of the population now and will be even more so in 2020. Yet, the Democrats have to prove they can play a positive role in the national governing and in the states where they made gains.  If they can continue to run effective, well-funded campaigns, they have the advantage. But there can be wars, economic collapse, further trade wars, and national disasters between now and then. What remains constant is the need to run effective campaigns based upon the new rules of the game at the end of the second decade in the 21st century.

Dick Simpson is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the co-editor with Dennis Judd of The City, Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York.

Betty O’Shaughnessy is a visiting lecturer in political science, University of Illinois at Chicago and coauthor of The Struggle for Power and Influence in Cities and States.

A Rainbow Wave in Kansas

by CJ Janovy, author of  No Place Like Home; Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas.

“There were tears, of course, as the reality began to set in that the eight years of persecution of LGBTQ Kansans was coming to an end,” Stephanie Mott wrote on Facebook early on Wednesday morning. Kansans had elected Laura Kelly rather than Kris Kobach as their next governor.

Mott, a highly visible transgender activist in Kansas for a decade now, remembered the night Sam Brownback was elected governor eight years ago and reelected four years ago. She also recalled the 2016 presidential election, or “that horrible night 2 years past.” Now she was waking up to a different future, “in the full knowledge that anti-LGBTQ legislation will not pass in Kansas in the next 4 years, at least 4 years,” she wrote, in a kind of social media poetry:

  • No bathroom bills.
  • Protected Kansas LGBTQ employees.
  • Yes, there were tears.
  • It is also about Medicaid expansion, and education and tax policy, and so much more.
  • But for this transgender woman and so many LGBTQ Kansans, it is about life and death.
  • It is about living in a state that respects our identities and honors our love. #GovernorElectLauraKelly

Kelly’s defeat of Kobach was big national news; even bigger national news was that Kansans were sending a lesbian to the US House of Representatives. Sharice Davids, who defeated four-term Representative Kevin Yoder, would also be one of the first two Native American women in Congress.

In its postelection piece on what national media outlets were calling a “rainbow wave” (echoing the slogan of the national Victory Fund, which helped bankroll the victories), NPR’s Leila Fadel spoke with 3rd District resident Hailee Bland Walsh, who called Davids’s win “lifesaving”: “Walsh and her wife never imagined that they’d see an open lesbian serve in their district. She’s been afraid as a minority in an America that’s becoming more and more uncivil,” Fadel reported.

“There’s something really fundamental about feeling safe,” Walsh said. Listeners around the country could hear her voice begin to waver. “And today, for the first time in couple of years— I’m getting emotional about it, but I feel safe.”

Volumes on Davids now wait to be written as she heads to Washington and as we watch what she does there. Pundits are already talking about how Kansas, of all places, elected a lesbian.

From where I sat, watching Davids’s rise from afar (I did not cover her campaign) and witnessing people’s enthusiasm about her, the explanation looked simple: 1) Yoder was a Trumpist from a moderate district; 2) Democrats had fielded a clear and qualified alternative, someone whose very existence and openness stood for something bigger than herself; 3) newly awakened voters who were eager to make a statement against the administration added to the energy in Johnson County, where citizens had been working hard through several election cycles to try to reverse the economic disaster of the Brownback administration—primarily its damage to public education; and 4) in majority-minority Wyandotte County, voters broke a twenty-two-year record for turnout, with Davids getting 68 percent of the vote to Yoder’s 29.

For me, the most surprising moment of the Davids-Yoder race was a couple of lines in the Kansas City Star the morning after the two debated, late in the campaign, when Davids held a substantial lead in the polls:

“Asked if Congress should pass federal LGBTQ protections, Davids advocated for the move and  said ‘LGBT people should be considered a protected class.’ Yoder was not clear about the issue during the debate but clarified afterward that he would support making LGBTQ a protected class under federal law.”

The idea of federal protections for LGBTQ people is blasphemy for party-liners in Trump’s GOP; only two weeks earlier, his administration had considered defining trans people out of existence.

But Yoder’s tendency to say whatever was politically expedient at any given moment was just one reason so many people in the 3rd District had proclaimed themselves #OverYoder. It’s likely any strong-enough Democrat would have beaten him; that a lesbian was the one to do it spoke to a profound change in public opinion.

“Twenty years ago, a lot of identities were liabilities. Being a Native American lesbian in the 1990s probably was a nonstarter to getting elected to anything,” University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller told my KCUR colleague Gina Kaufmann on the morning after the election. “And it didn’t matter yesterday.”

It didn’t matter—in fact, it might have been a strength rather than a liability—thanks in part to the kind of hometown activism chronicled in No Place Like Home.

That change in attitudes is not a fluke. We know this because, far away from the national spotlight yet also in Davids’s district, two other openly gay people won their races: Brandon Woodard and Susan Ruiz are headed to Topeka in January to represent their neighbors in the Kansas House.

The two representatives-elect came to politics from different angles: Woodard from a lifelong interest and through a primary where his opponent was also gay—thus ensuring that the Democratic candidate in House District 30 would be an openly gay man either way—and Ruiz, who, like so many other activists I met in the course of reporting for No Place Like Home (and my follow-up blog), stepped up because no one else did.

In both cases, however, identity was not their main issue. Like other Kansans, they were most concerned about public education and health care. Voters seemed to have awakened to the fact that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric was an attempt at distraction.

“We got push-polled with a robocall from our opponent,” Woodard told me, “and I had conservative people call me and say, ‘I don’t have a problem with you being gay—what I have a problem with is your opponent attacking you for your stance on LGBT issues.’”

 

CJ Janovy, Digital Content Editor for KCUR, is the author of No Place Like Home; Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas.

The Perils of a Partisan Farm Bill

by Christopher Bosso, author of Framing the Farm Bill

The House Republican leadership took a gamble. Prompted by outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, it bet that that it could push through a farm bill without any Democratic votes by emphasizing work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aimed at cutting overall program spending. Stricter work rules are popular with most (but not all) Republicans but opposed by most (but not all) Democrats. Ryan bet that getting tougher on SNAP would overcome skepticism among more libertarian “Freedom Caucus” Republicans regarding the costs of commodity programs. And Ryan had at least the Twitter support of President Trump.

That bet failed. The House on May 18 voted down HR 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, 198-213, with 30 Republicans joining 183 Democrats in opposition. Freedom Caucus Republicans, many upset about inaction on a separate immigration bill, rebuffed Ryan’s overtures – as did a few of their more moderate GOP colleagues, for whom charges that their party was stigmatizing hungry people could prove unpopular going into the 2018 midterms. Prospects for House action by November are modest. Meanwhile, the Senate Agriculture Committee will move on its own, more bipartisan bill, to give senators at least symbolic benefits going into the elections.

The take-away? As we saw with the long saga over passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014, as detailed in Framing the Farm Bill, today’s House is a non-rural body. Only three dozen House members now represent “farming” districts. As such, the 1.7% of Americans who farm — and who depend on USDA farm programs – need the votes of colleagues for whom agricultural policy is a distant priority. To do so, they extended farm bills to include priorities of those colleagues — nutrition programs.

Their political calculation was clear. Since the 1970s a shrinking congressional farm bloc included nutrition programs, SNAP in particular, into farm bills precisely to get the votes of their non-rural colleagues for commodity programs they might otherwise oppose as “welfare” for ever-larger farming operations. In return, rural conservatives would support nutrition program spending despite their antipathy toward “welfare” for poor people. That “farm programs + food stamps” deal, an awkward marriage of convenience at the best of times, became the linchpin holding together the farm bill coalition.

However, the House GOP’s most conservative members, bolstered by their homogenous suburban base, rejects this deal. They despise SNAP and commodity programs. In 2013, after dealing the Agriculture Committee a similar floor defeat, they split the two into separate bills, passing each by party line votes. The Senate, whose members represent broader constituencies, reknit the two. No SNAP, no Farm Bill.

Ryan could put SNAP into a “welfare reform” bill. It won’t pass the Senate, because few senators want to untie the knot that has held together farm bills for decades. More to the point, it won’t pass because the few who farm depend on the good will of the non-farming majority for whom SNAP is important. The House GOP’s partisan farm bill had no hope.

Christopher Bosso is professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. His books include Environment, Inc.: From Grassroots to Beltway, also from Kansas, and Pesticides and Politics: The Life Cycle of a Public Issue.