The editors of the New York Times, citing recent Gallup data and analysis, have suggested that because more than 40% of Americans in 2015 identified themselves as “independents,” rather than Democrats or Republicans the 2016 presidential election may turn more on candidate-centric factors. They quote Gallup’s analysis as follows: “[T]he lack of strong attachment to the parties could make candidate-specific factors, as opposed to party loyalty, a greater consideration for voters in choosing a president in this year’s election than they have been in past elections.”
This analysis reminds me of the line from the movie “My Cousin Vinny” when the judge denies Vincent’s objection. It is cogent, logical, and reasonable, but wrong.
Despite the increased disinclination Americans to claim membership in one of the two major political parties, candidate-specific factors will actually be less important for voters’ presidential choice in November. In fact, it is partisanship that will be “a greater consideration for voters in choosing a president in this year’s election than [it] ha[s] been in past elections.”
Voters responding to survey questions about their party loyalties are VERY different than voters actually voting in presidential elections, especially when surveyed in non-election years. The context of presidential elections, in particular, makes the partisanship of candidates MUCH more salient to voters because the consequences of the partisanship of the presidential candidates become MUCH more clear to voters during the fall election campaign.
The partisan consequences of the 2016 election will be more clear to voters in November than they have been in past elections because the differences between the two parties are more stark and more significant than in past elections. More importantly and because of the now stark differences in the perceived agendas of the two parties, the impact of the 2016 presidential election on the partisan balance of power in Washington will be crystal clear to voters this fall. A Republican victory will give the GOP control of the White House, a Supreme Court majority (and a very good chance of being able to increase that majority), and majority control of both houses of Congress. A Democratic victory in the presidential election, on the other hand, promises continued inter-party struggle for control and influence in Washington.
The American voters may not be geniuses, but they are smart enough to realize that the “politics of personal destruction” in 2016 are at best a smoke screen. The party loyalty of the person sworn in next January will determine the direction of our country’s governance going forward. If a Republican is taking the oath, only the meager threat of a filibuster will stand in the way of the hard right social and economic agenda of the GOP. If a Democrat is inaugurated next January, the battle-lines of politics will shift marginally left, but the contours of the fight will remain largely the same.