An Election of Attrition


Less of a choice between two evils, a contest between two failures.

Heading into the first presidential debate, Trump was gaining ground, Hillary Clinton was losing it. He has had the momentum and it could be the case that Trump has been taking advantage of his only opportunity: his opponent is Hillary Clinton. Hillary’s failure to excite Democrats, which has also left the door open to formidable challenges from third-party candidates, means Democrats might miss the mark by failing to turn out enough of their 2012 coalition in 2016. 

We have made for ourselves an election of attrition in which the only way a candidate can win is if the other candidates are bigger failures. The only way the Democrats could win with Hillary Clinton was if the Republicans chose someone worse as their nominee. Likewise, the only way the Democrats could fail to overcome the nomination of a reality television character was to choose someone that couldn’t sufficiently excite enough Democrats to vote.

It is in the vested interest of the candidates, their campaigns, and their supporters to build and maintain an encouragement loop so that voters thinking of abstaining in November get off the sidelines and become supporters themselves, or at least actively campaign against their opponent. For Trump, that means Republicans need conservatives and regular Republican voters to abandon the “Never Trump” effort and help him defeat Clinton in November. To do this, the Republicans would need to make the case that Republican votes will matter this time, that there is in fact a unique opportunity to beat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. 

Most conservative anti-Trump bloggers, radio hosts, elected officials, and former party operatives believe that their voice matters. Their “Never Trump” stance is more than an individual choice, but a decision to wield their influence against the Republican Party’s nominee. They may feel they owe it to the country to explain why they are using such influence to undermine the Trump campaign, and if they don’t, surely the Trump supporters that are already issuing death threats and recriminations will demand it of them. Trump’s nomination should be seen as confirmation that their influence was always limited to like-minded conservatives, that Trump’s primary voters were less likely to share their ideological formulations, and that they are less influential than ever because Trump’s mission now is to win over enough voters that are not sympathetic to conservatism whatsoever. 

To be sure, nearly all of this falls squarely on this particular nominee. There simply is no coalition worth building behind Trump. The Trump campaign strategy, in a nutshell, is that their best chance of winning in November consisted of being the most outspoken candidate in order to win the party’s nomination, then insist on further coalescing since the alternative is so undesirable. This is what happens when a candidate can win the primary by being the most “fearless” but can’t unite the party behind anything other than anti-”elite”, anti-immigrant, anti-PC, anti-trade sentiment. This is what they were warned about. This is what many Republicans feared. And every time Trump earns some praise for giving an actual speech or offering an actual policy, he seems to go out of his way to soil all of that goodwill by indulging in the same conspiracies and rhetoric as before. There is no other Trump, and regardless of what Kellyanne Conway, his third campaign manager, puts in place, there is no alternative Trump Campaign. Even with the thought of Hillary Clinton appointing liberal activists to the Supreme Court, many conservatives are still insisting that Trump is particularly unqualified and dangerous, and that they’d rather not impugn their integrity to further entertain the thought of a single day of a Trump presidency. He says he can win without them, and it sure looks like he’ll have no other choice. 

Were it someone other than Trump and his campaign of resentment and budding authoritarianism, conservatives and Republicans would have had a better chance at realizing some form of control over a favor factory run amok and a world order collapsing into terrifying chaos. The republic is in peril, with progressives and conservatives currently feeding at the trough of endless cultural subterfuge. In the meantime, an unholy cabal of corruption is lusting for ever greater access to the levers of power and handouts in D.C. The Supreme Court, the Constitution, international order, the institutions of religion, healthcare, finance, education, law enforcement, and federalism all hang in the balance, and yet the one party with the tools to address the breakdown of such institutions is largely responsible for their breakdown, unresponsive, and only interested in fueling the fire. The other has been hijacked by an aggrieved opposition out for revenge. No one quite knows how Republican turnout will fare for Trump/Pence, but Republican turnout for Trump is mostly built on the premise that party loyalty trumps principle. That Faustian bargain has driven their every move. 

But perhaps the “Never Trump” conservatives have been missing something all along, that Hillary is not just uniquely unsuited to represent the post-Obama Democratic Party, but that she’s a proven failure. With Hillary Clinton as the their nominee, the Democrats might be squandering their political advantages in 2016. 

The Democrats had everything in their favor. They won in 2012 without winning independents and less than ten percent of Republicans crossing the aisle. In 2012, Virginia pollsters picked up on a trend among voters that would vote to reelect Barack Obama as president (they did) and Republican Bob McDonnell Governor (he wasn’t on the ballot, term-limited). Indeed, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin dedicated much of his preparation for a 2016 presidential campaign to explaining the phenomenon of “Obama-Walker voters” that he claimed helped him beat a recall in June of 2012. It’s an interesting theory, but crossover votes hardly explain the margin of victory for Obama in Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. Had Romney won all four, he’d be president and running for reelection. He lost them each by about 73,000 (Florida) to 116,000 (Virginia) votes for a total of 405,679 votes that decided the election. In contrast, John Kerry lost the four closest battleground states in 2004 by a margin of about 258,000 votes. 

The Democrats only needed a nominee that can excite enough 2012 voters to come through again, about a quarter (275,000) of their current registration advantage in the closest battleground states — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and Florida. In that case, the Republicans would need to locate, target, and turn out at least 415,000 voters that hadn’t voted for Romney in the same states and hope the Democrats fail to turn out any new voters at all. This would amount to a “best-case” scenario for the Republicans. Now, the Republicans are eyeing a best case scenario in which both parties fail to meet their 2012 vote totals. It would be surprising, but not exactly shocking, if that hope has become a viable strategy for the Trump campaign. If the Democrats fall short of reaching their totals from 2012, they could lose, even if Trump doesn’t improve on Romney’s 2012 effort.

This is foolish, at best. Hope is not a strategy. In fact, it’s the exact same mistake the Romney campaign made that year. They figured that Obama would fall short of his 2008 numbers across the board, which he did, but not as much as they planned. They would be more competitive given the incumbent’s record, but they failed to take into account the shift of swing states sharply to the Democrats due to demographics. With Obama marching to a landslide victory in 2008, and Wall Street taking the economy into recession, the Democrats were able to focus on registering college students, Hispanics, African-Americans, and single women in key swing states. They only needed a turnout of a couple hundred thousand of these voters in 2012 and victory would be assured. College students and Hispanics turned out at higher rates than 2008 and helped deliver re-election for Obama. Romney outperformed George W. Bush’s election bids, the original high water mark for Republican presidential victories. With a record high of 35% of the electorate describing themselves as “conservative”, Obama relied on the strength of his numbers with the only group that mattered, registered Democrats. The electorate was the most conservative ever, but it was also the most Democratic electorate ever recorded, more than enough to embarrass a stunned Mitt Romney in November. 

This was the Clinton campaign strategy before Trump. Given a more generic Republican candidate, Clinton would only need to convince Democrats that she is on board with the progressive agenda, and for everyone else? Nothing, no quarter, no nuance, no empathy, and no mercy. The strategy would consist of raising divisive issues such as income inequality and climate change, where the goal is not to win on policy but to convince enough registered Democrats that the Republicans are unresponsive or hostile to their cherished causes. Combined with the historic nature of her nomination and her vast financial reach, she couldn’t possibly lose. She would only have to avoid indictment (check!) and stonewall and stall like nobody has before to avoid answering questions about her unauthorized, negligent use and forensic destruction of a private email server for State Department (and possibly Clinton Foundation) purposes. Trump offered a hope that Clinton would be more flexible to pursue a larger winning coalition, burying Republicans’ down-ticket, but that hope appears to have evaporated, for now. Instead, Hillary Clinton is dogged by her myriad flaws, pursuing a multi-million-dollar campaign to avoid losing to the star of the seventh highest-rated show in 2004.     

The aggrieved party, though, is not the voters that would rather abstain than show up for the parties in November. No, it is our increasingly fragile republic that is poorly served with a choice between the unqualified Trump and the deceptive, unaccomplished Clinton. The Democrats assume a singular focus on their issues, scorched-earth for everyone else. It’s no wonder they have no interest in working with Republicans in Congress, and insist on adding to the dialog in D.C. with nothing but slogans, smearing, and posturing. No, this is not par for the course in politics. It’s lamentable, an indictment of a precipitously polarized polity. Neither party is suited to “make America great again” or “stronger.” Unity is first order for the party, but the country, they seem to signal, can wait. 

One candidate might be slightly preferable, but in our increasingly insular, tribal political realm, that doesn’t quite suffice. To support Trump or Clinton is to surrender all pretense of independent thought. To believe and propagate that a reality show billionaire is truly suited to be the next Commander-in-Chief is foolhardy and to accept the endless graft and corruption that has always followed the Clinton family is the ultimate insult to an envisioned meritocracy. 

This election is less of a choice between two evils, and more of an exercise in attrition between two failing political parties. This is where blind party loyalty has taken us. It’s not that the two-party system is headed for total collapse, but that it is too comfortable to improve. This does not bode well for our republic. John McCain is rumored to have told people that he came away from 2008 believing that anyone willing to do what it takes to win the presidency today isn’t to be trusted with the job. Whether or not he said it, nothing else quite explains our current predicament.  When this is over, America will need principled leadership more than any time in recent history. 

Follow this author on Twitter @CACoreyU

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