FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH ALLAN LICHTMAN, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AND FREQUENT POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND ELECTORAL FORECASTER
TOPIC: STATE OF THE RACE 2016: AN OVERVIEW OF THE 2016 ELECTIONS FOR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS COVERING THEIR FIRST U.S. ELECTION
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2015, 11:00 A.M. EDT
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today I would like to welcome Professor Allan Lichtman, American University professor of history and frequent political commentator and electoral forecaster, back to the Washington Foreign Press Center for another in his series of elections and political briefings. This briefing is titled “The State of the Race, 2016: An Overview of the 2016 Elections for Foreign Correspondents Covering Their First U.S. Election.” Professor Lichtman’s views are his own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State.
Without further ado, here is Professor Lichtman.
MR LICHTMAN: In fact, my views don’t represent anyone except me, so don’t attribute it to American University, the federal government, the United States, or anyone else except Allan Lichtman.
How many of you were here for my 2014 briefing? A few of you. Remember I said three things mattered in midterm elections, right? Turnout, turnout, and turnout, and I predicted if the turnout was low, the Republicans were going to win the 2014 midterms, and that’s exactly what happened. Turnout was low and it was a very good year for Republicans. However, things change in presidential election years. The turnout is something along the lines of 50 percent higher than it is in midterm elections and doesn’t tend to vary quite as much from election to election.
And obviously, unlike midterm elections where turnout can be highly dependent on what’s going on in an individual state – do you have a real tight race in that state – in a presidential year, of course, turnout is determined by the top of the ticket, the presidential contest. But the basic dynamic is still very much the same: High turnout tends to benefit Democrats and low turnout tends to benefit Republicans, whether in a presidential year or a midterm year. And particularly high turnout of minority voters tends to favor Democrats; higher turnout of white voters tends to favor Republicans.
We have a very racially and ethnically polarized electorate in the United States, and it is virtually uniform. There are variations in numbers, but the pattern is almost uniform across all the states with white voters giving majorities to Republicans and African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians giving majorities to Democrats. There’s a slight exception to that in Florida where there’s a very strong Cuban American population that has been traditionally Republican, but that has been changing. The older anti-Castro Cold War generation is dying out and the new generation is much less Republican, and Florida is also experiencing strong immigration from other parts of Latin America. So today, the Hispanic vote in Florida is about 50/50; everywhere else, it tends Democratic. And of course, the African American vote is 90 percent or more Democratic. So turnout matters and turnout of whites versus minorities matter a great deal in this election.
I’ll turn first to the presidential contest and what’s going on in each primary. The Democrats ought to be building a monument to Vice President Joe Biden because of what he didn’t do – that is, he didn’t get into the presidential race. Why is that important? Because it means there is much less likely to be a contest within the Democratic Party for the nomination. Bernie Sanders fires up about a quarter to a third of the Democratic primary electorate. There are a lot of people who will walk through brick walls for Senator Bernie Sanders, but he has a great deal of trouble expanding beyond that 25 to 30 percent. He does really well in Iowa and New Hampshire – small, primarily white states – but he is being swamped in the polls by Hillary Clinton in all of the big states where there’s very strong minority voting in Democratic primaries, where money organization and name recognition matters. You’re not going to go door to door in California, New York, and Florida.
So it looks like, unless something really bizarre happens – and that does happen in politics – that Hillary Clinton is cruising to become the consensus Democratic nominee. And she was helped not only by Joe Biden getting out of the race, but greatly helped by her Republican opposition. The more things change, the more they remain the same in politics.
Some of you may even remember back to the crisis facing her husband, President Bill Clinton, the only president since Andrew Johnson in 1868 to be impeached by the U.S. House while the Republicans pressed too far. And it made it look like – even though Bill Clinton had done some pretty dastardly things – that the Republican campaign against him was political, it was political revenge and was being sought for political advantage, not for the good of the republic.
Guess what? The Republicans have made exactly the same mistake in going after Hillary Clinton on the Benghazi tragedy and the emails. Yes, Hillary and the State Department made some pretty serious errors, but it has been pursued so relentlessly for so long with so little new information coming up that now, the American people overwhelmingly believe – 75 percent – that this – these investigations of Hillary Clinton are being motivated by partisanship. And a couple of Republicans have even come out and greatly helped Hillary Clinton by saying, yeah, these hearings were designed to drive her poll numbers down or hurt her electability.
So the Republicans have done something that Hillary Clinton could never have done by herself – make this ice lady look sympathetic and appealing and beleaguered and persecuted. And that had greatly helped her campaign along with an absolutely superb performance in the Democratic debate and just showing she was a marathon runner in coming out of 11 hours of grilling in the Benghazi hearings absolutely unscathed.
Why does it matter that Hillary Clinton is going to be the consensus Democratic nominee? The reason is history. History teaches that the worst thing that can happen to the party holding the White House, which of course is the Democratic Party even though Barack Obama is not eligible to run again – the worst thing that can happen to the party holding the White House is an internal, bitter party fight.
The last time the party holding the White House survived a major internal fight for the nomination was, guess what, 1880 when James Garfield won the presidency by about one-tenth of 1 percent in the popular vote. Since then, major internal party fights have been the kiss of death for the party holding the White House. I need only remind you of 2008; the Republicans had a big fight, or 1980 when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter, or 1976 when you had the bitter battle between Ronald Reagan and the sitting president, Gerald Ford.
So the reason avoiding a party fight is so critical in this election is not necessarily because Hillary Clinton is the most electable candidate. In fact, going for the most electable candidate is about the worst strategy any party could ever adopt because you don’t know who is electable.
I remind you of 2004 when the Democrats opted for John Kerry, Senator Kerry, not because they loved him but because they thought he was electable and, of course, he lost to a very weak president who was really faltering, George W. Bush, in 2004.
So very good news for the Democrats with Joe Biden’s withdrawal and the recent resurgence of Hillary Clinton. If form holds and Hillary Clinton becomes the consensus nominee, that’s very positive for the Democrats going into the general election.
Now, what is also interesting historically is it’s entirely different for the challenging party, for the party that does not hold the White House. They can fight all they want and historically it makes absolutely no difference. I point you to 2008, right, when the Democrats were the out party. The Republicans were holding the White House and there was a long, protracted – one of the longest and most tract – protracted nomination struggles in modern history between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and that did not stop the challenging candidate, Barack Obama, from handily winning the White House.
So the pundits have it all wrong. It doesn’t matter that there’s this big squabble among Republicans. It doesn’t matter that there is no clear consensus nominee and this could be a long struggle. The pundits have no sense of history. They have no theory of how a presidential election works. They’re operating from the seat of their pants and they are absolutely wrong.
That said, the real action and the real interest is on the Republican side, and what is astonishing about the Republican struggle – it’s still early, but not too soon to be astonished – is that the only candidates in double digits, and they’re both over 20 points in the polls; the next highest are 8 or 9 – so the two candidates who are absolutely sweeping the Republican field now – doesn’t mean they’re going to be nominated, but it’s not that early; it’s getting close to 2016 – are two candidates who not only have never been elected to anything, who have never held public office, and that is Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who together, according to the polls, hold the support of more than 50 percent of likely Republican primary voters.
Now, you may think, oh, it’s the Republican Party. They are the party that challenges Washington. This is not surprising for the Republican Party. Nonsense. When was the last time the Republican Party nominated someone who had never held any kind of public position? The answer is never. The answer is never. You have Dwight Eisenhower, who was never elected, but of course he was General of the Army. You have Herbert Hoover, who wasn’t elected, but he was Secretary of Commerce. You have William Howard Taft, who wasn’t elected, but he was Secretary of War and Governor General of the Philippines. Never has the Republican Party reached out to someone who not only has never stood for election but never held public office.
In fact, if you look at the more recent history of the Republican Party, they have always nominated a mainstream figure with lots of experience and standing within the party. Look at their nominees: Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts; John McCain, senator from Arizona; George W. Bush, governor of Texas, son of a President; George H. W. Bush, vice president; Bob Dole, leader of the Senate; Ronald Reagan, governor of California; Richard Nixon, former senator and vice president; even Barry Goldwater, the maverick far conservative who was nominated in 1964, was still a U.S. senator from Arizona.
So you are looking at two candidates who might not seem surprising, but who are actually incredibly surprising because they completely break the mold both of the long history of the Republican Party, and even more pointedly, the recent history of the Republican Party. They have not nominated anyone with the profile, or non-profile, of a Ben Carson or a Donald Trump. Got to editorialize a little bit here. Remember, these are my own opinions only.
Donald Trump doesn’t surprise me. I predicted Donald Trump many, many months ago, when all the pundits were scoffing at him. Why did I predict the rise of Donald Trump? A number of reasons. One, he is a great showman. He really knows how, positively and negatively, to get attention and to attract people to pay attention to him and to listen to him. And in a crowded field, you need a shtick. You know what a shtick is? It’s a Jewish term, it’s used in Hollywood a lot – something that makes you different, something that stands out, something really special. You remember the impersonation of Sarah Palin that made Saturday Night Live really stick out. Tina Fey just had her to a T. It was a great shtick. And Donald Trump has a shtick. Now, whether that shtick will last through the primaries, who knows. But all the pundits again were wrong who said he was a meteor who would just burn out in the atmosphere. That hasn’t happened. He’s been atop or, until recently, very close to the top of the polls now for a very long time.
The other thing about Donald Trump is he says things that a lot of other Republican candidates believe but are too afraid, too timid to say – such as his denigrating of immigrants. It’s inflammatory stuff, probably a majority of Americans don’t agree with it, but there is a segment within the Republican Party that likes to hear that kind of thing and believes that Donald Trump is a non-scripted kind of candidate; he’s not a controlled, Washington-establishment type of candidate. And if there is anything that marks the Republican Party today, it’s complete disgust with Washington.
And it’s not just because Barack Obama, a Democrat, is president; it’s because Republicans are deeply and bitterly unhappy about their own Republican Congress. They don’t believe that their own Republican Congress had done nearly enough either to challenge Barack Obama or to imprint Republican values and Republican policies. There’s a big segment of the Republican Party that’s quite willing to blow everything up and start all over again.
So I get Donald Trump. I’ll tell you who I don’t get, and that’s Ben Carson. I cannot understand what the appeal of Ben Carson is. Watch the debate – the man had nothing to say. He couldn’t distinguish between the debt and the deficit. He tried to explain medical policy – his own medical policy. He’s a doctor and he couldn’t explain his own medical policy. But what baffles me most about Ben Carson – have people listened to what the man actually has said?
He embodies two things that I think are the most dangerous elements that any politician could have: a lack of a moral compass, and a lack of a sense of history. The man has compared the Obama Administration to Nazi Germany. This cheapens the Holocaust. It cheapens the deaths of tens of millions of people in World War II. Whatever you may think of Barack Obama – love him or hate him – he didn’t kill 6 million Jews. He didn’t start a war that killed 67 million people. What kind of moralist are you? What kind of sense of history do you have when you make those kinds of comparisons?
I’m a Jew, and I – and I’ve studied the Holocaust. And I am profoundly offended by his cheapening of the Holocaust by saying if the Jews only had a few guns, they could’ve stopped the Nazi war machine. How could you be so profoundly ignorant of history? First of all, only a tiny fraction of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were German Jews. Most of the Jews were from territories occupied or influenced by the Nazis – Poland, Romania, Hungary, not Germany. And guess what? The Jews tried to fight the Nazis with a few guns.
Mr. Carson never seems to have heard of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. You know how many Jews were killed? Thirteen thousand to 20 Nazis. Nearly 60,000 were deported to the death camps. How you can cheapen the Holocaust, perhaps the greatest human tragedy in history, by saying it could’ve prevented – it could’ve been prevented if the German Jews had a few more guns. I don’t get Ben Carson.
I don’t understand how he has risen to the top of the polls, unless people just aren’t listening. And that may be true. Maybe he hasn’t gotten the scrutiny that a Donald Trump or a Jeb Bush has gotten, and people just think he’s this profoundly moral outsider who’s going to bring a new era to Washington. That may well be his appeal, but I don’t get it. I get everyone else in the Republican and Democratic field.
And the other candidate I get is Jeb Bush. That’s the other big story, is the absolute collapse of the candidate who was considered to be the establishment favorite. Why has the Jeb Bush campaign fallen apart to the point where some of the commentators are indicating he may even drop out of the race? He’s already cut back on staff. He’s already reorganized his campaign. He already looks like a loser. How could that possibly have happened? Well, part of it isn’t his fault, and part of it is his fault. What isn’t his fault is, as we’ve seen so far, this isn’t a good year for the Republican establishment. The Republican establishment doesn’t seem to be offering anything that’s appealing to the Republican electorate. In fact, if you put together three candidates who have never held public office and never run for anything – add Carly Fiorina to Ben Carson and Donald Trump – and you’ve got about 60 percent of the potential Republican primary electorate, with eight candidates sharing the other 40 percent. So that is not anything that has to do with Jeb Bush personally.
But Jeb Bush has run one of the worst campaigns in modern history. He not only commits gaffes, he doesn’t seem committed to the campaign. He’s not crisp, he’s not sharp, he’s not appealing, he has no shtick whatsoever. And my own pure speculation – I have no inside information on this – is the – I won’t say collapse, because remember, Lazarus rose from the dead. John McCain rose from the dead in 2008. Things – strange things can happen, so I won’t say collapse yet. I’ll say terrible faltering of the Bush campaign – is he doesn’t seem to have the fire in the belly. He doesn’t seem to want this with great passion. He seems to be pursuing it – and again, this is my speculation – because it’s his turn. His dad was President, his brother was President; governor of Florida, hugely important swing state. It seemed his time. And when confronted with this extraordinary tsunami of anti-establishment sentiment within the Republican Party and the rise of these absolutely unexpected candidates, Bush has had no answer to this point.
But I wouldn’t count him out entirely yet because there is going to be an establishment candidate. It’s not in the end, I don’t believe, going to be only Carson and Trump. I believe one or the other will survive and thrive as we go into the primaries, but I think there is going to be an alternative. And the smart money of course has always been on Jeb Bush, but it’s now shifted. Smart money’s now on Marco Rubio, another Florida candidate, and that’s kind of understandable. He’s young, he’s good-looking, he’s got – he’s articulate, he’s charismatic. But the problem for Rubio: Where does he break through? Where does he make his mark and how does he make his mark?
So I think it’s entirely up in the air who is going to be the alternative to the anti-establishment candidates, and Bush – his heart is still beating, but it’s beating very, very faintly. But there is at least some small possibility that the heart of Jeb Bush is going to be revived, but somehow the passion has got to come internally within Jeb Bush himself.
But regardless of which Republican emerges, you’re going to see real contrasts between the two parties. Two parties agree on almost nothing today. People talk about polarization although it was a matter of Republicans and Democrats sitting down and having a beer or having a coffee – nonsense. You know why there’s polarization in Washington? Because two parties don’t agree on anything. They don’t agree on health care, they don’t agree on taxes, they don’t agree on immigration.
And the huge sleeper issue that I think may well emerge by next year – it hasn’t been much so far – is climate change, arguably the biggest challenge that humanity is facing. California is running out of water, which not only affects tens of millions of people in California, but because of their agricultural production, they – confronts the whole country. A study came out yesterday saying if the world doesn’t deal with climate change, there’s going to be a huge hit to the world economy and an enormous rise in poverty. A study came out showing the states of the Persian Gulf – get this – may be facing something that has never before been seen in the history of humanity: that is, temperatures too hot for human survival. There’s this huge meeting in Paris. I don’t know what will come of it, but I do think climate change could become a huge sleeper issue as we get into 2016. And once again, the parties are absolutely at odds over whether we should do anything whatsoever about this problem of climate change.
And of course, America has crumbling infrastructure – our electric grid, our roads, our bridges are badly needing repair. Another big issue, another huge issue: the gap between not the rich and the poor anymore; it’s now the gap between the rich and everybody else – how the party is going to address that. So look forward to an election, no matter who gets nominated, where there are going to be huge ideological differences and policy differences between the parties.
Finally, I want to say a word about the other election where the action is, and that is the United States Senate. The United States Senate is going to be of critical importance after 2016 because the next president may well have three, four, two Supreme Court nominations to make, and remember, Supreme Court justices serve for life. President John Adams, the second President of the United States after George Washington, served one term. He was elected in 1796. His party, the Federalist Party, disappeared, but he appointed John Marshall as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. John Marshall held that position for more than 30 years. Today he is regarded as one of the two most influential chief justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, and he put into play principles of the long-gone, long-defunct Federalist Party. So you cannot underestimate the importance of Supreme Court appointments, and of course, the Senate ratifies all appointments including Supreme Court appointments. So control of the Senate is absolutely critical.
One way in which the Democrats got Republicans to stop blocking not Supreme Court appointments but a lot of other court appointments that are very important was to ban the filibuster on circuit court and district court appointments, and that opened the floodgates to a lot of Obama appointees in the courts. You cannot underestimate the courts because the courts are often where the action is because of the gridlock in the Congress and the gridlock between the Congress and the President. As we saw in decisions like Citizens United on allowing unlimited corporate campaign contributions, some of the most important policies are set by the Supreme Court.
So you cannot underestimate the importance of control of the Senate, which has flip-flopped quite a bit in recent years. The Democrats took the Senate in 2006, the Republicans took the Senate back in 2014, and now the Democrats have an opportunity to take the Senate back again in 2016 for two reasons. One, it’s a presidential year – higher turnout, much higher turnout than at midterms. And as I’ve explained to you several times, higher turnout favors Democrats. Secondly, Democrats are only defending a couple of western vulnerable seats – in Colorado and in Nevada, where, of course, the Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid is retiring, so that’s an open seat.
And Republicans are facing at least seven vulnerable seats. I’m not going to go over all of them, but they’re in states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio – mostly states won by Barack Obama in 2012. I think the Republicans have vulnerable seats in six states won by Barack Obama in 2012. Democrats need – they have 46 seats now, counting the Democratic-leaning independents. They need five to take absolute control. They need four to have a 50/50 Senate, which would mean whoever wins the presidency controls the Senate because the vice president casts the deciding vote.
So keep your eye on these vulnerable states. They are going to decide the fate of the Senate, and right now it’s about 50/50. The Democrats have about a 50 percent chance to win back the Senate assuming they hold one of the two vulnerable Democratic seats, which I think is reasonable, then if they can pick up five or six of the seven or so vulnerable Republican seats, they can win back the United States Senate. And so it’s the presidency and the Senate where the action is.
There’s an old proverb I like to talk about. I believe it’s Chinese but I’m not certain – maybe some of you can correct me – and that is, “May you live in interesting times.” And I don’t see how politically the times could be any more interesting than they are right now.
Thank you very much. I’ll take any of your questions.
MODERATOR: Okay. Please wait for the microphone and state your name and publication for the transcript. We’ll go right there.
QUESTION: Good morning. As I understand —
MODERATOR: You’re fine.
QUESTION: Yeah. As I understand what you tell us, you are reducing the possibilities in the Republican side. They have two options: a populist candidate, and populist mean – I’m talking about Trump or Carson.
MR LICHTMAN: Populist Republican.
QUESTION: Yeah, or Jeb Bush. I mean, could you tell us something, anything else about Rubio and the possibilities (inaudible) possibilities of Rubio?
MR LICHTMAN: It’s very, very difficult to handicap primaries for a bunch of reasons, and those who think they know are wrong. Reason number one is there’s so many candidates – very difficult. The mathematics of it become asymptotically complex when dealing with multiple candidates. Secondly, it’s not linear. That is, one primary affects the next primary, so who – if Ben Carson, who is now well ahead in Iowa, wins Iowa, that’s going to scramble things, that’s going to change things. If Jeb Bush comes in fifth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire, he may be done. So one primary affects another, and that makes it very difficult to handicap.
And finally, the polls are not real meaningful. If you think back to 2012, there were all kinds of Republicans who popped up in the polls – Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum – and none of them, none of them were nominated. Republicans went back to the middle establishment figure. So I don’t think it’s possible at this point to give any informed answer on who is going to be the nominee and whether it’s going to be an outsider or an insider. I’m not in a position to make that prediction.
But I would say don’t count out the insider just because the outsiders are crushing in the polls now. I still think – and I don’t know who it’s going to be, it could be Jeb – there will be a viable insider establishment candidate who can still win this nomination just based on long-term and recent history of the Republican Party. They tend to love these mavericks but they never nominate them.
MODERATOR: Okay, I’ll come right there.
QUESTION: Stefan Grobe with Euronews, [France]. Good to see you.
MR LICHTMAN: Good to see you again.
QUESTION: You said you can’t explain Ben Carson.
MR LICHTMAN: I can’t. Maybe you can. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, my question is: How do you explain the fact that he is the darling of a very conservative white constituency, being African American —
MR LICHTMAN: Yeah.
QUESTION: — and has zero support – almost zero support among African Americans? Is that bad luck, good luck, or chance or whatever?
MR LICHTMAN: Well, we saw that with Herman Cain, another African American, back in 2012. In earlier elections there was a very conservative Republican, Alan Keyes, whose support was also largely white.
I would say a couple of things. One, nobody knows anything about Ben Carson if you look at the polls. He seems to be this really nice guy, this really moral individual, until you really look at what he’s said and his history. I know him really well because he’s from Maryland, my state, and I followed his actions in the Maryland struggle over abortion in the 1990s. And he now claims to be so morally guided that he won’t even allow abortions in the case of rape or incest. But back in the 1990s when he was actually involved in the moral struggle over abortion, he was the only player who played both sides. He gave an anti-choice commercial and then walked back from his own commercial, said, “I really didn’t understand what I was doing,” tried to be both pro-choice and pro-life at the same time. So it’s very hard to understand.
But in these polls, within the Republican Party, people are not voting race. They’re voting issues and more are voting kind of these vague perceptions. But again, don’t be deceived by the early polls. People don’t know what Ben Carson yet stands for. Maybe when the Republicans see what they stand for, they’ll love him. Who knows? But I think it’s going to be a much – if he gets the nomination, a much more difficult go for him in the general election.
MODERATOR: We’ll come down here.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mounzer Sleiman, al-Mayadeen TV, [Lebanon]. Can you give us just your sense of how much this campaign will be financed, compared to other campaign in the past – the presidential campaign? And I want to ask you about Florida, because this is probably tied up to your establishment prediction. Since two prominent person, individuals —
MR LICHTMAN: Yeah, Rubio and Jeb Bush.
QUESTION: — do you think that Florida would be a factor, since Florida has been a factor in the election —
MR LICHTMAN: Yes.
QUESTION: — that could be a factor —
MR LICHTMAN: Got it.
QUESTION: — in the calculation of Republican to select the one in the final analysis?
MR LICHTMAN: Very, very, very excellent questions. First of all, on finance, the sky is the limit. As we saw approaching a billion dollar campaign by Barack Obama last time, you can expect billion dollar campaigns on the side of both candidates. But there’s a dirty little secret about spending in general presidential elections, not primary: Spending doesn’t matter. That is, there’s no particular correlation historically between who spends the most money and who wins.
And the reason is pretty simple. In other elections, voters don’t know much, and who can get out their message by spending really matters. But people know the presidential candidates. You got debates, you got lots of free media. So spending is less important.
I absolutely agree with you; Florida is critical. And right now, both Rubio and Bush seem to be trailing in Florida. That could knock both of them out. One of them has got to win Florida, and then he could become the establishment candidate. But if they both lose Florida, that could knock both of them out entirely, and that’s an early primary. So we’re going to get some early indication.
And by the way, when you get into the later Republican primaries after middle March, they’re winner-take-all. So you can win those primaries with 35 percent and get every single delegate. So things are going to change if there’s still a big contest after the middle of March.
QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up very quickly?
QUESTION: That’s fine.
QUESTION: I forgot to ask you, because I think it’s very important, to give us the difference between the caucus and the primary, please.
MR LICHTMAN: Yeah. Very simply put, a primary is just like any other election – you show up at the polls and you vote. Caucus, you have to go to meetings. And the meetings can last all day and you have a series of votes at the meetings, ultimately leading to a tally of a statewide vote. So the big difference is you’ve got to put in a lot more time, energy, and effort to go to a caucus. So it involves much more committed voters. The reason, by the way, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 is not what anyone thinks; it’s because Obama organized the caucus states. And it was the victory in the caucus states for Barack Obama that put him over the top. So organization really matters in the caucus states, which is why you got to take these generalized polls with a grain of salt, because the candidates might have very different operations on the ground.
QUESTION: Thank you, professor. Bingru Wang with Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV. This time we have seen China being brought up during the debates. So how much does China matter during the election this time, and how China card will be played out?
MR LICHTMAN: Yeah. I always get these questions, and they’re really good questions, from people from particular countries. And, of course, China is going to matter a lot more than most places, because it is – there are three great powers vying, competing in the world – China, Russia, and the United States. So policy towards China is very important.
But the details of policy won’t matter, because – I hate to say this – but the American people never follow the details of foreign policy. They pay attention only when there is a big crisis or a big victory. So they’ll pay attention to the Iran nuclear treaty law. I promise you they can’t tell you the details of it. And what they might be paying attention to is the potential tensions and conflicts. There’s this big issue over these islands, and the United States is not recognizing those islands as legitimate Chinese territory. If that flares up into something more, that can become a big issue in the campaign. But beyond that, the details of policy are going to shoot over most people’s heads.
MODERATOR: Gentleman in back, in the glasses? No, no; back, back; glasses.
QUESTION: Oh. (Laughter.)
MR LICHTMAN: Got to get the back row.
MODERATOR: Got to be fair to the back. Sorry, guys.
QUESTION: Hi, hi. This is Ryan Hermelijn from NOS News TV, [The Netherlands]. I was wondering about the general election. Specifically you outlined a couple of themes, but I didn’t hear the culture wars. We have had the advancement of several liberal ideas such as the advancement of gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, assisted suicide is popping up. There’s a backlash with Hobby Lobby and Kim Davis and such. So how do you think that will play out in the 2016 elections?
MR LICHTMAN: Yeah. Before I answer that, let me – it’s related to your question. There’s a debate tonight and do you know where it is?
MR LICHTMAN: Colorado. And what is one of the biggest rising industries in the state of Colorado? The pot industry. Last I saw, it was a $700 million industry employing lots of folks. Are the Republicans going to talk about the pot industry in Colorado? And Republicans have an interesting dilemma on some of these things like pot. Because on the one hand, the Republican Party is the party of what – free enterprise, right? Business – they should be encouraging the pot industry, right, as a classic example of entrepreneurship and the American way. But on the other hand, as you say, they also harbor a lot of social conservatives who obviously look askance at the use of pot and other recreational drugs.
So it’ll be interesting to see if they say anything about this at all. If I were the moderator, I would certainly ask them about it, because it does pit two Republican values – the problems with the social issues is people’s positions are pretty well set. You’re not going to change someone’s mind about abortion. You’re not going to change someone’s mind about gay marriage. And these issues, while they play to the Republican primary electorate, don’t play to the general electorate. The most amazing social trend in America in the past decade has been the extraordinary acceptance of gay and lesbian rights. If you had told anyone 10 years ago that a majority of Americans would favor gay marriage, they would’ve told you you’re living in never-never land. Just huge shifts on these social issues, so I don’t suspect the Republicans are going to pound them.
Interestingly, the Democrats might. Democrats might try to play the abortion issue against the Republicans, particularly if you have a candidate who is coming out like Ben Carson and saying not even in cases of rape or incest are we going to allow abortions. That’s like a 20 percent position within the electorate.
MODERATOR: Okay, come down here. Yeah.
QUESTION: Claudia Trevisan from the Brazilian newspaper Estado Sao Paolo. Going to the historical perspective, one thing that is often told is that the last time the Democrats won the White House after being in the White House for two terms in a row was 19th century, with the exception of FDR. Like, how important it is to see this historical theme play there?
And another question: Like, who would be the best and who would be the worst candidate on the Republican Party from the Democrat perspective?
MR LICHTMAN: Let me answer – yeah, I got you. Let me answer the – the second question first, and that is the one word that I would throw out of the dictionary is electability. You have no idea who is electable in advance of an election. As I said, parties have gone to the candidates they thought were the most electable and they’ve crashed and burned and lost. Presidential elections – and you’ve got to read my book, The Keys to the White House; the sixth edition will be coming out in early 2016 – a system for explaining and predicting presidential elections that has not been wrong ever. I’ve been predicting since 1984, since I was nine. I’ve hit every election – (laughter) – correctly.
I got to tell you a little story about cultural divide. A few years ago I was in India and Korea, giving lectures on The Keys to the White House. And India’s this really loose, kind of chaotic, exciting place, and Korea is much more controlled and stable and sober. And the Indians would get my jokes, but somehow some of the Koreans wouldn’t get my jokes. And I swear, one guy, after I gave my lecture made this point and raised his hand and said, “Professor Lichtman, can you please explain to me how you were able to predict elections when you were nine?” (Laughter.) So real cultural divides in the world.
So according to my theory, presidential elections are referenda on the performance of the party holding the White House. That’s why things like foreign policy successes and failures, the fate of the Iran treaty, the state of the economy, policy change, social unrest matter, and the identity of the candidate doesn’t matter. But the pundits – who are always wrong, but I’ll have to give you the pundits’ view – they think Marco Rubio is probably the most electable Republican. But they have no basis, really, for saying that.
In terms of winning a third consecutive term, that’s hard. It’s not an absolute bar, but it’s hard, because one of my keys to the White House is whether or not the sitting president is running for re-election. And after two consecutive terms, under the amendment to the Constitution, you can’t run for a third term. So it is harder to win three consecutive terms than it is to win two consecutive terms, but it’s obviously one factor and one factor only.
QUESTION: Thank you, professor. Rita Chen from Central News Agency, Taiwan. You just say the (inaudible) matter. I wondered how possibly the issue of gender could play a role once the – it’s closing to the voting day, and —
MR LICHTMAN: Yeah, very interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time in Taiwan, and —
QUESTION: And – sorry, I have a second question: And how important the Vice President for both party if they choose the – anyone —
MR LICHTMAN: Gotcha. All right.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you.
MR LICHTMAN: First, gender. Very difficult to say. In 2008, I predicted an Obama victory. In fact, I became notorious because I used my keys to the White House in 2005, three years before the election, to say things are going so badly for the Republicans that the Democrats could pick a name out of the phone book and elect that person. They kind of did. Whoever heard of Barack Obama at that point? But a lot of people said to me, “Your keys are going to be wrong because they don’t take into account race” – obviously not, since we’ve never had an African American candidate – and it turned out the keys were spot on. They got the election exactly right and race made no difference.
Will gender make a difference? Probably not, but it’s very, very hard to say. My wife, who’s a leading women’s rights advocate, tells me gender creates more prejudice than even race, but it’s hidden. People are not going to come out and say, “I’m not going to vote for a woman president.”
So my overall answer is I don’t think it’s going to override other factors, but you never know because these things are impossible to measure.
QUESTION: Hi, Zhang Yue for China Daily, [China]. I was late so I didn’t know you were talking about this earlier. And do you agree that – the saying that the dynasty, the Bush and the Clinton, and also the unlimited campaign finance, as signs of erosion of American democracy? Thank you.
MR LICHTMAN: No, I don’t think dynasties erode American democracy, as our people still pick the president; there’s no dictator or dictatorial cabal picking the president. And the truth is Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, whatever you may think of their policies or their characters, by background and by history, are eminently qualified to run for president of the United States. I do think money is a much bigger problem though. I do think you’ve put your finger on something very important. I do think unlimited money and the expense of campaigns has eroded American democracy, not so much the presidential level – as I said, money matters least – but at every other level, money matters a whole lot. Even to win a puny seat on a county commission or city council, you have to spend upwards of $100,000. That is a lot of money for an ordinary American. To win a congressional seat, you probably have to spend millions of dollars in a contested – that’s just one of 435 congressional seats.
Ninety-nine percent of Americans are priced out of the political market. To run for office today, you either have to be reasonably affluent or tied into affluent special interests. So we have vastly constricted the political choice and political opportunities open to Americans because of the overriding importance of money at every level below the presidency, and that is a huge problem, and it’s not going to be solved because the Supreme Court has interpreted money as speech. As long as that decision stands and the Citizens United decision on unlimited corporate spending stands, it’s not going to be solved.
By the way, I didn’t answer the lady’s question about the vice presidential nominee. How much does it matter? Zero. The worst vice presidential nomination in modern history was not Sarah Palin, it was Dan Quayle, the nominee of George H. W. Bush, who had the most embarrassing moment in the history of presidential debates when he compared himself – because he was young and inexperienced, he compared himself to John Kennedy, and Lloyd Bentsen, the experienced Democratic vice presidential nominee turned and said, “Sir, I knew John Kennedy. John Kennedy was a friend of mine. And with all due respect, sir, you are no John Kennedy.” It was just a complete, utterly deflating moment. Did it make any difference whatsoever in the presidential election? No. There’s no evidence that the vice president matters.
MODERATOR: Gentleman in the white shirt in the middle.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, professor. My name is [Koya] Ozeki; I work for Japan’s Yomiuri. I have two questions. My understanding is that until a few decades ago, primaries and caucuses were much more restricted to party elites. It was a much more restricted process. And back in those days, I guess candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson had much less chance of coming up like today. But do you hear any arguments pointing that fact out? And do you hear any arguments calling for change of the system?
MR LICHTMAN: Got it.
QUESTION: Changing it back to the primary system. And actually there’s another question. Millennials.
MR LICHTMAN: That was a pretty long one. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I know. Sorry about that.
MR LICHTMAN: Yeah, we’re running out of time, so —
QUESTION: Millennials. Just – and the second question is very short. I’m interested in the Millennials. Do they – how do they impact 2016? Thank you very much.
MR LICHTMAN: Let me answer your first question. Yes, there has been a revolution in how the parties select their presidential nominees, and the revolution dates back to the Democratic nomination in 1968 when the country was so deeply divided over the Vietnam War. You may recall the sitting President was Lyndon Johnson, who dropped out. He was eligible to run again, but he dropped out of the election because of the divisions over the war. And it looked Bobby Kennedy – anti-war candidate – particularly after he won the California primary would be nominated, but on the very eve of winning that primary Kennedy was assassinated. And the result was someone who had entered no primaries, Hubert Humphrey, the Vice President, was nominated and the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party was outraged.
And as a concession to those folks, the Democratic Party set up a commission on delegate selection headed by a very famous liberal who would be the next party nominee, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, and they completely changed the rules for nomination. Now the only way you could get a delegate was in open primaries and open caucuses. It used to be there were a lot of states were the party bosses, behind closed doors, would pick the nominee, as you pointed out. And the Democratic Party adopted this open system and the Republicans followed suit. And since then, conventions haven’t mattered a wit. Nominees get selected in the primaries and caucuses and by the voters. And there has been tons of complaints about it. Let’s go back to the old system of having these gray, wise, old men sit in a smoke-filled room and pick the nominee; it’s not going to happen. This system is firmly in place. No one is going to disenfranchise the voters.
As far as the millennials, I resist all that kind of breaking down the electorate in these ways. The electorate moves in one piece generally. Yes, there are huge differences within the electorate, but the electorate is going to make one decision and one decision only: Have the Democrats governed well enough to get four more years in the White House, or have they governed poorly enough so that voters want a change? That is the theory behind the keys to the White House. And to get the scoop, as I said, my book will be out in about four months, sixth edition.
MODERATOR: We have time for one or two more.
QUESTION: Hello. Oliver Grimm for the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse. Could you briefly talk about the House and particularly in light of how the Republican Party there has – sorry, disintegrated? Does it actually make a matter if there’s a formally Republican majority there if they can’t really decide on the things that it really wants?
MR LICHTMAN: Yeah, I haven’t talked about the House. Let me talk a little bit about the house. The House, of course, is entirely different than the Senate where you’re elected in districts within the states. And there’s one word to describe the House, and that word is gerrymander. Do you all know what a gerrymander is? It’s where you concoct the districts to favor one party. And the truth is today, 85 to 90 percent of House districts aren’t competitive in the general election. The voters don’t decide the election; the line drawers fix the districts so they’re clearly going to win for one party or the other. And both parties do it. Republicans have been better because they won the 2010 midterms and the last redistricting was right after that, so – strange places like Pennsylvania that’s a Democratic state that has an overwhelming Republican majority in the House.
But that also means something else. Where’s the action, then, if it’s not in the general elections in the primary? And this has led to the election of a lot of very conservative Republican members of the House, the so-called Tea Party Coalition. And that’s the conflict you’re seeing within the House, between the Tea Party Coalition and the more mainstream Republicans who are more willing to possibly work with the Democrats to some extent and accommodate them. And by the way, that same division is present within the Republican electorate itself. There’s a small majority of Republicans, when they’re polled, who say don’t compromise; stick to principles. But 30 to 45 to 40 percent of Republicans say we should compromise.
So you’re absolutely right, there is a real division within the Republican Party. And while having a consensus speaker like Paul Ryan’s going to paper it over temporarily, the conflicts within the House are not going to end.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ve got time for one more question. We’ll go to (off-mike).
QUESTION: Thank you. Jane with China’s Sina News. My question is about social media. How do you think the social media changed the dynamic of the presidential campaign? And secondly – quick question – how important is the endorsement from the celebrity, congressmen, politician to the presidential candidate? Thank you.
MR LICHTMAN: I’ll answer your last question first. Endorsements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. And that’s been true for a long time historically. The classic example historically is Edmund Muskie, who had run for vice president on the Democratic ticket in ’68. Had every single endorsement of everyone, had all the money, and his candidacy completely collapsed to the insurgent campaign of George McGovern. Certainly Ben Carson and Donald Trump are not leading the field because of endorsements. Jeb Bush would be ahead if you went solely with endorsements. So I don’t think endorsements really matter one bit.
And what was your other question?
Social media. They’ve changed campaigns very little to this point. Everyone says, “Oh, social media’s going to take over the campaign.” Nonsense. The overwhelming bulk of money by candidates – at every level, really – if you can afford it, is still spent on traditional media, particularly television. And the vast bulk of campaign contributions do not come in through social media; they come in through traditional fundraising methods.
That said, however, social media is becoming increasingly important. It hasn’t taken over yet, but I think it will be more important in this campaign than ever before because of one very simple fact: Today, more people get their news from social media than they do from any other source. And so people do go to social – they go to scores of different places, but social media is displacing everything else as a source of news. So I do think it will be more important in this campaign than ever before.
Thank you all very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming. This event is now concluded.
# # #
Washington Foreign Press Center
U.S. Department of State
WHAT: Washington Foreign Press Center On-The-Record Briefing
TOPIC: State of the Race 2016: An overview of the 2016 Elections for foreign correspondents covering their first U.S. election
BRIEFER: Professor Allan Lichtman, American University Professor of History and frequent political commentator and electoral forecaster
WHEN: Wednesday, October 28, 2015, at 11:00 a.m.
WHERE: National Press Building, 529 14th Street, NW, Suite 800
RSVP: Interested media should respond to FPCOwner@state.gov.
BACKGROUND: Allan Lichtman, American University Professor of History and frequent political commentator and electoral forecaster, will provide an overview of the ‘state of the race’ for the 2016 presidential, Congressional, and state elections on the morning of the upcoming October 28 Republican Party debate in Boulder, CO. Professor Lichtman will discuss the state of the race for the current slate of Democratic, Republican, and third party candidates. He will also address which House and Senate races are competitive this election cycle, and whether the Democratic Party will win back the House or the Senate. In addition, Lichtman will forecast which battleground states are competitive this election cycle and whether they are leaning red or blue. Lastly, Lichtman will lay out a series of issues to watch, from the perspective of foreign media who are covering their first U.S. election and want to quickly get up to speed on the ways in which U.S. politics are different from other parliamentary systems around the world.
NOTE: All briefings are subject to change. Please call (202) 504-6300 or visit the FPC website at http://fpc.state.gov for the latest information on this and other FPC programs.
BROADCASTERS: Download a digital copy of the video at www.dvidshub.net/USDOS.
Washington Foreign Press Center
National Press Building
529 14th Street, NW, Suite 800
Washington, DC 20045 Phone: (202) 504-6300 || Fax: (202) 504-6334