As a freshman I took an intro political science course in which our instructor made the prediction that Hillary Clinton would become the next president. He presented Clinton as inevitable: “Hillary Clinton will be the next president.” When students brought up counter-points and questions about contingency: “Hillary Clinton will be the next president.”
Hillary Clinton may very well be the next president. But the nomination races for both the Democrats and the Republicans thus far, especially concerning Clinton’s plight, speak volumes about the relative state of both parties’ establishments.
Clinton, for her part, has suffered from declining popularity ever since 2012. Her popularity peaked before the September 11, 2012 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, in which four Americans, including the Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed by Libyan terrorists. Americans widely perceived that Clinton had mishandled the disaster. Not only did her State Department deny requests from the Embassy to increase security in the days before the attack, but in later Congressional hearings Clinton then flippantly suggested that the fact that terrorists had perpetrated the attack was irrelevant.
In addition to the perception that she has mishandled foreign affairs as Secretary of State, she recently has become embroiled in a scandal involving an FBI investigation of her usage of a personal email address and private server to send official government messages. A recent Quinnipiac poll reflects a loss of public confidence in Clinton following the email revelations. Sixty-two percent of respondents stated that Clinton’s use of a private server was “not appropriate,” 56% of respondents think “she did something wrong,” and 57% do not believe the terms “honest and trustworthy” apply to Clinton.
She has also steadily declined in other polls. Her “unfavorability” rating has increased about 20 points since 2013. Regarding the nomination, from March to August of 2015 Clinton suffered about a 15 point decline in her lead over the insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders.
Clinton’s hits in the polls, but also her loss of supporters to Sanders, highlight what is an important weakness: her candidacy is incredibly stale. She has been a high-visibility political figure in American life for twenty-five years. As my political science professor hinted at in his comments, she is the obvious and safe establishment pick. But safe is boring, and boring does little to energize the younger voter base looking to support an interesting candidate. Sanders in contrast, though his nomination may be a long shot given his socialist affiliations and the gap in funding compared to Clinton, presents fresh and interesting perspectives that have attracted Clinton’s former supporters.
The Republican nomination, in turn, is mostly self-explanatory and follows similar themes of disarray. Jeb Bush was the safe establishment bet some months ago. Yet his public performances in debates and interviews have been nothing short of uninspiring and boring. He carries significant baggage due to his last name, and his candidacy has generally stagnated. The other contenders who fall along more traditional establishment lines – Cruz, Walker, Rubio, Huckabee, etc. – have garnered piddling, single-digit levels of support in the polls.
Yet similarly, as with the Democratic nomination, it is the outsiders who currently lead the pack. Donald Trump, riding on a combination of bombast, populism, and celebrity, currently enjoys a double-digit lead over his nearest rival, the other outsider, Dr. Ben Carson. Trump also polls with nearly three times the support of the nearest establishment candidate, Jeb Bush.
While Trump and Carson probably appeal to different factions given their rather different styles, they both benefit from the perception that they provide fresh perspectives as political outsiders. Carson is probably more palatable to the Republican establishment overall; Trump is anathema and is regularly depicted by conservative media (Fox News, the National Review, etc.) as an unserious candidate damaging Republican chances for the White House.
While the Republican establishment is frequently accused of being out of touch with the general public – which it apparently is given the Trump insurgency – the very same criticism applies to the Democratic establishment. As demonstrated by the above polls and the Sanders insurgency, Democratic voters are rejecting Clinton as a boring and untrustworthy candidate. The nomination experiences of both parties thus far should send a strong message to both party establishments that they are in need of serious rejuvenation and realignment, lest they lose touch with large swaths of their voting blocs.
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