Political science professor weighs in on presidential election

Assistant Professor of Political Science Bradford Bishop’s scholarship focuses on American public opinion, campaigns and elections, and environmental politics. His research has been published in Political Behavior and in Public Opinion Quarterly. He holds a bachelor’s degree in media arts and design from James Madison University, a master’s degree in political science from Fordham University and a Ph.D. in political science from Duke University. Prior to becoming a professor, Bishop was a journalist, covering mainly town and city politics. We sat down to talk with him about the race for president (keeping in mind that a lot could change by the time this is published).

How did Donald Trump get this far?

Trump’s success has been a shock to virtually everyone who pays close attention to American politics. In the primary process, parties usually select nominees who satisfy two conditions. Winning candidates usually promote a policy agenda that is acceptable to the majority of the groups that comprise a party coalition, and winning candidates are also typically electable. There is often tension between these two objectives, and for this reason I think of presidential primaries as a process by which parties decide which candidates offer the optimal mix of these two elements. Trump’s success is puzzling because he offers some policy positions that are unacceptable to many Republican elites. For instance, on international trade, Trump supports tariffs in some instances and also opposes some trade deals that are widely supported by Republicans. Trump also appears to be the least electable of the three finalists for the Republican nomination, which I considered to be Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. He is very unpopular among women and nonwhite voters and will probably struggle in the general election as a result. So I see Trump as an odd choice that challenges the way I think about primaries: He does not unite the Republican Party on policy, and he is a risky proposition for November. I can only speculate about Trump’s success, and I’ve learned to be cautious when discussing him because I’ve been wrong about popular support for his candidacy from the beginning. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the leadership of the Republican Party and the party’s primary voters. Where the party wants a more inclusive message to appeal to nonwhite voters, Trump offers an anti‐immigration message. His attacks on “political correctness” and his casual willingness to offend have resonated with primary voters tired of cautious politicians who appear reluctant to speak without consulting with focus groups and messaging professionals first. He also appears to represent many people’s vision of success and accomplishment; because he has achieved financial success himself, many believe he can help others achieve prosperity. Trump also signals strength and leadership in his confrontational exchanges during debates. His supporters notice that aggression and assertiveness, and I think they believe those traits will make him an effective leader.

What factors contributed to the fall of the establishment Republican candidates?

Each of these candidates had weaknesses that were magnified by our current debate‐centered primary process and the Trump candidacy. Bush was not very quick on his feet during the debates, and his exchanges with Trump minimized his stature. Cruz was probably the candidate who offered the most uniformly conservative package of policy positions, but he struggled to attract support from moderates and voters outside of the South and Midwest. Rubio had a disastrous debate in New Hampshire that he never seemed to recover from, and he also never put together a concise and accessible conservative message. Kasich’s message seemed to be out of step with today’s conservative Republican Party—he didn’t offer the strident critique of the Democratic Party and its policies that the primary electorate was looking for.

What observations about the current election process have been most important to point out to students?

Political institutions have a huge impact on election outcomes. Almost every feature of our primary process advantages some candidates and disadvantages others. For example, in the Democratic primaries of 2008, the order in which the states were contested provided a considerable advantage for Barack Obama. Had the order been reversed, we probably would be in the final year of President Hillary Clinton’s second term. On the Democratic side this year, Bernie Sanders won caucus states by large margins. In some cases he won double-digit victories in states he would have lost under a primary system, such as Washington. Meanwhile, Clinton was favored in states featuring closed primaries because she drew strong support from registered Democrats while struggling with registered independents. The existence of superdelegates provided a massive advantage for Clinton—she began the primary process with hundreds of delegates committed to her. All of these rules and institutions exist for strategic, political and historical reasons, and any of them could be changed by 2020, with significant potential consequences for outcomes.

What lessons are we learning now about the process?

In recent years, the political commentary that is published in the mass media has become less characterized by freewheeling speculation and more driven by analytics and data visualization. I think that’s a fantastic change—we are better off with Nate Silver’s forecasts than Peggy Noonan’s “vibrations” or Tom Friedman’s apparently generalizable conversations with cabdrivers. But there is a human element to politics that is hard to quantify. Almost every serious analyst of American politics failed to anticipate the rise of Trump, probably because they did not detect the way his message was resonating with the Republican primary electorate. Students of politics have to remember that elections involve wide‐ranging philosophical conversations about the future of the nation, and sometimes it is impossible to forecast how thinking human beings with agency will react to messages put forth by charismatic political candidates.

What has surprised you the most about this race and why?

Obviously Trump’s victory in the Republican primary is the biggest surprise. On the Democratic side, the demographic basis of support for Clinton and Sanders has been striking. During the first week of my “Political Parties” course this spring, we simulated the Iowa caucus format, and I had my students pretend they were caucus‐goers in an Iowa precinct. After about 15 minutes of face‐to‐face discussion and persuasion, my classroom went for Bernie Sanders by a 17–3 margin. I cracked jokes about the notion of 19‐22 year-olds voting en masse for a 74‐year-old, self‐described socialist. The next day, Sanders won 18‐ to 29-year-olds by about an 85 percent–15 percent margin in Iowa, and he has continued to win young Democrats’ votes by a large margin. I still don’t fully understand that phenomenon. Meanwhile, Clinton has been favored by African‐American voters by very large margins, particularly in the South. Her success with these voters, at least to the degree we have observed in this cycle, wasn’t expected by most.

Has something changed in both parties in which candidates no longer think about what is best for the party but rather what they want as an individual?

Self‐interest was assumed to be the primary motive for elected leaders by the framers of the Constitution, and they engineered our political institutions to redirect selfish behavior in service to the public good. In fact, self‐interest is a core feature of representation; because representatives are primarily motivated by a desire to remain in office, they are expected to find ways to deliver policies that will please their constituents. I do think the core motivations of elected leaders have shifted somewhat in recent decades. Today’s leaders tend to be more interested in public policy than their predecessors were, to the point that they will sometimes put their own electoral security at risk to vote for a bill that they think constitutes good public policy. Many Democrats voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010 because they thought it was a needed reform, knowing all along that supporting the bill would put their re‐election at risk. In recent years, most House Republicans have voted for controversial budgets that achieve fiscal balance by converting Medicare into a voucher program. The votes in both of these examples were tough, risky votes, and I would argue they are rooted in core beliefs about policy that transcend self‐interest.

Overall, what do you hope students get out of your courses?

I hope that they realize how important our politics really are. If you look at voter participation, if you look at people’s broader participation in politics, people between the ages of 18 and 29 are always the lowest in the degree to which they volunteer or participate in the campaigns and the degree to which they turn out to vote. So, one of my goals in both of my courses (“The American Political System” and “Political Parties”) is to persuade them that the decisions that are actually made in Congress, the decisions that the president makes, and the decisions that are made within executive agencies really are important and have relevance to students’ lives. It’s my hope that through learning about the genuine importance of a lot of these different decisions that get made, that they will volunteer, whatever their beliefs are, that they’ll get involved in politics, and certainly that they’ll vote and want to have some say in how these different policy controversies are decided.

In your FYS course this fall, you will be asking whether elections enlighten and inspire the public or result in cynicism and detachment from the political process? What do you think?

My FYS is “Red States, Blue States, and the Silver Screen,” a tour of Hollywood’s attempts to analyze and explain our political process. I think the portrait of American elections in film is largely critical—perhaps not as dark and cynical as House of Cards, but elections are certainly problematized. Even films such as The Candidate (1972) and Bulworth (1998), which feature politicians who are idealized in various ways, make the case that needed reforms are hard to accomplish in the American system. My view is that politicians make unrealistic promises about extreme policy proposals that are almost impossible to enact and implement in a system of independent, separated powers. Political leaders from both parties are guilty of this—neither Bernie Sanders’ single payer health care plan nor Ted Cruz’ flat tax stand a realistic chance of ever becoming law. Politicians also repeatedly promise to revitalize the American economy or fundamentally reshape American culture despite the absence of much evidence that policy changes can accomplish either of these goals. In addition, our political system is very complicated in that the average citizen has a hard time understanding why policies exist in the form that they do, or who was responsible for creating them. I think the combination of unrealistic campaign promises and an excessively complicated political structure drives much of the cynicism we observe.