Presidential primaries by graph: G.W. professor talks Trump, Clinton, Rubio, and #feelthebern

Elizabeth Worthington, Assistant News Editor

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“Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage,” Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University John Sides said on Feb. 9. The quote from H.L. Mencken accurately  represents what has been both a controversial and unconventional presidential campaign.

Using data-driven research to construct illustrative graphs, Sides’s presentation offered insight into the presidential election from a strictly political science perspective, devoid of influences from the media.

“One of the benefits for students and the local community is that the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy is able to bring in experts to broaden our understanding on a variety of policy issues,” Co-Director of the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy and Associate Professor of Economics Amy Wolaver said.

Sides summed up the 2016 presidential campaign in four “storylines”: 1. Democrat leaders have decided. Republican leaders haven’t. 2. TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP. 3.Trump? Rubio? (Rubio?) 4. Should we #feelthebern?

Sides provided evidence for the first storyline by presenting the audience with graphs depicting the number of Democrat leaders who endorse a Democratic candidate, highlighting Hillary Clinton’s dominance in party support as she boasts 80 percent of all Democratic officeholders who endorse her candidacy. The graph for the Republican party was pale in comparison with no one candidate receiving a majority of support, illustrating the party’s overall level of uncertainty and lack of unified enthusiasm for any one candidate. Sides noted the implications of the Republican party’s divisions: more fluidity in the race and more opportunity for candidates to rise and “have their day in the sun.”

Concerning the Trump storyline, Sides pointed to his overwhelming media presence as what he believed to be driving Trump’s appeal and success, despite his lack of party support.

“The reason we perceive him as being so dominant is because we hear about him all the time,” Sides said.

Trump receives half of the mentions of all Republican candidates, with increases in coverage after he makes controversial statements like his attacks on John McCain and his call for a ban on all Muslims from the United States. Sides discussed the correlation between news coverage and poll results and how Trump’s intense focus on his poll victories makes the cycle a difficult one to break. The only hope in breaking the cycle is for another candidate to come to the forefront, but divisions within the Republican party have prevented that from happening thus far.

Although Trump has dominated the polls and the media, his unexpected loss in Iowa illustrates the importance of having a good “ground-game.” Sides shed light on Trump’s inability to identify, target, and mobilize his voters, which ultimately led to his defeat in Iowa. In contrast, Marco Rubio defied expectations by almost beating out Trump and only falling 4.5 percentage points behind Ted Cruz. Sides pointed to Iowa’s importance not in determining the presidential nominee, but in signaling how well the candidates are doing based on prior expectations. Rubio began to receive much more media attention after the Iowa results but then lost momentum after his questionable performance in the Republican primary debate in New Hampshire on Feb. 6. This further demonstrates the slippery slope the Republican candidates are riding.

“It’s hard for me to map out a prediction on the Republican side,” Sides said.

While the Democrat nomination may seem equally uncertain after the caucus ended in a virtual tie last week, Sides believes that was likely a fluke due to the lack of ethnic diversity in Iowa and Sanders’s strong support among white voters. Sanders still lags behind Clinton among African-American and Latino voters, so he will need a great deal of momentum if he is to have a real chance against Clinton.

When Sides opened the forum to questions from the audience, students were eager to know his opinions and estimations of the likelihood of certain outcomes. When asked about the chances of a brokered convention occurring this year, Sides projected that the chances are higher than in previous years, but he does not know exactly how high.

“Primaries are good at winnowing the field. It becomes easier to coordinate on a candidate … It is difficult to say for sure whether what appears to be unsettled now will remain unsettled in three or four months when all the primaries are done,” Sides said.

Sides also discussed the possibility of Michael Bloomberg entering into the race, noting the difficulties third party or independent candidates face and the particular challenges that Bloomberg would face against a candidate such as Clinton.

He also imagined an election without Trump as a candidate as being “a more conventional election and an easier path for more establishment candidates,” such as Jeb Bush.

Wolaver said that students responded enthusiastically to this presentation and attendance was higher than usual for an evening event.

“I thought it was a really interesting presentation, especially the fact that he used more data-driven research and how he goes beyond the media and public polling and actually looks at the data and the research behind the information. I think that’s what made it such an interesting presentation,” Brady Clapp ’17 said.

“It surprised me when he said that even though Sanders almost won in Iowa, it did nothing to the overall picture according to the market’s predictions,” Madison Simon ’18 said.

Wolaver emphasized the election’s relevance to college students and how they can affect its outcome.

“We’ve had (and probably will continue to have) some very close elections, so every voter and every voting group matters. The U.S. has very low voter turnout compared to many other democracies worldwide, and one of the dangers is that our elected representatives might get the message that they don’t need to be as responsive to the community. Just by participating, your vote matters because it tells our representatives that we are paying attention and that we care,” Wolaver said.

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