It has become almost a cliche to note that this election is unlike any other in American history. There has never been a candidate quite like Donald Trump who has broken all the rules of modern campaigning, has offended virtually every religious, racial and ethnic group, as well as women and LGBT people, and who has, in a field where enormous egos are common, perhaps even essential, taken narcissism to a level never before seen in American politics. The historic importance of this campaign is not just due to the bizarre and erratic behavior of the Republican candidate, but also to the Democratic nominee being the first woman ever nominated for President by a major party. Hillary Clinton is poised to become the first woman president in our history. This is a very big deal. However, in some part because of her gender, Clinton, who has run a reasonably smart and disciplined campaign, has remained extremely unpopular. It is only Donald Trump’s historically high negatives that have prevented Hillary Clinton from being the least popular major party nominee in recent history.
Despite all this, one of the most significant, and underreported, aspects of this campaign is how similar it is to most recent presidential elections. While being a woman makes Hillary Clinton different than all of the other candidates the Democratic Party has ever nominated, and her experience makes her more qualified than many recent Democratic nominees, on the issues she fits firmly in the mainstream of her party and does not stand out much from recent previous nominees like Barack Obama, Al Gore, John Kerry or Bill Clinton. She combines a liberal outlook on social issues, and centrist position on many economic issues and positions on foreign policy that reflect bipartisan establishment views. There is nothing very unusual about the Democratic Party nominating a candidate like that.
To suggest that Donald Trump has a cohesive vision or set of policies would be too generous to the real estate and branding dilettante, so it is not so easy to place him in the context of recent Republican nominees or of the GOP more generally. Nonetheless, regardless of the proposals and policies that seem to emerge unexamined and unformed from his mouth, Trump is moving towards a platform that continues the longstanding GOP policy of one-sided class warfare on behalf of the rich, and a resistance to making the US a more equal society for women, non-whites, non-Christians and LGBT people. The Trump campaign has also added a nasty dollop of anti-Semitism to this stew of intolerance that is unusual for today’s GOP.
Most tellingly, the campaign strategies and possible winning coalitions for each of the candidates is almost the same as in every presidential election this century. Clinton is trying to hold together a Democratic coalition of African Americans, Latinos, liberal whites, many of whom are either LGBT or Jewish, and just enough working class white to win. Much has been made of how Donald Trump has been unable to grow his support beyond his party’s white straight Christian base, but to deny that for most of the last twenty or more years the Republican Party has been struggling to win voters who do not fit all of those three categories, is to deny political reality. There have been exceptions, such as George W. Bush’s strong showing among Latinos in 2000, but these have been differences of degree, not of kind. Similarly, this year Clinton has been doing better than most recent Democratic presidential candidates among college educated white women, but will still lose the white vote badly.
Although Trump’s poorly thought out campaign has put states like Georgia in play for the Democratic nominee, the electoral map also will look a lot like it has in recent presidential elections. Trump will sweep most of the south and the heavily white plains states, while Clinton will win most of the mid-Atlantic, northeastern and west coast states. The same states like Colorado, Missouri, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Florida that have been swing states every year since 2000 will decide the election this year as well.
The desire to portray Donald Trump’s campaign as more of an outlier than it actually is partially grows out of a legitimate bewilderment on the part of the media and others both at Trump’s behavior and at how well he has been doing in this election. However, it is also misleading and understates not the degree of racial polarization in this election, but the degree of racial polarization that has characterized American political life, and partisan politics, for decades now. Trump is a racist who has placed intolerance and bigotry at the center of his campaign in a way that is unique in modern times, but he would not have been able to succeed in this endeavor if the Republican Party had been a more pluralist and diverse institution for the last few decades. Moreover, the similarities between this and previous elections, while perhaps not consistent with more interesting election year narratives, demonstrate the enduring strength of our two party system and how difficult it is, even for a candidate like Trump, to disrupt it.