This article is from the May 2016 edition of UConn Magazine, which will be released May 26. To read more Magazine stories, go to the Magazine website.
Stu Rothenberg ’77 Ph.D. is the founding editor and publisher of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter covering U.S. politics, and a regular columnist for Roll Call, Capitol Hill’s premier newspaper. He is one of the most respected political analysts in Washington, having served as an election night analyst for PBS, CBS News, and CNN, and written op-ed commentaries for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He talked with UConn Magazine in early May about the 2016 Presidential election campaign.
Q. In the past, Republicans nominated the next person in line and Democrats were more flexible. It seems they’re reversing that history.
A. Long ago, I threw out the rule book of all the things that I had learned both in graduate school and in life over the past 35 years that have proven to be untrue in the Republican race for the presidential nomination. Often voters flirt with quirky, unusual, interesting candidates with big personalities. But when they get down to nominating a candidate, they want somebody who has experience, is measured, thoughtful, and knowledgeable – someone who I would say has the dignity associated with the presidency. This time the Republicans are poised to nominate somebody who doesn’t have any of the traditional qualities.
It’s as if Republicans have become so frustrated with the direction of their own party and the direction of the country that they have thrown up their hands and said, ‘Look, nothing can be worse than [former presidential candidate] Mitt Romney, [former House Speaker] John Boehner, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, and [President] Barack Obama, let’s try something different. Let’s look for someone who has the unique personal qualities to win the election and really change Washington.’
Q. Most of the talking heads have been mulling about this as well. It seems the primary electorate is welling up with a more grassroots approach, rather than the party controlling everything.
What we’re seeing is the political elites losing the authority they once had.
A. It’s actually a larger trend that’s affecting the entire culture and economy. It used to be we had three television networks and now we have hundreds. People get their information in different ways, and [traditional leaders] in the political realms have lost power. What we’re seeing is the political elites losing the authority they once had. If you’re a Republican running for the Senate in any state, sure you’d like to have the state party chairman behind you, but who you really want to have behind you is Sean Hannity, Fox News, and a big super PAC. Remember, the GOP is the party that four years ago nominated that crazy outsider Mitt Romney – I’m being sarcastic – and now four years later they’re going to nominate Donald Trump. Or it could have been Ted Cruz. Either way, that’s quite a jump.
What you’re seeing in the Democratic Party is the exact same development, but it hasn’t reached the level of where the Republicans are, in part because we’ve had a Democratic president for the past eight years. I was looking at polling done by a Republican polling firm looking at the Republican and Democratic attendees up to this point. Looking at the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders voters, whites are running almost dead even. Hillary’s total advantage is with women and African Americans. You can see the Democrats are looking at an outsider more than in the past. You don’t get much more outsider than Bernie Sanders.
Q. One of the things you’ve talked about many times is the partisanship in Washington and how it has been exacerbated. Is that part of why we have the situation we have now?
A. That’s a part of it. It continues to affect Congress’ inability to get anything done. And I think it plays a role in the nomination process. Republicans are so contemptuous of the Democrats that they’re not looking for a candidate who talks about getting things done and compromising. They’re looking for a candidate who says: We have to stop compromising and must roll the Democrats.
The Democrats say it’s all about how scary Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are, and how they’re going to destroy women’s rights and put people out on the streets. Each side is demonizing the other side constantly, and so it polarizes the voters. For the Republicans, the idea of another Clinton and four more years of essentially a third Obama term is driving them crazy. For Democrats, the idea of Trump being nominated is totally unacceptable. It’s only going to make this election more bitter, nasty, and foul.
Q. Is there any unforeseen event that could shift things one way or another in our politics?
A. The last time a plurality of Americans said the country was headed in the right direction, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, was January 2004, at the fading of a period of national cohesion after 9-11. Since then we have been moving apart. It would take another event to get Americans to reconsider their own views on what’s best for the country and where the country has gone, some dramatic event that would cause people to reconsider their attitudes and values. That is the kind of event none of us would like to have happen.
Q. Last December in your ‘Best and Worst’ Roll Call column, you said the weirdest thing in 2015 was the Trump candidacy. Has anything else surpassed that so far this year?
A. It’s Trump as the likely Republican nominee. I never thought he was going to run, never thought he’d want to spend months on the campaign trail. I thought this was to enhance his market appeal for the next TV show. Now that he’s still in the race, the Republican front-runner, drawing huge crowds to his rallies –that is even stranger than the fact that he was in the race in December and leading in the early polling.
Q. Many in Washington are describing this as a crazy election cycle. How does it stack up to what you’ve seen before?
A. We’ve had crazy elections over the past 35 years as I’ve been watching in Washington, but we’ve never had anything as crazy as this. This is a reality show that has taken over American politics. The language that is being used, I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s so strange that if you made it a TV show 10 years ago, nobody would have thought it was serious or credible. I’ve seen hanging chads, wave elections [one party dominating an election], the first black president, the political fallout after 9-11; but I’ve never seen anything like this.
You actually used to have to be popular to be nominated. The Democrats have an avowed socialist in the race. You have an entertainer who will be the Republican nominee, and you had an ideologue, Ted Cruz, who was Trump’s alternative. The GOP establishment had no serious alternative at the end of the race. It’s just totally different than anything we’ve ever seen. I can only assume in 2020 or 2024, the Democrats will be nominating Kanye West and the Republicans will be nominating Curt Schilling.