SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
CHARLES JERMY: Good evening, and welcome to the third summer session lecture. My name is Charles Jermy And I report to the speaker. Introducing Glenn Altschuler to a 2018 Cornell University audience must be a little like introducing Ezra Cornell or Andrew Dickson White would have been to an 1868 Cornell audience, absolutely unnecessary.
But for those of you who don't know Glenn, I'm going to try to introduce him. After earning a Master of Arts degree in History and then a PhD degree at Cornell in 1976, it's like the college borrowed Glenn for a short while. In 1981, though, he returned to this hill, where he has spent the remainder of his very distinguished career.
Glenn is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. And he has been the Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions since 1991. In addition to serving as dean, a full time job in itself, there are at least four other parts to Glenn's Cornell life. In addition to being a gifted teacher, he is also a prodigious scholar, a prolific writer, and a truly enthusiastic student advisor. He is the author or co-author of 11 books. He's written more than 1,000 published essays, book reviews, columns, and op-eds.
The National Book Critics Circle has cited his work as, quote, "exemplary." And "Psychology Today" has featured his writing as essential reading. At Cornell, Glenn is the recipient of the Clark Teaching Award, the Donna and Robert Paul Award for Excellence in Faculty Advising, and the Kendall S Carpenter Memorial Award for Outstanding Advising. He is a Weiss Presidential Fellow.
He continues to be a strong advocate on campus for high quality undergraduate teaching and advising. And he counts as friends and stays in touch with hundreds of his former students and advisees. But I neglected to mention that Glenn is also an excellent prognosticator. And that's exactly why all of us are here tonight-- Glenn Altschuler, "The Election of 2018, What's at Stake, and What to Look For."
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Thank you very much, Charles. I apologize. I've got a bum leg, so I'm going to be sitting for this talk. If you have any difficulty hearing me, it's probably because you're hard of hearing.
I'm very grateful for that introduction. Introductions aren't always as complimentary as Charles's introduction. Some years ago, my colleague and co-author Stuart Blumin was giving a talk at a university in Cambridge. And he was being introduced by the distinguished and cantankerous historian Oscar Handlin. And Oscar Handlin said, "Stuart Blumin thinks he knows something about American urban history. We'll see."
So that may be an appropriate way for somebody who wants to talk about American politics, and who is wrong so often that he has to rely on the short term memory loss of his audience for them to come again. So I'm going to talk this evening about the election of 2018. I want to begin by setting the context for the election. Then I'll talk a little bit about what to look for in the run-up to election night, and then some signs for you to follow as you're following the election.
First, the context-- motivated by a belief that power corrupts, Americans, more than citizens and other modern industrial nations, privilege individual autonomy, free enterprise, and social mobility. Although the size and scope of the American government has expanded enormously during the last century, Americans continue to express skepticism about big government and advocate limitations on authority of executives and legislatures to regulate behavior, to levy taxes, and to distribute revenues.
Over the past 30 years and more, these attitudes have informed the political agenda of both parties and the response of the electorate. Americans, it's important for you to understand, are uninformed about politics, indifferent to politics, and they loath politicians. Here is one example of perceptions of the voters for what a member of the legislature stands for. And as you can see, [INAUDIBLE] confusion, deadlock, indifference, playing politics, wasting time, wasting money, general futility, salary gripes-- that defines a politician.
Or here, let's look at another graphic of American attitudes. This was for a mayoral election-- wanted a big man to fill it November 7th, and who are the people who are at the bottom of the screen? Boss owned candidate, party hack, figurehead, petty politician, frenzied reformer, and so on-- those attitudes have existed in the United States as long as there has been a United States.
So Americans don't follow political issues closely or at all. And they tend to be particularly skeptical of professional politicians. Obviously that's played a role in who Americans vote for and who they oppose.
In recent years, on top of that political lack of knowledge, on top of the loathing for politicians, has become a political and partisan polarization the likes of which we have not seen in the United States, in my judgment, since the Civil War. It is polarization that is, if anything, bad and getting worse. And it manifests itself in the electorate as well as among the professional politicians. And it is a tremendous danger.
During the past 40 years, the political parties have become more ideologically homogeneous than they have in decades, and decades, and decades. Most northern Democrats sponsored civil rights legislation, as you know, in the 1960s and '70s. And so the once solid Democratic South has become the now solid Republican South. The Southwest has become a bastion of Republicanism. And the Democrats now are confined in essence to the coasts, west and west coast, and some northern Midwestern states.
This has meant that the Republican Party has lost its moderates, as has the Democratic Party by and large. The Democratic Party has moved left. The Republican Party has moved right.
Let me illustrate this with a couple of statistics. According to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 92% of Republicans-- this is the electorate. 92% of Republicans are to the right of the average Democrat. 94% of Democrats are to the left of the average Republican.
That means there's no real ground, ideologically, for either of them to come together. And the politicians, as we'll see, are even more polarized than the electorate. Let me also make sure that I remind you about myths of independent voters. Independent voters are usually portrayed as the most thoughtful of American voters. They're waiting till the last minute. They're weighing the evidence very, very carefully. And then they're deciding, this time do I vote for the Democrat or do I vote for the Republican?
Unfortunately, that is not remotely true. Most people, the overwhelming percentage of people who identify as independents, are not independents. They vote almost uniformly for either the Republicans or the Democrats. They like to think of themselves as independents. But they don't vote that way. And those who are independents are among the least well informed voters in the United States. They follow politics even less than the Democrats and the Republican voters, who don't follow it very much at all.
So what we have is a polarized electorate, a polarized professional politicians, and a independent cohort that I think most political observers say is no larger than 5% or 10% of the electorate, despite what you've heard about the growth of independents. That political polarization is also exacerbated by the siloing of sources of information. This is one of the most important developments in American politics and one of the most troublesome.
Two thirds of Americans get a lot or most of their political news from social media. Anybody want to hazard a guess about how many-- what percentage-- of Americans get most of their political information from newspapers? 8%-- about 8%-- and the outlets for news have become more highly partisan.
So if you're a Republican, you get your information from Fox News, and Breitbart, and social media outlets. If you're on the left, you watch MSNBC, and you think Rachel Maddow is just the cat's meow, and you get social media outlets on the left. Studies have shown that people's attitudes vary dramatically depending on where they get their information from.
And you can tell yourself. If you're a Democrat, watch Fox News for a couple of hours and see how the Trump administration is portrayed. If you're a Republican, swallow hard, and watch MSNBC. And see that it's Mueller time all the time on MSNBC. And we know how that is being framed on either side.
There is also something that the journalist Bill Bishop calls "the big sort." People now live in neighborhoods of like-minded other people. They're not encountering other perspectives or other points of view. And here is a statistic for you that will make this point. More Americans say they would be upset if their son or daughter married someone from another political party than, say, they would be upset if their son or daughter married someone of a different race, or a different gender orientation, or a different religion, and so on.
And another Pew study-- 30% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans believe that the policies of the other party are a threat to the well-being of the United States. This will begin to tell you why we are locked in as a divided nation ideologically. OK, so I've talked about political indifference. I've talked about political polarization. Let me now turn to the issue of turnout in midterm elections.
OK, there's our next slide. It's a turnout slide. Why the boss's win? No, I didn't register. I was too busy. I forgot all about it. Oh, well a couple of votes won't make much difference.
Turnouts in midterm elections are anemic. They vary between the low 30s-- 334%, 35% of registered voters-- and in a year where there's a terrific turnout, 40% of the electorate. In presidential elections, it's 58% or 60%.
So it's one third less in midterms. And so midterm elections are always about turning out your base. Because you're not going to turn out the mass electorate.
And of course, our system of primaries make all of these forces that I talked about much worse. If I had to identify one of the biggest dangers to democracy, it would be primaries. Primaries make the vote in the midterm election look huge.
Primaries sometimes can be decided by an electorate of 15% or 20% who turn out. Who turns out in primaries? The extremists on both sides-- and so, if you combine primaries with gerrymandering, the election doesn't matter. Because the seat is a safe seat. What matters is whether-- and it's a new word in our lexicon-- you're going to be primaried.
And so, if you're a Democrat, you're going to be primaried on the left. Joe Crowley just found that out and was defeated, from the left by Ms. Octavio Cortes. Some years ago, Eric Cantor, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, and a very conservative candidate, was defeated from the right in a primary by a candidate who was a professor, had the appropriate name of Brat, which fits almost the professors, it seems to me.
And the total turnout, if you look at how many voters turned out-- it was about 15% of the electorate that had Eric Cantor displaced by David Brat, who is now in the House. So we have polarization from primaries and gerrymandering. We have a very low turnout in midterm elections. And, if I haven't made you sufficiently depressed, you should also understand-- and I'll illustrate this in a moment-- that, for good and ill, primaries have almost nothing to do with issues-- almost nothing to do with issues. Now there may be some solace in that, as I'll illustrate in a moment.
So those are the factors, the context for understanding this election. One more important piece of information about midterm elections-- midterm elections almost always favor the party who is not occupying the White House-- almost always. There are only three or four exceptions to this going back almost 100 years.
The party out of power, out of the White House, almost always gains seats in a midterm election. Now the number of seats on average that the party gains-- now I'm just talking about the House of Representatives-- is between 25 and 30. But that number is a little bit too large, because it factors in a period before there was such gerrymandering of seats as to make fewer and fewer seats competitive.
In 2018, there are 435 members of the House of Representatives. All the members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election. The number of contested seats is about 60. All the rest of the seats are safe seats. So because of gerrymandering, because of the way that American politics has been regionalized, because of the relative power of rural districts as opposed to urban districts, because of shenanigans, to some extent. But if you're trying to flip a House of Representatives, you've only got about 60 or so seats in play, maybe 70, that you can even contemplate flipping.
So let's now turn to this particular election. And I'm going the wrong way. Yeah, no here it is. OK, so why are there no issues? Because that's what people think all elections are about-- splat! And it is fair to say that, each time we have an election, I predict with some certainty that it will be the dirtiest election in American history. And I'm willing to go out on a limb and say a new record will be set in 2018. It's a pretty safe prediction to make.
So what are the factors in this election? First, let's take a look at the Democrats. You know, people say-- certainly my academic, my professorial colleagues, some of the pundits say-- well, the Democrats don't have a national message. They're divided on what they should say. There's a rift between their left and their moderate Democrats, and so on.
In my judgment, it doesn't matter. There's one issue in midterm elections. It's a a referendum on the president, and that's it. And there'll be other issues talked about. Let me tell you. This election, for the Democrats, is not going to stand or fall on whether people think the Democrats are going to abolish ICE in the election. Most electorates will think that that has something to do with global warming-- that those issues are inside baseball issues that people don't follow.
And the reason that the party out of power does better is that, when you win a presidential election, that's usually maximum achievement for your congressional candidates as well. And they're somewhat vulnerable two years later, when the president is not heading the ticket.
And of course, this president does not have a high approval rating. I checked today. According to Nate Silver's 538-- and that's the source that you should look at-- the poll of polls indicates that the president's approval rating is 41%, poll of polls. That is good news for Democrats. I'll return to that in a moment.
To the extent that the Republicans have an issue, it will be-- this was from 1928, I think you'll see. Can you see at the top? It says "drain the morass." That's because people had a larger vocabulary in 1928. They would say "drain the morass" now if people knew what the morass was. So morass has become swamp. The issue is pretty much the same. And, in my judgment, the Democrats are going to run all kinds of ads about $31,000 expenditures for dining room tables, first class flights, buying used mattresses from Trump Tower, and so on.
Why? Because voters understand that. It brings it down to a kind of series of ideas to which voters can respond. And it's a winner for the Democrats.
Many of you don't remember, but when the Republicans had their surge, it was over a check-kiting scandal in the House of Representatives, where representatives were permitted to cash checks in a House bank when they really didn't have enough money to cover up those checks. The issue was pretty trivial, as corruption goes. But it's the kind of corruption that you can demonstrate fairly easily.
Health care will also be an issue for the Democrats. The Republicans are vulnerable on the health care issue. And that's one issue where, again, people know what they're paying for their health care. And if there are going to be issues, there are going to be issues related, in my judgment, on the Democratic side, to corruption, to health care, maybe to tariffs, if they begin to bite, although I'm skeptical about that, and to family values.
The Democrats have an opportunity to seize the family values issue in a particularly potent way in this election, not least because of the immigration separation of families. And this is really important for the Democrats. Because if they're going to flip the House of Representatives, they're going to do it with women, educated women who are affluent suburban voters. The flippable districts are going to be flippable for that reason. And there is, at least at the moment, the largest gender gap in American history between men and women.
I think it's unlikely that there'll be a massive turnout of African-Americans. I think it's unlikely there will be a massive turnout of Hispanic, Latino voters for the Democrats. I'm also pretty confident that there will not be-- and I'm looking at some of the young people here. The turnout of young people in American elections is pathetic. And in midterm elections, it's even more pathetic. Something like 15% of eligible young voters turn out.
So the traditional democratic constituencies may not be constituencies they can rely on in this election. And it's going to be women who will either carry them to control over the House or not. Where will the Mueller report fit in, Russian interference in the election, North Korea? Not much. Even in presidential elections, foreign policy is not all that important. Voters don't follow it very closely. And I very much doubt that it will play a large role.
Now on the Republican side, the Republicans are better at turning out their base than Democrats, largely because Republican voters tend to be somewhat more affluent and somewhat more well-educated. What the Republicans will run on is a strong economy. And the economy is very strong. Unemployment is at historic lows.
The Republicans will run on judges, because that's appealing to Republican voters as something that the party has delivered to them. Republicans will appeal to their base on what's called "border security." And Republicans will run, as they have for the last 74 years, against Nancy Pelosi.
If Nancy Pelosi were to have a stroke, the Republicans would be in deep trouble. They have run successfully against Nancy Pelosi since her husband's bar mitzvah. And they will do that as long as she remains in office. It's getting a little threadbare, quite frankly. But it still resonates in some areas.
Remember, midterm elections involve getting out the base. That's why you have the political rhetoric that you've heard, both from the president and other Republicans, and from Democrats. That's what midterm elections stand or fall on, turnout in the base.
So it's going to be targeted districts. Those suburban districts which were either close or carried by President Trump by five to 10 points will be pivotal in this election. I'll tell you in a minute where to look to find those races.
The Democrats, I predict, are going to witness, very soon, the return of Barack Obama. I think he will be used in swing congressional districts that have an African-American population above 15% of the eligible voters. And he probably can't wait to get out there. And I think it's very likely that he will get out there.
Polls indicate, by the way, that in a presidential race between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Barack Obama would get 56% of the vote, and Donald Trump would get 37% to 39% of the vote. So it's not risky for Barack Obama to get out there and campaign. The Republicans have to have a base related campaign with President Trump not on the ballot. And that's a little difficult to do.
And because it's not a presidential election, then Democrats in these swing districts can say, for example, as Conor Lamb did in Pennsylvania, "I won't support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House if I'm elected." They can distance themselves depending on local circumstances. Same thing with gun control, for example-- they don't have to take the stance on limiting guns that many Democrats want them to take.
Republicans have a much tougher time. Because, if they break with President Trump in moderate districts, they risk losing the Trump supporters. I don't think the Democrats run the same risk. There is an enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans that is sizable and perhaps growing. And that enthusiasm gap generally tracks turnout. And that means that, at least at the moment, the Democrats have a turnout advantage.
So let me now turn to some things for you to look for. There are two websites that I recommend that you use. And I check them about every 15 or 20 minutes or so. I'm a little anxious that I have to talk to you this long without checking and making sure that I'm on target. But you-- at least a number of you look like nice people, and I don't mind doing that.
The best websites are 538-- just Google "Nate Silver 538." And Nate Silver is really good at aggregating polls. He doesn't aggregate Romanian's that well. But he aggregates polls with extraordinary proficiency. Does everybody know what it means to aggregate a poll or polls? We tend to watch the news, and we hear a poll, and we have a heart attack. Because it shows that the person we like or don't like is either going up or going down.
Nate Silver takes all key polls, and he weights them for bias, track record, the number of people they interview, and so on. And he gives an aggregate of polls. There are two poll aggregates to look for with Nate Silver.
One is the president's approval rate. The president's approval rate right now is 41% in a poll of polls. If President Trump's approval rate goes below 40%, the Democrats have a much better chance of winning. If President Trump's approval rate goes up to 45%-- I don't think it's going to go above that. It has never gone above that during his presidency-- then the Republicans have a much better chance of winning.
The second poll aggregate to look for on Nate Silver's 538 is what's called the House of Representatives generic ballot. That means pollsters say to you, would you vote for a Democrat or a Repub-- forget about who's running, or your district. Would you vote for a Democrat or a Republican?
At the moment, the Democrats have a 7.5% advantage in the generic ballot. Now because of gerrymandering, because Democrats are concentrated in a small number of electoral districts, which they win 95% to 5%, in my judgment, the Democratic generic poll advantage needs to be at least 7% for the Democrats to win control of Congress.
If the generic poll is north of 9% in the run up to the election, it will look very good for the Democrats. If it's 6% or south, I do not think that the Democrats will flip the House. So that's Nate Silver. If you get into it, you can spend your whole day with Nate Silver.
But don't do that, because you should then go to the Cook Political Report. C-O-O-K-- Charlie Cook's Political Report. And he tracks all the races-- all the races. And he will give you a graph which shows safe seats for Democrats, and how many there are, safe seats Republicans, leaning Democrat, leaning Republican, contested, toss-up. And he is the best of all of the commentators at what he does. And it's worthwhile to look at it.
In the last couple of weeks, there's been a bit of a drift toward the Democrats. And another respected web site, run by Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, for the first time has said there's more than a 50% chance that the Democrats will take the House.
Now this ebbs and flows. And I told you how indifferent Americans are to politics. They're even more indifferent to politics in the summer. And so the race really won't begin until the fall.
So let me take you now to-- I want to leave some time for questions. But let me take you now closer to election night itself, what you'll be looking for on election night. You should learn a lot-- I love it when elections can be forecast by outcomes in the east. Because by the time polls close, I'm in my pajamas with the little feet in them. I don't really want to wait until Hawaii comes in. It's tough on my colleagues, like Charles, the next day. I'm a little crabby.
So here's a map for those of you who are like me and want to go to bed, either in despair or with glee, early on. Here's what to look for. Let's start with our own, wonderful New York State. New York State has only two contested races, in my view. And our district is not one of them. Those of you who are thinking of contributing to one campaign or another, find a more contested race than the one here. This race is a safe seat.
If Claudia Tenney, who is a Congresswoman first-- this is her first re-election. And it is a district that has been very slightly Republican district. And interestingly enough, John Hannah, her predecessor in that seat, has endorsed the Democrat in the race. If Claudia Tenney loses, then the Democrats are looking good. If John Faso, the other incumbent Republican who is in a contested race, loses, the Republicans are in trouble. Two flips in New York-- and those are the two candidates-- would be quite significant.
Pennsylvania, as you know, also had a court mandated redistricting. The Democrats need to pick up, in my judgment, at least four seats in Pennsylvania. If they pick up three, you may have to stay up late. If they pick up five, you can think about going to bed early.
In New Jersey, if Leonard Lance, an incumbent congressman, loses-- he's a Republican-- that does not bode well for the Republicans. So these three states will begin to tell you quite a bit about the outcome. The Democrats have to win 23 seats in order to flip the US Congress. I think at least four or five of them have to come out of Pennsylvania. I think four or five of them have to come out of California.
So that's what you're looking at. They're not going to come out of Idaho. Wyoming is looking pretty good for the Republicans. I think there is only a population of about 20 or 30 people in Wyoming. So they only get one congressperson. That's what it needs to look like in the House of Representatives.
Let's turn for a moment to the US Senate. Here I will say that it's extremely unlikely that the Democrats will take control of the United States Senate. In fact, I will be shocked if they do. You don't really care whether I'm shocked. But I think it's extremely unlikely. Because the Democrats have 10 incumbents from seats that were carried by Donald Trump. And the Republicans have at most three vulnerable Senate seats-- Nevada, Arizona, and maybe Tennessee.
So again, when you're looking to elections the most vulnerable Democratic senators are Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Bill Nelson in Florida. Governor Scott in Florida, who's running for the Senate seat, is airing commercials showing Bill Nelson sleeping during a lot of Senate hearings. That's usually not a great sign for enthusiasm for Senator Nelson.
Claire McCaskill, Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp-- who could be named Heidi Heitkamp? You know, that's kind of a big disadvantage for her anyway, it seems to me. It kind of makes a mockery of alliteration. And I think her parents should be talked to, really, about that. But whatever is true about her name, she's from a state that is overwhelmingly a Trump state. So those are the most vulnerable-- Donnelly, McCaskill, Heitkamp, and Nelson.
People talk about how West Virginia went for Trump by 20 or 30 points. I think Joe Manchin's going to be reelected in West Virginia. And I think Jon Tester is going to be reelected from the Senate in Wyoming. I think they're actually in pretty good shape at this point-- Montana, excuse me.
Yes, and so I think that it could be that the Republicans will flip two or three Democratic seats. It could be that the Democrats will flip two Republican seats. Maybe it will be one seat that the Republicans gain, not going to be a significant flip one way or the other. I just don't see-- the Democrats would have to re-elect all of their incumbents and flip some of those Republican seats. It's a little unlikely.
But let me, for those of you who are Democrats-- and I suspect there are a few of you here who are Democrats. For those of you who are Democrats, there's an interesting statistic. Take it for what you will. This tells you something about midterm elections. In a midterm election, an incumbent senator from the opposite party of the sitting president who is running in a state which the president carried by less than 10 percentage points, is virtually always reelected-- virtually always. And believe it or not, incumbent senators who are not from the president's party who are running for re-election in a state that the president carried by 10 to 20 points are also almost always re-elected, not with near unanimity as those in the other category, but significantly.
So it's going to be a challenge for the Republicans to flip those seats. But remember, those statistics come from a somewhat less partisan period. And that's important for you to know. So let me end with two messages for you. And then I think I've graciously agreed to take some questions.
So here is message number one. Vote. Those of you who are in the audience, those of you who are students, it doesn't matter if you're less than of age. Vote anyway. It won't be counted, but it will be a good show of intent on your part. And it'll prepare you for the future. Those of you who are of age, vote.
Why should you vote? And this is the most important point. Because that's the superstructure of democracy. Democracy has a shaky, shaky superstructure. We've learned, in recent times, that it's more fragile than we might have thought. We've learned the degree to which flows of information can be challenged, and siloed, and blocked. We've learned something about hyper-partisanship and its role in politics.
And the founders were right. Democracy depends on an informed and engaged electorate. The American electorate, alas, is not very well informed, not very much engaged. And 2018 is going to be something of a test for the electorate. And whether the electorate will turn out remains to be seen. So thank you for turning out on this rainy day. And now, following the spontaneous applause, I will be happy to take any questions.
Do we have a-- yes. Do we have microphones for the questioners? OK, yell it out. We do?
AUDIENCE: I can shout really loud.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: That would be nice.
AUDIENCE: Yes, in the effort to get out the vote, do you not do a disservice when you say [INAUDIBLE] is an uphill battle for our district without its representatives to [INAUDIBLE]. Does it not do somewhat of a disservice, though, and possibly diminish voter enthusiasm? Because the fact is that it is an uphill battle for six-- [INAUDIBLE] differential of six points. But it is certainly something that is within the realm of a possibility if we do engage the electorate. So I just put that back on you in terms of a little inconsistency perhaps, or--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Did everybody hear the question?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Good, then I can say whatever I want. I like it that way. This was a kind of a vicious question directed at me for somehow dampening enthusiasm for voters by telling the truth. And my job here is to tell you about elections. That's my job.
On the ballot this year, in New York, will be a gubernatorial race. There will be a race for many other elected officials. I'm going to turn out. I'm going to tell, as I just did, everyone here to turn out. That I believe that Tom Reed is going to be re-elected is just in the nature of handicapping. I also believe that Kirsten Gillibrand is going to be re-elected. And if there were Republicans here, I would say don't waste your money in supporting her opponent. Because she's going to win in a walk.
We can't be afraid of the truth. If we're afraid of the truth, and we're so instrumental that we won't turn out to vote, because some short, bald professor with a mustache said that the outcome was very likely to be the election of the incumbent, then democracy's in real trouble, a lot worse trouble even then I think it is. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I stand so that you can hear the question. You mentioned polls, or you mentioned Nate Silver, and I would [INAUDIBLE] in 2016, when I was trying to follow what was going on with Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. My question is-- as I understand it, Nate Silver was less wrong than other pollsters. But my question is, why did the pollsters get it so wrong in the 2016 presidential election?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: OK, so the question is why did the pollsters get it so wrong in 2016. So I may surprise you a little bit with this answer. I don't think the pollsters got it that wrong in 2016. And let me tell you why. The pollsters said that Hillary Clinton would win the election by two or three million votes. And she did. They said she would win by two to three points. And she did.
The pollsters and Nate Silver have to rely on state polls. And the state polls are taken much less frequently. They are much less reliable. And so, if you look at the polls in the three pivotal states, you'll see that very few polls were taken in the immediate run up to the election. And remember, in those three states combined, it was 70,000 votes that decided the election.
And so you would be talking about how reliable the polls were if that swing had not occurred. Polls are not infallible. And let me just take this opportunity to say a couple of things about the challenge to pollsters. More and more people don't respond to pollsters. So they have to spend a lot more money. And they don't necessarily get a representative sample when they keep having to dig.
Number two-- many of you people, unlike me-- I still have a landline. And I'm sticking to it. And many of you who have cell phones-- that's a real challenge for pollsters. They don't necessarily know where you live. The responses of people to cell phones are not remotely the same. So taking all of that into account, I think we need to understand-- and your point is perfectly valid, that polls are not infallible.
Of course they're fal-- Nate Silver also said two things. And I read him very, very carefully. He said that Hillary Clinton had a 70% chance of winning. 70% is not 100%. And Nate Silver also said that her state by state margin was very thin, that she really didn't have-- even though she was going to win the popular vote by a lot, she didn't have margin in the electoral college. And that certainly proved to be the case.
If you looked at it, if she carried those three states, it was nothing for her more than that, if you ceded Florida and North Carolina to her. And then the last thing that I will say here is that, where I think the pollsters are somewhat at fault-- this maybe a little bit of an inside baseball comment. Where I think the pollsters are somewhat at fault is that they didn't fully account for the drop-off in the democratic vote from African-American voters. And they tended to compare it a little too much to the two Obama presidential elections, where you would have to assume the turnout was going to be significantly greater.
And that drop-off was quite significant. It probably decided the three contested states. And it may have decided North Carolina and Florida as well. So there are issues. This is extremely difficult to do. It's not physics. There's no question about it. Are polls useful? Yes, they're useful as a snapshot. The difficulty with state by state polls is, sometimes they're a snapshot that was taken a month earlier. So sorry to go on and on about that. But that, at least, is my view.
AUDIENCE: We got a microphone.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: OK, yes.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Down here.
AUDIENCE: OK. Thank you. You didn't mention Russian meddling or other external meddling. What affect did it have, in your opinion, on the presidential race and is it likely to have on the midterm?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Well you can't tell. You know, voters don't come into the polls and say, "you know, I was going to vote for Hillary Clinton. But I was on social media, and I learned that she was in a pizza parlor. And she had a child pornography ring. So I, for some reason, decided that that wouldn't be a good president for us to have." People don't say that.
And so what we can assume is that a concerted effort on social media of dis-information had some impact on the vote. And I think the impact, from everything we know, was an impact in the direction of Mr. Trump as opposed to Hillary Clinton. How decisive it was, we'll never know.
We do have, from the intelligence community's reports, that there's no evidence that actual votes were changed. There was hacking, probing of some of those voting systems. And there may be some probing of those voting systems again.
So I'm concerned, because I think there has not been an all-out effort to try to counter some of this interference. And I think time is going very short for that to happen. So there is good reason to worry. And of course, we don't have, in many states, paper backups to a ballot. So, if there are shenanigans, it's going to be very difficult to redo it. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Depending upon the results of the midterms, do you see any serious challenge to either Pelosi or Schumer?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So let me say something about the outcome of the election. I think, if the Democrats take control of that House of Representatives, that will be a profound change to American politics and to the Trump administration-- profound. I will predict, with some certainty, that an investigation will be launched every Thursday, and on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well. I would say Mondays and Fridays, but the Congress people don't show up on those days.
So I think those investigations will be able, in many ways, to change the dynamic and the direction of American politics, it seems to me, for sure. I will say that, if the Democrats take the House, I think there's a real chance, Jack, that Nancy Pelosi will announce that she's not going to run as speaker. I have no inside knowledge of that. I'm guessing that that is the case. I don't think that will happen with Schumer. Schumer will stay where he is.
But I'll say something. I know the questioner here. He's a good friend. And so I'll say something to all of you that I've said to him. And that is that I'm almost always wrong with most of my predictions. You know, and that's because I'm just way ahead of the politicians. I predicted-- I was wrong but, had people listened, I think it would have been different-- that the election of 2016 should have been an election for generational change. And a winning candidate would have been a 40-something.
The irony of 2016 is that you had, in an election that should have been a generational election, the two oldest candidates in American history running against one another. And we now have, in the Congress, a bunch of-- this is a technical term that I'll teach some of you. People in politics use. It's called alta cockers. We have a lot of old people in Congress. And they are a terrible face for their parties. As I get older, I'm more sympathetic to alta cockers. I think there's a lot to be said for alta cockers.
But I think that having a party that has young, vigorous, fresh, less worn politicians is in the interests of that political party. And the Democrats had Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, I wouldn't say the most photogenic people in the history of American politics, nor the most articulate, and Nancy Pelosi. And people need-- and Dianne Feinstein is 106. And she insists on running for reelection.
It seems to me that a political party needs to present-- if it wants to get young people to vote, if it wants to get people who haven't voted before, it needs to have a fresher presentation-- a fresher presentation. And let me say here, as well, that one of the things that was demonstrated by Donald Trump and Barack Obama that is a fact that you need to take account of, even though in its own way it's disturbing, is that the electorate couldn't care less about the experience-- political experience-- of the person they're voting for for President.
Barack Obama was in the United States Senate for two years, had been a state senator. You know, Donald Trump was a real estate mogul. And that didn't matter. In fact, it was a plus among many voters, who seem to think that expertise isn't valuable in politics, that politics is not a profession in some way that rewards expertise. I think that's wrong. But I think it's a fact of political life that has to be understood. So, at least in my view, that's what I think. There'll be some pressure for that to happen. Other questions that any of you have? Yes.
AUDIENCE: Do you think that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School kids and their allies will have a significant effect on youth turnout.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: OK, everybody hear the question? Yes? OK, no.
You know, we've heard this song before. Young people are-- I see it in my own teaching. I see it with my students. Young people are very cynical about politics. There's some reason for their cynicism. But they're also lazy and uninformed. And they have shown no evidence thus far of sustaining engagement with politics. And at the moment, I don't see any evidence that that will change. If it changes, you'll come-- I'll pay your way back to Ithaca, those of you who are far away-- and we'll talk about it. Because if that happens, that will be a sea change in American politics and significant in some way. I wouldn't bet the ranch on it, however. I wouldn't.
AUDIENCE: I have a question. I heard the other day in the news that the president enjoys an 80% approval rating from Republicans, the highest of any even Republican in recent history still, even though [INAUDIBLE] in Helsinki, the salacious things that happened with Cohen, and all these types of things, that that number doesn't change. What is happening to the Republican party? And maybe you said something-- the siloing. Have all the moderates just fallen away, that the only people left are his supporters, and that's what they represent?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: It's a very important question, not that the other questions that have been asked haven't been equally wonderful. The Republican Party-- adherents to the Republican Party are smaller in number. They're smaller and getting smaller. Self-styled independents are growing in number. Many of them are Republicans. And so, when we see a swing from support for Republicans to support for Democrats, or less enthusiasm for Trump, what we're seeing is some of those are Republicans who essentially have fallen off, that the base has shrunk. But as it has shrunk, it's gotten firmer and more ideological, at least it seems to me.
And you have to add to that something that is, in my judgment, a disturbing development. And that is a kind of cult of personality around President Trump. And it's fed by something I've talked about throughout this talk. And that is, most Americans are not well-informed about the issues.
So a cult of personality is easier. People keep predicting-- oh, where Republicans are very much anti-Russia, they'll break with Trump. I think there is not an understanding that the issues are much less important than the cult of personality. And when the ideology has set, and the polarization is as strong as it is, then you're going to get this degree of adherence to both parties.
And a lot of people, remember, in 2016-- you have to remember one thing. 2016 was the first election in American history, since polls were taken, where both candidates had an approval rating of less than 50%. Now that's never happened before.
What does it tell us? It tells us that many voters said, I don't like Trump. I think he's a liar. I think he's vulgar. I'm not voting for her. I'm not voting for her. And that hasn't changed. That hasn't changed.
We have a long history of partisanship. It's getting worse. My grandmother always said to my mother, "should I vote for the donkey or the elephant?" She wasn't following the issues very closely, I don't think. And it seems to me now people have made their choice. I'm voting for the elephant, or I'm voting for the donkey. And I'm doing it, because I can't stand that other animal, so to speak. And that's why you're going to get some of the percentages that you're getting. And I think peeling off that base is likely to happen, unless there is something even more earthshaking than some of the developments we've seen. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Do you see any parallels between the antics of Trump and the rise of Nazi Germany?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Do I see any parallels between the antics of Trump and the rise of Nazi Germany? It's a very hard question to answer. And you know, I'll tell you why. I think it's important to take any concerns about the rise of fascism or Nazism seriously. I think we can identify some parallels, attacks on political punishment of opponents, undermining of social and political institutions, assaults on the media, and an attempt to have essentially a court media.
These are disturbing parallels. They're not only associated with Nazi Germany, of course. They're associated with other authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. And, of course, we also have what, in my judgment, are disturbing attacks on immigrant groups, religious groups, racial minorities, and so on.
We, at the moment, have had some institutional checks on those attacks. Those institutional checks disappeared in Nazi Germany as early as the middle 1930s or so. That's not to say that we should be complacent. That superstructure is more rickety than we might have thought it to be. And so, you know, my answer to your question unfortunately is that I'm an historian. There's no future in it. And so I'm not any better than you are in predicting what's going to happen in the aftermath, except to say that this is a time for vigilance for people, if the concerns I've expressed are concerns that you share. Absolutely.
AUDIENCE: Thanks for this. Some beautiful ideas and fun for plenty of us to watch--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah, stop right there.
AUDIENCE: I think this last question was a very important way to end things. But I was wondering, do you see--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Speak up.
AUDIENCE: Are there things that have been going on in the Democratic party that make you hopeful? I think I heard that the superdelegate system is collapsing.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: That the what?
AUDIENCE: That the superdelegate is gone away-- but I may be wrong about that. And the second question I would ask is, did all the women that were supposed to run for Congress-- did that kind of fizzle out? In other words, we've gone through primaries and stuff like that.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: It didn't fizzle out at all.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: No, but let me begin by saying that-- I say this frequently when I teach. My job as a professor-- my job-- is to leave my audiences far more depressed at the end of my lectures than when they came in. And I'm striving to do that. So asking me to look for some hopeful signs goes against the grain of my temperament, personality, and pedagogical goals.
So, having said that, let me talk about hopeful signs, if you're looking for hopeful signs. And I should say to you that I'm in favor of superdelegates. I think we need more superdelegates. I think smoke filled rooms have been much maligned over many years. Because those bosses wanted to win and were reaching for the political center. And we need to find more ways to put the political center back into the structures through which we nominate people.
So I'll just give you a couple of both ideas and maybe hopeful signs. I think states now are thinking about gerrymandering in somewhat different ways. The Supreme Court doesn't want to hear cases about it. But that doesn't mean that states can't act on it with either independent commissions or others. They're controversial. But I think this should be taken out of the hands of politicians and given, for example, to computer scientists. I think they do a better job of it than elected officials will do.
I'll also give you-- Charles very graciously referred to many of my blogs, and op-eds, and so on. My op-eds are always ignored. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't keep trying.
So one of the ideas that I've presented, which I'll present to you, is that, if you have a system of primaries that delegates-- this is true at state level. It should be true at the national level. The number of delegates awarded to the winner should be proportionate to the turnout.
So, for example, if you have a primary, and only 15% or 20% of the Democrats turn out, the winner of that shouldn't get as many delegates as he or she would if 60% of the delegates turned out. So there are ways of addressing some of these anomalies, it seems to me, which are at least worth considering in our political system so that we can actually make it more democratic. The irony of the primary system is it's not democratic, because people don't turn out. So OK, it looks like-- oh we do, I'm sorry. Nobody in the front ever wants to ask a question? Is it something I-- how I look that's turning you off in some way? Yes.
AUDIENCE: In your opinion, how important do you think the Hispanic vote will be in the primary and the presidential elections? If I'm not wrong, I think they decided and put Obama in power. The Hispanic vote swing the votes to the Democratic party. Do you think something like that could happen?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: OK, so this is a question about the Hispanic vote. Among the many shocking surprises of the 2016 election was that Donald Trump pretty much got the same percentage of the Hispanic vote that Mitt Romney did. I, of course, was predicting that the Hispanic vote would not be the 30% or 31% that it had been for Romney, but that for Trump would be 15% or 18%.
After all, President Trump had insulted Judge Curiel because he was Mexican, and said, if you're Mexican, you can't be fair in an election. He had talked about Mexicans in a way that you would have to say was disparaging, immigration restriction, border security, and so on. The Hispanic vote was pretty much the same for him as it was for Romney.
I don't know if it didn't change from 2012 to 1016. I don't have confidence that it will change from 2016 to 2018, even though my instincts tell me that it should change, given the kind of rhetoric combined with the kind of policies that we've seen enacted. But remember, Mexicans are not the same as Nicaraguans, or Puerto Ricans, or other Hispanics, or Cubans. And so lumping together Hispanics somehow hides a little bit what the Hispanic vote is likely to be.
Hispanics also do not turn out in high proportions in midterm elections. Now maybe they will this time. But you know, you have to at least take into account existing trends when you're looking toward what's likely to happen. OK, so--
AUDIENCE: There's [INAUDIBLE] last question.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Last question, OK. Are you a young voter?
AUDIENCE: I am not quite old enough.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: You're not quite old enough.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Sit down, and let an older person ask a question, in that case. I mean, what the hell? Are you wasting our time? No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding. Kidding, kidding.
AUDIENCE: So just kind of address how partisan everything is-- what if, say, like a billionaire wanted to throw forward $1 billion and start a new part. How do you think that would affect the landscape?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: It happened-- Ross Perot.
AUDIENCE: If somebody did it now, though- because he tried and kind of fail at it.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: He didn't fail. He got 19% of the vote.
AUDIENCE: He ran for president, though, at the state level. At the state level, in every state, they came up with a third party--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Third parties have a extraordinarily difficult path even to getting on the ballot. And so there have been many billionaires who have run and won elections. Governor Scott in Florida is a billionaire. Mr. Bloomberg became mayor. And what they've realized is that the best use of their money is to capture one of the existing political parties. And they didn't get $1 billion by wasting a lot of money. And so wasting it on a third party run is something that only somebody who's a little wacky, as Ross Perot was, was inclined to do-- and I don't think it's likely that that's going to happen again. Do want to say something else?
AUDIENCE: I think probably I just I need to phrase it better. Instead of running for a position like Donald Trump did, like fund a completely new party-- because Ross Perot ran on the ballot as his own kind of off in left field thing.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: No, he founded a party.
AUDIENCE: But no one ran in Congress [? for him. ?]
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yes, they did.
AUDIENCE: They did? OK.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: They did. Yeah, they did. They did. And then people talk about-- well, what's going to happen to the party now that Ross Perot has lost? And what a shocker-- he didn't want to spend any more money on those candidates who were running. That's what happens to third parties.
So if we take-- let me make a proposal to you. We could take 80 or 90 more questions, and then the rain would stop by the time you got out. Or we could end it here, and I could get a decent night's sleep.
Thank you all. This was fun.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at Cornell.edu.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Cornell University's Glenn C. Altschuler, the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies and dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, talks about the culture and ideological context of the 2018 midterm elections, identifies races to watch, and offers predictions about winners and losers.