Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Forget the '60s—The Real Generation Gap Is Happening Right Now

Since the election last month, we have seen a parade of analyses examining how Clinton supporters differ from Trump supporters along the dividing lines of race, education, and geographic residence. The persistence of partisan differences by age in American elections, however, has received somewhat less attention. Younger voters, who first demonstrated a notable relative preference for the Democratic Party in the 2004 presidential election, swung even further towards the Democrats in the two Obama elections; Obama carried the under-30 vote by 34 points in 2008 and by 23 points in 2012, according to the national exit polls. At the same time, voters over the age of 50 collectively preferred Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney to Obama in both of his successful national campaigns.

Hillary Clinton may have lacked Obama's (and Bernie Sanders's) personal appeal among younger voters, but she still carried the under-30 vote by an 18-point margin over Trump according to the 2016 exit polls, while voters over the age of 45 collectively opted for Trump by 9 points—confirming that the contemporary political generation gap will outlast the Obama era. This is a significant divide by historical standards. None of the 1960s-era elections produced a comparable partisan difference, despite the decade's prominent youth-led protest movements and memorable "don't trust anyone over 30" rhetoric. According to Gallup data, Hubert Humphrey led Richard Nixon in 1968 among voters under 30 by only 9 points, 47 percent to 38 percent, while voters over the age of 50 preferred Nixon by just 6 points (47 percent to 41 percent). So Trump performed about as well among young voters in a two-person contest as Nixon did in a three-way race.

Many of the most prominent political issues of our time include a generational dimension separating the left-leaning young from their more conservative elders. Social issues such as gay rights and drug legalization divide Americans sharply by age. The Affordable Care Act drew its fiercest opposition from the elderly—who already enjoyed Medicare benefits and thus perceived little collective interest in expanding health care access to younger citizens. Climate change is of greater concern to those who stand to inherit the planet than those who rule it today. Democratic candidates frequently tout their plans for enhancing college affordability and access to childcare; Republicans seldom discuss these topics. Conservative efforts to lower federal tax rates on high incomes also stand to primarily benefit older—and disproportionately wealthier—voters.

More broadly, the 2016 election exposed a key divide in the American electorate between nationalism and internationalism, between a preference for traditional social hierarchies and an attraction to new social norms. The themes of cultural nostalgia and alienation adopted by the Trump campaign were particularly primed to appeal to older generations feeling increasingly out of place in contemporary society and preferring a bygone past of perceived American "greatness" defined by a rejection of "political correctness" at home and an adherence to military/economic unilateralism abroad. Just as the Brexit referendum in the UK passed over the opposition of a younger generation of Britons much more at ease with European integration than their parents and grandparents, the oldest incoming president in American history assembled a narrow electoral coalition that is heavily weighted toward his own age cohort—and there's no particular reason to believe that he will govern in a manner that increases his appeal to those who did not support his candidacy. A Pew survey released this week found Trump with a favorable rating of just 24 percent among respondents aged 18-29 and 25 percent among those aged 30-49, compared to 47 percent among 50-to-64-year-olds and 54 percent among the 65-and-over population.

Ronald Reagan's famous "optimism" was to some degree an assured belief that the future belonged to conservatives. A more extensive elucidation of this view, complete with accompanying data, can be found in any number of the essays written by Michael Barone in the 1980s for the Almanac of American Politics. Barone viewed Reagan's electoral success as proof that a majority of American voters had come to recognize the fundamental flaws of liberalism and were acting together to push their country in a rightward direction. The Democrats, according to Barone, were the party of declining central cities, out-of-fashion hippie relics, and Rust Belt anachronism; the Republicans were the party of burgeoning suburbs, private-sector innovators, and Sun Belt futurism. Importantly, in Barone's view, conservatives were winning the hearts and minds of younger Americans, who could be expected to take up Reagan's torch and advance it still further through subsequent decades. As Barone and Grant Ujifusa wrote in the 1990 edition of the Almanac“[t]he young voters of the 1980s, Republican strategists hope, and Democratic strategists fear, will carry their sunny Republicanism into the 2030s and 2040s.”

Young people may still be sunny these days, but Republicanism is decidedly not. The victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama damaged conservatives' confidence that they spoke for an enduring popular majority, and the main conservative objectives of shrinking the size and scope of government, establishing unquestioned American military supremacy abroad, and promoting morally traditionalist attitudes among the American public have all, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, remained unfulfilled in the years since Reagan departed the national stage. When combined with the continuing leftward evolution of American culture in the realms of race, gender, religion, and sexuality, these developments have left many conservatives—including the current president-elect—warning darkly of the imminent destruction of America as we know it, which in turn justifies increasingly aggressive challenges from the right to established political norms and institutions.

Now that it is the Democratic Party that is becoming more Sun Belt than Rust Belt, that is the favored party of revitalized urban metropolises and centers of innovation like the high-tech sector, and that is more attuned to the millennial-generation cultural zeitgeist, older conservatives exhibit a shaken faith in the wisdom of popular majorities. Barone himself has taken to explicitly arguing in favor of the electoral college precisely because it might act—as it did in 2016—to thwart the will of a national plurality that he finds ideologically and demographically uncongenial. Other Republicans have responded to social change by advocating restrictions on access to the ballot that disproportionately affect young and non-white citizens, in order to further tilt the electoral system away from their political opponents.

As the Republican victories of 2014 and 2016 confirm, there is no youth-led "permanent Democratic majority," in part because our electoral rules and institutions tend to provide Republicans with a built-in advantage in close elections. Plus, there are simply lots and lots of baby boomers and pre-boomers, and they vote more reliably than their children and grandchildren. But if the young will respond to Trump's ascendance by resenting the disproportionate political and economic power of the right-leaning old, the old will continue to resent the increasing cultural power of the left-leaning young. The power of the presidency simply does not extend to authority over the national culture, and the institutions that do exert substantial cultural influence—the news media, entertainment industry, educational system, and so forth—can be expected to serve as centers of resistance to Trump and Trumpism. Cultural backlash can be a powerful tool for winning elections, but it's very hard to actually deliver on promises to move an entire society back in time.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump and the Myth of the American Presidency

Most political scientists view the American political system as a dense set of interlocking rules, institutions, and actors that interact in complicated and ever-evolving ways. This web of power derives much of its complexity from the fact that the United States is, uniquely, both a separation-of-powers system and a federal system. Our politics not only encompasses many different independent positions and levels of authority but also provides multiple access points for individuals and groups outside the formal structure of the government—including advocacy organizations, media sources, and mobilized citizens—to exert influence over its operations. Even scholars who devote their careers to studying one element of this system—Congress, courts, voters, interest groups, and so forth—must constantly account for the ways in which their subject of interest is affected by the other components of the system.

American citizens acquire in grade school the familiar factual knowledge that their government has three separate branches and a federalist structure. In practice, however, popular attention to the subject of politics focuses overwhelmingly on the office of the presidency and the individuals who hold it—or who seek it during a drawn-out campaign process that lasts for nearly half of the presidential term. Citizens have invested the presidency with meaning and expectations that far exceed the capacity of even its most resourceful inhabitants to fully satisfy, ignoring both the very real limitations of the president's ability to implement major change and the key roles played by other political actors and by the institutional framework of the constitutional system itself.

The campaign that just concluded only further widened the chasm separating the actual presidency from its role in the American imagination. Popular and media attention focused on the race to the White House to the exclusion of all other electoral competition; candidates for the Senate and other important offices only received national press coverage when they said or did something that related to one or both of the presidential nominees. To a greater extent than any candidate in memory, Donald Trump portrayed the presidency as a position of unrestricted power from which he could not only impose sweeping change on national and world politics—singlehandedly bringing back the steel industry from overseas, building a border wall and forcing Mexico to pay for it—but even reverse unwelcome trends in American culture ("When I'm president, we're going to say Merry Christmas again!")

Hillary Clinton was by contrast relatively cautious about over-promising on policy and keen to avoid appearances of grandiosity, reflecting both her own instincts and her understanding of the limitations of the presidency as well as its power. When discussing this or that political issue, Clinton would frequently pledge if elected to do "everything I can" to address the concerns of her audience—a promise to try rather than a promise to succeed.

Yet Clinton, too, ultimately wound up running a campaign that treated the presidency more as an abstract symbol than a position of executive responsibility. She attempted to benefit from popular disapproval of Trump's personal behavior by arguing that he would be a poor role model for the nation's children and would represent a victory for the forces of bigotry and misogyny. Democrats and Republicans came to share the view that the 2016 election did not merely present a choice between two very different visions for what America should be, but forced the electorate to determine which of two possible futures the nation would indeed have—with one path permanently selected and the other foreclosed.

Since the election less than two weeks ago, the nation has experienced an eruption of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim speech and behavior—all presumably fueled by the perception that Trump's ascension to the presidency represents a larger impending transformation of American society (notwithstanding the narrowness of Trump's victory nor his failure to receive a plurality of the national popular vote). These incidents have not been limited to the Trump-friendly regions of the nation; even those of us who live in the "deep blue" precincts of the metropolitan coasts have experienced the same trend. The presumption behind much of this behavior is that America under Trump will look fundamentally different from America under Obama or (hypothetically) Clinton.

As some of his most ardent supporters envision a wholesale change in the social order, Trump himself has spent the same two weeks reckoning with the limits of the office he is poised to occupy. Evidence has surfaced of a rocky transition process and a president-elect who seems more interested in looking after his business interests and engaging in amateur television criticism than in staffing the executive branch. He has also begun to walk back some of his key campaign promises; anyone actually expecting Trump to immediately begin mass deportations, build a border wall, or throw Hillary Clinton in jail once he assumes office is about to be very disappointed.

Most scholars agree that the modern presidency rewards preparation. The most successful presidents have prioritized hiring highly competent subordinates who share a common policy agenda, have placed them at key positions of power, and have moved quickly to take advantage of the honeymoon period at the start of a new president's term, when his popularity and political influence are usually at their peak. It is not at all clear that Trump is equipped to begin his term in office two short months from now with the institutional capacity of the executive branch running at full speed.

We are left, then, with the prospect of an ever-widening divide between the growing symbolic power of the presidency in the American popular imagination and the stubborn reality that the president is merely one element of a political system that often resists bending to his will. All presidents have chafed against the limitations of the office, but Trump's combination of rhetorical ambition and practical inattentiveness presents a particular challenge to the new administration. The news media, which has contributed greatly to propagating the myth of the all-powerful presidency, will reliably cover American politics for the next four years almost exclusively through a Trump-centered lens, which will have the effect of further magnifying his failures as well as his successes. If the president cannot even claim control over Congress and the bureaucracy, what are his chances of making us all say Merry Christmas every December?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Princeton Podcast on Asymmetric Politics

Yesterday, Matt Grossmann and I talked with Julian Zelizer and Sam Wang of Princeton University about our new book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. You can hear our conversation on the latest edition of their podcast, Politics and Polls.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Podcast Interview

Yesterday I talked to Marc Chavannes of the Dutch podcast The Correspondent about the American elections of 2016. You can listen to our conversation here.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Think Politics Will "Get Back to Normal" After Tuesday? This IS the New Normal!

We've reached the stage of the presidential campaign in which everyone who's either a participant or a close observer has reached a state of complete mental overload. Colleagues, friends, and students have frequently remarked over the past week or two that they are desperate for the election to be over. This is especially true of Clinton supporters of my acquaintance, who nurture (perhaps unrealistic) hope that Trump and Trumpism will face a popular rejection on Tuesday that will expel both the man and his brand of politics from the American party system.

Given everyone's frayed nerves, it seems almost sadistic to suggest that less will change after the election that many might wish. If Trump somehow manages an upset, of course, the fallout will be unprecedented—even more so now that the events of the past few weeks have set Democrats up to view such an outcome as an effective hijacking of American democracy by the Russians and the FBI.

The more likely outcome remains a Clinton victory, though by less-than-landslide proportions. But here, too, the potential for political combustion is enormous. The entire Republican popular base is poised to go ka-BOOM in response to the ascension of President Hillary, and Republican leaders will see no choice but to ratchet up the vehemence of their opposition to a level that will even exceed that of the Obama years. For the duration of his presidency, many Republicans have viewed Obama as an arrogant Marxist incompetent who hates America and all that it stands for; they think all those things of Clinton, too, but add to them the belief that she is also a criminal who belongs in prison. The race among Republican members of the House of Representatives to be the first to file articles of impeachment against her promises to be a competitive one, and the GOP congressional leadership will face considerable pressure to engage in even-more-frequent acts of dramatic—and high-risk—confrontation.

We already know what the biggest fight will be. It hasn't received a great deal of attention in an all-Trump-all-the-time campaign, but the vacancy on the Supreme Court promises to serve as a particularly bloody partisan battlefield once the election is over. If the Republicans hold the Senate, it is likely that they will prevent Clinton from filling the Scalia seat for the entire four years of her term. While this would be an unprecedented act, there is simply no political or ideological incentive for any Republican senator to allow the confirmation of a fifth liberal justice. (Democratic hopes that the blockade of Merrick Garland would prove electorally costly to swing-state Republican senators this year seem to have gone unfulfilled, only increasing the likelihood of indefinite GOP obstruction.)

If the Democrats gain a majority in the Senate, the working assumption is that they will jam Garland, or a replacement Clinton nominee, through the chamber on a party-line vote. This is probably correct, but the political cost and pain involved is underappreciated. Any Democratic majority in the Senate is likely to be very narrow—it could even hinge on the vice president's role as a tiebreaker—and dependent on a few pivotal electorally vulnerable senators from normally Republican states, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

These Democrats will need to join with their more liberal fellow partisans not only to confirm the fifth liberal justice, but to invoke the "nuclear option" preventing a Republican filibuster of the nomination. This involves not changing the formal rules of the Senate—a process that is itself subject to the filibuster—but using a parliamentary point of order, sustained by a simple majority, that the cloture rule does not properly apply to Supreme Court nominations. (The previous use of the nuclear option in 2013 removed the filibuster for lower court candidates but left it intact for the Supreme Court.)

Regardless of what one thinks about the filibuster rule or its increasing use by the Senate minority, removing it by brute partisan force rather than via the normal procedures for modifying chamber rules adds fodder to what will be fierce Republican charges that the whole thing is an illegitimate power grab. If Democrats take majority control in January, they will face the choice of whether to invoke the nuclear option preemptively or wait until Republicans actually filibuster Clinton's Supreme Court nominee. There is some logic to ripping the Band-Aid off quickly, but red-state Democratic senators may prefer to wait for weeks or even months, giving Republicans the opportunity to amply demonstrate their intransigence before "reluctantly" concluding that the nuclear option is an appropriate response.

All of this will play out in an atmosphere of unconstrained partisan-ideological rancor. The stakes are indeed high—the formation of a liberal majority on the Court for the first time in 40 years is understandably unacceptable to pro-Trump and anti-Trump conservatives alike, while simultaneously representing an important potential legacy for a Hillary Clinton presidency that is likely to be prevented by congressional gridlock from enacting its major legislative priorities.

The election next week will resolve some important questions; the difference between the two presidential candidates is in many respects the biggest in living memory, and one will be president while the other one won't. But the acrimonious nature of party politics in the United States may only be reinforced by the outcome on Tuesday. Once the results are in, many Americans will return to their "normal" routine of only intermittent attentiveness to the world of politics. But those who continue to follow the daily march of events cannot count on the end of the campaign to provide a respite from the perpetual partisan battle.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The "Republican Party" Doesn't Make Strategic Decisions—Individual Republicans Do

The 2016 election is still two weeks away, and yet the likely outcome is sufficiently apparent that news media post-mortems are already beginning to appear. Though the Democratic Party is poised to win the presidency for the third consecutive election, elevating the first woman in history to the office in the process, it is the Republican opposition that is gaining most of the attention these days—and will surely continue to do so once the votes have all been counted. Fascination with what appears to be the picturesque final days of the Donald Trump campaign has expanded to the question of what effect Trump's candidacy will have on his party, both in the short and long term, and what steps Republicans will take to address the internal problems of which Trump is arguably more a symptom than a cause.

It's easy to discuss what "the Republican Party" will, or should, do. But no single authority atop the GOP holds the power to make and enforce strategic decisions on its behalf. There are only an array of individual Republicans, from congressional officers and national committeemembers to interest group leaders and media personalities, who may have plenty of good ideas about the proper direction for the party as a whole but who also have their own constituencies to satisfy and their own careers to advance.

Social scientists use the term "collective action problem" to refer to a situation in which a contradiction exists between the aggregate interests of a group of actors and the personal interest of each individual actor. Just as the mice are collectively safer if they can hear the house cat coming but no single mouse is willing to take the risk necessary to bell it, the current Republican Party is awash in tensions between individual and collective political incentives. Here are three recommendations or predictions that media commentators have frequently advanced for the post-election GOP, which are all probably smart in a general strategic sense but don't always recognize the contradictory interests of key individual actors within the party:

1. The Republican Party should "modernize" in order to expand its electoral appeal. If Hillary Clinton defeats Trump in November, giving the Democratic Party its fifth victory in the past seven presidential elections, many Republican political consultants and outside observers will argue that the GOP will need to take visible steps to increase its popular appeal among key demographic subgroups such as racial minorities, single women, and millennial-generation voters. Because the term "moderate" is often anathema to a party that views itself as the vehicle of conservative ideology, these calls for reform are usually promoted as "modernization" or "reinvention" initiatives.

But individual Republican politicians must still worry about winning primary elections dominated by current, not hypothetical, party supporters, while congressional leaders must similarly satisfy their own rank and file before they consider expanding the party's reach to new constituencies. The post-2012 "autopsy report" commissioned by the Republican National Committee was largely ignored by Republican elected officials in part because its recommendations departed sharply from their own individual political incentives—and this divide has only widened further in the ensuing four years. If Republican members of Congress were already reluctant to support comprehensive immigration reform legislation—one frequently-prescribed remedy for the GOP's dire current standing among Latinos—how many will be more enthusiastic to do so after Donald Trump rode deep anti-immigration sentiment to an upset victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries?

2. The Republican Party should push back against the conservative media. Trump's nomination represents undeniable evidence of the significant power of conservative media outlets within the party, from Fox News and talk radio to websites like Breitbart (which supplied Trump's current campaign chairman). Critics both within and outside the GOP charge the right-wing media universe with misinforming Republican voters and sowing popular anger against the party's traditional leadership, leaving the party uniquely vulnerable to a Trump takeover and its associated problems. "Want to Save the Republican Party?" asks one recent headline in the Washington Post. "Drain the Right-Wing Media Swamp."

Once again, this is easier said than done. Trump's nomination is not the first piece of evidence suggesting that the increasing influence of the conservative media universe is not always a positive good for the governing health of the Republican Party. But which individual Republican officials are willing to lead the charge against some of their own supporters' most trusted sources of information? Today, whenever a Republican member of Congress criticizes a major conservative media figure, it only takes a day or two before the member of Congress has apologized and pledged eternal devotion to the media personality's wisdom and moral leadership. It's hard to envision many Republican politicians sacrificing their own careers for the cause of putting Sean Hannity in his place.

3. The Republican Party should confirm Merrick Garland in the lame-duck session of Congress. If Clinton wins the presidency and Democrats gain control of the Senate, she will be in a position to fill the Supreme Court seat formerly held by the late Antonin Scalia—assuming that Senate Democrats would respond to any Republican filibuster by invoking the "nuclear option" to disallow filibusters of Supreme Court nominees. For this reason, some commentators have suggested—and even predicted—that the current Republican-controlled Senate should or would confirm Barack Obama's choice, Merrick Garland, rather than risk a less palatable nominee replacing Scalia once Clinton takes office.

It's easy to see the logic for this maneuver from the perspective of the Court's composition. Garland has a fairly moderate reputation as a jurist; he is also about to turn 64. If the Senate continues its blockade of Garland's nomination, a future President Clinton could withdraw it in favor of a younger and more left-wing justice, making Stephen Breyer rather than Garland the swing vote on the Court and increasing the probability of a long-term liberal majority.

But Republican senators are not worried about the Court as much as they are about themselves. Confirming Garland after the election would require majority leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley to schedule hearings and a vote on Garland. At least 14 Republican senators would need to vote for cloture (in order to defeat a certain filibuster that would likely represent the first phase of the 2020 Ted Cruz for President campaign) and at least 4 would need to vote in favor of Garland on the floor (or at least abstain from voting). And all of this behavior would be in service of elevating a left-of-center justice to the Court who was nominated by Obama, ending four decades of conservative judicial ascendancy.

Sophisticated conservative intellectuals might understand that such a move was motivated by the goal of avoiding the chance of an even less acceptable hypothetical outcome, but Republican senators would probably be much less confident that their party's primary voters would grasp the strategic calculation at work. For them, the easy choice is to keep Garland bottled up until January and let the Democrats do what they will in the new session of Congress, even if this inaction results in a more liberal Court. And this logic applies more broadly to nearly all of the considerations that arise when discussing the issue of "where the Republican Party goes from here." The Republican Party will collectively go wherever individual Republicans go—which is likely to be, for better or worse, wherever their own personal interests take them.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post-Debates Recap: Is 2016 An Exception Or the New Normal?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engaged in the final scheduled debate last night, passing a milepost marking the home stretch of the campaign. The overall dynamics and candidate strategy on display last night closely resembled those of the first two debates. Clinton was once again well-prepped and bent on goading Trump into counterproductive responses on his main points of vulnerability. Trump was once again extemporaneous and free-associative, focusing on broad themes instead of policy details.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump has been badly hurt by the debates. On September 26, the day of the first debate, the FiveThirtyEight model estimated that Clinton was leading Trump by 46 percent to 45 percent in the national popular vote and by 278 to 260 in the electoral vote, with just a 55 percent projected chance of winning the election. Today, Clinton is estimated to hold a lead of 50 percent to 43 percent in the popular vote and 343 to 194 in the electoral vote, adding up to an 87 percent chance of victory on November 8.

This shift no doubt partially reflects other developments that have occurred over the period that the debates were held—especially the Billy Bush tape and subsequent accusations against Trump. And Clinton was already the favorite to win the race even before they occurred. But I think the bulk of the evidence points toward the debates having a significant independent effect on the relative standing of the candidates, especially because they generated negative news coverage of Trump that persisted for days after the events themselves. Trump's refusal last night to commit to respecting the outcome of the election is likewise poised to dominate this week's coverage—to his further disadvantage—which means that the debates may continue to hurt his chances further over the next several days.

If true, the power of the debates to shift public opinion is another way in which the 2016 election departs from the usual pattern. Though debates receive a lot of attention every year, and media figures always spend a lot of time explaining which candidate "won" each face-off, previous research had concluded that the effects of debate performances on the horse race tended to be quite temporary when they existed at all. If Clinton winds up winning the election by a margin comparable to her current lead, we may regard the debates in retrospect as significant events in the trajectory of the race.

Political scientists have taken our share of lumps this election from our critics, largely because most of us didn't expect the Republican Party to nominate Trump (a conclusion which, to be fair, we were hardly alone in reaching). One recurrent point of difference between political science and popular media is that many journalists and pundits tend to interpret electoral outcomes as mostly reflecting the different personalities and strategies of the candidates, while political scientists more commonly emphasize the role of fundamental factors like partisanship and economic performance in shaping the choices of voters. (This view is sometimes caricatured as a belief that "campaigns don't matter," which no political scientist I know has ever claimed.)

If the debates are revealed to be a major factor in determining the vote margin in the 2016 election, however, it's fair to point out that campaign effects turned out to be bigger than some of us assumed. When analysis built on investigation of previous elections fails to hold in a new case, there are three possible explanations:

1. The analysis was flawed even when applied to previous cases.

2. The analysis was sound in the past, but the current case doesn't fit because the world has changed—and future cases will resemble the current case more than past cases.

3. The analysis was sound in the past and will be again in the future, but the current case represents a temporary deviation from the long-term norm.

Our least charitable critics will probably argue that (1) is likely to be true—we just don't know what we're talking about and never did. But as even they must acknowledge, there's plenty of reason to believe that this particular election is just different from previous elections, with Trump's nomination either a cause or a symptom of this difference.

We can even come up with very plausible hypotheses about why the debates would matter more for a candidate like Trump than a candidate like Mitt Romney or John McCain: perhaps voters had less confidence in Trump's ability to do the job of president, rendering a substandard debate performance all the more damaging to his chances. Or maybe the press coverage of Trump has been much more negative than previous candidates over the same period. Alternatively, though it's tempting to rely on a Trump-centric explanation to account for everything that's distinctive about this election, maybe the debates mattered more because of something unique about Hillary Clinton. Perhaps her relatively strong debate performances helped her consolidate the support of younger voters and independents who never liked Trump but preferred Bernie Sanders to Clinton and were won over once the debates focused their attention on the choice before them this November.

The bigger challenge is to distinguish condition (2) from condition (3). In the heat of a campaign's final weeks, when it's very hard to step back and gain a broader perspective, we often assume that the current state of the world will pertain indefinitely into the future—for example, that Trump's particular brand of politics is here to stay in the Republican Party even if he loses the election. Sometimes that's right, but sometimes we're simply in the midst of a temporary departure from the usual order of things. Until we are able to gain the benefit of experience—or, as political scientists might put it, more data—we won't know for sure how much of what's extraordinary about the 2016 election is merely a product of the moment, and how much is a foreshadowing of the new normal.