Call it Clintonian deja vu. In 1996, Bill Clinton was cruising to reelection and Democrats seemed destined to retake Congress after (what we at the time thought was an accidental) the 1994 GOP sweep. But late-breaking news intervened in 1996 cost the Democrats a chance to retake Congress while Clinton still cruised to reelection albeit with a reduced margin from what it would have been otherwise. The 1996 Clinton campaign and DNC finance scandal rocked the political establishment and allowed the GOP to maintain control of Congress, something that would continue (with a 18 month exception in the US Senate) until 2006.
The 2016 version, FBI Director James Comey’s late revelation of an investigation reopening regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails might do just the same – Clinton will win almost without question. Donald Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes just doesn’t exist at this point in time. But where it will really hurt is with the Democrats efforts to retake the US Senate and peel away the GOP’s large House majority (the largest the GOP has had in the US House since 1928). Three weeks ago it looked inevitable that the Democrats would pick up lots of Congressional seats and retake the US Senate. Now while pick ups are certainly still likely, the size of the wave might be limited.
One indicator is the state of North Carolina where Senator Richard Burr is pulling away from his Democratic challenger, while Governor Pat McCrory who was given up for dead not long ago, has caught Attorney General Roy Cooper in the polls. The Hurricane Matthew effect certainly boosted McCrory as it has Rick Scott here in Florida (Scott is not on the ballot this cycle, but Donald Trump is and he has made up ground against Clinton while Scott’s approval numbers have shot up).
In 1996, many Democrats felt the Clinton campaign and those around the President had been selfish in not looking out for the interests of other Democrats. This go round, we don’t hear that sort of snickering though it must be noted we are in a far more partisan and polarized political atmosphere now than in 1996. Tribalism has been solidified by social media and the 24 hour news cycle.
Still the parallels with 1996 are worth exploring in this final week before the election. If anything, 1996 reminds us that enthusiasm can drop if a scandal gets played in the media right before an election. 1996 had the lowest turnout in terms of percentage of eligible voters casting ballots of any 20th century Presidential election. A drop in voter enthusiasm in 2016 could be more critical because Donald Trump has rallied and excited the GOP base (with the exception of the political class) in a way Bob Dole failed to in 1996.
Some of Trump’s campaign themes mirror Dole’s 1996 ones. In 1996, Dole spent lots of time painting the picture of a vibrant American society in the 1950’s and implying he wanted the country to return to those roots. Of course that was a not-so-subtle shot at the baby boomer generation and the upheaval of the 1960’s which included Civil Rights and Women’s liberation. Trump’s rhetoric is even less subtle and echo the same dangerous themes.
2016 could end up being similar to 1996 – A Clintonian Democrat wins the White House while the party fails to make the gains elsewhere that are needed.