This isn’t the end. This isn’t even the beginning of the end. However, this is the end of the beginning. – Winston Churchill
The 2016 Presidential Campaign has been a watershed event for the American political party system. Democrats fielded two candidates that were starkly different, reflecting a fractured base. Republicans put forth over a dozen candidates from across the conservative spectrum, ultimately nominating the quintessential “outsider”. Some speculate that the two party system is nearing the end, given the recent issues across both parties. However, barriers such as cost, logistics, and the electoral system greatly reduce the likelihood of a truly viable 3rd-party emerging. The more probabilistic changes include an improved process for candidate vetting and nomination, refined platform scope and content, and increased polarization between parties.
Both party’s nomination outcome and accompanying process highlight the need for change. Democrats, who traditionally decide between “wine” and “beer” track candidates, had a new category in Senator Sanders, a socialist independent. The process allowed him to remain to the “bitter end”, draining resources, distracting from the core message, and ultimately weakening the transfer of supporters to Secretary Clinton. Meanwhile, Republicans remained with “Wall Street” vs. “Main Street” archetypes but their process was ineffective and led to over seventeen candidates. Governor Bush, the early frontrunner, secured support of party elites, raising over $10 million for his campaign and $100 million for his super PAC. The process was eventually “hijacked” by multiple outsiders and Bush’s support dropped from 17% in mid-July 2015 to less than 6% in February 2016 when he conceded. The multitude of Republican candidates split the core-voting bloc, enabling one of the weaker, fringe candidates to secure the nomination. Moving forward, both parties’ candidate vetting and nomination process will actively force out weak candidates earlier while better identifying and supporting electable ones.
More viable candidates will still fail to win unless enabled by the “right” party platform. Historically, candidates used the platform to develop their vision, galvanize the base, and sway undecided voters. In 2016, the platforms didn’t align to changing U.S. demographics, confusing and alienating many voters. An examination of voter profiles by party, highlights the difficultly of winning a majority through a “narrow” vision. Platforms must appeal to an increasingly heterogeneous voter base. For example, Democrats stood for tuition-free college, tribal nation empowerment, and making GE pay for the Hudson restoration. Republicans fared no better with their plethora of candidates promoting varying and sometimes contradictory positions on immigration, taxation, healthcare, and the military. Moving forward, platforms will be developed to appeal to a diverse set of values by strictly focusing on core principles to capture fragmented voting blocs.
Finally, underlying demographic and psychographic changes coupled with a pragmatic “need to win” will increase both interparty and intraparty polarization. Each party’s core values have steadily moved apart over the past several decades. Moreover, party ideologies will continue to polarize as they become increasingly central to individual voter identities. For example in 1960, only 5% of Americans would care if their child married a supporter of a different party. In 2010, a third of Democrats and half of Republicans would be troubled. Party affiliation is increasingly becoming part of an individual’s identity and creating voter fault lines. This polarization is driving divisive rhetoric and giving rise to fringe elements within both parties. In order to secure the base, parties will increasingly appeal to emotions and attitudes rather than facts and policies. This will lead to further intraparty polarization and sub-party coalitions such as Occupy Socialists and the Tea Party. Polarization between and within parties will increase.
This election cycle has been a “tipping point” reflecting several, long-term underlying trends, which will impact the process, platform, and polarization in the coming decades. Both parties have opportunities for improvement, but options are limited: 1) Stay the Course, 2) Tactically Refine or 3) Self-examine and Reform. Reform is the only real option to address the challenges that American political party system faces. Anything can happen, but that doesn’t mean anything will happen. The two party political system will remain, and elections will turn on the fundamentals of voter context and candidate ideologies.