Jim Campbell, one of the nation’s foremost political scientists, kicked off his Presidential Campaigns course at the University at Buffalo’s Talbert Hall a few days ago in the usual way.
His opening remarks resurrected memories of long-ago first classes as he outlined the syllabus and required books, explained determination of grades and imposed the dreaded “no cut” policy.
“Do not plan to be anywhere else when this class is scheduled,” Campbell warned.
But that’s where similarities to this class and all others end. This 2016 election year already starkly contrasts with all the others Campbell’s class will study – dating to the 1896 matchup between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan.
“It’s an amazing year,” Campbell said after dismissing his 49 students, “if just for Donald Trump alone. He certainly has thrown a big monkey wrench into the whole thing. And I don’t know how it will be resolved.”
That’s because all the polls, policy papers, pundits and prophets lumped together struggle to explain how the blustery billionaire has shot past every “establishment” Republican. Now, even “experts” concede Trump might actually pull this off.
Indeed, the RealClearPolitics website average of recent polls (a recommended resource on the first day of Presidential Campaigns) reports Trump leading his nearest GOP rival – Sen. Ted Cruz – 36 to 19 percent nationally. As he heads into the crucial Iowa caucuses on Monday evening, Trump stands to further dominate the field in coming weeks – especially if he wins there.
On the first day of his course, Campbell was already hinting at Trump’s context in past elections. Non-pol Wendell Wilkie, after all, also rose from the business world in 1936 to challenge FDR (and got creamed).
More stats: This year’s “open election” featuring no incumbent occurred in 10 of the last 30 since 1896. Of those, the “in” party won four and lost six.
“Pretty close to 50-50,” Campbell said, noting no real conclusions are drawn from that one.
He asked his young charges to recall the 2012 presidential election, in which Barack Obama ran like most incumbents – still as an “agent of change.” The incumbent continued to blame George W. Bush for all of the nation’s economic problems, and voters seemed to agree.
Then Campbell analyzed polling trend lines. The graphs show Trump leading, Cruz not far behind and Sen. Marco Rubio third – very much in the hunt.
“The Cruz line was ahead of Trump a few weeks ago,” Campbell noted, “but that has dropped since Trump raised the idea of whether Cruz is qualified by birth for the presidency.”
There’s a presidential issue rarely raised since 1896. But it’s working for Trump.
“Ben Carson seems to be fading away,” he said as he examined the graph’s Carson line and his class snickered over the cardiologist and his brief flash in the polls.
Campbell, whose research on the impact of presidential swing voters was highlighted in a recent National Review article, also asked his group to weigh in on 2016. Thirty-four of his 49 students said they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. For the 22 who consider themselves Republican, 15 listed Rubio as their first or second choice, followed by Cruz at 12. Trump claimed only three votes.
And oh, yes, there’s a Democratic primary, too. Of the 23 Democrats (a few were independents), UB students reflect Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ability to attract young voters. Sixteen prefer him, while five like Hillary Clinton and two Martin O’Malley.
But when Campbell asked who they believed would win their parties’ nominations, reality set in. Twenty-one said Trump was inevitable, followed by 17 for Cruz. For the Dems, 33 for Clinton and 15 for Sanders.
Campbell’s class also predicted Clinton will be the nation’s next president. Twenty-two said she will win it all; next was Sanders with 12. Trump got four.
Campbell’s course kicks off at a most opportune time with most interesting people: Trump, Clinton, Cruz, Sanders, Rubio and the rest.
In this year and with this prof, who would even think of cutting class?