Just days removed from the presidential election, an esteemed panel of political experts variously characterized the current race for the White House as "crazy," "unbelievable," "unpredictable," "insane," "bizarre," "strange," "weird," and "a dumpster fire."
It also was described as very rare, a once-in-a-generation realigning of not only the American electorate, but also the American electoral process.
More than 500 alumni, parents, friends and extended members of the Franklin & Marshall College community gathered at The Pierre Hotel in New York City Nov. 3 to hear those and other reflections on the presidential campaign and its potential long-term impact on American democracy from former F&M Trustee Stan Brand '70, one-time general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives under former Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. He was joined on the dais by current Trustee Ken Mehlman '88, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign manager for President George W. Bush's re-election effort in 2004, and Gerald Seib P'16, Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
The "no-holds-barred" forum, the last of three hosted by F&M this fall (additional locations included Washington, D.C., and on campus) was moderated by G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs as well as the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.
Three factors — social media, money, and a sizable proportion of voters who are mad at both of the major political parties — make this year's presidential campaign unlike any other in history, agreed the group, and why elections to come may never again be "normal."
For Mehlman, widely considered to be the first to use big data on consumer attitudes to inform the strategies and tactics of a national political campaign, social media was the game changer.
"I think it's very possible that this election could be the first essentially social media election," Mehlman said. "Look at what Donald Trump accomplished. His was a strategy that was not based on traditional television ads or traditional kind of 'on-message media.' It was based, instead, on a candidate who was able to be very edgy in his messaging, which inspired people.
"The reality is, if you want to change opinions, today you change opinions by creating a movement, which involves the use of social media. It's why, in the Republican primaries, Donald Trump's 140 characters were more powerful than Jeb Bush's $140 million."
Picking up on the money cue, Brand said one somewhat unexpected outcome of this year's presidential campaign — with potentially profound implications for the future — is that "it puts the lie to the idea that money is outcome determinant in elections."
"For all the concern about Citizens United and, 'Oh, the sky is falling. What are we going to do about all the money?' I can tell you spending is actually down; it's actually gone back,” Brand said. “The myth and the narrative that Bernie Sanders and others have sold is that money is controlling the political system and 'You don't have the money.'
"In this election, Donald Trump got $2 billion of free media, and Bernie Sanders outraised Hillary Clinton with $28 contributions by $40 million in January, and $40 million in February, and $40 million in March. And so, the aspect that money drives what happens in the election is clearly not the case, if it ever was."
From his seat inside the Washington Beltway, meanwhile, Seib shared his view that public frustration with the system of government is the pervasive influence in this year's election.
"Today, the electorate is unhappy and angry about just about everything. That's the backdrop of the election and why I think it looks the way it looks," he said. "I think people are looking at this [economy] and saying, 'I've been working hard for nine years and I'm going backward,' and they're right. And one of the big reasons they're unhappy is because they don't believe the institutions [of government and finance] are working for them. And they're not. Washington is gridlocked."
In the end, none of the forum participants offered an opinion on who they believe will win the presidency. However, Mehlman did suggest what he believes will be the deciding factors.
"Turnout is always key. Although this year it's about not just how many, but who shows up," he said. "Hispanic turnout is going to be critically important. But in my view, white college-educated women are going to determine this election."