1/18/2018 Peter Durantine

Medvic: Key Lesson in 2016 Election was Negative Partisanship

In fall 2016, Franklin & Marshall College Professor Stephen Medvic delivered an analysis of the pending presidential election that left his audience, like most people in America, thinking that Democrat Hilary Clinton would defeat Republican Donald Trump.

The outcome, of course, was just the opposite, and on Jan. 18, the Honorable & Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government appeared again to discuss, “Lessons from the 2016 Election: What We Got Right, What We Got Wrong, and What It Means for 2018 and Beyond.”

“Probably the last thing you want to do is go back to the last election,” Medvic told an audience at Common Hour, the community conversation conducted every Thursday classes are in session.

  • "I don't know if we fully understand the real power of negative partisanship," Medvic says. "I don't know if we fully understand the real power of negative partisanship," Medvic says. Image Credit: Deb Grove

To many in the audience who were stunned at the turn of events that election night, Medvic offered an understanding of how the election transpired and why an entirely unconventional candidate managed to win the White House.

“While I think I urged the proper amount of caution, I was also fairly confident that Hilary Clinton would win,” Medvic said, referring to his 2016 Common Hour address. “So, I have some explaining to do.”

Medvic said that at first, the election results appeared to rebuke his profession as an election scholar, but months following the election he recognized the analysts and pollsters were not completely wrong.

“One obvious way we didn’t get it wrong is that Clinton won the popular vote,” he said. “Our understanding of the way elections operate is based on national factors including the collective behavior of the national electorate.”

The 2016 election was only the fourth time in American history that the Electoral College winner lost the popular vote. “It also happened in 1876, 1888, and 2000,” Medvic said. It happens rarely, but the professor acknowledged when he spoke about Clinton likely winning in 2016, he should have been expressing it “in terms of the popular vote.”

“And it was close,” he said. “Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 points and Trump won the Electoral College and the presidency by a difference of about 78,000 votes in three states.”

Medvic went through charts of surveys done during the election that showed Republican voters were more engaged and more enthusiastic about their candidate. He said historical data show when a party attempts a third term in the White House, as the Democrats did in 2016, their electoral chances diminish.

One factor appears to explain why Republicans voted for Trump, an unorthodox Republican, and why the country remains divided today – negative partisanship, the view of the other party, a phenomenon that scholars know has increased over the years, he said.

“I don’t know if we fully understand the real power of negative partisanship,” Medvic said.

He cited a study that found over the last generation, people’s view of their own party remains the same, about 75 percent. “But their views of the other party have declined pretty dramatically, in fact, they’ve dropped more than 20 points since 1980,” Medvic said.

As such, identity politics – identifying with one party and groups within that party – has become more important to voters in both parties, he said.

“The alignment of parties and identities with other social identities means that all politics are identity politics,” Medvic said. “What’s happening in American politics today can be summarized by negative partisanship – it’s driving the behavior of Congress [and] it’s driving the behavior of voters.”

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