The Amazing Race

Legendary political scientist Sam Popkin weighs in on the state of the campaign

Sam Popkin - UC San Diego professor of political science Sam Popkin is a veteran of several presidential campaigns. The UC San Diego political science professor has been a consultant to Democratic presidential candidates, CBS News for polling, political parties in Canada and Europe, and the U.S. Departments of State and Defense. He is a regular contributor to major newspapers nationwide as well as the author of The Reasoning Voter and, most recently, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House. This interview was conducted in late July, after balloons had dropped on both the Republican and Democratic national  conventions.

The election is historic in many obvious ways, but are there other ways you consider it historic, too?
There are a few. I’m laughing at the fact that a Jew almost won the Democratic nomination and that’s not even considered a story anymore. That tells you something about how far the country has come for Irish, Italians, African Americans and Jews. So the fact that it’s hardly worth discussing that somebody who is a New Yorker and a Jew could come close to a nomination is important.

I think that 50 years from now, this election will be remembered as much for the implosion of the Republican Party as for the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, whether she wins or loses.

Is the “implosion of the Republican Party” going to stick, or do you think this is a blip?
I would bet any amount that the Republican Party is here for a very long time; it is very hard to kill a party in America. But what happens to the party—what direction it takes, where it goes—is entirely up for grabs. We’ve never had a situation with such diffuse control of a political party. It will be at least eight years, whether Donald Trump wins or loses, before the party knows where it stands and whether the internal crisis is over.

Is the Democratic Party falling apart right now, too, or just the Republican?
No. Right now, and I stress right now, the Democratic Party is the party that wants government to work. A lot of people in the Republican Party—not all, but enough—are much happier when people don’t trust government and don’t want government to work efficiently. The Democratic Party has a certain number of core commitments to goals that require a viable federal government that can do its job. People who want to limit pollution, develop cleaner energy and improve education need an effective, popular government.  People who don’t want more regulation, or taxes for public programs they don’t need or believe in, would prefer lower levels of trust and fewer programs.

In talking with The Wall Street Journal, you gave Donald Trump a 1 in 6 chance of winning. Would you still give the same odds post-conventions?
I said 1 in 6 because when people would say to me “Oh! So I don’t have to worry! It’s 1 in 6,” I could say to them, “1 in 6 is the same odds as Russian roulette. If you’re not worried about Donald Trump, then you shouldn’t worry about playing Russian roulette either.” I think it’s a little better than 1 in 6; Donald Trump probably has more like a 1 in 3 chance.  At least 40 percent of the country is uncomfortable with immigration, fearful that expanding the safety net threatens their Medicare and believes cutting foreign trade and immigration might increase their job opportunities.

What does Trump need to do to win?
I don’t think Donald Trump can change anything. He very much seems locked in. I know from my research that his key strategist stopped writing memos for him years ago because he doesn’t read anything. He watches a little TV and then, as he says, literally talks with himself. He can change his tone but is unlikely to develop more detailed policies.

And it’s interesting: if you look at all his talk about “they’re making fools of us”… He ran the same exact ads in 1987 against Ronald Reagan. This has been a constant line of his for 30 years now. He doesn’t change. He changed talking about Japan to talking about China, but it’s the same lines.

Let’s switch to the other candidate: What does Clinton need to do to win?
Secretary Clinton, to win, has to give people enough exposure to her talking about the many things you do as president, to get them comfortable with her. I mean, this is an extraordinary, unusual race: 48 percent of people in the country say they would never consider voting for Hillary Clinton. 57 percent of people in America say they would never consider voting for Donald Trump. So she has a ceiling of 52 percent; he has a ceiling of about 43.

The extraordinary thing this year is not just that somebody like Donald Trump got a lot of support, but that the person who came in second was the most despised, disliked senator in, probably, a century in the American Senate: Senator Cruz. It’s stunning when you look at what Republican leaders said about him. These are comments you usually hear on late-night comedy shows about a party, or from the other party in a fundraiser, not from distinguished leaders.

I think we’ve been hearing a lot of things in this election we haven’t heard before. Is the level of vitriol and anger, or populism—or some combination of any of those—new? 
The vitriol and the anger come and go. What’s new is the lack of anything but bile from one of the winning candidates. Donald Trump has never discussed details of any policies; it’s always been “I’m great and I can do it.” I’ve never been in a campaign where there wasn’t a little bit more content, not necessarily long policy proposals, but at least some familiarity with the details.

People wrongly thought Ronald Reagan wasn’t very smart or didn’t know a lot. I knew better. He was a very effective governor. When he was governor, he sat down with former Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz for lunch in Sacramento. He grilled Shultz for hours about the federal budget, and Shultz was impressed by his detailed questions. In one of the debates, Donald Trump did not know what the nuclear triad was, and I don’t think he understands what NATO was doing in the Middle East. Now, it clearly doesn’t matter to a lot of people, but I’m still surprised, whether he wins or loses, that he got so far without expanding his plans.

Do you think being light on content is predictive of the future? Is this what we have to look forward to in the campaigns of 2020 and beyond?
I very much doubt that. Donald Trump got this far because he broke the logjams inside the Republican Party. His insults, racially charged exaggerations and factually challenged statements were all criticized. But no one called him on a major part of his appeal to voters who feel threatened—strengthening Medicare and Social Security.  Now that the logjam has been broken, Republican leaders are realizing that they have ignored many of the problems of their less affluent voters. They either address them by accepting the role of the government in strengthening the safety net, or the Democrats could win many of them back.