As the Republican convention comes to a close this week and the Democratic convention opens Monday, we reached out to faculty across SUNY institutions to expand on our previous blog on the history of conventions and the possibility of contested conventions at the time and move on to discuss the ramifications of conventions in the current phase. Political conventions are usually calm events that bring political parties together after rough primary seasons, or when the incumbent is running for re-election, help to energize their party before the general election.
This year, however, neither major party expected the path they would have taken today. Asked a year ago if Bernie Sanders could threaten Hillary Clinton’s nomination, many would have laughed off the notion as a pure hypothetical. Across the aisle, those who said that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee were ridiculed, as Trump ran a campaign that could arguably be described as the most successful insurgency in a major party in decades.
Robert Spitzer, a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and chair of Cortland’s Political Science department, shared his thoughts on the wild 2016 election season and the primary contests with us. Cortland is one of many SUNY campuses with excellent political science programs for undergraduate students, offering courses such as “POL 332: Elections in America” and “POL 420: The American Presidency”.
“The Republican party has nominated a total outsider who has rebelled against much Republican party orthodoxy,” said Spitzer, mentioning Trump’s past opposition to free trade agreements and his brazen criticism of the American deployment to Iraq in 2003. “Donald Trump was the least favored choice of the party leaders,” he continued, “and he now is the party’s nominee and de facto leader. If he wins, his party will be importantly changed. If he loses, the party will be in the wilderness.”
Spitzer continued to contrast the two nominees, declaring Clinton as the “quintessential insider.” He continued to note that “even though her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, ran a strong campaign and did far better than most thought, she won more than 3 million more votes than Sanders in the primaries.” He also notes that her strong performance in the primary contests led to her earning the support of the vast majority of superdelegates and that factor “gave her nomination critical legitimacy.”
There is no consensus on the value of conventions, however. Phil Neisser, the Associate Dean of SUNY Potsdam’s School of Arts and Sciences, said that the conventions will be little more than “marketing extravaganzas, because the nominees have been effectively decided by the parties and the voters. Also remember,” Neisser continued, “the platforms each party creates are likely to have little to zero effect on governing when the country has a new president.”
Neisser, who is also a professor and chair of politics at Potsdam and a celebrated author on political partisanship, also predicts that the focus of the Republican convention will continue to be on Clinton and her policies. Why? “For the simple reason that many of those speakers don’t like, and don’t agree with, Trump,” says Neisser. On the Democratic convention, he noted that “Clinton, on the other hand, will probably try (and would be well advised) to show a personal side, perhaps even addressing the email thing head-on.”
One final thought from Dr. Spitzer that summarizes the campaign until now: “Can an outsider who has at best tepid support from his party beat an insider who does and will have strong and united support from her party?” We won’t know until November.
Arthur Ramsay is a student assistant with the SUNY Office of New Media. He is a BA candidate at Empire State College studying American History & Government.