Leg-Con Keynote: A Brave New Political World

Posted March 18, 2016 at 3:11 pm

TRSA members listen as Fox News political analyst Chris Stirewalt discusses political issues and the pending presidential election after giving his keynote address at TRSA's Leadership & Legislative Conference on March 16.

American politics is in uncharted territory with the 2016 election season driven by factors including communications-tech advances, declining longevity rates among low-income whites in select areas and a candidate, Donald Trump, who’s seized on these trends and scoffs at the conventional rules of political decorum.

That was the message that Fox News political analyst Chris Stirewalt shared with 100-plus attendees at TRSA’s Leadership & Legislative Conference keynote address on March 16. He spoke at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, just outside Washington DC. Stirewalt’s talk was the unofficial kickoff of the conference, a two-day event that included a record number of 70-plus TRSA members going to meetings with lawmakers in Washington DC on March 17.

TRSA Chairman Doug Waldman and Government Relations Committee Chairman P.J. Dempsey welcomed the attendees and introduced Stirewalt, a leading television commentator. Stirewalt noted that the results of the March 15 elections in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois and Missouri, has effectively sealed the Democratic nomination for Hillary Clinton. Rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a self-described “democratic socialist,” could score well or win a few more primaries. But he’ll likely continue his campaign as a “message candidate” rather than a serious contender, Stirewalt said.

Republican fortunes are far less certain, Stirewalt said. Since rival Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) has won several states, and Gov. John Kasich (OH) won one, Ohio; business owner Donald Trump is unlikely to get the 1,237 delegates he needs to the win the GOP nomination on the first ballot. That could mean that negotiations will ensue, but Stirewalt said at this point is looks as though Trump could emerge as the party’s nominee. This is a development that practically no one – including Stirewalt – would have predicted a year ago. “I have never seen anything like this,” said Stirewalt, a veteran commentator for both print and broadcast outlets.

Stirewalt credited two main trends with fueling Trump’s rise, coupled with the candidate’s own willingness to ignore conventional political rules. First, communications technology has made it easier for Trump to use Twitter feeds and other social media to keep up with supporters, who are getting a steady dose of his message. “What is wonderful about Donald Trump is that there is not a filter. He says exactly what is at the front of his mind. He says this is better than The New York Times. ‘I’ve got 2 million followers. I say bing, bing and its out.’”

Second, Stirewalt said Trump is scoring well in counties with large numbers of low-income whites with a high school education or less. Some of these voters have been left behind as blue-collar jobs have moved overseas. He cited demographic research published by a husband-and-wife team of social scientists who determined that mortality and morbidity rates were rising for this demographic group. “We’re talking about people who reject whatever the broad elite is saying,” Stirewalt said of Trump supporters. “And that’s where we are. This is a populist revolt. It is not ideological. This is not about being conservative. It’s not about being liberal. It is about the revolt.”

Stirewalt estimates that Trump has the support of about one-third of the Republican Party and perhaps 20% of Democrats who sympathize with his views, including calls for curbs on immigration and limits on trade agreements. That number may be enough for a contested convention victory, but in a general election Trump could have a difficult time achieving an electoral majority. This has Republican Party leaders and office holders – who’ve made significant gains in recent years – nervous. “If you’re at the Capitol Hill Club (a GOP establishment near the Capitol) today, the bourbons are double,” he said. “They do not know what to do. They’re going to try to figure it out.”

Democrats, for their part, see the odds tilting their way, Stirewalt said. President Barack Obama’s recent nomination of Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland for an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court is designed in part to push the GOP “over the dam” with the divisions between Trump supporters and moderate and establishmentarians in the party who oppose him.

Stirewalt conceded that if the old rules of politics no longer apply, his view of a likely victory for Clinton could be off as well. For example, if enough blue-collar voters in states like Pennsylvania move that state into the Republican presidential column, all bets are off. “We are definitely in a brave new world,” he said. “Things are definitely different today.”