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2016 Election Observer: Joshua Kaplan

| Thursday, February 18, 2016

Editor’s Note: Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, The Observer will sit down with Notre Dame experts to break down the election and its importance to students. In this fifth installment, News writer Rachel O’Grady asks Professor of Political Science and Director of Undergraduate Studies Joshua Kaplan about the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the upcoming South Carolina primary. 

Rachel O’Grady: The death of Justice Scalia is a major political point of contention now. What does this mean for Obama and his legacy? Does it have any implications on the election?

Joshua Kaplan: This is a very significant development. The selection of a new justice has the potential to change the balance of a Court. As a result, the stakes are very high for both parties, as well as for interest groups. In the short term, I believe it will especially energize Clinton’s supporters and perhaps Cruz’s supporters on the Republican side the most because those voters are more likely to see a direct connection between the issues they care about most and the decisions the Court makes. But it may encourage votes to go with the most electable candidate. This appointment will also test the limits of the strategy in Congress that has meant denying President Obama victories whenever possible.

It remains to be seen whether there will be pushback from that strategy. In particular, we will see how this plays out for the Republican Senators up for reelection this year in states such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire. It is unlikely to be an issue that changes the balance in the Senate, but it could have ramifications beyond the presidential election. It also has the potential to further politicize the Supreme Court, an institution that likes to think of itself as different from the political branches, and possibly damage its credibility if people see it as no different from the political branches.

ROG: The South Carolina Primaries are this Saturday. What should we be looking for? Can Sanders pull off another win?

JK: A Sanders victory in South Carolina, regarded as part of Clinton’s “firewall,” would indicate real trouble with her campaign, since South Carolina plays to her strengths. But the primary process is a long way from over.

ROG: Michael Bloomberg has expressed a degree of interest in running as an independent. What does that mean for the election as a whole, and who or which party does he hurt more by running?

JK: It is hard for me to imagine a mainstream Democrat so unhappy with Sanders, or so unenthusiastic about Clinton, that they would bolt the party for Bloomberg. Would moderate Republicans would find their nominee — whether it’s Trump or Cruz — to be so unacceptable that they would bolt the party and vote for Bloomberg? There is certainly a potential split within the party, but the more likely pattern would be for conservative voters to reject a moderate nominee. We have seen libertarian candidates draw support from Republican candidates, and we remember Ralph Nader in 2000. But I do not think we are at the point yet when moderate Republicans or Democrats are ready to leave their party. What normally happens in such situations is that voters [who are] unenthusiastic about their party’s nominee just don’t vote. It is clear that many voters are looking for someone different, but I don’t think that Bloomberg is the person they have in mind.

ROG: In your research and opinion, what do you think will be the most important issue in the general election?

JK: This is more complicated than it seems. The economy is the number one issue, but it is today not an issue where the positions break evenly along party lines, and voters are not making decisions simply on the basis of of their policy preferences or the positions of the candidates on particular issues. The same would be true for national security. I don’t think voters have much confidence that either party can simply fix these threats to our well-being, which is why they are looking for alternatives. But in the end, elections are not necessarily driven by issues in a straightforward way. Rather voters see issues through lenses that are colored by a variety of other factors.

ROG: Taking it back to college campuses, particularly here at Notre Dame, primaries in many of our home states are coming up. What is something we, as college students, should be paying particular attention to?

JK: Think about what you regard as the main problems in the world today. Is your member of Congress or Senator, or the presidential candidate you are thinking about supporting, part of the problem or part of the solution? Think about what you look for in a candidate and why you consider those things to be the most important. Go beyond the labels and clichés. All candidates say they want to improve the economy and make us safer. How will they do that? Do you believe that will work? What things are best done by individual decisions as to how we want to live our lives? What things go beyond our individual decisions and are most effectively handled at the policy level? What would you like the future to look like? What combination of individual actions and government policies will help make that happen?

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About Rachel O'Grady

Rachel O'Grady is a senior Political Science major living in Ryan Hall and is currently serving as an Assistant Managing Editor. Hailing from Chicago (actual Chicago, not the suburbs) she's been a Cubs fan since birth.

Contact Rachel