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2016 Election Observer: Christina Wolbrecht

| Tuesday, April 5, 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 ninth installment, Associate News Editor Rachel O’Grady asks the director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, Christina Wolbrecht, about the role of women in politics in the 2016 election. 

Rachel O’Grady: Over our Easter break, Bernie Sanders won a number of states (Hawaii, Alaska, Washington) and is slowly chipping away at Hillary Clinton’s lead. Could Sanders pull out the nomination?

Christina Wolbrecht: ​Sanders indeed had a good Easter weekend with victories in three far western states. Sanders has done particularly well in caucus states, which reward particularly passionate supporters who are willing (and able) to wait in long lines to cast a vote for their candidate. Some have argued that momentum is on Sanders’ side, and there is no question that he has emerged as a far more popular and successful candidate for the Democratic nomination than many expected. It remains unlikely he will secure the nomination, however. ​Leaving aside the issue of superdelegates, Hillary Clinton still leads in the number of pledged delegates, and Sanders would have to secure overwhelming victories in many of the remaining states. This is a particular challenge for him as, unlike many Republican states, Democratic rules require delegates to be allocated by proportional representation. This means even in states where Sanders edges out Clinton, she still continues to pick up delegates. It remains possible for Sanders to win — and in this election, anything seems possible — but unlikely.
Whether Sanders wins the nomination or not, we can and should expect his candidacy to have had an effect on the political system. The level of support for his candidacy suggests real frustration on the left (just as we are seeing real frustration on the right) with some of the policies and practices of current Democratic politicians. Those politicians, including Hillary Clinton, have little choice but to hear that message, and strong incentives to respond to those concerns.

ROG:  Clinton has the potential to be the first female President of the United States. Seeing as your area of study focuses on women in politics, I’ll intentionally leave this question open [and] broad for you. What implications does this have on politics as a whole? Moreover, why has it taken so long to even conceive of women in the highest office in the land?

CW: ​There are many reasons why the U.S. has yet to have a female president. Politics has been traditionally viewed as a male endeavor. One of the questions the Gallup organization has asked the longest — since the 1930s — is whether citizens would vote for an “otherwise qualified” woman for president. Until the 1970s, fewer than half of American said they would — there are still voters who say they would not. Our expectations for the presidency — assertive, bold, strong, warrior — are at odds with our stereotypes about women. Women have traditionally entered politics later in life than men, usually when their children are older, leaving them less time to climb the political career ladder to the very top. Women have been dramatically under-represented — or not represented at all — in the careers that have produced presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries — generals, vice presidents, ​senators and governors — meaning that the eligible pool for possible female presidents is very small compared to the eligible pool of men. All of these factors — and more — have produced a context in which the nomination of a woman for president has been very long in coming in the U.S.
ROG: Turning to look at the GOP, it looks like the party is starting to split amongst Trump supporters and the “Never Trump” set. Could we see a real shift in the Republican party over the next year, or even few years? What does that look like?
​CW: Parties are constantly transforming in response to changed realities, electoral outcomes, and political debate. The Republican primary race has certainly been unprecedented in many ways and challenges many assumptions about the ways in which party nominations work in the U.S. However, the race is not unprecedented in the sense of revealing important divisions within the party — the same could be said of the Democrats.​ Parties throughout our history have been characterized by divisive figures and issues which split parties internally; examples include Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose break from the Republican party in 1912 over Progressivism and the Dixiecrats split from the Democratic party over civil rights in 1948. One can also think of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago or the delegates booing nominee Barry Goldwater at the Republican convention in 1964. As in all of those cases, I would expect the outcome of the 2016 primary season will be that the Republican party will change in important ways, although exactly how remains to be seen and depends in part on whether Trump actually secures the nomination.
Some would argue that Trump represents a different challenge to the Republican party than the historical cases I have mentioned, each of which was rooted in a fundamental disagreement about the ideological and policy direction of the party. I agree. Trump disrupts the Republican party in many other ways, including his unorthodox approaches to political debate and campaigning, and his expressed willingness to violate a number of democratic norms. These are issues of great importance to our political process and political community. On the question of party divisions, however, as social scientists and journalists scramble to understand the sources of Trump’s support, it is increasingly clear that his supporters tend to share priorities and a view of the world that distinguishes them from non-Trump supporters in the Republican base. In that sense, this is not so different than many other internal splits parties have faced.

ROG: Income inequality is an increasingly prevalent issue. Do any candidates provide real solutions, and more importantly, can any of them implement their policies to actually improve the current income disparity?

CW: ​Income inequality is significant in the U.S. and has attracted increasing attention during this electoral cycle. I would emphasize that income and wealth inequality have been on the rise throughout the industrialized world; what most distinguishes the U.S. is how little our public policy does to alleviate the effects of that disparity. Addressing the causes of income inequality is difficult, as they are ​rooted in broad shifts in the economy and society at national and global levels. Much of inequality is driven by stagnant wages in the lower and middle income deciles and staggering income growth for the most wealthy. What candidates can do is propose policies to alleviate the hardships and uneven opportunities that inequality causes. Such policies might range from changes in the tax code to education policy to direct social welfare benefits. I would encourage students to look closely at the sorts of very specific policy solutions the candidates are proposing to address those conditions, and to be attentive to debates about how effective those policies would really be.
ROG: Taking it back to college campuses, particularly here at ND, where the Indiana primary is fast approaching, what is something we, as college students, should be paying particular attention to?
CW: ​At Notre Dame, most students remain registered in their home states, so I hope and expect that many students have already had a chance to participate in their state’s primary via absentee ballot. One downside of a caucus system is it makes it difficult for out-of-state residents to have a say. College students should be paying attention to the issues that they feel will have the biggest impact on our country and world today and in the years to come, be that the environment or trade or income inequality or civil rights or the size of government or insert your passion here. ​I’d encourage students to learn as much as they can about the issues they care about and about the arguments each candidate is making on the issues that matter most to you. I don’t have any advice on what students should be paying attention to, but I do very much hope that our students are indeed paying close attention to this election and will become informed and effective participants in our political process.
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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.

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