Commentary: Amidst a Reality TV Campaign, Here are the Presidential Election's Fundamentals

Aug 24, 2016

Have you noticed one of the side effects of reality TV?  I guess people actually watch “Naked and Afraid” and “My 600-pound Self”.  I only know about these shows because I surf past them on the way to professional cage fighting and Real Housewives of Las Vegas.  Just kidding about cage fighting.  But seriously, this programming makes voyeurs out of normal people, but more importantly, causes them to think differently about their social and political worlds.

Take for example the Olympics.  What’s the first thing that comes to mind?  Simon Biles?  Michael Phelps?  Usain Bolt?  No, it’s probably Hope Solo’s big mouth or more likely the USA swimmers who got drunk, trashed a store and tried to cover it up.

We love bizarreness.  We love train wrecks.  We can’t look away.

This explains part of the fascination with Donald Trump.  His behavior is bizarre.  His campaign is a train wreck.  We can’t look away.  And he is, and his campaign is, so different, so unconventional, that millions of Americans have voted for him and will do so again or for the first time in November, not in spite of the bizarreness but because of it.  Donald Trump hosted a staged reality show on TV called, “The Apprentice,” and now he is hosting a real reality show called a presidential campaign.

But nothing he does, and nothing his opponent Hillary Clinton does, alter the fundamentals of this election.  There are at least five fundamentals.

First, someone has to win 270 Electoral Votes to become the next president and, according to the Constitution, this has to be done one state at a time.

Second, in order to get this done a candidate must have a strong national campaign organization.  As of late August, only Clinton has this.

Third, in order to get this done a candidate must raise hundreds of millions of dollars and have a plan to spend it.  As of late August, only Clinton has done this.

Fourth, there will be an October Surprise, which this year may come in September.  We’ve seen most of Trump’s dirty laundry, especially if he continues to refuse to release his tax returns.  It’s far from certain that we’ve seen all of Clinton’s dirty laundry.

Finally, the presidential race is important, but so are the races for the Senate and House.  Even state races are critical.  People elected to state executive and legislative offices populate the farm teams of the parties.

What’s different this year is that a lot of the money that would ordinarily go to a Republican presidential candidate is going to congressional and state Republican candidates.  If Trump gets blown out in the presidential race, the GOP will have a bad day all the way down the ballot, but they’ll do well enough.  As with Mark Twain, reports of the Republican Party’s demise are exaggerated.

In other words, the 2016 election may turn out about as traditional fundamentals would dictate, and next year all the current bizarreness will seem like a weird dream.  In the meantime on my TV I’ll stick with the Weather Channel and Cardinals baseball.

Dr. Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College, and a regular commentator for KBIA’s Talking Politics