Predicting the Unpredictable: Poppy MacDonald ’97 and Assistant Professor of Politics Vanessa Tyson on the 2016 election


For the Election Issue, we asked Capitol Hill insider Poppy MacDonald ’97 and Scripps Assistant Professor of Politics Vanessa Tyson to share some of their observations about the recent election cycle. Photojournalist Ilana Panich-Linsman ’06 contributed images from her coverage of the election for The New York Times.

MacDonald is the president of POLITICO USA, a nonpartisan political journalism organization that provides in-depth coverage of the White House, Congress, politics, and policy. Previously she was president and publisher of the National Journal, a nonpartisan media company in Washington, D.C., covering U.S. politics and policy for more than 50 years. Tyson is the author of Twists of Fate: Multiracial Coalitions and Minority Representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, which was published in August by Oxford University Press. The book examines how representatives’ strategic coalition building has benefited the marginalized communities they represent.

Poppy MacDonald ’97: We’re in the midst of a historic and wildly unpredictable election, and we’d be hard-pressed to identify anyone who accurately forecasted the results we’ve experienced or the behavior of the American voting public. In an election cycle that has been bursting with surprises, what aspect has surprised you most?

Vanessa Tyson: I’ve been very caught off guard by the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Party presidential nominee. To be honest, I was shocked he even won a primary. I think about the candidates who came before him, particularly Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney. Both had tremendous experience in crafting public policy and saw themselves as public servants. Trump seems to hold certain groups in disdain, particularly persons of Muslim faith, persons from Mexico, and women. I find his approach to these groups unsettling and counterproductive to the goal of good government.


On the other hand, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by millennials, who fervently support public policies that would prevent debt, alleviate poverty, protect the environment, and grow the middle class. Their willingness to carefully assess the presidential candidates and make concrete decisions about the direction U.S. politics should take encourages me. When I was in college in the 1990s, many of my classmates seemed apathetic about public policy. I’m incredibly enthused by the students in Claremont, who are both politically aware and passionate about improving the conditions of society, especially for the most downtrodden among us.

PM: Trump’s ascendancy certainly took Washington, D.C., pundits by surprise, as the American people reminded everyone who ultimately controls the reins. Given that public opinion for over a decade has shown a majority of Americans feel the country is off on the wrong track and trust in government is at an all time low, the rise of a true outsider candidate should have been predicted. This contributed not only to the rise of Trump, but also the success of another surprise candidate— Bernie Sanders—who made a competitive run in the Democratic primary up until the end.

What has most surprised me is the lack of excitement around the first female major party nominee for president. In her endorsement of Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey described it this way: “There is no ceiling, that ceiling just went boom!” For me, it has felt much more like a slow chiseling away of the glass ceiling. If you compare it to the enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s candidacy, the prospect of our first female president doesn’t seem to have engaged the electorate in the same way as with our first black president.

What factors do you think play a role in the lackluster enthusiasm: Is it a millennial generation that no longer recognizes a glass ceiling for women? Or is it the unprecedented unpopularity ratings of Clinton (and Trump)? Or would history tell us that glass ceilings are slowly chiseled away by women, not broken in one fell swoop?

VT: Millennials definitely recognize the glass ceiling for women, but they remain every bit as concerned about lifting the floor. That is, their skeptical approach to Clinton seems to stem from a more class based analysis of privilege both in the U.S. and abroad, and improving the conditions of a global society, which may require upsetting more privileged elites. They gravitate toward—and want to vote for— candidates they believe will offer the most substantive support to women and families living at or below the poverty line.


And yes, history has shown the glass ceiling is slowly chiseled away by women and people of color. I have to imagine that in many ways the presence in the 1980s of Jesse Jackson, Sr., Geraldine Ferraro, and Pat Schroeder made dents and cracks for candidates like Obama and Clinton. But another dynamic is that many individuals evolve— and that includes the voting public. Voting for a woman or a racial minority (or both) has become a nonissue for many Americans, particularly younger generations. Meanwhile, the number of women and minorities—and members of numerous groups historically excluded from the political process, such as the LGBTQ community—running as candidates has increased substantially.

That said, Obama ran a campaign based on hope and change, which invigorated young voters and older cynics alike in 2008. He argued for a politics that could rise above partisan acrimony. He addressed issues like the environment and race and offered tremendous authenticity in his speaking engagements. Clinton faces circumstantial hurdles that Obama never faced—coming from the incumbent party, she almost inevitably represents the status quo, but also her resounding support for her husband’s policy agenda back in the 1990s means that she is held accountable for the adverse consequences of such policies as the crime bill and welfare reform. The electorate, particularly the Democratic base, has shifted significantly in the last 20 years to a more progressive median, and Clinton seemingly lacks ease convincing Democratic voters across the country that her decisions will reflect their priorities.

PM: In your recent book, Twists of Fate, you explore how some members of Congress have exercised power by forming multiracial coalitions as a strategy to provide for their diverse constituencies. Is this a model for the larger Congress, or is it unique to members who share common traits based on representing communities of color? Do you see these members continuing to be successful advocates for their constituents no matter who ends up in the White House—and controls Congress—in 2017?

VT: In my book, I argue that members of Congress from and representing racial minority communities do indeed have tremendous incentive to work together. Their constituents have suffered indisputable resource deprivation and desperately need their assistance. Members of the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American Caucuses witness the marginalization of the districts and communities they represent. These lawmakers also experience personal marginalization during the process of policy formulation on the Hill.

Their binding force is firmly rooted in a perception of a linked political fate—a term I introduce in the book—where members from and representing communities of color believe that the political fates of the social groups they are most closely tied to are inextricably linked to the fates of other racial minority groups. As such, they’ve built a multiracial coalition to better advocate for the unique needs of all racial minorities. What’s more, the advocacy of their coalition extends beyond traditional civil rights issues to a much wider anti-discrimination agenda and more salient support for social welfare measures.

As to whether this coalition will continue to successfully advocate for their constituents, well, that remains to be seen. They were infinitely more successful—if you measure success by the number of bills signed into law— during the first two years of Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled the Senate, the House, and the presidency, than they have been from 2011 to the present. Regardless, they now offer their constituents greater voice in the process. They may not win the legislative battles, but with more than 75 members in the House of Representatives, they almost always have a voice in the room during committee hearings, markups, and in conference.

PM: Hearing more about the thesis of your book, that members of Congress representing diverse racial communities have incentive to work together because of their shared challenges, I wonder how you view Black Lives Matter. Do you think this grassroots organization focused on equality will evolve into a broader movement representing all minority communities who have suffered discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and gender? Will shared challenges also bring people together at the grassroots level to impact change, similar to the coalitions that formed in Congress?

It has been fascinating to see the significant impact of Black Lives Matter; what began as a protest over the killing of an unarmed black teenager three years ago has evolved into a political force demanding national reforms to address a broad range of perceived injustices. And their efforts are having an impact at the highest levels. Black Lives Matter has organized to influence the presidential elections, and the movement is credited for reforms proposed by Hillary Clinton for a “new” New Deal for communities of color that includes criminal-justice reform, requiring body cameras for all police officers, and strengthening federal authority to review alleged police misconduct. The movement has also begun to inspire change at the grassroots level that goes well beyond police violence, advocating for equality in education, raising the minimum wage, and addressing racism on college campuses.

You teach a course at Scripps, Black Americans and the Political System. Some pollsters predict that black voter turnout will be depressed in comparison to Obama’s two elections. Given some of the recent tragedies involving both black citizens and police officers, do you see this being a rallying cry that motivates black voters in a similar way to having the first black nominee for president? How do you see black voter turnout—whether higher or lower—impacting the election outcome?

VT: I don’t think the Black Lives Matter movement needs to evolve in that fashion. People of all races are already welcome to join the Black Lives Matter movement, and many persons of Latino and Asian descent actively participate in BLM activities. But the main focus of the movement is on the systematic targeting of black lives and the history of state violence against black bodies. A group that focuses on a particular issue or set of issues does not need to broaden their focus, though it’s safe to say that members of the BLM movement are sufficiently aware of the myriad ways that other groups have suffered. An analogy you could use is cancer—I tend to focus my energies on breast cancer because many of my loved ones are survivors. While I strongly support research on all types of cancer, breast cancer is the type that has had the greatest impact on my family, friends, and loved ones in general, and so my focus is more specific.

In forming the Congressional Tri-Caucus on Capitol Hill, the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American Caucuses didn’t cease to exist. They decided to work together and coalesce around their common understanding and experience. That reflects the kind of solidarity politics that I’d like to see among Black Lives Matter and other grassroots organizations that champion social justice in the U.S. and around the globe.

The entire 2016 election cycle has been odd—very odd— which makes the results in November difficult to predict. Black voter turnout in 2008 and 2012 was extremely high, with strong support for Obama. I suspect that black turnout will remain well above average for Clinton, in that she has solid support from black elected officials, and elites play a significant role in turning out voters on Election Day. That said, her unfavorable ratings (among all voters) are notably high, which could signal lower turnout overall. In all, black voters may have a more measurable impact down ballot, particularly in U.S. Senate races in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. If black voters turn out at the same levels as they have in the past two presidential elections, the Democrats could take back the Senate.

PM: An odd—or very odd—election cycle is perhaps the best way to summarize 2016. A few historic firsts in this election include: Two of the four final candidates for the nomination of the two major political parties were arguably not a Republican or Democrat. The nominees from both parties have unprecedented unfavorability ratings. A foreign country is presumed to have aimed its counter intelligence operation at influencing the election. The Republican nominee, Trump, is challenging conventional wisdom that leading with a positive message for the future is the only way to win an election; his campaign also challenges assumptions about the importance of money and voter analytics in winning elections, instead leveraging earned media and social media. And, finally, because it remains a very big deal in my view, a woman is a major party presidential nominee.

I’m fascinated to see how this election impacts the traditional two party system and the makeup of Congress and the White House in 2017. In what has felt like a stagnant, partisan environment for too long in Washington, one can only hope this very odd and often negative election leads to positive change.


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