There’s a lot of speculation these days that many Democratic opponents of Hillary Clinton and Republican opponents of Trump will refuse to support these two candidates should they be nominated. The prospect of such abandonment of the victors in intramural party squabbles has arisen in hotly contested primary seasons in the past, though it perhaps seems more dismal this time.
Supporters of Sanders, for example, seem to be very much opposed to the option they see in Clinton as the conventional, less idealistic, more compromising, and, in their view, the tainted candidate. This seems as serious a disdain for the more established Democratic candidate as any I can recall perhaps since Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy were challenging Lyndon Johnson and then Hubert Humphrey in the midst of the Vietnam war.
On the Republican side, I can’t recall either knowing or studying a contest in which the establishment has been as distant from the leading candidates as it is in this cycle. Both Cruz and Trump are as much “outsiders” as we’ve seen in some time or ever. Indeed there are activists in the media, leaders among various groups in the party, and other opinion leaders who have insisted they will “never” support one or the other of these two, especially Trump, in the general election. There may indeed be greater distance between one or both of these candidates and others in the party in position, posture, and approach than we have ever seen.
Yet, I want to suggest the hypothesis that a vast majority of party-loyal voters will end up voting for the nominees, even if they turn out to be Clinton or Trump. Indeed I would predict that the percent that returns will be so large it will be close to the norm.
Part of the explanation for this view is based on the serious, substantial, and virtually unmatched concern that partisans in each party have about the particular nominee on the other side. Whatever problems party loyalists might have with Clinton and Trump and however high their negatives, the country is badly divided and there are real and large differences that are likely to keep “the Hatfields and the McCoys” on their respective sides as we get closer to the general election.
I recognize how unusually nasty the primaries have been. Trump, in particular, has treated his opponents and their interests as nastily as I have ever seen or studied. Many of the offended folks will likely sit on the sidelines. Some just can’t see supporting Trump because of his manner, his speech, and his disposition. But, for reasons mentioned above and the cardinal one I will address below, I don’t foresee unusually high numbers engaging in abandonment of the nominees.
It really comes down principally to the Supreme Court, where so many issues of great import are resolved these days, especially in the age where divided government holds action on most big issues in check. Whether it’s the 2nd Amendment, or abortion rights, or affirmative action/merit, or federal/state authority, or labor/management authority, and so forth and so on, the Court is where decisions on so many crucial matters will be made.
With Scalia’s death, there are four very reliable liberal votes (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan). There are three fairly reliable conservatives (Thomas, Alito, and Roberts). There is the moderately conservative Kennedy who was often a tie-breaker when Scalia was alive, and there is an open seat created with Scalia’s death.
Assuming there is no action on Obama’s nominee, the next President will have huge power over the course of our nation simply in filling the vacancy that exists. If Clinton wins and pushes a new, perhaps more liberal nominee, the Court could have a solid liberal majority for the first time in some time and for some into the future. This would be perhaps the biggest difference maker for liberals in recent history. If Trump wins, the Court would, assuming he nominates someone of the sort he’s suggested, return to the nominally conservative position in the status quo ante Scalia’s death. This would be dramatically better for conservatives than the Clinton scenario.
Whether the new president serves one or two terms, there will likely be new vacancies. Ginsburg is 83. Kennedy is 80. And Breyer is 77. If any of these seats opened up, Trump could conceivably replace one or more liberals and/or the moderate with reliable conservatives and turn the Court in a decidedly conservative direction. Clinton, on the other hand, could perhaps create a younger core of liberals and a solid liberal majority that could conceivably rule for the rest of the baby boomers’ lifetimes.
Recognizing, of course, all the uncertainties in the direction of the Court, including the unpredictability of openings, appointments, and changes of direction in justices as they evolve once on the Court, we still will likely see the President’s role in shaping the future of the Court as one of the very top issues in the campaign. It will be so significant, I predict, that Republicans in typically high numbers will return home to vote for Trump, as will Democrats, for Clinton.