5 Questions: Political Scientist Gregory Wawro on Electoral Politics

October 05, 2016
Gregory Wawro Political Science Professor

Gregory Wawro specializes in explaining the intricacies of politics and government. As a professor of political science, he studies Congress, campaign finance, political economy and judicial politics. He has written an award-winning book on the use of the Senate filibuster and the effects of legislative rule changes.

As he looks at the 2016 election, he sees a number of unprecedented developments. This is a year when Republicans should have had a much easier time regaining the presidency, as it is rare for a party that holds the White House for two terms to keep it for a third.

If Clinton wins, the coattails sweeping other Democrats into office might be based less on voter enthusiasm for her than voters wanting to refuse Trump the presidency, he says. “This year is different in so many ways.”

Q. It is unusual for a two-term president to be succeeded by another of the same party. Will that pattern hold in 2016?

A. If Trump had not evoked such a strong negative response from so much of the electorate, I believe that the standard fatigue that we see after a party controls the White House for two terms would be the driving result of the election. Republicans would have taken back the presidency with relative ease.

Q. Do either of the candidates have coattails that could be a factor in the current presidential election?

A. In the summer, polls suggested that Hillary Clinton would win such a sweeping victory that there would be significant gains for the Democrats in down-ballot races, leading to big gains for the party in Congress. For a variety of reasons, those polls were not reliable. Now that the race has tightened, it is not clear that there will be a significant coattail effect. If there is and Clinton wins, it will not be because she is an immensely popular figure who has swept fellow Democrats into office, which is what we usually think is the source of coattails. I think it will be because voters who tend to vote Democrat turned out in large numbers to reject Trump.

Q. Can the GOP keep control of the House and Senate?

A. Political geography favors them keeping the House. As for the Senate, Democrats have, thus far, underperformed in the races where they should have taken back seats without much difficulty. A lot depends on whether the election breaks strongly in favor of Trump or Clinton. If Trump performs about the same as recent GOP candidates, I see his party keeping the House and the Senate. If he does much worse, Democrats will likely win a majority in the Senate and it may be enough to swing the House for them, too. It is highly unlikely, though, that Democrats will get a working majority in the Senate, which these days means at least 60 seats.

Q. Do you see any respite from the legislative obstruction that has stymied Congressional action?

A. It is difficult to see, given that legislative obstruction has evolved over the past several decades as a result of the deepening polarization between the parties, how this could be easily turned around. The only short-term solution that I see is for one party to invoke the nuclear option on legislation—an end-run that changes the rules of the Senate to require a simple majority instead of 60 votes to pass a billsomething I now think is inevitable without a dramatic reversal in the trend of polarization and obstruction.

Q. What precedent is set when senators refuse to set hearings for the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland?

A. Going forward, it is unlikely that any president will be able to get a Supreme Court nominee confirmed in an election year if the Senate is controlled by the opposite party. Democrats will likely do the same thing if a similar situation occurs, given the tit-for-tat way these conflicts have played out recently. This will probably also extend to lower court nominees. There is usually a slowdown of confirmation of nominees in an election year, but I think it is likely we could see confirmation attempts come to a complete standstill in the future.

—Interviewed by Gary Shapiro