Clinton-Kaine: A Not-So Surprising Ticket

Picking VA senator makes the Old Dominion bluer; plus, wrapping up the RNC


(CLEVELAND) — If someone had told us at the start of this election cycle that the Democratic presidential nominee would be Hillary Clinton, and that she would choose Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia as her running mate, we would have said that would be… very, very plausible.

Now that Clinton has tabbed Kaine as her pick in advance of the Democratic confab, it is interesting to reflect on the state of the two parties. The Democrats, often viewed historically as more chaotic and splintered, are now the more orderly and top-down of the two, with Democratic voters likelier to support their party “establishment” and prefer candidates with experience to outsiders. The only primary exit poll to ask Democrats if they felt “betrayed by Democratic politicians” was surveyed in New Hampshire, and 83% of voters said no in a state that insurgent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont won handily. The Republicans are the opposite: In fact, in almost every primary exit poll that asked the question, a majority of GOP voters said they felt betrayed by their party leaders, and other polls showed they preferred a candidate from outside the political system. These differing attitudes played out in both party primaries and VP selections.

The Republicans picked from a giant field a boisterous, political novice promising radical change in Donald Trump, who then selected a running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, who came on to the veepstakes radar somewhat late.

Democrats, meanwhile, ended up giving Clinton, the overwhelming favorite, a closer-than-expected but still large victory over Sanders in the Democratic primary season, and then she picked a running mate, Kaine, who had been on the veepstakes radar, literally, for nearly a decade. Barack Obama very seriously considered the then-Virginia governor in 2008, and Kaine seemed like a strong Clinton possibility ever since Clinton became a candidate. We listed Kaine in the top spot in our Democratic veepstakes handicapping back in May, and he always made a lot of sense to us as a top contender.

Kaine is a low-key but impressive senator who, ideologically, is slightly closer to the nation’s political center than Clinton, who herself is not as far left as Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who reportedly received some vice presidential consideration.

Like so many other vice presidential picks, Kaine probably won’t be that important in the outcome. He probably won’t inspire many new converts to Team Clinton but he probably won’t drive many away, and he seems unlikely to produce negative headlines, although even a political veteran like Kaine will face a higher level of vetting than he has faced previously.

There is plenty of debate in academic circles as to how valuable, or not valuable, a vice presidential pick is in an election. One compelling recent study conducted by Boris Heersink and Brenton Peterson of UVA found that vice presidential candidates increased a ticket’s performance in their home state by 2.67 points on average from 1884-2012. In a competitive state, that’s not nothing.

So one thing Kaine does do is provide a potential boost in Virginia, a state that we have long thought was poorly suited for Trump anyway. The state’s richly-populated and growing Northern Virginia suburbs and exurbs are filled with the kind of Republicans — wealthy and educated — who Trump may have trouble with, and Kaine’s presence on the ticket may give some portion of those voters a reason to consider voting for Clinton. Moreover, Northern Virginia’s overall share of the statewide vote in 2016 seems likely to increase once again, having increased in every presidential cycle since 1980. In 2012, it made up 34% of the state’s vote, and if Northern Virginia goes more Democratic than in 2012, it will be hard for Trump to win. After all, Obama’s 2012 margin over Mitt Romney in Fairfax County — by far the most populated locality in state — made up about three-fourths of his total statewide edge in that election.

In light of the Kaine pick and Trump’s potential difficulties in the Old Dominion, we’re moving Virginia from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic in our Electoral College ratings. If Trump has a path to victory, we don’t see Virginia — which voted closest to the national average in both 2008 and 2012 but appears to be trending Democratic at the presidential level — as a part of it unless he ends up winning a convincing national victory.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings change

Wrapping up the RNC

The Republican National Convention concluded in Cleveland Thursday night with Trump’s acceptance speech. It was more than a little dour – some called it “Mourning in America,” an alteration of Reagan’s famous 1984 TV ad — focusing on what Trump characterizes as the nation’s demise. Notably, we thought the biggest applause line of the night in Quicken Loans Arena was when Trump promised to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court. That issue may ultimately bring many elite Republicans to his side. The court may be the most important legacy of the next president, with at least one lifetime appointment pending to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia and perhaps more to come over the next four years — three of the court’s eight remaining judges are currently 77 years old or older. Conservatives may feel that with Trump they have a chance to get an appointee they would like, whereas they have no chance with Clinton as president.

This was, to us, a primary speech, and there was plenty of red meat to excite conservatives. Trump probably still has a little room to grow amongst Republicans, and maybe he will as a part of a possible polling bounce. But there was no “pivot” here to the general election in terms of message. In some ways, the message that the nation is in crisis may have been appropriate for a nation where large majorities believe the country is on the “wrong track” as opposed to the right one. Trump frames his campaign as one of change versus continuity, and there’s little doubt that a Trump presidency would offer something a lot different than a Clinton one. The presumptive Democratic nominee is effectively running for Obama’s third term. But Trump, who has no experience in government, offers scant details on how he will attempt to achieve his lofty promises — like ending crime the first day he enters office.

In some polls, Trump has edges over Clinton in terms of how to handle big issues like the economy and terrorism. But it seems as though a majority of Americans remain unconvinced that Trump is qualified for the job of president. Take, for instance, the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll: It asked respondents, regardless of who they were supporting, whether they thought Clinton and Trump were qualified to be president. About 60% of respondents said Clinton was strongly or somewhat qualified, while only 37% said the same about Trump. Crossing this qualification threshold is among Trump’s biggest challenges, and he clearly has work to do on that front. To us, the speech did not really address this challenge, and Trump’s lack of policy specifics could be a major handicap in the debates (assuming there are debates).

One final, broader observation as we close the book on the Republican confab: The RNC attendees were almost exclusively white, which was striking when walking through the convention hall, just as it was four years ago in Tampa. Democratic conventions are much more diverse. Republicans have done an admirable job of producing major nonwhite officeholders, like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Tim Scott of South Carolina, as well as Govs. Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico, among others. But the party’s rank and file, as well as the elites who go to conventions, are overwhelmingly white.

Trump has very poor favorability numbers with nonwhite voters, to the point where he could do worse with nonwhites than Romney, who only won about one in five nonwhite voters. Given that Trump effectively just gave a longer version of his stump speech, it is clear that he is not going to tweak his message in a way to try to make up his major deficit with nonwhites. So in order to win, Trump is going to have to squeeze even more support than Romney did from white voters. He may be able to do that — the electorate is still, after all, expected to be about 70% or more white — but the racial homogeneity of the GOP’s voters remains a threat to the party’s long-term viability, and a threat that this year’s presidential ticket is doing nothing to help, and very well may be making worse.