In the words of renowned epistemologist Donald Henry Rumsfeld, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns — that is to say there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
This single epigram essentially sums up the collected wisdom regarding the 2016 election. Some experts say the race is Hillary’s to lose, others claim it will be tight, and the guy who created Dilbert insists that Trump is a Jedi mind-fucker who will win in a landslide. So much for the sweet science of politics. Still, utilizing the Rumsfeldian paradigm, what do we actually know?
The known knowns.
Traditional voting patterns
Many pundits contend that the election will follow the 2012 map, which traditionally gives an electoral college edge to Democrats.
Yet, others say it could go Republican based on swing states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, or North Carolina. A recent article on The Hill made the case for a Trump path to victory by turning Pennsylvania — unlikely, though maybe not impossible. Clinton war room vet James Carville described the state as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” And a piece on FiveThirtyEight noted that over time it’s been trending Republican. Still other experts contend that traditional red states like Arizona could turn blue, particularly given Trump’s 72 percent disapproval rating with Hispanic voters.
Voter enthusiasm and turnout
Democrats need turnout at 2008 levels, but there's hardly Obama-level passion for Hillary. Both she and Trump have high unfavorability ratings, with Hillary’s coming from the “untrustworthy” meme that’s been beaten into the public consciousness for the last 25 years, whereas Trump’s stems from the fact that he’s an unfavorable human being, to many, who’s made his bones peddling anger, insults, lies and false hope to an angry white electorate.
Still, there may be Trump Democrats who are put off by Hillary, or Clinton Republicans who are repulsed by Trump. The question is: how many, and where are they?
Hillary can’t fight a two-front war forever. At some point, she and Bernie will have to sit the kids down and explain that they’re in love and want to blend their families. (Sanders hinted that a public reunification could be coming soon during address in front of the White House on Thursday.) Meanwhile, like a scab forming around a festering wound, the GOP is closing ranks behind Trump. Even Paul Ryan finally coughed up a tepid endorsement, then had to walk it back a day later when Trump went full racist on the judge presiding over his Trump U. lawsuit. Ryan’s regret was palpable. But his pained look didn’t come close to the countenance Chris Christie sported, standing on stage with Trump.
It was like he’d just professed his undying love for the guy who’d kept him chained up in his basement.
The known unknowns
Popular wisdom is to follow the Hippocratic oath, and “do no harm.” Just ask John McCain. Hillary needs more of the white vote to lock down the Rust Belt, so maybe she’ll go with Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Given that Trump’s royally screwed himself with women, Hispanics, Muslims, Asians, and almost anyone with any sense of decency, he needs a pick who might appeal to those he’s offended. Maybe Megyn Kelly. Or Bill O’Reilly in a dress. Someone with government experience might help, or at least someone who could find D.C. on a map.
Still, balancing the ticket might not be a candidate’s “save shot.” As Julia Azaria wrote in FiveThirtyEight:
“There’s often a big gap between what we think matters and what factors seem to influence candidates’ choices, and how voters react to them… Experience matters. Female running mates garner media attention, but not all of it is positive. Home-state advantage may exist, but only in certain cases… And ideological balancing, along with other forms of ticket balancing, is a much smaller part of the modern VP selection process than many media accounts would suggest.”
Obama’s 2008 victory was a wake-up call for Republicans, who instantly realized that the electorate was changing, and it wasn’t getting whiter. The solution: make it tougher for these voters to vote. This brought us the ACORN scandal, and the freshly resurrected concept of “voter fraud.” Seventeen states now have new voting restrictions in place for the first time, thanks to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutting key provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Third party candidates
After months of threats, we have a Libertarian ticket, with former governors Gary Johnson and William Weld. Some say they could do to Trump what Green Party candidate Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in 2000 and swing the election for Hillary.
Others claim they could steal votes from her. A New York Post article cited a Quinnipiac poll stating that the Libertarian run, along with the addition of Green Party candidate Jill Stein could “throw the race into chaos.”
Once again, Bill Clinton is out stumping for Hillary, which was obviously the reason Trump brought up his past indiscretions. Anything to neuter the big dog. Elizabeth Warren has been pounding Trump mercilessly, and President Obama has given his official endorsement. Although parties traditionally don’t hang on to the White House for three straight terms, the president’s 51% approval rating could help make that happen. A trip to Michigan should remind voters that he saved GM when Republicans were ready to let it go under.
Given Trump’s reputation for understatement, the GOP gala in Cleveland should be a spectacle combining the subtlety of a Super Bowl Halftime Show with the sophistication of the Miss Universe Pageant, along with a dash of Nuremberg. Perhaps we can look forward to another Sarah Palin schizophasic word salad shriek-fest, or the return of Clint Eastwood’s chair.
Democrats convene a week later in Pennsylvania, and if by then they’ve managed to disband the debating society and work up a little showmanship, they could make the public forget the opening act and leave a unity message hanging in the air.
The "Unknown Unknowns"
In 1976, Gerald Ford claimed there was “no Soviet domination of eastern Europe.” This pushed the meme that he wasn’t that smart. More recently we had Howard Dean’s rebel yell, Rick Perry’s brain fart, Romney’s 47 percent dissolution and “binders full of women” remark. Given Trump’s penchant for temper tantrums, along with the absence of any checkpoint between his terrific brain and his extended clip magazine of a mouth, he could easily suffer a debate implosion, and self-destruct. (Though, during the primary at least, Trump proved immune to the negative backlash that usually follows a political gaffe.)
Hillary’s fantasy is that Donald ends up on the witness stand in his Trump U. trial. Trump’s is that the FBI leads Hillary off in handcuffs over her emails. At the moment, he’s trying to stamp out fires about his donations to veterans, and his taxes, while attacking the media, essentially biting that hand that suckled him from the time he was a puppy.
It’s been said that a week is an eternity in American politics. If so, the next five months will be a timeless black hole into which all opinions and analysis disappear. For all the pundits and polls, statistical analysis of voting patterns, historical precedent, and demographic trends, chaos theory is alive and well in 2016. The insults between the candidates have only just started flying. And we haven’t even hit the debates, or the fusillade of attack ads.
Hillary nailed Trump in a scathing speech in San Diego, and his pathetic response was halting, erratic, and with a sheen of Nixonian flop sweat. For the first time, he looked vulnerable. But the experts have been writing The Rise and Fall of Trump for almost a year and it hasn’t happened. And to paraphrase Lincoln, you only have to fool enough of the people one time.
The only certainty in this election is uncertainty. In a world where even the known knowns have an element of unknowability, and the known unknowns are multiplying by the moment, and the unknown unknowns are — well, who knows what the fuck they are — the only truth right now comes from screenwriter William Goldman from "Adventures in the Screen Trade": “Nobody knows anything.”
Ian Gurvitz is the author of "Welcome to Dumbfuckistan: The Dumbed-Down, Disinformed, Dysfunctional, Disunited States of America."