On Tuesday, Nov. 1, exactly one week before Election Day, Professor of Political Science Richard Born gave a lecture, interestingly titled, “How the Elephant Got Its Trump and Why Political Scientists Never Saw It Coming.” This lecture, sponsored and initiated by the Office of Interim President Jonathan Chenette, provided Born’s invaluable insight into a widely asked question on this campus: in his words, “How Donald Trump could ever have been nominated for President.”
Born has been a member of the faculty of the Political Science Department at Vassar for 40 years and his research interests are in congressional elections. His research has been published in The American Journal of History and American Politics Research, and he has been called upon often by major media outlets such as The New York Times for his expertise. Born’s most recent work involves analyzing the consequences of the growing partisan homogeneity of U.S. House districts.
This lecture was initiated by Chenette himself, who pointed out, “[Born] could have had a career in stand-up comedy…[but] he makes Vassar a richer place for choosing to be here instead.” As to how the idea for this lecture came about, Chenette explained, “As Interim President, I gave welcoming remarks at the ‘Vassar Classroom Revisited’ event in NYC and attended several of the talks. Professor Born’s highly entertaining and timely take on the Trump phenomenon and how it came about seemed like something that Vassar students and others on campus should hear.” He added that the other faculty members presenting at the event were equally memorable. “I would have loved to invite all of the eight faculty members to give their talks on campus, but it wasn’t practical to squeeze them all in before the election,” Chenette mused.
Regarding the title of the lecture, Chenette opined that it captured Born’s approach to the election exceedingly well. “He came up with his own title and topic,” he said. “The title seemed delightful to me and captured well the offbeat approach Professor Born takes to presenting serious political science research and making it relevant to the current election.” Born, however, attributed it to his nephew.
Born’s inspiration is the “fascinating” phenomenon of Trump being nominated for President. As promised, Born had the audience laughing throughout the speech, and provided a very interesting perspective on the current election. He began, “This lecture will end well before the most important event of the day, Game 6 of the World Series.”
Born’s lecture was structured around explaining different theories as to why political scientists failed to predict Trump’s nomination and the reasons for Trump’s success. Explaining the second half of his title, he remarked, “Political science findings on how nominations have been won in the past would never lead us to believe that an extreme outsider like Trump could have been victorious.”
He emphasized the shortcomings of political scientists who were unable to predict this event, and pointed out that two cartoonists, including Matt Groening, the creator of “The Simpsons,” and Ann Coulter, a conservative political commentator, were the only individuals who had been able to foresee Trump winning the nomination. Throughout this lecture, Born drew from Marty Cohen’s 2008 novel, “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform.” According to media portrayal of the novel, party insiders determine the candidate who will win the nomination a year before the election, in what is known as the “invisible primary period,” and go on to disproportionately endorse this candidate. Born asserted that this could not, however, have been the case with Trump, who was not the choice of party insiders. After reform following the 1968 Democratic National Convention, winning the primaries and open caucuses is the key to securing the presidential nomination.
Born then provided several alternative theories for why voters are getting behind Trump, and have been since February. He noted that some were difficult to believe, such as one indicating that Republican voters with a strong fear of death choose the strongest, “most authoritarian” candidate. Another suggested that the increase in death rates of male, white, Republican voters in certain counties was positively correlated with increased support for Trump.
Born also referred to the “Heir Apparent Effect,” in which an individual is crowned the “heir apparent” to the next nomination directly after elections. Born’s own research, however, showed that Trump had zero endorsements from the “big three categories” of the Republican party on the eve of the Iowa Caucus in February, only for him to go on to win the primary in New Hampshire later that month.
Another factor leading to Trump’s nomination, he explained, is the “paranoid style of conspiracy politics.” Several theories introduced by right-wing bloggers and radio show hosts were discussed, calling to attention Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary, “2016: Obama’s America,” which suggests that Obama has been working to undermine the United States, and Alex Jones’ conspiratorial radio show, on which Jones has declared that Obama and Hillary Clinton are demons.
Finally, Born said that even though he hated to explain it in this manner, Trump’s winning the election could ultimately be attributed to being simply a fluke. He described Trump as a “European-style populist” who has taken very conservative stances on several issues. He remarked, “[T]rump is no ordinary Republican.”
The opportunity to hear Professor Born’s insight into this topic did not end with the lecture. The Office of the President organized a special dinner with Born and Chenette, held at Chenette’s home directly after the lecture. 20 students attended, chosen based on a lottery system. In Chenette’s words, “The dinner will provide a chance for students to continue the conversation with Professor Born and for me to thank him for giving his talk. We’ll have a fun time sitting around and talking about the presidential election, as if we’re not all tired of that already!”
Dinners at the home of the President are usually held on an invitation-only basis. However, the students serving as Assistants to the President this year–Abby Johnson ’17, Carmen Kloer ’17 and Seamus Taylor ’17–came up with the idea of opening this dinner out to the entire student body, an idea at which Chenette expressed delight. “It promoted interest but also ensured that everyone had an equal chance to join us and that the group assembled will have a random element to it,” Chenette commented. “I assume the attendees are all interested in a better understanding of this crazy election.”