Election comes to close, but divisions continue, Iowa experts say

'We're looking down at a volcano that's spewing hot lava'

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DES MOINES — Iowans hoping that Tuesday’s long-awaited election will help dial down the partisan acrimony of a divisive and seemingly interminable campaign cycle could be in for a big letdown, according to experts who study the political tea leaves.

Americans will decide whether Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton becomes their 45th president — bringing an end to a campaign some political scientists believe will be the benchmark by which future campaigns are measured.

“We’ve seen weird election years before,” said Dave Anderson, an assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University — such as H. Ross Perot’s 1992 independent presidential bid, the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago and the disputed 2000 finish between George W. Bush and Al Gore. “But, from the start of the primary process through the end, there haven’t been moments of normalcy in this campaign. It’s been odd throughout.”

And the final chapter has yet to be written by the voters, let alone the possibility of what might come after if the election is challenged or illegitimatized in some way as a rigged process. There’s a possibility, too, that either candidate could face ongoing scrutiny – Clinton for her email scandal and foundation dealings and Trump for alleged past improprieties.

From the 30,000-foot view of the 2016 political campaign as it approaches the end, said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford, “we’re looking down at a volcano that’s spewing hot lava.”

There is speculation that if Clinton wins, a Republican House would hold hearings with an eye toward pushing impeachment proceedings against her. And if Trump wins, “all bets are off,” Goldford said, because no one really knows what he’d do as a “mercurial and volatile” White House occupant based upon a campaign largely over issues unrelated to governing.

“It’s been ugly and I think it will continue to be at least as ugly if not uglier,” he said.

“No matter who wins,” Goldford observed, “there will be a group of people who supported the losing candidate who will think it’s a travesty and this person legitimately should not be president of the United States and they’re not going to stop. That will be true if Trump wins and that will be true if Clinton wins.”

University of Iowa political scientist Cary Covington said both major political parties are coming through a tough period with internal strains and deep divisions, while at the same time there is a growing and troubling trend of polarization.

“It’s very hard to reunify a country when the two sides look at each other that way,” he said. “I see us heading for a very difficult patch of time, regardless who is president.”

Covington said the problems and divisions could carry over for at least a couple of election cycles until, eventually, some of the flashpoints dissipate as a generational transition takes place.

Some of the curent divisions are rooted in the fact that a significant segment of Republican voters would never vote for Clinton and a similar slice of the population would never vote for Trump — elements peculiar to this presidential matchup, experts said.

“This is just a completely unusual convergence of events,” said ISU political science professor Steffen Schmidt. “You can’t really square it with anything because we’ve never had a candidate like Donald Trump and we’ve never had a candidate in as much trouble leading up to Election Day as Hillary Clinton. There is no reference point that we can compare this to.”

Dianne Bystrom, director of ISU’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women & Politics, said the historical significance of Clinton being the first woman to win a major political party’s presidential nomination was overshadowed by a campaign shrouded in negativity driven by the 24-hour news cycle, talk radio and social media.

“This has probably been one of the most frustrating campaigns of my lifetime and I think a lot of people feel that way and it’s for lots of different reasons,” she said.

“Not just the candidates, I think the media coverage and the emergence of social media, people getting their campaign news through Twitter and people fighting with each other on Facebook and Twitter,” Bystrom said. “This campaign also has exposed some of the ugly sides of race and gender.”

ystrom said it would be a major glass-ceiling shattering event if Clinton becomes the first woman elected as U.S. president and evidence of an evolving and diverse society which eight years ago knocked down a similar barrier for African Americans by electing Barack Obama.

Schmidt said social media helped intensify extremism by allowing trivial events to become headline news without much examination because complicated issues don’t lend themselves to 140-character tweets.

Schmidt said the near-term outlook points to a period of instability for the nation that won’t be solved by Tuesday’s vote.

“This election is going to leave us, regardless of the outcome, as a very divided country with people who deeply disagree with each other and are extremely upset and nervous and unhappy with what’s going on on both sides, Republican and Democratic.”

He said historians already are busy chronicling “the amazing story of Trump and Clinton and the strangeness of this year.”

Drake University political scientist Arthur Sanders agreed.

“The public campaign has been dominated by Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s talk about women and we’ve seen very little else, even though there are a lot of other things going on obviously. It’s been fascinating to follow, but I’m not sure it’s been particularly informative to the American public about what the election’s about,” he said.

The race has tightened in the campaign’s closing days with the nation closely watching less than a dozen battleground states – including Iowa – that hold the key to reaching the threshold of 270 electoral votes needed to be president.

Goldford said Clinton has a clearer electoral path to win than Trump, “but it’s not over yet.”

The former first lady, secretary state and New York senator is “the political manifestation of Murphy’s Law,” he said. “If something could possibly go wrong, it will.”

For all of The Gazette's Election 2016 coverage, please visit our election coverage center.

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