The politics of unexpected events

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Steffen Schmidt, guest columnist

I just returned from Orlando where I gave the luncheon keynote for a regional financial business association only a few days after the horrible slaughter at the Pulse nightclub. It was an emotional and informative experience for me as a political scientist.

I had to change my presentation hours before delivering it to over 200 professionals who wanted to drill deep into what election 2016 would mean for their customers and their industry. My opening analysis now was — “Real word events are often huge game changers and we cannot predict from where the sudden events will come.”

The nightclub massacre peeled open multiple layers of political significance — assault rifles, LGBT rights and safety, the phrase “Islamic terrorists,” Trump and John McCain blaming President Barack Obama for the attack, the “Mexican judge” comment, and Trump saying Obama might be sympathetic toward terrorists and more have all jolted the trajectory of the 2016 elections.

I spent most of two days talking with people in the greater Orlando area and was struck by the nearly unanimous consensus that in a nation deeply divided over so many issues a brutal, negative campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton would be very bad for the nation. I was also stunned at what a diverse and global society has grown up around the central Florida vacation and convention hub. As I made my way through the international airport — a virtual United Nations of airlines, many from Islamic countries — I wondered how we would survive the dystopian vision of the United States as a country under attack, threatened with total destruction and doom by foreigners who hate us all. Folks in Orlando told me that all of the anti-foreign sentiment will be catastrophic for the United States and Orlando.

Many Republicans from the business group were panicked. They don’t trust Hillary Clinton because she would regulate the heck out of their financial services industry. When they asked me who might be Clinton’s vice presidential running mate and I mentioned Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the group let out an earsplitting groan. On the other hand, they questioned what Trump’s policies would be as president: where he stood on issues such as Dodd-Frank banking regulations, how committed he really was to shrinking the federal government and cutting spending. Again and again I heard concern that the Trump of today might not be the Trump who occupies the White House.

They wondered whether if Florida was the first or an early primary state would Cruz and Trump have come in first and second as they did the in the Iowa caucuses? Or, would Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have come in one and two? This was a smart question that, sadly, challenged my dear Iowa caucuses primacy (I am scheduled to give a similar keynote later this summer, where organizers already have asked me to talk about how the 2016 would look today if Ohio had gone first and John Kasich, Gov. of Ohio had won).

The 2016 elections are morphing into the equivalent of a thousand-page novel: so complex, the characters are hard to remember; convoluted to the point where you need a white board to plot out the plays. With each day, each news cycle, more pages of this novel are revealed. We are both fascinated but also alarmed by the plot.

Who would have guessed a week ago that a horrible slaughter of people enjoying an evening of fun with their friends and family in Orlando would revive the idea that these types of events are God’s punishment? Who would have predicted that Marco Rubio would change his mind and decide to run in the primary for his Senate seat as a result of the unfolding events?

As I told the folks at the luncheon, today is not a great guide for tomorrow in politics.

• Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University. Comments: steffenschmidt2005@gmail.com

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