Category Archives: United States of America

Archie Brown – Donald Trump and the strong leader illusion

This is a guest post by Archie Brown, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford. It is based on his book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, Vintage, 2015)

We don’t need to fall back on anecdotal evidence to be aware that among the factors contributing to Donald Trump’s electoral success was the high value voters attached to electing a strong leader and to the perception that Trump looked the part. Survey data, based on Morning Consult/Politico exit polls, suggested that the significance of the presidential candidate appearing to meet that yardstick was twice as salient a factor in the 2016 election as in 2012. Of those questioned in the exit poll last November, 36 per cent, as against 18 per cent four years earlier, said that what they wanted, above all, was a strong leader. The ‘strong leader’ criterion was valued more than twice as highly as wanting someone who ‘cares about people like me’ or someone who ‘shares my values’.[1]

We should, of course, never forget that but for the vagaries of an electoral system in which the candidate who won almost three million more votes than the forty-fifth president was deemed to be the loser, Trump would not be in the White House. For the second time this century, the electoral college provided startling evidence of the ‘majority-constraining’ features of the American political system, eloquently analyzed by Alfred Stepan and the late Juan Linz – indeed, a majority-defying result.[2] In any other democracy the candidate constitutionally decreed to be the loser in 2016 would, as in 2000, have been the clear winner. The result brings back to mind one of Robert Dahl’s last books, How Democratic is the American Constitution? His answer, if it can be summarised in two words, was: Not very.[3]

Nevertheless, Trump in 2016 had substantial support, and it included backing from people in social groups who might have been expected to look to the Democrats for succour rather than to a billionaire property-developer. The image Trump projected of nationalist strongman, reiterated in his inaugural speech, resonated with many of those who had been left behind by globalization. That particular aspect of Trump’s candidacy counted for less with those who had been beneficiaries of vastly increased inequality but, in the interests of becoming still richer, they voted for lower taxation.

My focus here, however, is on the ‘strong leader’ aspect of Trump’s success. I have argued elsewhere that the cult of the strong leader which, most obviously, thrives in dictatorships, has its echoes in contemporary democracies, with a craving for the strong hand of a powerful individual not confined to the brainwashed or cowed subjects of an authoritarian or totalitarian ruler.[4] The presence of Donald Trump in the White House has brought to the forefront of political discussion issues of leadership style and the big question of the extent to which one individual can or should dominate the political process in a democracy.

In this brief essay, I address three questions: First, what does it mean to call someone a strong leader? Second, having established the criteria, is Trump really a strong leader in that sense? Third, is strength the quality we should especially value in a political leader or are there other attributes we should esteem more highly and which contribute more to good leadership in a democracy?

The notion of a strong leader is open to a range of interpretations, but when we compare various presidents and prime ministers, we generally, and perfectly reasonably, describe as a strong leader one who maximises his (or her) personal power, dominates his government, political party and a wide swath of public policy, and asserts his right to take most of the big decisions.

Donald Trump has, indeed, shown every sign that he intends to be a strong leader in that sense. He has not hesitated to criticize the Republican Party establishment and has made policy pronouncements on the hoof, without regard either to predominant opinion within his own party (on Russia, for example, including praise for Vladimir Putin as a strong leader) or even to long-standing  bipartisan foreign policy positions in Washington (as on China and Taiwan). His Cabinet appointments have been idiosyncratic, with a number of appointees lacking any obvious qualifications for the job, other than apparently enjoying the trust of president.

Deliberately projecting himself as a strong leader, Trump has verged on the messianic. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention he told his audience there and in the country that “I am your voice”. Brushing aside his lack of political experience, he said that he knew the system better than anyone else which was why “I alone can fix it”. In his hyberbolic presidential inauguration speech, he promised to determine not only the course of America but also of the world “for many, many years to come”, and claimed that his supporters had “become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before”.  The fact that turnout at his own inaugural ceremony fell far below that which welcomed Barack Obama in 2009, and that the world has seen many larger movements that have escaped his attention, was not allowed to get in the way of the rhetoric.

I have no difficulty in accepting that Trump meets the criteria set out above for designating someone as a “strong leader”. (The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was among those who lost no time in describing him as such in the congratulatory message he sent following the presidential election.) The bigger question is whether we should value the strength of a domineering individual above other leadership attributes and whether strong leadership is the same as effective leadership.

The self-consciously strong leader is, in a democracy, rarely as strong as he thinks he is. In a parliamentary system an overweening leader often loses office before the government’s term of office has run its course as a result of a revolt by enough members of his or her own party in the legislature. It happened to the three British prime ministers in the last ninety years who attempted to concentrate the most power in their own hands and who acquired an extravagant belief in the superiority of their own judgement over that of their colleagues: Neville Chamberlain, forced to resign in 1940; Margaret Thatcher, ousted in 1990; and Tony Blair, who was obliged to yield the premiership to his colleague and rival, Gordon Brown, in 2007.

In some ways, it is easier to justify power-maximization by an American president than by a prime minister in a parliamentary democracy because the president has been directly elected, has a larger personal mandate than anyone else in the country (especially when he has, as Trump has not, won the popular vote), and because of the large number of veto-players in the American system with its constitutional checks and balances and powerful organized interests. All these make it difficult for a president to dominate the domestic agenda (he has more room for manoeuvre in foreign policy) and so can be justifications for an incumbent augmenting the powers of the office in whatever way he constitutionally can.

Yet, we should reject the temptation to believe that the more power one individual leader wields, the more we should be impressed by that leader. Strong leadership, in the sense of concentrating maximal power in the hands of one person, is far from being identical with good leadership. There are only twenty-four hours in the day of even the strongest leader. The more that person tries to do individually, the less time he or she has to weigh the evidence and gain an understanding of the complexity and nuances of each issue. The self-consciously strong leader is often tempted to demonstrate strength by coming to quick decisions. Even in a crisis, however, it is often possible to take time, and to listen to the widest range of opinion, before reaching a conclusion. Doing so can be a life-or-death matter.

If President John F. Kennedy had come to a quick decision when the Cuban missile crisis broke in 1962, the world would almost surely have been engulfed in catastrophic nuclear war. From the outset the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocated a comprehensive military strike on Cuba.[5] Wiser counsels eventually prevailed.  It was only decades later that the United States discovered what the likely consequences would have been of accepting the military advice. They learned that already there were tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba for use against the US in the event of an invasion and, moreover, that Soviet ships approaching Cuba had submarine escorts with commanders empowered to fire nuclear torpedoes at American targets without awaiting authorization from Moscow.[6]

It is important that any American administration – indeed, any government in a democracy – should contain people of independent political standing, and, preferably, of great and varied experience. Within the government they should not engage in self-censorship, adjusting their advice to the perceived predilections of the top leader, even if that person is the President of the United States. They should be prepared to subject his conclusions to serious scrutiny and to provide counter-arguments. No president or prime minister in a democracy was ever selected because he or she was believed to have a monopoly of wisdom. A democracy worthy of the name has many leaders, not one.

A leader – in a democracy as well as an authoritarian regime – who tries to monopolize power will generally do more harm than good. Far more valuable qualities of a head of government than ‘strength’, as I have defined it, include integrity, intelligence, collegiality, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, good memory, flexibility, courage, and (if we are lucky) vision. The last-mentioned of these qualities means, at a minimum, an ability to distinguish what is in the long-term interests of the country from what may play well in the traditional and social media today.

While governments collectively are not immune from making foolish and damaging decisions, the likelihood of calamitously bad decision-making is substantially greater under unconstrained, or only weakly constrained, personal rule. A head of government should feel the need to persuade colleagues rather than foreclose the discussion by pulling rank. To pine for one-person dominance and to believe in the efficacy of such leadership is worship of a false god. Rather than succumb to the fanciful allure of the strong leader, we would do well to relearn the advantages of a more collegial, collective and dispersed leadership.


[1] ‘Early exit polls: Voters say they want a “strong leader”’,

[2] Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, ‘Comparative Perspectives on Inequality and the Quality of Democracy in the United States’, Perspectives on Politics, Vol.. 9, No. 4, 2011, pp. 841-856. See also Nannerl Keohane, ‘Leadership, Equality and Democracy’, Daedalus, Vol.. 145, No. 3, 2016, pp. 8-20.

[3] Robert A. Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution? (2nd ed., Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2003).

[4] Archie Brown, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (Bodley Head, London, and Basic Books, New York, 2014; Vintage paperback, 2015); Brown, ‘Questioning the Mythology of the Strong Leader’, Leadership, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/174271501559066; and Brown, ‘Against the Führerprinzip: For Collective Leadership’, Daedalus, Vol. 145, No. 3, 2016, pp. 109-123. See also one of the last articles of the late Anthony King in the same issue of Daedalus, ‘In Favor of “Leader-Proofing”’, pp. 124-137; and S. Alexander Haslam,, Stephen D. Reicher and Michael J. Platow, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power (Psychology Press, Hove and New York, 2011).

[5] Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2000), pp. 180-181.

[6] William J. Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2015), p. 4.

US – Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address: Closed Fist or Open Hand?

This is a guest post by Craig Allen Smith, Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University

Until November I considered the notion of “President Donald J. Trump’s Inaugural Address” a fantasy; perhaps he did, too.  Most polls then predicted his defeat and he won just 45.94% of the vote. But American presidential elections are a tournament of state elections for electoral votes, and Trump won 304 electoral votes and the 2017 inaugural moment.  Presidential inaugurals are planned responses to a recurrent rhetorical situation. Forty-four presidents have addressed that challenge, and their addresses  shape our expectations.

The definitive study of presidential inaugural addresses (Campbell & Jamieson 1985) suggests five guidelines for President Trump’s address. First, the speech should “unify the audiences by reconstituting it as ‘the people’ who witness and ratify the ceremony. Second, the speech should “rehearse shared values drawn from the past” to anchor the new president in the permanent culture of America. Third, the speech should “enunciate the political principles that will guide the new administration” by providing tactical watchwords for the new administration.  Fourth, the speech should “demonstrate that the President appreciates the requirements and limitations of Executive power”. Finally, the speech should pursue its four ends “through means appropriate to epideictic discourse”:  by “Urging contemplation not action”,  by “Focusing on the present while incorporating past and future”,  and by “Praising the institution of the Presidency and the form of government of which it is a part” (Campbell & Jamieson 1985).

Ultimately, every presidents’ rhetorical challenge is to adapt his message to the genre while adjusting that genre to his message.  Let us then consider how President Trump adjusted his message and the inaugural expectations.  All quotations are from the official text (Trump 2017).

Generic inaugurals unify audiences by reconstituting the people as witnesses and ratifiers of the transfer of power (Campbell and Jamieson 1985).  President Trump did so immediately by invoking “We, the citizens of America” — an unusual construction, especially given his focus on legal citizenship in the United States of America.  He then characterized his oath to God to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as “an oath of allegiance to all Americans.”  Both statements functioned as parts of a strategic reconstituting of the country:  “the people” were mentioned nineteen times compared to three mentions of “government” and no mention of the Constitution, Congress, or the judiciary.

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government,” said the President, “but whether our government is controlled by the people.” His position was clear: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” He pounded the wedge between people and government: “Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth.  Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”

Thus, said the President, “today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.” Indeed, “January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” Their embodiment — President Donald J. Trump — delivered that message from the steps of the Capitol while flanked by former Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush, and Obama as well as members of Congress and the Supreme Court. In short, President Trump defined himself less as President of the United States and its government than as president of the American people.

Like his predecessors since Theodore Roosevelt, President Trump employed a “Plebiscitary Model” for his address to “envision and articulate a strong connection between the presidency and the public” (Korzi 2004). This is fully consistent with Trump’s defeat of the Republican establishment in the primaries, his defeat of the Democratic establishment in the general election, and with the populist rhetoric of his campaign.

But none of his predecessors went this far in disconnecting the people from their government even though they took office with more than Trump’s 46% of the popular vote and pre-inauguration approval ratings greater than his 37%. (Calfas 2017).  Which people, then, did President Trump mean to empower? President Trump’s “people” were “everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America.  This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.”   “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” Implicitly, this moment did not belong to those avoiding the ceremony or to those not responsible for electing him, nor did it belong to those who have not perceived themselves as forgotten. Implicit omissions are unavoidable, but an inaugural is an appropriate site for an olive branch or two, and these are largely absent.

Trump’s olive branch was a bit curious. “We are one nation,” he said, “and their pain is our pain.  Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success.  We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” But who are “they”? If the forgotten people are now his empowered “we” then who is left as the “they” outside his people, his America, and his nation that exists to serve them?

The second generic characteristic of presidential inaugurals is the invocation of “shared values drawn from the past” (Campbell & Jamieson 1985). Trump’s inaugural is light on the American core values of morality, patriotism, effort and optimism, and progress and change (Smith and Smith 1985).  He invokes the Bible (“The Bible tells us, ‘how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity’”), God (“we are protected by God”), and the Creator (“And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.”) but that seems a bit thin in comparison to the genre. We heard two references to patriotism (“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” and “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag”).

The values heard in this inaugural are of the terminal variety — outcomes to be valued. These include strength, wealth, pride, safety, and greatness — “Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Wealthy Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again.” These are not altruistic goals, but imply a morality of self-interest.

Indeed, the President explicitly indicts America’s history of altruism:  “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry;  Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.  We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”

The third generic characteristic of presidential inaugurals is that they “enunciate the political principles that will guide the new administration” (Campbell and Jamieson 1985). It is here that President Trump was most explicit, replacing altruism with self-interest:

“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before.”

Here again his explicit statement invites an examination of his implicit message. Does “America first” mean the United States or his reconstituted “America” of his people? Does he mean our country first as opposed to other countries, or our people as opposed to their Constitutional government? Surely his ardent supporters will dismiss those questions, but the other 60% of Americans and others around the world will surely wonder.

Fourth, the speech should “demonstrate that the President appreciates the requirements and limitations of Executive power” (Campbell and Jamieson 1985).  Trump’s inaugural is squarely within Korzi’s (2004) “Plebiscitary Model” in which the president “is central and dominant in the political system, with other political actors, such as Congress and political parties, largely absent. Moreover, the Constitution and limits on presidential power are eschewed. Most importantly, these addresses envision and articulate a strong connection between the presidency and the public” (Korzi 2004). Yet Trump never refers to the presidency and mentions no other political actors. Instead “Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for years to come.”  Not he but “we” will rebuild America:

“We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders.  We will bring back our wealth.  And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work – rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”

Which we? You, sir, and who else? The government that has failed in the past? The 46% who voted for you and the 37% who approve of you? The forgotten people now empowered? This remains unexplained. Except that, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” But is that allegiance to the American people, to the disdained government, or to the unmentioned Constitution?

Fifth and finally, an inaugural should pursue its four ends “through means appropriate to epideictic discourse” (Campbell & Jamieson 1985). Whereas we expect epideictic to urge contemplation over action this speech does the opposite: “The time for empty talk is over.  Now arrives the hour of action.” Whereas we expect epideictic to focus on the present while incorporating past and future this speech focuses on the future: “But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” And where we expect an inaugural as epideictic to praise the institution of the Presidency and the form of government of which it is a part, this speech does not mention the presidency and renders government as the villain. The President’s message could have been cast so as to fulfill these generic expectations but it seems more likely that the President wanted to defy those rhetorical expectations just as well as he had defied the political expectations.


President Donald J. Trump delivered an inaugural address that was sufficiently generic to be a recognizable inaugural. Like his predecessors he reconstituted the people, he invoked values, and he articulated principles guiding his administration. But unlike his predecessors he divided his people from his government, he rejected the traditional value of altruism in favor of self-interest, he offered no praise for the presidency or the Constitutional system, and he flaunted the requirements of good epideictic address.

An inaugural address is a point of interface between the politics, rhetoric, and the individual. This address was mostly Trump. A political inaugural would have sought to build bridges, but he worked to burn them. A rhetorical inaugural would have urged contemplation about the present and paid homage to the presidency and the constitutional system, but he spurned contemplation, focused on the future, and said nothing good about the office or the system. Instead a self-confident businessman attacked government. He disdained a tradition of altruism and pledged his administration to “America First”. At his investiture he vested power in “the people”, however clumsily, pitting them against the government of which he is the new CEO. A candidate who won with a divide and conquer strategy exhorted us to be unified and loyal to one another.

President Trump’s inaugural address ended with a raised fist reminiscent of Edward P. J. Corbett’s (1969) essay about the rhetoric of the open hand and the closed fist.  “The open hand might be said to characterize the kind of persuasive discourse that seeks to carry its point by reasoned, sustained, conciliatory discussion of the issues,” wrote Corbett (1969). “The closed fist might signify the kind of persuasive activity that seeks to carry its point by non-rationale, non-sequential, often non-verbal, frequently provocative means.” That seems a fitting description of the Trump we have come to know, although Corbett’s focus was on the raised fist of Black Power and anti-war protesters on the Left.  Corbett argued that the key element of rhetoric is choice and concluded that, “If rhetoric is, as Aristotle defined it, ‘a discovery of all the available means of persuasion,’ let us be prepared to open and close that hand as the occasion demands” (Corbett 1969).

Following Corbett we can be prepared to open and close that hand as appropriate, but the inaugural genre has until now been an open-hand moment.  President Trump’s inaugural address was a close-fisted repudiation of government, altruism, and contemplation.  His calls for unity and togetherness came as commands for unity and allegiance. He offered no assurances to females or non-whites or those aspiring to citizenship unless of course they hear themselves among the Presidents “they” who look at the sky, dream, and bleed.  Surely, President Trump’s inaugural address will have excited his supporters and worried his adversaries…and that should trouble him.

The American constitutional system was designed to complicate change. Rhetorically adept presidents with strong public support who built bridges to their critics still met with mixed success.  Now President Trump begins with a combative closed-fist anchored not in the Constitution but in the popular support of a public that already disapproves of his leadership.  He pits those people against the government he leads.  He offers little to those who fear and/or oppose him. Renounces our record of helping other nations and tells them it will be America First.  His address was more populist and combative than its predecessors; one could even term it “revolutionary”. His path forward will be challenging as he seeks ways to use the open hand and closed fist to forge the allegiance, unity, and togetherness he deems essential to “make America great again”. What could possibly go wrong?


Calfas, J. (2017, January 20). Poll: Trump approval rating hits new low hours before inauguration. The Hill. Retrieved 1/20/2017 from

Campbell, K. K.& Jamieson, K. H. (1985). Inaugurating the Presidency. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 15, 395-411. Retrieved 1/19/2017 at

Corbett, E. P. J. (1969). The Rhetoric of the open hand and the rhetoric of the closed fist. College Composition and Communication, 20, 288-296. Retrieved 1/20/2017 from

Korzi, M. J. (2004). The president and the public: Inaugural addresses in American history. Congress & the Presidency, 31(1), 21-52. Retrieved from

Smith, C. A. & Smith, K. B. (1985). Presidential values and public priorities: Recurrent patterns in addresses to the nation, 1963-1984. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 15(4), 743-753. Retrieved 1/19/2017 from

Trump, D. J. (2017, January 20). The Inaugural Address: Remarks of President Donald J. Trump J. – As prepared for delivery. The White House: Briefing Room. Retrieved 1/20/2017 from

Dennis Jett – President Trump and US Ambassadorial Appointments

This is a guest post by Dennis Jett, Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of American Ambassadors: The Past, Present and Future of America’s Diplomats, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

As was discussed in yesterday’s post and in a recent article, a significant number of American ambassadorial appointments are the result of a thinly veiled system of corruption that is as much a part of Washington politics as flag lapel pins. Ambassadors to the wealthiest countries are almost always large contributors to political campaigns. Furthermore, the greater the gross domestic product per capita of the country, the more the ambassador to it contributed. The same applies to the number of tourists a country receives. In other words, as an ambassadorial posting, London costs more than Lisbon.

This pay-to-play system is not new. In 1971, President Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, offered Ruth Farkas, the wife of the owner of a chain of department stores, the ambassadorship to Costa Rice in exchange for a campaign contribution of $250,000. Mrs. Farkas famously replied to that proposal by saying “Isn’t $250,000 an awful lot of money for Costa Rica.” Mr. Kalmbach went to jail for that and other crimes, and Mrs. Farkas went to Luxembourg as ambassador. Following the announcement of her nomination for the post she began to make contributions to Nixon’s campaign, which added up to $300,000, demonstrating that Europe costs more than Central America.

The corruption of the Nixon administration prompted a number of ethics reforms, including the Foreign Service Act of 1980. It states, in part, that ambassadorial appointments should normally go to career diplomats and that campaign contributions should play no part in determining when a noncareer person is nominated as ambassador.

The Act had only a very small impact in reducing the number of political appointee ambassadors, however, and they continue to number about 30 percent of the total. The exception was under President Reagan, where an aggressive White House personnel office, a weak secretary of state and a president disinterested in the details of governing, caused the percent to go up to 38 percent. This was accomplished by sending political appointees as ambassadors to obscure places like Rwanda and Malawi where normal only a career officer would be sent. The Reagan appointees were arguable some of the worst examples of public servants. The embassy in Rwanda, for instance, received an instruction ordering it to refuse cashing the ambassador’s checks because so many had bounced.

While in the earlier blog post there was discussion of theories that might help understand such appointments to high government positions, those theories are of no use when trying to speculate about what the incoming administration might do. The Foreign Service Act notwithstanding, a president has wide latitude about who he appoints as his ambassadors. The 30/70 ratio is more tradition than anything else and, as the Reagan administration demonstrated, can easily be ignored. Perhaps the only real limitation is that there are only so many countries to which political appointees aspire to be ambassador. Those nations where the diplomats earn hardship or danger pay do not attract noncareer ambassadors.

What might therefore be expected from the person that takes office of president on January 20th? If it had been Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, the 30/70 precedent set by previous presidents would undoubtedly have continued.

What will President Trump do? There is no way to judge. He has already broken with traditional practice by insisting that all the political appointee ambassadors currently in place must depart on January 20th. Normally, many of them would have been allowed to stay on until their successors arrived in order to smooth the transition.

One could argue that with few mega-donors, he might make fewer political appointments. The problem is, as with his potential conflicts of interest and ties to Russia, there is no transparency. The most common form of winning favor with a presidential candidate is for a person to bundle the contributions of his or her friends and colleagues and present it to the campaign. There is no legal requirement to reveal who is trying to buy influence in this fashion however.

In the last two presidential elections, the Democratic nominees have released the names of their bundlers, while the Republicans have not. Clinton and Obama put the names of hundreds of their bundlers on their websites. But as with their tax returns, the information on the bundlers for Trump and Romney remains a secret hidden from the voters.

In addition to the lack of transparency there is also the fact that Trump was the first candidate of a major political party in American history to have no experience in either government or the military. Trump, the anti-insider candidate, might appoint only outsiders as ambassadors. Think of the possibilities for a new reality TV show called Ambassador Apprentice.

His announcements for his ambassadorial appointments thus far have been governors for China and the United Nations, a businessman for Japan and his bankruptcy lawyer for Israel. One thing they all have in common is no experience in the federal government and a level of international experience that can at best be described as limited.

The nominee for Israel, David Friedman, is especially important to a president elect since he has declared bankruptcy six times. Friedman could charitably described as a little short on diplomatic ability, however, as he has said American Jews who support the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine are as worse than the Jews who assisted the Nazis in concentration camps. A majority of the American Jewish community would fall under that description.

One might think that lacking any background in foreign affairs beyond real estate deals, Trump might make a greater percentage of his nominations from the career ranks. As anyone in the intelligence community has discovered, however, Trump thinks nothing of denigrating career civil servants if he decides it in his best interest.

So, as Yogi Berra once said “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  A theory about presidential appointments won’t help and the world will have to await more Tweets from Trump Tower.

One thing about which there is no doubt is that whoever gets to serve as ambassador for the next administration will have a foreign policy that will be a challenge to defend. If one wanted to make American embassies and ambassadors bigger targets for terrorism, it would be harder to think of a more effective way to do that than the rhetoric like banning all Muslims from entering the United States, torturing terrorist suspects and murdering their families.

Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis Jett – Pricing US Ambassadorial Postings: how much would you have to pay to be posted as US ambassador to the Court of St. James?

This is a guest post by Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis Jett from Pennsylvania State University. It is based on their recent article in Governance.

US ambassadorial postings are unusual. Unlike other major powers, a significant proportion of US ambassadors are political appointees rather than career diplomats. Political appointees, chosen by the White House rather than the State Department, are non-randomly distributed across diplomatic posts, being most common in Western European and Caribbean countries.  They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they have in common the fact that in some way they helped the president get elected. The largest number do that that through campaign contributions, but others do it by bringing diversity to the ranks of appointees, for some other political purpose, by being personal friends or serving as loyal staff aides to the president. These categories are not mutually exclusive, but one is usually predominant.

In a recent paper,[1] we explore the why and the how of the US ambassadorial appointments process.

Patronage utility frameworks provide plausible explanations of “why” donors and special interest group representatives are chosen for ambassadorships, and we examine two possibilities: all-pay auctions and alternating offer bargaining games.

Since a political appointment to a diplomatic post provides a rent to the recipient, one analytical approach to the contest for the posting is provided by all-pay auctions, in which all bidders pay for the prize regardless of whether their bid proves successful or not. As an alternative to the strategic interaction by means of auction, which does not allow for negotiation over the prize or its value, the strategic interaction between the donor and presidential candidates can also be thought of as a multiperiod alternating offer bargaining game.

Under plausible and readily specifiable conditions, the implication of both frameworks is symmetrical: donors get what they pay for, with low donations eliciting low quality posting offers, high donations high quality posting offers. The immediate empirical prediction is that higher campaign donations should be matched by better quality diplomatic postings.

So why are both theoretical frameworks of relevance?

Direct reliance on bargaining over donations and posts would constitute a violation of the Foreign Service Act of 1980. On the other hand, under all-pay auctions, the expectation is that donors would pay the full underlying valuation of diplomatic posts. Empirically this is not universally true, with both over- and underpayment for posts observable. This can be more readily accounted for in terms of a bargaining framework, with donor and candidate having varying bargaining strengths from case to case. Reality is likely a messy and complex result of both of these processes.

In our paper, we test the proposition that higher donations will be associated with better postings, and extend the analysis to provide a “pricing” of posts in terms of their underlying characteristics.

Our data covers ambassadorial appointments to all countries with whom the United States has diplomatic relations, a total of 170 countries, for both terms of the G.W.Bush presidency, and both terms of the Obama presidency, through 2013. The data covers 13 years of ambassadorial appointments, generating 764 data points. We measure the desirability of diplomatic posts by means of per capita GDP (GDPPC), its attractiveness as a tourist destination (measured as the number of tourist visits), and the level of hardship or danger pay the ambassador receives in a post. We also distinguish between different “types” of donation, directly to presidential campaigns as personal donations, to the political party of the presidential candidate, “bundling” donations by means of which donors act as coordinators for larger groupings of donors to provide financial support to campaigns, as well as “ex post” donations to campaigns (for instance to the inauguration of a successful presidential candidate).

We demonstrate that higher donations to presidential campaigns predict an improved desirability of diplomatic postings for donors, across both the per capita GDP and attractiveness as tourist destination metrics.

Types of donations can also be shown to have a differential impact on the quality of appointment. While donors to political parties realize the highest per capita GDP postings (on average $14,000 higher than career diplomats), while campaign donors realize more moderately improved postings (on average $6,000 higher than career diplomats), in terms of the return on each dollar donated, the highest return is realized by campaign donors. Thus a $100,000 campaign contribution raises the GDP per capita level of the diplomatic posting by $27,000; a $1,000,000 party political donation raises the GDP per capita level of the diplomatic posting by $5,000.

The implication is that donating to the party requires much greater contributions to secure a comparable post to campaign donations, but since there are fewer caps on what can be given to a political party than there are for donations directly to presidential campaigns, there is the opportunity to compete more aggressively for better posts by contributing large amounts to the former.

So how much would you have to pay for a US diplomatic posting? In our paper we explore this question for all feasible posts, and across a range of possible forms of political donations. Here we cut to the chase, and list four of the more up-market options (Berlin, London, Paris, Rome) – see Table below. We list the implied “prices” of the diplomatic posts under either personal campaign contributions to a presidential campaign directly, computed specifically for the first Obama term, or for party political contributions, computed as an average for all four presidential terms in our data set. Both prices are on the per capita GDP metric of country desirability rating.

Should your target post be the Court of St. James, the cheapest option was by means of personal contributions to the first term of the Obama administration (a snip at $1.1 million), the most expensive option via party political donations (on average $4.3 million over the 2000-13 period).

  Personal Contribution
Obama 1st term
GDP per capita metric (US$)
Party Political Contribution
All 4 Presidential Terms
GDP per capita metric (US$)
Berlin 1,170,517 4,514,841
London 1,131,642 4,331,352
Paris 1,089,080 4,140,936
Rome 881,985 3,190,090


[1] Fedderke, J.W., and Jett, D., 2016, What Price the Court of St. James? Political Influences on Ambassadorial Postings of the United States of America, Governance, forthcoming, DOI 10.1111/gove.12254.

William Crotty – A Trump Presidency

This is a guest post by William J. Crotty, Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Chair in Public Life at Northeastern University. He is the author and editor of Winning the Presidency 2016 (Routledge, 2017)

Donald Trump won the most divisive and most extraordinary presidential election in the modern history of the United States. His campaign broke all the rules to the extent they existed; was the subject of endless controversies, any one of which would have derailed his predecessors; threatened to put his opponent in jail if he won; and refused to agree to accept the results of the election – unless he won. He built a campaign on personal insults, accusations (true or not), wild charges and threats. And it worked! He beat an established, well-informed, prepared and committed opponent in Hillary Clinton.

Trump is a world-class salesman, he can sell almost anything, as the campaign showed. His behavior, actions and targets were unpredictable. They did make for good television and he dominated the coverage.  And, little reported, while running presumably full-time for president, he continued to manage his international business operations in the middle of campaigning, even opening a new golf course and a landmark hotel not far from the White House. I take this to be a clear statement as to his priorities. He did not appear to take the presidential campaign overly seriously, refused to prepare for the debates and relied in both the prenomination and general election phases of the campaign on his instincts and judgments as to his opponents and their weaknesses as he saw them, approaching situations much as he did in his business dealings.

What kind of president then can be expected? I think we know the answer. Donald Trump has no concern for tradition, previous history, institutionalized decision-making (he depends on himself), international agreements and commitments, or much of anything else that has come to define the sphere of concerns an American president must deal with. He will act as President much as he has in the campaign. He will do things his way. He will depend on what he thinks important or what interests him at the moment, will continue to be unpredictable in how he approaches given situations, will see international relations in terms of trade opportunities, will conduct negotiations on a one-on-one basis and will nurture his financial empire.

Clearly there are problems in all of this, in relation to NATO, national security (he distrusts these agencies), terrorism, the Middle East, Russia (he respects Putin), China, Western Europe, Mexico and so on. It will be an unsettled and likely difficult period that could invite disastrous consequences, large or small.

Domestically his early nominees for office – Wall Street insiders for the top economic posts; military generals for national security/defense positions and opponents of climate change, environmental regulations, public education and so on to lead the agencies that deal with such concerns – have shown that he will make good on his campaign promises. He has committed to investing heavily in the military and in nuclear weaponry, not a good sign for a man, unrestrained in practice, who takes a hostile view of those he considers opponents. As he has said, he will prioritize an “America First” approach to the world. He has pledged to end immigration, return undocumented immigrants (11 million in number) to their home countries, set tariffs and end free trade agreements. Confrontations are likely.

He has promised a neoliberal deregulated economy and a tax restructuring even more favorable to the accumulation of wealth by Corporate America and the handful of billionaires (like himself) at the top of the income hierarchy. He has vowed to abort Obamacare and Medicare and will do his best – he has Republican majorities in both houses of the Congress and on the state level in governors and state legislatures – to make good on his promise. The theatrics of the election campaign managed to hide a world view exactly the opposite of what so painfully has been built over the generations. It promises to be an extremely difficult four (or eight), or more years. Political analyst David Remnick (One Bridge: The Life and Times of Barack Obama, 2011) sees Trump’s election as “a constitutional crisis” and “a tragedy for America.”

He writes:

There are, inevitably, miseries to come: an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court; an emboldened right-wing Congress; a President whose disdain for women and minorities, civil liberties and scientific fact, to say nothing of simple decency, has been repeatedly demonstrated. Trump is vulgarity unbounded, a knowledge-free national leader who will not only set markets tumbling but will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable, the weak, and, above all, the many varieties of Other whom he has so deeply insulted. The African-American Other. The Hispanic Other. The female Other. The Jewish and Muslim Other. The most hopeful way to look at this grievous event – and it’s a stretch – is that this election and the years to follow will be a test of the strength, or the fragility, of American institutions. It will be a test of our seriousness and resolve (Remnick 2016).

Most Americans are not optimistic as the full dimensions of the election and the potential consequences for the nation, present and future, become apparent. It was an election built largely on the anger of the economically bypassed, an indictment of both political parties and their priorities over the last half century.  Should Donald Trump succeed in his design of a new national and international order, the United States and the rest of the world could well enter a period of one-man rule in a weakened democratic state. It is an outcome no one should welcome.



  1. David Remnick, “An American Tragedy,” The New Yorker, November 9, 2016.




Craig Allen Smith – Trump Solves His Rhetorical Puzzle

This is a guest post by Craig Allen Smith, Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University

Donald Trump stunned America and the world by defeating Hillary Clinton in the 2016 American presidential election. Twelve days ago I wrote of the candidates’ rhetorical puzzle and suggested three strategic challenges facing them. Clearly, Trump addressed those challenges with greater effectiveness. Today’s post is an attempt to explain how he did so.

Closing the Gap

The U. S. Constitution made American presidential elections a tournament of state elections, not a national popular vote. Candidates therefore need a plurality of votes in states that control at least 270 electoral votes. State polls of “likely voters” aggregated daily by,, and projected the states that seemed “safe” or “likely” for Clinton and Trump.  My post of 25 October used the tipping point to report that Clinton needed to win those states where she then led by 6% (or more) whereas Trump needed to win every state where he trailed by 6% or less, and I inferred that Trump needed to dramatically improve his standing in Pennsylvania (-6%) and Nevada (-5%) to have a chance.

By Election Eve of 7 November, thirteen days of heavy campaigning and reporting had changed that scenario. The tipping point showed Clinton needing to win every state she led by a statistically insignificant 3% (not 6%). Trump had solidified his leads in Texas and Mississippi such that his +5% states offered 161 electors (up from from 100), flipped both Arizona (from -4% to +2%) and Nevada (from -6% to +1%), and maintained his slight leads in Ohio, South Carolina and Georgia. The states where Trump led by even 1% thus offered 221 electoral votes, but winning all of those states would still leave him 49 electors short of victory.

Where might Trump find those 49 electors? State polls had shifted toward Trump to create a tie in Florida (29) and a statistically insignificant 2% Clinton lead in North Carolina (15). By beating those polls’ margin of error Trump could reach 265 electors. Moreover, Clinton’s leads in Michigan (16 electors), Colorado (9), and New Hampshire (4) had dropped to 3%. In short, by election eve Trump had moved into position to win 294 electors by winning the states where polls found him within a statistically insignificant margin of 3%.

Converting Polls to Votes

The campaign to “get out the vote” (GOTV) is crucial. Barack Obama’s GOTV efforts twice resulted in historic vote totals, and the Clinton campaign followed his model. In October reported that “The Democrats have 5,100 paid staffers in the battleground states. The Republicans have 1,400.”  By their convention in July Trump’s advisors reasoned that winning the Republican nomination would commit the Republican Party to do his GOTV work for them. That fit the needs of Republican leaders wary of Trump who were investing their resources in “down ballot” races for the Senate, congressional seats, and governorships. Although many of Trump’s supporters disliked establishment Republicans nearly as much as they disliked Democrats he could be confident of their votes. What Trump needed was a concerted Republican effort to turn out traditional Republicans who disliked him.

As of this writing the incomplete vote totals show that Trump and the Republicans outperformed the polls in the states he needed to win. Specifically, his votes exceeded his polls in South Carolina (by 13.6%), Ohio (6.6%), North Carolina (5.8%), Michigan (3.3%), New Hampshire (2.8%), Georgia (1.7%), Florida (1.4%), Colorado (0.8%), and Arizona (0.2%); Trump’s vote fell below his polls only in Nevada (-2.4%).  More impressively, he took 30 electoral votes from Clinton’s column by outperforming his polls in Wisconsin by 8% and Pennsylvania by 5.1%. By outperforming the polls Trump won those states’ electoral votes, 128-19.

Bad Polling or Impressive Turnout?

Should we infer that the polls were wrong or that Republican turnout was impressive? The available evidence suggests both. The Republican turnout hypothesis finds support in their down ballot senate races. Republicans handily won the “close” senate races in Indiana and Florida by 8%,  won three of the five “toss-up” races, and won the Wisconsin seat in an upset.  The Republican turnout effort trumped that of the Democrats.

But polling was problematic as well. The “surprise” states were Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida; but because none put Trump behind on election eve by more than 5%, they were not technically wrong. More problematic were the interpretations of the polling data by reporters, who paid too little heed to the statistical margin for error. But dare any pollster claim success when the outcome is so far off the mark?

One poll — the LATimes/USC poll is being highlighted as “the one that got it right”. It daily tracked a panel of about 3,000 voters and asked panelists for their candidate preference and their likelihood of voting. For several months it was the outlying poll that showed a Trump lead. But notice that the LATimes/USC poll projected a 3.2% Trump win of the popular vote that he currently trails by 0.2% and it paid no attention to their respondents’ states or electoral potential. It seems apparent that their method should guide future polling and extend it to the state level, but it seems equally apparent that it, too, was less than prescient.

Two Americas?

The American people have been polarizing for many years.  We began migrating into likeminded communities in the 1970s, then found ways to watch likeminded cable television channels and niche news, then accelerated the process through social media. Today all Americans and many people around the world are asking who we are as a people. Consider this election day paradox: 69.2% of respondents said the the country was on the wrong track and  56% approve of President Obama’s job performance (only Bill Clinton had greater approval eight years after his election).

How, then, did American voters sort themselves into the Trump and Clinton coalitions? According to data from CNN’s exit polls, Trump found votes among married white males over 45 who did not graduate from college and but earn more than USD $50,000 and attend religious services at least monthly. Clinton found votes among unmarried non-white females under 45 who graduated from college earn less than USD $50,000, attend religious services infrequently.

Perhaps more informative than the demographics are the issue positions associated with the candidates. These positions permeated the candidates’ rhetoric in speeches, debates, and advertising. Trump found votes among those who disapprove of President Obama and are angry about the federal government for doing too much and want a president who can bring change especially with regard to immigration and terrorism by deporting illegal aliens, building a border wall, escalating the fight against ISIS, and changing trade deals to increase jobs. Clinton found votes among those who approve of President Obama, the federal government, international trade, and progress in the fight with ISIS and who want the federal government to do still more by offering legal status to illegal aliens without building a border wall.

The CNN data help to explain the apparent paradox between approval of Obama and disapproval of the direction of the country — the numbers reflect different populations. And yet they suggest new paradoxes within the Trump coalition. First, Trump voters want the federal government to do less but want it to build a border wall, deport illegal immigrants, and change our trade agreements. Second, television commentators attributed the anger and call for change to economic dislocation, but Trump did better among those earning more than USD $50,000 annually and lost among those who regard the economy as the most important issue. Those paradoxes deserve our attention.

Resolving the Paradoxes: 7 Hypotheses

There will be no shortage of commentaries seeking to explain this election. Let me simply propose some observations and hypotheses for further study.

  1. This was not a referendum on two personally unpopular candidates. The exit polls undermine this canard. Only 18% of voters regarded both candidates unfavorably and just 2% regarded both favorably; 41% regarded only Clinton favorably and 36% regarded only Trump favorably. There is a disconnect between the media narrative and the exit poll data because fewer than one in five voters looked unfavorably upon both candidates.
  2. Democrats were unlikely to win with a different nominee. We are now hearing that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Joe Biden could have won, which presumes that a candidate to Clinton’s left could have won more votes. Perhaps. But Clinton won 84% of liberal votes and 52% of moderate votes —specifically,  90% of Democratic women and 47% of independent women.  Among voters 35% were conservative, 39% independent, and only 26% liberal. The additional votes needed to prevail were unlikely to be found among liberals or Democratic women, but from the larger pools of independents and Republican women. Indeed, Sanders worked with Clinton to craft “the most progressive platform ever” and it ran headlong into a right of center electorate.
  3. Trump’s vote emerged late. CNN’s exit polls show that Clinton led 52-45% among the 60% of voters who decided by the end of August; Trump won among the 13% who decided in September, the 12% who decided in October, and 14% who decided in November. Surely, the September shift is partly attributable to Clinton’s pneumonia that seemed to validate warnings about her general health and may have contributed to her unfortunate reference to Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”.  Just as surely, the November shift must be at least partly attributable to the FBI’s reopening of their email investigation eleven days before the election (by the time they closed the inquiry ten days later millions of votes had been cast). But the October shift toward Trump is more curious.
  4. Trump won October despite the Debates and the Video. October was dominated by two presidential debates and the vice-presidential debates. They drew large audiences and there was a general consensus that Clinton won them going away, but 57% of Trump’s supporters said that the debates were not important to their decision. Between the first two of those debates a video emerged in which Trump was heard saying lewd and unseemly things about his approach to women. Yet Trump won October deciders 51-37% apparently because his converts were undeterred by those episodes; indeed, the October deciders may have been alienated by the Clinton campaign’s attention to the video.
  5. Republican GOTV efforts used the Supreme Court to broaden Trump’s vote. The success of the Republican effort to turn out the vote can be seen in their success in other races. One question suggests how they motivated Republicans wary of Trump to vote for him: 21% of all voters said that the next president’s Supreme Court appointments were the “most important factor” in their decision, and 56% of them voted for Trump. This seems significant because it suggests that 11.7% of all voters chose Trump primarily to gain control of the Supreme Court — a number of voters sufficient to swing several states all by itself..
  6. The election does not show that Americans are racist sexist, and nativist. Many Americans are struggling with this hypothesis today. We should note, first, that Trump was elected with less than a majority of the popular vote. Second, we calculated that 11.7% of those Trump voters considered the Supreme Court nominees to be the most important factor in their decision. Third, we saw that Trump won the late deciders 47-42% to overcome a 47-49% deficit among the 85% who decided prior to the last week of campaigning. It seems unlikely that so many voters would become suddenly racist, sexist, and nativist just a week before voting. Trump did build a constituency by fanning the embers of prejudice and intolerance, but many who ultimately voted for him did so with difficulty and for other reasons.
  7. This election was was a conflicted call for change. When CNN asked voters what candidate quality mattered most to them they heard four responses: Can bring change (39%), right experience (21%), good judgment (20%), and cares about me (15%). Trump won 83% of the 39% who wanted change (or 32% of all voters). But those voters re-elected 26 of 28 incumbent senators and 432 of 435 members of congress. It appears that incumbents represented their constituents who want their adversaries to compromise or change.


The 2016 American presidential election will long be studied as a shocking upset. One of the world’s wealthiest men created a populist movement to become the only American president with no military or political experience. He ran a unique campaign: he used his own money rather than raising funds, he had a small staff and ran through three  campaign mangers, he relied on Twitter far more than television ads, he repeatedly charged that the polls and election were “rigged” against him, and he insulted key Republicans, Mexicans, Muslims, refugees, women, and the persons with disabilities. He proceeded to defeat 16 Republican rivals and the party establishment, then defeated Clinton — a former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State supported by two popular presidents. Pollsters and journalists, as well as citizens, were blindsided by the outcome.

This post has shown that Trump narrowed Clinton’s lead in the final two weeks to statistically insignificant leads in the crucial states. The Republican party’s turnout efforts and concern for the Supreme Court apparently induced many Republicans and independents to grit their teeth and join the enthusiastic Trump base. Only 18% regarded both candidates unfavorably and Clinton held the advantage on favorability. Moreover, potential Trump voters cared little that Clinton won the debates, and they may have recoiled at the Clinton campaign’s attention to the lewd video.

During August many journalists, pundits, and politicians foretold the demise of the Republican Party, but that party now holds the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, most state governorships and stands ready to approve a conservative nominee to the U. S. Supreme Court. Fissures within the Republican community will go a long way to deciding the nature of the Trump presidency.

Now it is the Democrats who are in shocked disarray.  More Democratic than Republican congressional seats are at risk in 2018.  If the new administration shrinks the federal government by delegating responsibilities to the states, it is Republicans who control most states. And by 2020 everyone who has been considered a potential Democratic president — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren — will be well over 70.

But the pressing question today is how a polity so polarized will find the common ground necessary for effective self-governance. The argument over the White House has ended, and a new conversation requires mutual understanding and trust that are difficult to find.

Michael S. Lewis-Beck – Presidential Power and US Electoral Forecasting

This is a guest post by Michael S. Lewis-Beck, Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Iowa

Recently, different teams of political scientists who specialize in US election forecasting released their fall forecasts at the annual professional meeting. These forecasts have been discussed in the media, and have now appeared in print, including the forecast that Charles Tien and I made (see, respectively, Balz, 2016; Lewis-Beck and Tien, 2016). We forecast a win for Hillary Clinton, with 51.0% of the popular vote share (the Democratic and Republican total), which converts to an estimated Electoral College win of 274 votes.  What forms the basis of this close, but winning, margin?  Our Political Economy model points to two factors, presidential popularity and economic growth. The first variable, the popularity of president Obama, exercises a positive pull; the second variable, economic growth, exercises a positive pull, but much less so.  In this essay, I will lay out the workings of the model, focusing on the power of the sitting president in this equation.

Our Political Economy model relies on enduring theory, as manifest in numerous scholarly investigations. This model was our first, appearing over thirty years ago and we have returned to it now, on evidence that it is, after all, our best effort ever (Lewis-Beck and Rice, 1984). The theory contends that the presidential election constitutes a referendum on how the party in the White House handles the big political and economic questions of the day. The better he (or she) does on the critical issues, the more votes go to the party (Lewis-Beck et al. 2008). We measure these two variables simply. For the president’s treatment of leading political issues, we utilize the Gallup pool question on job approval.  For performance on economic issues, we utilize economic growth. Further, since we wish to make a forecast, from an optimal lead time, we measure these things in the mid-summer of the election year.

Put another way, the underlying explanation finds this expression:

Incumbent Vote = Presidential Approval + Economic Growth.

Of course, more complicated models are possible. (See, for example, Dassonnville and Lewis-Beck, 2015). However, this uncomplicated one appears to work rather well, drawing on estimates from the multiple regression equation below, applied to the 17 presidential elections, 1948-2012.

Vote = 37.50 + .26 Popularity + 1.17 Growth

Predicting the 2016 presidential election, we merely plug in the final numbers of these two variables, as of August 26, 2016. That is, July Popularity = 51% and Gross National Product Growth (2016, first two quarters, non-annualized) = .20, yielding this forecast:

Vote = 37.50 + .26 (51) + 1.17 (.20)
= 51.0 % of the popular two-party vote to Clinton, the Democratic candidate.

A popular vote share of this magnitude yields an Electoral College forecast of 274 (derived from the following formula:

Electoral Vote % = -198 + 4.88 Popular Vote).

How much error can we expect from such a prediction?  Perhaps surprisingly, not that much.  Looking at Table 1, we see the actual forecasting error from the prediction of each election in the series. It is important to note that these jackknife forecasts are out-of-sample, i.e., the election called is forecast from data gathered only on the other elections. Observe that the median error is just 2.0 percentage points. More generally, column 3 of the Table below reports that the forecasts correctly pick the winner in 13 out of the 17 contests, meaning it has been right 82 percent of the time.

What lies behind this level of accuracy?  Mostly, it comes from the power of the presidential variable. That variable – public approval of how the president handles the job – correlates with vote at about .83 across the series, and accounts for the lion’s share of the variance in the multiple regression equation (where the R-squared = .76). Indeed, if we look at the presidential approval variable by itself, we can formulate an interesting rule: when the president’s mid-summer approval exceeds 50%, the party in the White House will win the national popular vote. (Curiously, this rule had an early, but rather neglected, emergence in the literature; Lewis-Beck and Rice, 1982). This rule has held for all 7 of the elections across this period where the 50% standard is met or exceeded, namely 1956, 1964, 1972, 1984, 1988, 1996, 2000.


A straightforward, theoretically sound Political Economy model suggests that Clinton will be the next president. The promise of that suggestion comes mostly from the relatively high popularity that President Obama, as a Democrat, has recently enjoyed. His comparative success on big issues appears to have allowed a majority of voters to transfer their support to the new candidate of his party, Hillary Clinton. When presidential elections are viewed as referenda on the performance of the party in the White House, that gives the man (or woman) occupying that office enormous de facto power to determine the next winner.


Balz, Dan.  September 3, 2016. “Election Forecasters Try to Bring Some Order to a Chaotic Political Year,” Washington Post.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Ruth Dassonneville.  2015.“Comparative Election Forecasting: Further Insights from Synthetic Models,” Electoral Studies, 39,2015, 275-283.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S., William Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth and Herbert Weisberg.  2008.  The American Voter Revisited.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S., and Tom Rice.  1982.  “Presidential Popularity and Presidential Vote.”  Public Opinion Quarterly, 46 (Winter), pp.534 – 537.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S., and Tom W. Rice.  1984.  “Forecasting Presidential Elections: A Comparison of Naïve Models.”  Political Behavior 6, 9-21.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Charles Tien.  2016. “The Political Economy Model: 2016 US Election Forecasts,” PS: Political Science and Politics, October, 2016.

Craig Allen Smith – Navigating the Home Stretch of the 2016 American Presidential Campaign

This is a guest post by Craig Allen Smith, Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University

Having witnessed the referenda on Scotland’s independence and Brexit, world attention is now on the 2016 American presidential campaign.  The torrent of social media and non-stop news updates provide a disconcerting blend of information, misinformation, and trivia.  This is the first of two posts designed to provide a framework for interpreting those data points, headlines, tweets, and predictions (the second will appear after the election).  Today’s post discusses the procedural requirements that generate strategic challenges for candidates and suggests ways for observers (foreign and domestic) to understand  the campaign.

The Framework

In Presidential Campaign Communication, 2nd ed. I suggested that we view American presidential campaigns as a national conversation among three sets of participants: Citizens, Campaigners, and a greek chorus of Reporters (Smith, 2015). Their “trialogue” unfolds in four functional stages — Surfacing, Nominating, Consolidating, and Electing — each of which has “instrumental objectives” for advancement to the next. Thus the first strategic question is, “What must one do to advance?”

The instrumental objectives require the accumulation of “victory units” that include votes, volunteers, publicity, and money. Those resources are unequally dispersed; some have money to donate, some have time to volunteer, and some are more likely to vote than others.  Thus the second strategic question is, “Who holds the resources one needs for victory units?”

Candidates begin with no victory units and proceed to accumulate them through “rhetorical transactions” with those who have the desired resources. They trade words and symbolic actions for attention, campaign resources, and votes much as comedians trade jokes for laughs or buskers sing favorite songs to attract contributions. Thus the third strategic question is, “What need be said for candidates and audiences to complete their rhetorical transactions?” Those questions can help us to understand the current campaign.

“What must one do to advance?”

By 1 February 2016 the Surfacing stage had defined the campaign by rhetorically constituting the rules, issue publics, news habits, and candidacies (Smith 2016). The candidates who surfaced moved into the Nominating stage where they competed in state level party contests (primary elections, caucuses, or conventions) to win commitments from a majority of their national party’s convention delegates. Nominating led to the Consolidating stage when Donald Trump secured a majority of Republican delegates on 26 May and when Hillary Clinton secured a majority of Democratic delegates on 7 June. Both nominating campaigns had so fragmented their parties that both nominees had many fences to mend by the end of their national party conventions.

The Electing stage began with the nomination acceptance addresses that concluded the conventions (Trump’s on 21 July and Clinton’s on 28 July). It is crucial to understand that American presidential elections hinge not on the national popular vote but on electoral votes. Each state and the District of Columbia has a number of electors equal to its number of U.S. senators and Representatives. When votes are counted on election day the candidate with a plurality of votes in each state wins its electors (except for Maine and Nebraska, which award their electors by congressional districts).

Therefore, the strategic challenge for each candidate is to secure a plurality of voters in a combination of states that yield 270 electoral votes (a majority of the 538 electors). Remember that Vice-president Al Gore won the 2000 national popular vote but lost the electoral vote to George W. Bush whereas Bill Clinton twice won more than 68% of the electoral votes without polling 50% of the popular vote. Unfortunately, too many American pollsters focus on the largely meaningless popular vote. Daily they report polls of 45%-43% and the like without considering electoral strength.  This misleads many Citizens, Reporters, and even some candidates.

The proper way to track the candidates’ progress during the Electing stage is to follow state level polls that show which candidates lead which states by how much. When those polls suggest margins in excess of the margin for error, one can infer the candidate likely to win those electoral votes.  The inconclusive state polls identify the “battleground states” that can be won by the candidate who invests wisely their campaign resources.

Three excellent web sites daily update state polls and project electoral votes—,, and Nate Silver’s All three sites average recent state polls and allocate electoral votes accordingly. Especially informative is because it includes the “tipping point” at which each candidate would win an electoral majority.

To appreciate the difference between national and state polls, let is consider the 18 October reports. The average of national polls put Clinton ahead by 3% (within the statistical margin for error) suggesting a popular vote both too close to call and —  Mr. Gore might remind us — meaningless.  But that day’s state polls showed Clinton surpassing the 270 electoral vote tipping point by winning every state where she then led Trump by 5% or more; Trump needed to win every state where he was within 6% of Clinton.  A week later the October 24th average of national polls showed Trump ahead by 1% whereas the tipping point still showed Clinton needing to win only the states where she led by 5%.

During the recent week Trump alleged repeatedly that the election is “rigged” and declined to commit himself to the outcome of the election. Perhaps he was reasoning that the Founders had rigged the election by creating the Electoral College, or perhaps he simply failed to understand the process. This week he is and is alleging that the polls are also rigged against him by dishonest media companies. Until we learn that a cabal of pollsters intentionally engaged in flawed polling it seems more reasonable to suspect that the politically inexperienced Trump has been seduced by his supporters’ cheers.

In short, national popularity is a good but indirect predictor of the presidential election because Americans are not electing the President of the People, we are voting to decide how our states will elect the next President of the United States.

“Who holds the resources one needs for victory units?”

Candidates need to win states, but which states do they need? Theoretically, the election should hinge on the eight battleground states where state polls report margins less than 5%.  But with two weeks to go Clinton leads by 5% or more in 23 states and DC with a total of 279 electoral votes and need not win any of those eight states. Unless she loses Pennsylvania (which voted for Barack Obama by margins of 10% and 5% and where she leads by 5%) or other states where she has even larger leads she need not win any of the eight battleground states.

State polls currently show Trump leading by 5% or more in 19 states with only 117 electoral votes, which explains why Trump needs those polls to be rigged, wrong, transient, or poorly related to voting. How could Trump win? From the October 25th tipping point site we can infer that Trump’s need for 270 electoral votes requires him to win (1) every state that he leads by 5% for 117 electoral votes, (2) every state that he leads by less than 5% (South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Ohio) for an additional 87 electoral votes, (3) every state that currently favors Clinton by less than 5% (Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida) for another 61 electoral votes, and (4) Pennsylvania and Nevada, where he trails by 5% and 6%, respectively. Therefore Trump’s first strategic priority must be to dramatically alter the situations in Pennsylvania and Nevada; unless he does so — or dramatically wins even stronger Clinton states with at least 11 electoral votes —he will lose.

If Trump can solve that problem he will also need to win Florida and Ohio (which Obama won by averages of 1.5% and 4%, respectively) and North Carolina (which Obama won by 1% then  lost by 2%). He currently leads Ohio by 2% but trails in Florida by 4% and North Carolina by 2%, all of which are within the margin for error and could conceivably vote for Clinton.

Five other battleground states voted for the previous Republican nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, by substantial margins. Their average margins of victory were 14% in Texas, 12.5% in Mississippi, 9.5% in South Carolina, 9% in Arizona, and 7% in Georgia.  But Trump currently trails Arizona by 1% (-10%) and his leads in the other four states are considerably smaller than were theirs: 3% in Texas (-11%) and Mississippi (-6.5%), 4% in South Carolina (-5.5%), and 3% in Georgia (-4%).

In short, Clinton need only win Pennsylvania (+5%) or Florida (+4%) to surpass 270 electoral votes; Trump can only win the presidency by winning every state where the current polls show him trailing by 5% or less. Of course, it is possible that Trump could win both Pennsylvania and Florida, but he would still be short of victory unless he also won all of the other battleground states.

“Who needs me to say what before granting me their resources?”

As the election nears, candidates need two resources: support and votes. It is one thing to entice citizens to prefer you over your opponent, and it is quite another matter to entice your supporters to vote. The last American presidential election in which 60% of those eligible voted was 1968. Put differently, for nearly half a century more than 40% of eligible American citizens have declined to cast a vote for president

Ideally, we might hope for rational policy discussions and uplifting talk to unify citizens behind their next president. But presidential campaigns are less a search for consensus than a push toward preference. Points of difference are exaggerated whenever possible to heighten contrast. This cycle saw Trump defeat sixteen other Republican candidates as Clinton outlasted Bernie Sanders. Many of those who supported the nominees’ adversaries have been reluctant to transfer their support to the nominees, such that many of the rhetorical transactions have amounted to attacks on the opposition. Clinton and Trump have attacked one another as unfit for the office. We rarely hear of undecided citizens who like both candidates. The polls discussed above suggest that the national aggregate preferences are roughly equal, but that electorally important states prefer Clinton.

For several months Trump has needed to expand his appeal, but he has been slow to do so. Instead he has repeated the themes that appeal to his base of support, even attacking Republicans such as McCain and Romney, and House Speaker Paul Ryan. He seems to expect that his attacks on Clinton will expand his support, but the polls discussed above provide little evidence of success.

But the ultimate question is, then, who will vote? The closing effort to “get out the vote” (GOTV) is crucial. Barack Obama’s GOTV efforts resulted in historic vote totals. The Clinton campaign has invested heavily in similar efforts, suggesting that the Trump campaign will need to perform even better if their votes are to exceed their state polls.

But Trump has raised less money than Clinton and has been slow to develop a GOTV operation. reported that “The Democrats have 5,100 paid staffers in the battleground states. The Republicans have 1,400.”  Trump has said all along that he speaks for those who have been excluded or who have seen little reason to vote. But those people, by definition, offer unreliable votes. They may well vote in record numbers, but Democrats are providing 3.6 times the guidance to potential voters about polling places, hours, and transportation.

Earlier in the campaign some Trump advisors apparently reasoned that winning the Republican nomination would commit the Republican Party to do their GOTV work for them. That could work in Republican strongholds, but many of Trump’s supporters dislike establishment Republicans nearly as much as they dislike Democrats. Indeed, the national polls suggest that Trump is doing well in states that he is sure to win while floundering in the battleground states. Wary of Trump, Republicans have turned their resources to “down ballot” races for the Senate, congressional seats, and governorships.

So the question is, what does Trump say to entice irregular voters who dislike both parties to vote? One wonders why his supporters would be more likely to vote if the election is “rigged” as he has been contending. On the other hand, the Clinton campaign must overcome the complacency that derives from their supporters’  confidence. They are increasingly responding that their supporters should provide an overwhelming landslide to undermine doubts and to provide her with Senate and perhaps congressional majorities.


I have suggested the the American presidential campaign is a national conversation in which the nominees face three strategic questions: What must one do to advance?, Who holds the resources one needs for victory units?, and “What need be said for candidates and audiences to complete their rhetorical transactions?

For Hillary Clinton to advance to the presidency she needs her supporters (and Trump’s opponents) to vote. She has thousands of GOTV workers in the battleground states to help convert the state poll percentages into votes, and if she does so she will win states providing more than the 270 electoral votes.

Donald Trump has a narrow path to the presidency. He needs to win every state in which he trails by 6% or less but he is running well behind his Republican predecessors in several of them. Trump urgently needs to cut into Clinton’s leads in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Florida to put them in play. Thus he needs to broaden his appeal but has been reluctant to do so. He then needs to generate a far greater turnout rate than Clinton in order to win battleground states where his polls lag, but he has assembled an anemic GOTV force. In the next post we will see how well the candidates performed.

Reference List

Smith, C. A. (2015). Presidential campaign communication (2nd ed.) Cambridge: Polity.

Smith, C. A. (2016, 20 April). The Surfacing Stage of the 2016 American Presidential Campaign: A Status Report.

William J. Crotty – Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and a Nasty U.S. Second Presidential Debate

This is a guest post by William J. Crotty, Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Chair in Public Life and Emeritus Professor of Political Science, at Northeastern University

The second of the presidential debates proved to be explosive. There was speculation that given the events that had preceded it, it might well determine the election’s outcome.

The Town Hall debate, the format used, turned out, as promised, to be an angry, contentious, even embarrassing series of exchanges built primarily around character attacks from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There was a policy component but the differences, and claims as to their effectiveness, were so extreme and the arguments over effectiveness so unrelenting that it was unclear whether either candidate succeeded in making their point. This debate was centered on personal behavior.

Hillary Clinton was seen by Donald Trump as the problem; an insider who, along with her allies, made the mess (as he saw it) of the country that he had vowed to “make great again.” Clinton was a symbol of the status quo, a candidate committed to continuing things much as they were, allowing for a few incremental changes and little more. Appealing to his party’s base (and some Republican officeholders) that appear to hate Hillary Clinton (this was said publicly), Trump referred to her as a “lying Hillary,” “cheating Hillary,” and, at one point, the “devil.” This in a presidential election.

Trump continually, as he had throughout the campaign, made accusations against women and, in particular, a former Miss Universe who he felt was “overweight”; the disabled, other Republicans, John McCain (a loser because a winner does not get captured, a reference to McCain’s five years as a prisoner of war in a Hanoi prison during the Vietnam War); and post-debate, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and the highest ranking Republican in the nation (a “very weak and ineffective leader”); a Muslim family that lost a son in Iraq (and in fairness had criticized Trump in an appearance at the Democratic National Convention); the “weak” in general (he promised to be a “strong man” president and made it clear he admired Putin and Russia); and so on. During the debate, he also said he would put Hillary Clinton in jail if elected, a Third World moment resented by many. All in all, it was among the most contentious of debates (there have been others) in American political history.

The run-up to the Town Hall meeting served to ensure that what was to follow would be acrimonious, to an extent few had ever encountered. Two events immediately prior to the Town Hall meeting ensured it would be explosive. First, and seemingly striking at the heart of the Trump campaign, the New York Times released a series of tax records  in a story detailing Trump’s staggering business losses (casinos, worldwide real estate holding, gold courses, an airline, a yacht he had valued at $100 million, and so on) in the 1980 to the mid-1990s. The article reported that Trump had lost almost a billion dollars ($916 million) in 1995.  In addition it was claimed that he likely had paid no taxes for the following 18 years.  He would have been drawing on a provision of the tax code that allowed such write-offs for business failures of this nature for corporate and real estate investments. The financial institutions and individual investors took catastrophic losses. At least three business bankruptcies ensued.

Trump came out from it all comfortably. He personally lost little to any money.  The major financers of his holdings decided that rather than force Trump into personal bankruptcy, it better served their interests to put him on a retainer ($450,000/month)1 and to pay him for the use of his name (believed to be a marketing draw for other investors). Also he was to manage a number of the hotels and casinos, for which he received an additional fee. He did lose the airline and the yacht and he was not to own the buildings and developments, then or in the future, with his name on them.2

Trump’s response was that he was a good businessman and took advantage of the tax code to advance his own interests. He claimed to know it better than anyone else and had no apologies. The investors should have done the same.

The financial interests that took over the Trump empire saw him as a poor businessman but a great salesman, a set of skills he was using to good effort in the election. The entire financial mess served not to hurt Trump with his supporters. He continued to claim he was a great businessman who would use his proven ability to make America great again. The issue came up in the second debate but Trump dismissed it and again there appeared to be little harm done to his campaign.

The second explosion in the period between the first and second debates, if anything, was even more of a shock. For years, Trump had been accused of denigrating women and seeing them only in terms of their physical appearance. In the days following the first debate, he continued his accusations as to the looks and made charges in crude terms about a former Miss Universe. These included tweets sent between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. further attacking the woman. Odd as this was, it was soon overshadowed by the release of a decade-old tape by the Washington Post which captured Trump talking about women on his way to taping a TV soap opera. In it he told of kissing them as he pleased, groping their private parts and being on them (this is not pleasant) like a “bitch.” Married women were fair game to Trump.3

The reaction to the video was instantaneous. Hillary Clinton called it “horrific” and others followed with similar comments. There were calls for Trump to resign his position or be replaced as the head of the ticket (almost impossible to do). His reaction was that the words [spoken on the video] “don’t reflect who I am,” that the video was a decade old, that he was embarrassed by it. He appeared to give what was seen as a partial apology4, repeatedly then and afterwards referred to it as “locker room” talk and said that while his were only words Bill Clinton has acted on his impulses and he promised to make Clinton’s predatory behavior a campaign issue, a threat he kept.5

Going into the debate speculation centered on whether Trump would apologize as many of his supporters wanted, withdraw from the race or continue to fight and campaign. The answer came soon enough. In the afternoon preceding the debate, Trump held a press conference with four women, three of whom claimed to have been targets for predatory assaults by Bill Clinton. One woman said she had been raped by Clinton. The fourth woman claimed to have been raped when she was 12 years old and that Hillary Clinton represented the rapist in court proceedings. This was true. Clinton had been appointed by the sitting judge who would not let her withdraw. Trump threatened to take the four women into the debate, which he did.

Trump was far from contrite in the Town Hall meeting. He aggressively and repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton, even walking the stage and appearing to stalk her while she spoke to the audience. He would stand behind her and make gestures disapproving of her remarks. As promised he ripped into Bill Clinton for his behavior.

Hillary Clinton refused to get into discussing her husband’s affairs. She said she would take the high road and attempted to stay on message, although frequently responding to Trump’s charges and interruptions. Trump had further argued that the video tape was a diversion from the more important issues of the campaign. The approach succeeded. The debate turned to a series of policy differences between the candidates, argued with the intensity and anger with which the questions had been addressed.  All in all, it was a hostile, volatile and ugly series of exchanges unlike any in modern memory.

In the aftermath of the debate, Hillary Clinton was praised, Trump criticized. Clinton was seen, as in the first debate, as making the more effective presentations. However when the polls came out, Trump had actually increased his support among Republicans to 89 percent. He also cut into Clinton’s national lead in some of the polls.

The Republican party was in turmoil and there was talk off a “civil war” in party ranks. It was party leaders and officeholders against the party’s base which supported Trump. Trump seemed unmoved and in fact promised a meaner, more provocative, more Far Right campaign to come. One thing the debate did establish was that with one month to go, Trump was in it to the bitter end and the chances were it would not be pleasant.


1. Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli, “How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions.” New York Times. June 12, 2016, P. A1.

2. David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Ross Buettner and Megan Twohey, “Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found.” New York Times. October 1, 2016. P. A1.

3. “Donald Trump’s Latest Comments About Women Are So Disturbing They Can’t Be Printed.” Fortune. October 7, 2016 Accessed October 12, 2016 at:

4. Maggie Haberman, “Donald Trump’s Apology That Wasn’t.” New York Times. October 8, 2016.

5. Jeremy W. Peters, “Trump Campaign Tried to Seat Bill Clinton’s Accusers in V.I.P. Box.” October 10, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2016 at:

Joel K. Goldstein – The U.S. Vice Presidency and Presidential Power

This is a guest post by Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law

The American vice presidency has had a complicated relationship with the concept of presidential power.  The complication traces both to the dynamic nature of the vice presidency over time and its multi-faceted relationship to presidential power in virtually any period.  The second office has changed dramatically in recent decades, especially during the last 40 years, as I recount in my new book, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (Kansas, 2016)Yet even that very positive development has not removed intricacies inherent in the relationship of the second office to presidential power.

The vice presidency was created for instrumental reasons related to filling the presidency so it could exercise its constitutional power.  Fearing that parochial attachments would obstruct the election of a national president after George Washington, the framers gave each elector two votes for president with the constraint that no more than one vote could be cast for someone from the elector’s state.  The existence of the vice presidency would, the farmers hoped, discourage strategic voting by attaching a consequence to the second votes.  The office was an expedient to allow selection of a president, a prerequisite to the exercise of presidential power.  But the design failed to anticipate the development of national political parties which disrupted the framers’ plan.  Accordingly, the original electoral system lasted for only 15 years until the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution installed the current arrangement by which electors vote separately for the two offices.

During that first decade and one-half and long beyond, the vice presidency was given two formal duties which reflected an anomalous relationship to presidential power.  The vice president’s ongoing duty was to preside over the Senate and to break tie votes in that body.  As such, the vice president, as president of the Senate, was a legislative officer and accordingly part of the system of separation of powers and checks and balances that the framers thought would prevent the concentration and abuse of power, presidential and otherwise.  Yet the vice president was also made the first presidential successor who would discharge the “powers and duties” of the presidency in case the president died, resigned, was removed or was disabled.  Whereas the vice president’s ongoing duty made him adverse to presidential power, his contingent role made him heir to those very powers.  The former provided little power, the latter, all the executive power the Constitution conferred, a reality captured by the insight of the first vice president, John Adams, who said, “I am vice president.  In this I am nothing.  But I may be everything.”

The reality Adams described essentially lasted through the first 35 vice presidents, through and including the tenure of Alben Barkley (1949-1953).  With few exceptions, vice presidents spent most of their professional time performing their duty to preside over the Senate.  Seven of the 35 succeeded to the presidency following the death of their predecessor (two later vice presidents succeeded presidents who did not complete their terms due to death or resignation) and became “everything”; but while vice president, they and the others were closer to nothing, at least with respect to their relationship to presidential power.

The growth of presidential power associated with the New Deal and World War II changed the vice presidency, a development I described in my first book on the office, The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton, 1982).  That growth allowed presidential nominees to select their running mates beginning in the 1940s, thereby associating the two officers politically.  It made the qualifications and preparation of the first successor more material especially given the advent of the nuclear age and the Cold War.  The president was expected to respond to more domestic and international issues.  These developments drew the vice president into the executive branch beginning especially with the vice presidency of Richard M. Nixon.  Nixon and his next five successors, through and including Nelson A. Rockefeller (1974-1977), headed executive branch commissions, engaged in foreign travel and performed other political chores for the administrations.

Although these vice presidents moved from the legislative to the executive branch, as vice presidents they remained somewhat peripheral to presidential power.  When President Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked at an August, 1960 press conference to name an idea Nixon had contributed to the administration, he famously responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember,” a devastating answer for Nixon whose presidential campaign messaging was predicated on the superior experience he had gained at Eisenhower’s side.  More than a decade and one-half later, Rockefeller disparaged the second office as “simply standby equipment,” a description that suggested that it remained “nothing” or lose to it absent a succession.

Three institutional barriers kept these vice presidents from getting too close to presidential power even as they entered the executive branch.  Presidents hesitated to give vice presidents significant duties since the vice president was the one subordinate the president could not remove until the term ended.  The vice president’s successor function role inhibited close relations between the two as presidents suspected the motives and loyalty of someone whose ambitions would be realized by their own demise.  Finally, presidents lacked a vision for how to make the vice president significant.

The vice presidency made its most significant institutional advance during the vice presidency of Walter F. Mondale (1977-1981) as the office moved to the center of the presidency.  It did so, in part, because Mondale was able to circumvent or remove the barriers that had kept earlier vice presidents separate from presidential power.  In essence, Mondale proposed, and President Jimmy Carter embraced, a new vision of the vice president as a close presidential adviser and trouble-shooter who would have no ongoing portfolio.  Carter, who was disposed to elevating the office, gave Mondale the resources to make success possible—regular and extensive access to Carter in private and group sessions, access to the information Carter received, staff support and involvement of Mondale’s staff in White House operations, and visible presidential support for Mondale, through word and deed.  Carter gave Mondale a prize West Wing office symbolizing his importance and facilitating his involvement.  This new vision and accompanying resources gave Mondale an ongoing role as part of Carter’s inner circle and as someone who could handle presidential level missions, at home and abroad.

The presence of a significant, ongoing role allowed Mondale to circumvent the barrier the contingent, successor role had presented.  The new vision presented Mondale as part of the effort to make the Carter administration succeed, not as someone standing by to succeed the president.  Avoidance of portfolios coupled with Mondale’s investment in Carter’s success and their mutual trust made the vice president’s possession of a fixed term a less imposing barrier.

The Mondale vice presidency succeeded even as Carter’s presidency was rejected in the 1980 election.  It created a workable model for vice presidential contributions, what I have called the White House vice presidency, and expectations of vice-presidential involvement.  Carter’s and Mondale’s successors, beginning with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, adopted the Mondale model and this new institutional vision and its associated resources have now lasted for the last 40 years across six administrations, three from each major political party.  To be sure, vice-presidential influence has varied and different vice presidents have emphasized different aspects of the job.  And some have abandoned Mondale’s aversion to portfolios and have assumed some specific portfolios generally involving interdepartmental matters.  Yet all have served as general presidential advisers and trouble-shooters with access and information.

This new institution makes the vice presidency a much more consequential office than it has been for most of American history.   Yet it continues the office’s ambivalent relationship to presidential power even as it introduces entirely new considerations into the analysis.  In an important sense, the White House vice presidency expands presidential capacity by helping presidents deal with an increasingly challenging international and domestic arena.  The president needs help, not simply from staff assistants, but from high-level, politically attuned officers who can provide politically sensitive advice and handle assignments that need attention at the most senior levels.  By empowering the vice president, the president creates a surrogate who can pinch hit for him in discharging highly significant matters.

The advising role of the White House vice presidency reflects the complicated relationship of the office to presidential power.  The presence of the vice president as a senior presidential adviser, as the “last person in the room” in Joe Biden’s formulation, contributes to the exercise of presidential power by giving the president the counsel of a senior politician who largely shares his perspective and interests.  That role also, in a sense, creates an additional informal check of sorts on presidential power.  It can be used as a means to make certain the president has a full range of advice before making decisions as Mondale, George H.W. Bush and Biden among others did.  It also can introduce someone in the inner circle who can tell the president things they do not want to hear and which others may shy away from saying.  Here the vice president’s fixed term and stature provides some security that some others may not feel.  Of course, vice presidents remain dependent on presidents but presidents now also rely on their first subordinate, to help achieve their political and governmental objectives.

The development of the White House vice presidency has benefitted vice presidents by relieving them from the drudgery and many of the associated frustrations of their office.  Yet its greatest contribution has been enhancing the capacity of the presidency to respond to the demands it faces in a wise and effective manner.