2016 Is the Year That Voters Finally Got Tired of Reality

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Jeff Stein makes a potentially important point today:

On Saturday, about 80,000 voters participated in Nevada’s caucus — roughly two-thirds of the total that came out in 2008….Low turnout in Nevada wasn’t an outlier. New Hampshire saw 10 percent fewer voters in 2016 than it did eight years ago. In Iowa, turnout was also down — from 287,000 in 2008 to 171,000 this year.

….Sanders thinks “the core failure” of Obama’s presidency is its failure to convert voter enthusiasm in 2008 into a durable, mobilized organizing force beyond the election. Sanders vows to rectify this mistake by maintaining the energy from the campaign for subsequent fights against the corporate interests and in congressional and state elections.

The relatively low voter turnout in the Democratic primary so far makes this more sweeping plan seem laughably implausible. Three states have voted, we’ve had countless debates and town halls, and there’s been wall-to-wall media coverage for weeks….And yet … we have little evidence that Sanders has actually activated a new force in electoral politics. If he can’t match the excitement generated by Obama on the campaign trail, how can he promise to exceed it once in office?

Of course, it’s one thing to say that Sanders hasn’t generated huge turnouts in a primary against a fellow Democrat, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t generate a huge turnout against a Trump or a Cruz. The problem, of course, is that Hillary Clinton would quite likely generate a huge turnout as well. The prospect of either Trump or Cruz in the Oval Office would do wonders for Democratic panic no matter who the nominee is.

Sadly, turnout is a red herring. The real lesson of this year’s election is that candidates have learned there are no limits to what they can promise. Campaigning is always an exercise in salesmanship, and salesmen always overpromise. This year, though, we have two candidates who cavalierly and repeatedly promise the moon without making even a pretense that they have the slightest notion of how to accomplish any of it. And voters love it! Trump’s crowds go wild over the idea of Mexico paying for a wall and Sanders’ audiences go equally wild over his plan to blow away the entire American health care system and replace it with the NHS. This is the year that fantasy sells, and it sells big.

The conventional wisdom is that this is happening because voters are uniquely angry this year and attracted to outsiders who say they’re going to blow up the system. Maybe so. But I’ve heard that story pretty much every year for nearly my entire adult life, and weak economy or not I don’t really buy it. What’s different this year isn’t the electorate, it’s the candidates. American voters have always had an odd habit of simply believing whatever presidential candidates say, regardless of plausibility or past record, and this year two candidates have tested this to destruction. And guess what? It turns out that a lot of Americans will almost literally believe anything. I mean, China bashing and Wall Street bashing have always been good for some cheap applause, but this year we’re hearing blithe claims about crushing China by taxing them to death and smashing big banks into little bitty pieces, and the crowds are applauding even harder.

Trump and Sanders have shown that you can take overpromising to a far higher level than anyone ever thought possible. Is this unique to 2016? Or will others learn this lesson too? I guess we’ll have to wait for 2020 to find out.

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