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As famed philosopher and Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once observed, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
During a University of Delaware National Agenda speaker series discussion held Wednesday evening, Nov. 19, in Mitchell Hall, political strategists Stephanie Cutter and Steve Schmidt noted that, far from being over with the midterm results, the current political slugfest for control of Congress and the White House in 2016 is just beginning to heat up.
The final discussion in the 2014 National Agenda series, with “Battle for Congress” as its theme, was moderated by Ralph Begleiter, director of UD’s Center for Political Communication.
Begleiter introduced Cutter, who was deputy campaign manager for President Barack Obama in 2012, and Schmidt, a UD alumnus and veteran of several national election campaigns, as “two people who have spent decades running political campaigns, winning them and losing them.”
Cutter said the parties of American presidents who are in their sixth year in office tend to lose seats in the midterm elections, and that Republicans enjoyed a playing field that featured a great deal of “red” territory.
A major shortcoming for Democrats this year was their failure to express a unified vision on critical issues, including the economy, Cutter said.
“We needed a stronger message,” she said. “We didn’t have one on the number one issue with which voters were concerned, the economy.”
Cutter also noted that while Democrats were successful in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the same strategies that worked then did not play out as well in this year’s midterm elections.
“You can’t run the race that was run before,” Cutter said. “Republicans learned their lessons going into the midterm elections.”
Whatever the reasons for their midterm losses, Democrats will need to do a lot better in the 2016 race, Cutter said.
“The election is only two years away, but in presidential politics, that is a lifetime,” Cutter said. “It’s an exciting time, and we are trying to pick up the pieces and improve.”
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Schmidt received a warm welcome after being introduced by Begleiter as one of the reasons Bloomberg News once called UD the “epicenter of politics.”
Begleiter noted that Schmidt, who is vice president of the public relations firm Edelman and a senior fellow at the Center for Political Communication, is a UD political science graduate. A leading international political strategist, Schmidt has been a top adviser to President George W. Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
“It’s great to be back here at the University of Delaware,” Schmidt said. “I have a lot of great memories and it has been a great experience to come back to this University on an annual basis for the last six years.”
Schmidt described the tumultuous nature of an American electorate that gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2006, elected Obama as president in 2008 and 2012, yet elected Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010 and gave them an overwhelming victory this year.
“What we are seeing right now is an unprecedented level of volatility in our political markets,” Schmidt said. “This is very unusual, these wild swings between two parties in successive election cycles over the better part of a decade.”
The defining issue of our time, Schmidt said he believes, is the collapse of trust in nearly every major institution in the country, with the exception of the American military.
“It’s not just the political parties, it’s not just the political leadership of country,” Schmidt said. “In institution after institution, esteemed figure after esteemed figure have betrayed the public trust in the eyes of the American people.”
The result, Schmidt said, is the lowest level of trust in major institutions in the history of polling, and represents a prolonged season of pessimism from people who historically have been the most optimistic people on Earth.
“People believe the country is headed on the wrong track,” Schmidt said. “They believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and they don’t have confidence in the institutions and political leadership of the country to get it going in the right direction.”
A summer marked by American troops headed back to Iraq, the sweeping success of Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, and the Ebola outbreak only served to darken the mood of the voters, Schmidt said.
“All of these events together created a sense of anxiety in the country,” Schmidt said. “People sensed that the wheels, so to speak, are coming off the wagon, and the American people are very upset about it.”
In 2014, the main strategy of the Republican Party was to run on a platform that was marked by “steely, steady opposition to the president,” Schmidt said.
“What the election was fundamentally about, in this case, was the American people rendering judgment on an unpopular president with approval percentage ratings in the low 40s, very similar to where President (George W.) Bush was in the 2006 election,” Schmidt said. “The results are what they are.”
Both Cutter and Schmidt offered their views on the likely and unlikely candidates for each party in the race to the presidency in 2016.
“There are two kinds of elections, a more of the same election, and a change election,” Schmidt predicted. “The 2016 election will be a change election, and the Republicans will nominate one of their governors.”
The opening salvo of the 2016 presidential campaign, Schmidt noted, will be Obama’s executive order on immigration.
“This will be the foundation and backdrop against which the next battle for the Hispanic vote begins to play out for 2016,” he said.
Cutter said she believes Obama is going to begin a legalization process for immigrants and their children.
“Republicans are up in arms about something they think the president shouldn’t be doing,” Cutter said. “They think it’s their authority to act on this — well, go ahead and do something.”
With a nod to the 2016 election, Begleiter questioned Cutter about who the possible Democratic candidates would be if Hillary Clinton opted not to seek the nomination.
“I believe Hillary Clinton will run,” Cutter said. “If she decides not to, you might have Vice President Joe Biden. It’s rumored that he might run. I think he would be a great president. There are rumors that Elizabeth Warren is thinking about it. Most people believe Hillary Clinton is going to run, and if she does, it’s the overwhelming opinion that she is going to be the nominee.”
While Schmidt noted it might be too early to predict who the Republican frontrunner candidates might be, he said he doesn’t think it will be U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“The world we are living in will be more chaotic than it is today, not less chaotic, and I think his [Rand Paul] national security and foreign policy issues are out of step with the majority of the Republican Party and a substantial percentage of Democrats,” Schmidt said. “He is, for sure, to the left of Hillary Clinton on any one of a number of national security issues, which is why you will hear many Republicans say that if Rand Paul is the nominee of the Republican Party, they will vote for Hillary Clinton because they will respect Hillary Clinton as being an effective commander in chief, even though she wouldn’t be their first choice.”