There was no way into the event or any of the surrounding shops except through a funnel of cruisers a quarter mile away from the place where the Golden Don was holed up behind a wall of Secret Service agents, preparing to take questions face to distant face at a Cincinnati town hall. Local police held the entire block on lockdown.
After six weeks on the primary trail, reporters expect certain things from each candidate (well-rehearsed lines are at the top of that list). But following Trump across the country comes with marked uncertainties, as Politico reporter Ben Schreckinger found out when he was suddenly booted from an event in Florida after spending more than six months in Donald’s neatly-vetted press cage.
It made no difference that the TV was muted or that I’d come all the way to Cincinnati to watch the event from a bar. In fact, rejection was something I’d come to expect from a candidate with a fear for free-roaming reporters. The only thing that was truly out of place was the company I kept that day.
Among those kept out were disappointed Trump supporters, curious Ohioans and their rain-soaked children. Trump’s rallies had turned violent and now members of the press, protestors, and innocent onlookers across five states were caught behind the barricades with enough security to guard against anything out of the ordinary.
I sat with a Marine and veteran of the Iraq War, who was curious enough to come out to the event but was kept behind the barrier and was thinking of a better way to spend time.
He sipped at his beer and watched the ticker roll by at the bottom of the screen.
“Would you go after the terrorists’ families?” I asked. “If President Trump ordered it.”
“No,” he said without hesitation. “Neither would the military. It’s insulting when he says stuff like that.”
“But he’d be your commander in chief.” I said.
“It doesn’t matter.They just wouldn’t do it. There are rules.” He said. “It just creates more terrorists anyway.”
By any definition of the word, Hank* is an independent. He supported George W Bush. But this year’s line up has forced him to take a serious step back to reconsider the whole process. The way he sees it, the choice is between a communist, a liar, and party torn apart by clowns.
“Kasich is the only one who’s not out of his mind,” he said.
“Are you going to vote?” I asked.
“No.” Again, the word shot out without hesitation.
“So, you’re going for the protest vote,” I said. “Would you encourage other people to vote?”
“If you really believe in one of the candidates you should vote,” he said, “I’m not protesting anything, I just don’t believe in the system.”
That sort of apathy was becoming all too familiar on the trail. 2016 has seen many Americans promising to flee the country and others vowing to skip the polls altogether on November 8th. But if the plan is to withhold a ballot in protest, Professor Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison thinks that it might be a difficult message to get across.
“It’s not especially effective.” Burden says, and the reason is that nearly half of the country doesnt turn up to vote in the first place. “Protest votes are lost in a sea of many people who don’t vote for other reasons.”
American voter turnout has struggled to climb past 60 percent since the last time violence broke out on the campaign trail in ’68. Meanwhile, Burden points out that countries with multi-party systems, like Germany and Denmark, are able to turn out 70 to 90 percent. But even if those who stay home on election day aren’t shuttering their doors in protest, the massive number of Americans who choose not to participate in democracy ought to be a concern.
Luckily, 2016 is proving to be the year in which the conventional wisdom of political gurus might be just as likely to predict the future as a dice roll.
“Many Republican voters are already saying they would not be comfortable voting for Trump and either sit out the election or vote for a Democrat…or some other option they’re not especially happy about, but they just can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump.” Says Burden.
“In that case I think it will be easier to identify [protest voters]…it will be sizable enough and vocal enough. It will be consequential.”
And it’s not just the Republicans who don’t like thier choices. According to the Wall Street Journal, 33 percent of voters who are ‘feeling the Bern’ say they couldn’t see themselves voting for Hillary Clinton.
“What’s so broken about the system?” I asked Hank.
“What Trump and Sanders are saying is no crazier than what Obama was promising in 2008,” he said, “because the president doesn’t have the power to do most of those things.”
“So they lie?” I asked.
“They’re just campaigning for job security.”
“Should we muzzle them?” I asked.
“No, the candidates should be able to say whatever they want, but the people should be smart enough to know when they’re being lied to.”
As Trump flailed around behind a red, white and blue barricade on the screen, Hank explained that it wasn’t necessarily voters’ fault they were misinformed. It all began with the great scare of youth openly raging in the streets over the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
“If you take civics out of schools,” he said, “people won’t actually know how the system works, so they can protest all they want.”
Burden, on the other hand, describes the process as a gradual shift in focus to math and science, but agrees that these new standards have gutted civics education in schools across the country.
“And when that civics education did exist,” Burden adds, “it could have been better, frankly, and more realistic about how the system operates.”
But if the shift was really meant to improve students’ math and science skills, it’s been falling miserably short of its goal while managing to fool its students into believing that it’s worked. According to the American Freshman Survey, which has observed nearly nine million people since 1966, American students are more confident than ever that their skills are, ‘above average.’ At the same time, in the most recent PISA rankings, a study by the OECD of student performance in 63 countries, America ranks 27th in science and 35th in math, while only eight states now require standardized testing in civics.
“I think we’re failing students in some significant ways in how we prepare them for electoral democracy.”
Yet the real problem may not even be education, especially if civics classes teach voters how to live within a system that is held hostage by two private organizations with no incentive to level the playing field.
“If you look at where people stand, issue by issue, most Americans wouldn’t be Democrat or Republican,” Hank says. “But people are led to believe that voting for a third party is the same as throwing your vote away.”
Professor Burden agrees that the two major parties would prefer we didn’t have a third option.
“[The parties] really don’t want to invest many resources in undecideds or people who are detached from the party system. It costs a lot of money…and when they do vote they might vote against you as much as for you.”
It’s an ugly truth shamelessly thrown around on the trail and joked about by Donald Trump: “If you’re not going to vote for me, stay home,” the billionaire has said to supporters across the country.
“It creates a system of haves and have-nots,” Burden says.
“Non-voters don’t appear on the lists and don’t get contacted. They’re not on the campaigns’ more targeted lists. So they don’t have people reaching out to them to vote…they fall outside the system.”
Those who identify as Democrat or Republican can often find themselves at the mercy of poor choices placed beyond their control, choices that professor Burden says fail to excite the voters, and Hank agrees.
“It’s not necessarily apathy as much as people just don’t like their options,” Hank says. “Hillary might have been a better choice to run against Bush in 2004, but she wasn’t going to go against a sitting president.” He says he would have supported Bush.
“Instead they got John Kerry, and who was excited about John Kerry?”
The two party system has become such a deeply-seated part of the democratic system that it’s easy to forget none of the political parties are required to be democratic whatsoever. They are private organizations with a history of throwing their own candidates under the bus at the first sign of a rocking boat.
When voters shocked the Democratic Party in the ’70s by electing a long-shot candidate, they responded by changing the delegate system, adding superdelegates and making it easier to control the vote in the future. They abandoned George McGovern in ’72, deciding they would rather surrender the White House for four years than risk making fundamental changes to the party. This year, Republicans are trying something similar, Donald Trump.
“There have been discussions among conservatives and Republicans about a third party option,” Burden says, but it may be too late for the GOP to stop Trump’s supporters from transforming the party.
“Even if Trump is not the nominee,” Burden predicts, “he’s got millions of voters. All of those voters are going to do something and probably not something conventional.”
Still, he doesn’t believe it’s going to be enough to break the GOP and bring about a viable third option. More likely, we’ll see a slight shift in the party’s platform and the people in charge of crafting it, all of which leaves the country split between two major parties who prefer to keep their voters loyal.
“So you’re really not going to vote?” I asked Hank one last time as he looked at me and said:
“I think it’s more American not to support a broken system than to participate in it.”
* Real name omitted by request.