Historians sometimes refer to the few years following America’s 1812 war with Great Britain as the Era of Good Feelings, a time when partisan politics lost their malice and the country seemed united with a national purpose. Here’s a good bet: Historians will someday refer the 2016 election and its aftermath as the Era of Rancorous Disgust.
Not in modern memory has there been a presidential election in which Americans loathed the candidates more. A Pew Center survey in September showed a majority of voters felt either “disappointed” with their array of choices, or “disgusted” … or both. Both Trump and Clinton have negative personal ratings of around 60 percent, which means no matter who wins, a majority of the country doesn’t like them.
When one polling company listed the Sweet Meteor O’Death — an extinction-level collision between Earth and a big space rock — as an alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, 13 percent chose the meteor. Also polling well: Cthulhu, the murderous, tentacle-faced monster of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novels. His supporters — they call themselves “annihilists” — are mass-marketing bumper stickers with slogans like “NO LIVES MATTER” and “WHY VOTE FOR LESSER EVIL?”
Cthulhu and the Sweet Meteor O’ Death (or SMOD, as it’s known on Twitter) might be tongue-in-mutilated-cheek, but the electoral revulsion that produced them is authentic. “Out of 334 million Americans, we wound up with one candidate who’s under FBI investigation and another who wants to ostracize the world,” mourned Rich Cotton, a 26-year-old healthcare industry worker from Palm Beach Gardens who was attending a rally for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in hope of finding a viable alternative to Trump and Clinton. “It’s pretty frightening.”
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Cotton is not the only one checking out third parties in order to avoid the mainstream candidates. Johnson’s support in national polls, once as high as 10 percent, has tailed off to around 5 — but that’s still five times the size of the vote for any Libertarian presidential candidate, ever. Green Party candidate Jill Stein is getting around 4 percent in the polls, significantly higher than the performance of the much-better-known Green candidate Ralph Nader in 2000.
The big parties routinely ridicule third-party supporters as fools who are throwing their votes away, but that argument seems to be having little impact this time around. “Everyone’s voice matters. That’s the point. We shouldn’t feel suppressed,” said 27-year-old Miami Dade College student Carlos Santana, attending a Stein speech on campus. “You want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror after you vote and be happy with what you did.”
A lot of voters sticking with the two main parties aren’t doing so because they really support Clinton or Trump, but because they hate Clinton or Trump. “I understand voting for Trump to stop Hillary, and vice-versa,” a Chicago man observed on Twitter recently. “Actual positive enthusiasm for either seems a sign of mental illness.”
He’s not alone. A Reuters poll this spring showed fully half the voting public is more interested in blocking the other candidate rather than supporting their own.
“Political scientists call this negative partisanship,” said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “We’ve seen a lot of it this year. Voters support Candidate X not because they want X to win, but because they want to stop Candidate Y, and vice-versa.”
Interestingly, the despair — or maybe it’s rage — over the election hasn’t diminished public interest in it. In fact, it might be the reverse. More than 210 million people tuned into the three televised debates between Clinton and Trump, the highest number ever, and that doesn’t even include the uncounted millions who watched in bars or on the internet. Political posts have become so ubiquitous — and monotonous — on Facebook and other social media that software developers are doing a booming business in apps like Haven’t Got Time For The ‘Paign and Social Fixer that block them.
That doesn’t surprise political analysts.
“How could you lose interest in this campaign?” wondered G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “It’s volatile. You have no clue what’s going to be said at any given moment. It has drama about it, and almost an exotic nature. Honestly, I don’t remember a campaign where the opening line of one candidate’s speeches is that the other candidate is crooked and should be in jail.”
Not, Madonna added, that this campaign is the meanest or most vituperative in American history.
“Abraham Lincoln got elected in 1860 and seven states immediately secede from the United States, so that wasn’t exactly a friendly election,” he said. “The presidential election of 1804 was so friendly that [vice president] Aaron Burr shot [former treasury secretary] Alexander Hamilton. When Andrew Jackson ran, he was an accused murderer. Grover Cleveland was accused of having a child out of wedlock. …
“This may be the meanest campaign any of us can personally remember — certainly the meanest since polling really got established as a science, so we can see the high negative ratings — but don’t make the mistake it’s the meanest one ever.”
Almost everybody agrees, though, that this election features the most eloquently cynical campaign paraphernalia, from stickers that say “I VOTED, should my eyes be bleeding like this?” to the little souvenir that Sabato handed out to visitors to his University of Virginia office.
“It’s a clothespin you can put on your nose while you vote,” he said. “One side is painted red and says Trump, and the other is blue and says Clinton. I’d give you one, but it got too expensive, because so many people wanted them.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this story.