Kyle Saunders, CSU’s ‘political guru,’ discusses the 2016 presidential election

Kyle Saunders, associate professor of political science
Kyle Saunders

Kyle Saunders, associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, has been a consistent voice in media coverage surrounding the upcoming presidential election. Denver Post reporter Joey Bunch recently named Saunders as his go-to analyst, calling him a “political guru” who can be depended on for the “smartest answer” regarding presidential politics. Here, Saunders delves into his conspiracy theory research, analyzes the presidential primary nomination process, and shares what has surprised him about the 2016 race.

Your research about conspiracy theories has received a lot of press over the last several months. Tell me about your research. Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Conspiracies themselves can be politically and socially significant, so we wanted to better understand why people believe in conspiracy theories, and in particular, the political underpinnings these beliefs. In my research, my coauthors and I identify political ideology as one of the key explanations for why people believe conspiracy theories: conservatives are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that make liberals look bad, and that liberals are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that make conservatives look bad.

In the current political context—a Democrat has been in the White House for eight years—it makes sense that conservatives are even more likely to want to believe conspiracy theories that make liberals out to be underhanded and sneaky, as a way to scapegoat why they have been losing. But if a Republican gains the White House in November, we expect that we will start to see Democratic and liberal elites espousing a greater number of conspiracy theories that impugn Republicans and conservatives, and that the public will follow suit.

In fact, we have some new evidence that this is the case – liberals who believe that they are currently on the losing side of politics are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories that make conservatives look bad than liberals who believe that they are currently political winners. The same is the case for conservatives – the ones who think they are on the losing side these days are more likely to believe ideologically-consistent conspiracy theories than the ones who think they are on the winning side.

In a sense, then, conspiracy talk is strategic; it is the canary in a coal mine for groups who are currently on the losing side of politics, and thus feel powerless and are therefore motivated to bolster their threatened identities by believing that their rivals are engaging in secret plots to gain the upper hand.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have said that the primary system is “fixed.” Is this a conspiracy theory?

By the common academic definitions of conspiracy theories, yes, this would indeed be a conspiracy theory! But let’s go deeper…because in this case, the nomination process is actually “fixed.” Both the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have their own particular set of rules in place that, in the end, are meant to preserve the party’s power in choosing each party’s nominee. We must remember that the direct primary election is an idea that has only been with us for a few decades. Before then, only a small number of party insiders participated and decided, in a process similar to this year’s Colorado Republican caucus. This is no longer the case, as the electorate is much more involved than it once was, and perhaps too much so.

One way of assessing the “strength” of a political party is its ability to choose and exert some control over its candidates while they are campaigning and once they are in office. The political party organizations would prefer a much narrower “selectorate” who chooses its candidates, while the electorate would, of course, always like to play a bigger role in candidate selection. The problem is that the parties and the electorate do not always share the same goals, abilities, or concerns. We are seeing that play out in both parties this election cycle.

One balance political parties must constantly try to strike in today’s environment, then, is in the power relationship between the partisans in the electorate and the party organization. The optimal situation, it would seem anyway,  is where the party “vets” and fields candidates who are able to demonstrate both electoral appeal and also pass through party/professional peer review, satisfying party goals. The party is very likely in the best political vantage point to make these kinds of decisions, but voters have been empowered now and feel that, when the party steps in, that it is “undemocratic.” And, to a certain extent, it is!

So, yes, today’s system is indeed fixed. However, it’s not as fixed as it once was.

Both Clinton and Trump are strikingly unpopular. How is it that they have become the presumptive nominees?

To set this up: I should say that electoral popularity isn’t (and probably shouldn’t be) always the goal. We would hope that the presidential candidate selection process would yield the “best” candidates to be our national leader. However, each party’s national nomination process is a hodgepodge of 50 different state processes, all with their own idiosyncrasies, internal politics, and biases. Some of that bias is due to insiders in the party setting up rules and conditions to favor a particular candidate. As an example, I think it’s fair to say this about the relationship between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. When you think about the Democratic debates being at odd times, and the other steps the party engaged to hinder the Sanders campaigns ability to do outreach. That’s not cheating, that’s the party being the party and exerting its power in the selection process.

Anyway, the party’s processes don’t always result in the “best” nominee. In my opinion, today’s process requires party review to recruit and produce the best, most electable candidates. I think we would get “better” nominees if the parties had more power than they do now, but that is a relatively unpopular sentiment, as many people hold the parties in high contempt. But at the end of the day neither party has an obligation to make its nomination process unbiased, democratic, or open to all voters. That’s the job of the general election, really.

Why is there so much backlash against the establishment, on both sides, this year?

In my opinion, it is the electorate’s lack of efficacy and trust in our institutions. And that lack of trust and efficacy is occurring because one part of the electorate is feeling the growing income inequalities that become more evident each day, while another part of the electorate is afraid of threats to the existing social order, whether in the form of threats to security (terrorism) or in the power relationships between social groups changing. While these “sides” may have different concerns, both seem to be looking to government for answers to ameliorate their concerns, which is why we are seeing a more populist bent in this year’s politics. But that’s interesting in the face of what I mentioned at the start of this answer: people are looking to the political institutions and elites for answers, and yet they do not trust them or the institutions they work in much at all. That is quite a conundrum.

What is the future of the two-party political system in the United States?

As long as we have a system where there is one winner (known as the single member/plurality system of representation) and a separate executive from our legislature, we will always return to the equilibrium of a two-party system, even if there is a fracture in one party or a new party that is able to gain electoral momentum.

There are many other institutional factors that facilitate multi-party systems — namely a parliamentary system, where the legislature elects the executive, but also other conditions like multi-member districts, where there is more than one winner. But we will not have them, at least at the federal level, until we change the Constitution. And that will be a really difficult thing to do until we have real crises on our hands.

One note: some cities have tried different voting systems and the like to help facilitate minor party development, but even that is really hard to do when the two major parties have done such a good job of codifying themselves into state and federal law.

What is the impact of Trump’s candidacy on the Republican brand?

The common wisdom, as it relates to the current balkanization in the Republican Party, is that Trump will do more harm than good. The reason being that Trump could indeed have an impermeable “ceiling” of support, and that makes him potentially a dead-end mistake for the Republicans that could damage their brand for a decade. The problem is that we do not know the extent of that ceiling (or floor) just yet—because these events are playing out in real political time.

The uncertainty of the Trump campaign, and fears as to how much political damage the candidacy can do to the brand, are palpable and constantly on the mind of the Republican National Committee and anyone who cares about the Republican brand. They want to win elections—that is the main reason that they exist: to win elections in order to wield power.

That being said, I (among many others) have been waiting on the Trump campaign to implode for many months now (it has not) and/or for the party to unite against him (they have not).

The former is a really unique matter, probably caused by Trump’s ability to use the media and by his campaign’s appeals to certain electoral groups. The latter is either because the party has chosen not to do so, or it is because they are currently incapable of doing so. No doubt, there are strong efforts being made to stop Trump inside the Republican Party. However, with the big win in New York, as well as his sweep of the April 26 Northeastern primaries, it just got a lot harder to stop him from becoming the nominee, even if he doesn’t get to the 1,237 number.

It is hard to say what Trump and this current balkanization means for the GOP, but after it is all said and done, parties have to adapt or lose elections. It’s really that simple.

Part of adapting is that the parties (both elites and the electorate) have to unite around a candidate, and the sooner the better, in order to promote as unified a party as possible. This seems a bit harder to accomplish this cycle, and it’s going to be really interesting to watch how and if both parties unite behind their presumptive nominees.

The degree to which the party bases coalesce and remain motivated to participate and support their candidate will not only affect the success of the nominee, but also other competitive races like those in the Senate and the House. It would seem that there’s more potential for a Trump candidacy to have deleterious downballot effects, especially as the Democrats are already odds-on favorites to take back the Senate. All this comes back to how well each candidate (and their party’s agenda) resonates with the American public—and that’s always the pressing question about general elections.

How do you feel about being called a political guru by the Denver Post?

It is always nice to be called upon as an expert, and I am happy to have something to offer, to help people learn about and integrate what they see in their daily world.

Even so, this election cycle has made me question a lot of what I/we know about parties and electoral politics.

For example, I taught an Intro to American Politics fall semester 2015. In there, we talked about current events and electoral context each day—and many times I said “Donald Trump said X. This will be IT.” Of course, that wasn’t IT. At all. A good number of those students followed me to my upper division parties and elections class this semester—and of course, one of the first things I said was, in apologizing for my bad call on the Trump phenomenon, something along the lines of “Politics, because it is ever-changing, can really make one look like an idiot sometimes.”

2016 is a unique cycle in many, many ways—and I think the interesting question is whether this is just a deviation from our political status quo or whether this is reflective of a new kind of party politics. All I know is that I will be watching, researching, and trying to learn something about it.