Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and a Panel of Insiders Examine an Unpredictable Election

The only predictable thing about the 2016 presidential election has been its unpredictability, a group of political insiders agreed at a Yale alumni event in Washington, D.C., on September 7. Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership programs and Lester Crown professor in the practice of management, moderated the event, held with a panoramic view of the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop.

The expert panel included Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times; Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform; Mark Penn, president and managing partner of the Stagwell Group; Philip Rucker YC ’06, national political correspondent at the Washington Post; and Beth Van Duyne, the mayor of Irving, Texas.

Bumiller acknowledged that she was surprised that Donald Trump emerged victorious from the Republican primaries. “We didn’t understand the anger in the country and the sense of helplessness and rage about dysfunction in Washington.” On the other hand, she said, “The Republican primary electorate is a very small group of people. It’s not a general electorate.”

Rucker noted that, nationally, the typically strong business support for the Republican presidential candidate is less sure this year. “Business leaders are looking for certainty and stability, and they don’t see that in Trump,” he said.

Like other Republican elected officials, Van Duyne had to decide whether to lend her support to Trump. For her, she said, there was no question. “I am endorsing Trump right here in this public venue,” she said. Her motivation is simple, she added: “I am voting for him for four reasons, and those are the four opening seats on the Supreme Court.”

Penn is a pollster and strategist who advised Bill Clinton during his 1996 reelection campaign and Hillary Clinton during her first U.S. Senate campaign and her 2008 presidential campaign, as well as serving as CEO of the market research firm Penn Schoen Berland and the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. He predicted that the election will be decided by which question voters decide to answer: “If the question is, ‘Who is most qualified to be president?’ we know how the voters will answer that question. If the question is, ‘Who is going to shake up the system?’ we know who will win that question.”

Norquist said that Trump had failed to take advantage of Clinton’s weaknesses. “If Trump was running on his tax plan and running against Hillary’s economic views, I think he’d crush her, but he is running on yesterday’s tweet,” he said.  

“This election is about labor law for the next 50 years,” he added. Between the chance to fill Supreme Court vacancies and policy priorities, he said, there are opportunities to reduce the role of unions significantly under a Trump administration.

Based on her qualifications, Penn said, Clinton would seem to be an easy winner, but he warned of underestimating Trump’s chances. “If I took the names off the polls so it was just Candidate A and Candidate B, what would I think? I would think it is a very close election.”