There have been predictions that the 2016 election will be among the most negative in modern politics. Both candidates have high unfavorable ratings. And with the Democratic convention officially approving the party’s platform on Monday, we have another instance of attack-heavy politics: There are 32 mentions of Donald Trump in the Democratic platform. At first glance, this might not seem like such a big deal. After all, the Republicans’ convention featured chants about putting Hillary Clinton in jail. But the Democrats’ Trump-laden platform is unusual.
When a party has a president in the White House, the party platform has tended not to focus on the opposing party’s candidate.1 That’s changed a bit recently, and the 2016 Democratic platform solidifies that trend:
|YEAR||PARTY||MENTIONS OF OPPONENT||TOTAL WORDS|
The number of Trump mentions is roughly in line with the number of times the Democratic platform mentioned Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1972 and George W. Bush in 2004, according to The American Presidency Project. But there’s a big difference — those platforms all came in years when Democrats were running against incumbent presidents. Here are the number of opponent mentions in platforms for out-of-power parties:
|ELECTION||PARTY||OF OPPONENT||OF OUTGOING PRESIDENT (IF DIFFERENT)||TOTAL WORDS|
The average number of opponent mentions is about 38 for the party out of power, while it’s around eight for the party that controls the White House. For whatever reason, this is especially true for the party in power when it doesn’t have an incumbent president on the ticket. When there was a candidate running for a third term of party control — Nixon in 1960, George H.W. Bush in 1988, John McCain in 2008 — most of the party platforms didn’t mention the opponent (Gore mentioned George W. Bush a handful of times). Clinton deviates from that pattern.
It is, however, becoming more common for the party in power to mention the opposing candidate in its platform. This trend might reflect closer competition and tighter presidential election margins, or simply higher levels of polarization and incentive to provide “red meat” (or the less appetizing blue meat, I guess) to the base. Whatever the reason, when it comes to focusing on the opponent, this year’s platform is out of step with comparable years.
Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties, and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”