Here is just some of what conventional wisdom held on the eve of the GOP primaries:
Republicans don’t nominate people without electoral experience unless they successfully invaded Europe. Conservatives are obsessed with character and/or ideological purity. Religious conservatives place an outsized emphasis on a candidate’s Christian bona fides. During hard times, voters look to successful governors to steer the party and the country. Republicans tend to pick the candidate “next in line” for the nomination, usually the runner-up in the last primary. The so-called “media primary” determines which candidates will be taken seriously by the voters.
None of these rules held. Not one.
The oddity of the GOP primaries may have been particularly intense, but the Democratic primaries had their surprises too. For decades, Democrats took grave offense at being called “socialists.” But Bernie Sanders embraced the term.
Our bizarro primaries, naturally enough, yielded a bizarro general campaign.
One of the oldest rules in politics is that voters prefer likable candidates. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — the two most disliked presidential candidates in the history of polling — have made short work of that. Similarly, I’m old enough to remember when gaffes mattered quite a lot. Those were good times.
For generations, pundits thought TV advertising could change voter attitudes; not anymore. According to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, in January, 40 percent of the electorate had a positive opinion of Clinton while only 29 percent had a positive opinion of Trump. At the end of October, those numbers were unchanged.
For obvious reasons, Trump plays a major role in any conversation about how strange this election season has been. But I think historians will see him as a symptom. Demographic, economic and technological changes will surely be part of any “root causes” analysis, while foreign policy wonks might say the story begins with the Iraq War and the political and psychological dislocations it caused.
Others might point to Barack Obama, who broke one of the oldest rules of thumb in politics simply by virtue of being the first black president. But his contributions extend beyond that. He will have left the country more polarized and more distrustful of elites — on both the left and the right — than when he took office.
Regardless of where or why you think things got weird, the salient point here is that the election was just an illustration of the deeper weirdness of American politics — and that did not end when the votes were tallied.