One certainty: Predictions will continue to be pointless throughout 2016

After a long, divisive, rough-and-tumble primary campaign, the presidential nominations of both parties are all but settled, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton almost certain to be the candidates.

Now, it’s time to take a look forward and determine what just what kind of election year this will be. To do that, we’ll first need to identify the known unknowns: the big questions that will define this election cycle.

Will 2016 continue to be the year of the outsider?

It was at the presidential level, with Trump capturing the Republican nomination and self-professed socialist Bernie Sanders giving Clinton strong competition for the Democratic nomination. Will that filter down to the local level, however, or was that unique to the presidential race? If it does, we could see the parties’ preferred candidates losing primaries in major races on both sides of the aisle, as happened in 2010. That could radically change which seats are competitive, but it might not spell doom for any outsider candidates who prevail. After all, polls are showing that the presidential race might be closer than anyone anticipated, so if outsider candidates prevail in other races, they might be stronger candidates in the general election than initially presumed.

Donald Trump accepts the NRA's endorsement in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 20. Mark Cornelison | Lexington Herald-Leader | TNS

Donald Trump accepts the NRA’s endorsement in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 20. Mark Cornelison | Lexington Herald-Leader | TNS

How much will it matter that Trump and Clinton aren’t well liked?

Both parties have managed to find presidential candidates with record unlikeable ratings. Usually in a presidential election year, if one presidential candidate is more likable than the other, that translates into a turnout boost for his party — and a win at the top of the ticket. But if a large portion of each party stays home because they dislike their nominee so much, how will that affect turnout nationwide? Will it essentially be a wash, with no special advantage for either side? Will a large number of people skip the presidential race, or will they be motivated to vote by dislike of the other candidate? This question — of how and why people are motivated to vote, not just who they are voting for — will have deep implications, not just for the presidential race but for all campaigns.

Will Maine Democrats see their traditional presidential year turnout boost?

Here in Maine, Democrats traditionally have seen a boost in turnout during presidential years, which helps them win state legislative races. However, with Sanders having won the state, will his supporters still be motivated to get to the polls in November to elect Hillary Clinton? If they stay home, that will deal a serious blow to the Democrats’ hopes of retaking full control of the Legislature. This may be where some of the referendum issues on the ballot will come into play, as they may drive turnout this year in a way that the presidential race will not — for liberals and conservatives. Conservatives who are no fans of Trump may be motivated to vote against Michael Bloomberg’s background-check referendum, for example, while liberal Sanders supporters may be motivated to vote in support of the minimum wage increase.

Donald Trump is almost the political equivalent of a knuckleball pitcher, whose erratic behavior can confound his more traditionally minded opponents. That was true during the Republican primaries, and it’s likely to remain the case against Hillary Clinton, the consummate career politician and insider. Democrats expecting Clinton to prevail over Trump easily in November ought to be more wary, and they shouldn’t make assumptions about this year in general.

So far, the 2016 cycle has made predictions pointless and a mockery of conventional wisdom, and that’s not likely to change. It’s time to buckle up, folks, because we’re going to be in for a wild ride.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.