Was this the October surprise? Last week, in an interview previewing the vice presidential debate, I was asked about the possibility of an “October surprise” – an unexpected event that could potentially shake up the presidential race. I noted that these events are inherently unpredictable but that historically the presidential campaign enters its most stable period during October, largely because most likely voters have made up their minds regarding who they will support, and the number of remaining undecideds dwindles throughout the month. The bottom line, I suggested, is that we were unlikely going to see anything that would change the dynamics of the 2016 race.
Then came the release of audio from 2005 revealing Donald Trump’s deplorable comments regarding his views toward women. The media reaction has been overwhelming, to say the least, with the story dominating the Sunday news shows and social media. Pundits have gone into overdrive, predicting that Trump’s remarks constituted an “extinction-level event” that essentially ended the already long-shot chance he had of winning this race, and which might cost Republicans control of the Senate and possibly even the House. Reacting to the news, Republican Party leaders are deserting the Trump campaign as fast as they can with many saying they won’t even vote for him, never mind endorse his candidacy.
Count me as one who thinks that Trump’s “latest” comments (made in 2005) – as reprehensible as they are – are unlikely to have nearly the impact on this race that the pundits claim. This is not to say they aren’t damaging to Trump’s campaign – they are, in large part because with less than a month remaining in the campaign they detract from his ability to focus on the issues – such as trade policy, immigration and terrorism – that potentially might win over some of the dwindling number of undecided voters. However, the fact is that after a period of weeks during which the race undoubtedly tightened – mostly because of Clinton’s absence from the campaign trail combined with a spate of bad news regarding her health and emails – her return to active campaigning seemed to be a stabilizing factor, topped off by a strong first debate performance. Since then, national polls showed her holding a relatively steady lead of 3-5% over Trump. That would be a sizeable gap for any candidate to overcome this late in the race, never mind one with Trump’s inability to focus on the fundamentals most favorable to his candidacy.
The other reason why his remarks might create less damage is that his supporters have shown a deep and abiding distrust of the very people – media pundits and Republican Party leaders – who are the most vocal in condemning Trump’s remarks. Recall that Trump received almost no party support prior to the Iowa caucuses, as documented by Hans Noel, even as he led national polls for most of the pre-election period.
Moreover, as J. Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn point out, we are in a period of heightened party unity in Congress, as measured by how often the two parties vote together as a bloc, combined with a strong belief among adult Americans that our governing institutions do not represent the people, but instead are controlled by elites.
This “representation gap” is the largest since the mid-1990’s, a period – not surprisingly – in which other candidates sporting a populist message, including Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, found surprisingly strong electoral support. Because Trump draws so much of his support from people who believe our governing institutions and political elites, including major party leaders, the media, and the political activists who dominate social media, do not represent their interests, I think it highly unlikely they are going to take their cues from individuals in these groups who are now so visibly condemning Trump’s remarks. This is not because they agree with those remarks – it’s because they care more about the core issues that brought them into Trump’s camp in the first place.
I’ll be on later tonight live blogging the second presidential debate at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/ See you in a few minutes.