Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

Who Do You Trust: The Polls or the Forecast Models?

It’s nearly Labor Day, the traditional kickoff to the stretch run of the presidential election.  It’s also the time when political scientists begin unveiling the result of their presidential election forecast models.  Some of these represent preliminary snapshots of the race, pending final third-quarter economic results and other data, but to the extent that the economic conditions aren’t going to significantly change, they offer a useful first take on the likely outcome of the race for the presidency.

Before looking at the forecasts, it’s worth discussing why scholars find these forecast models so useful.  In putting together a model based on a few moving parts  – say, some measure of the economy, the time a party has held the White House, the president’s approval rating – to predict an election, scholars are in effect constructing a theory that explains the vote choice.  The accuracy of the model, then, is a test of how well scholars understand what drives presidential elections.  In contrast, the atheoretical polls-only forecasts utilized by scholars like Drew Linzer at his Votamatic site can be remarkably accurate (Drew’s are as good as anyone’s), but they don’t tell us anything about what led to the outcome.  In short, if all you care about is who is going to win, bookmark Drew’s or some similar polls-based site.  However, if you want to know why a candidate won, the forecast models are a good place to start. They are not perfect, by any means, but they do offer a good first take on trying to produce a baseline for what’s likely to happen this November 8.

I’ve written in depth about these models before, but suffice to say that although they incorporate different variables, they are all premised (except for the Northpoth primary model) on essentially the same idea:  when things are going well for the nation in terms of “bread” and “peace”, the incumbent party is rewarded.  When things are perceived not to be going so well, however, the out-party benefits.  (As I noted above, some models incorporate additional measures gauging factors such as the president’s current approval, and how long the incumbent party has occupied the White House.) It’s a deceptively simple premise, but one that is generally a robust approximator of election outcomes.

Larry Sabato has conveniently gathered five of the recent forecast models on his Crystal Ball website.  As you can see, the forecasts differ in their projected outcomes, but all show a fairly close race in the popular vote.  Averaging the five predictions, Democrats are projected to get 49.9% of the two-party popular vote and Republicans about 50.1%.  The median forecast also has this race as a dead heat, at 50.4%-49.6% in the Democrats’ favor.   In short, by these very crude aggregate measures, these forecasts collectively suggest this presidential race is most likely going to be decided by a couple of percentage points at most. Now, for methodological or theoretical reasons, you may be inclined to favor one particular model, and/or to throw one or more of these forecast models out of the sample.  Just don’t do it because of what it predicts!

When I present these findings in the election-themed talks I’ve been giving these last few weeks in the largely blue northeast, my audiences invariably react with a mixture of fear, incredulity and deep, deep despair.  But then I show them the national polling data!  Again, as I’ve said many times before, don’t rely on single polls – look at the aggregate results.  Here’s where the race stands according to the Huffpost poll aggregator.


As you can see, the Huffpost aggregate polls have Clinton with a healthy 6.6% lead in the popular vote – a far more comfortable lead for Clinton supporters than what the forecast models predict the final result will be. The RealClearPolitics average also has Clinton ahead, albeit by a slightly smaller margin.  But can we trust the polls?  At this point in the race, about 69 days until the election, history suggests the polls are a good predictor of the final popular vote.  According to research by Erickson and Wlezien, the polls at this point predict about 75% of the variance in the final popular vote totals based on previous election cycles. Moreover, as Clinton supporters are wont to point out, since 1952 the candidate who is ahead in the polls two weeks after the final convention invariably goes on to win the popular vote.  Since we are now more than a month beyond the end of the Democratic convention, it would appear that Clinton must be the prohibitive favorite, right?

Maybe.  It depends in part on who you trust at this point: the polls or the forecasts?   In answering this question, there are a couple points worth considering.  First, I wouldn’t put too much stock in that two-week post-convention metric. Dating back to 1952, there’s only been two years – 1960, and 1952 – in which the final convention ended as early as or earlier than it did this election cycle, which was July 28.   It’s more typical for the last convention to conclude in late August, or early September, which would push the day of polling reckoning into a time we haven’t reached as yet during the current cycle.

On the other hand, as Erickson and Wlezien show, in recent elections dating back to 1996, the races have remained remarkably stable during the post-convention period.   Drawing on their data, Sam Wang captures this phenomenon in this graph of the standard deviation (a measure of the amount of variation in the data) of the two-party polling margin in past elections. 

As you can see, the standard deviation in the difference between the two candidates has typically been three percent or smaller in recent elections. That stability, I believe, reflects the process of partisan sorting that has made each party far more ideologically homogenous, and thus making it much less likely for partisans in recent presidential elections to contemplate supporting the candidate of the opposing party.  And it suggests that Clinton’s current nearly 7% popular vote lead is not going to completely dissipate in the next two-plus months.

There are, however, indicators suggesting this election cycle might not follow the pattern of previous ones, although it is not entirely clear what to make of these.  First, as Linzer points out, the size of the undecided pool remains stubbornly high, at about 15%, compared to this point in the two previous cycles.

This means there’s more than enough undecided voters out there to propel Trump to victory, if enough break his way. But will they? Political scientists David Brady and Doug Rivers looked more closely at the undecideds in a recent YouGov survey.  They found that 14% of those surveyed remain undecided (and another 14% said they would not vote.)   Consistent with Linzer, they note that these numbers are historically high.  In an attempt to predict how these voters would break, they asked the undecideds if there was any chance they would vote for Trump, or (in a separate question) whether they would vote for Clinton. When pushed in this manner, respondents were as likely (or slightly more so) to say they would support Clinton than Trump, although a sizable number refused to commit to either candidate.  Admittedly, this is a squishy measure, but it does not provide support for the idea that there are a large number of undecideds prepared at this point to pull the lever for Trump.

It is also the case that both candidates are disliked at levels unmatched in previous election cycles.  Surveys indicate that comparatively speaking voters’ choices are being driven this election cycle much more by their dislike of the opposing candidate than by their support for the other person. Still, it’s not clear why this would necessarily change the polling stability we have seen in recent elections. Indeed, there is some evidence that voters are more likely to vote as a function of opposing a candidate than they are in support of one.

So, where does that leave the race?  To this point, based on the polls, Trump has underperformed the fundamentals. The reason, I think, is that he has proved remarkably maladroit when it comes to doing the things political science says a winning campaign must do: focusing the message on those aspects of the political context most favorable to your candidacy.  In Trump’s case, that means emphasizing the sluggish (and rigged!) economy, the nation’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks and his opponent’s trust issues.  Until recently, however, Trump has spent more time stepping on his own message by picking fights with Gold Star families and, more recently, appearing to waffle on immigration.  Nonetheless, there are signs that under new management Trump has tried to discipline himself by refraining from personal attacks on political enemies, real and perceived, and by focusing much more on the core themes of his campaign.   And there is some evidence that the national polls are tightening, although it’s not clear as yet how much of this is simply statistical noise associated with random sampling.

Assuming Trump can discipline himself, and can focus his campaign in a way that makes the fundamentals more salient to the remaining persuadable voters, there is reason to expect this race to tighten in the next two months.  That’s not what many of my blue-state audiences want to hear. But it’s what the data and prior research tells me. Stay tuned.

Why President Trump Would Avoid the Nude Beach

Last year at about this time I wrote a post noting how the media was paying little-to-no attention to President Obama’s decision to once again vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. This was in sharp contrast to previous years where political opponents had lampooned Obama’s choice to spend some downtime golfing, reading and generally relaxing with his family.  Criticizing presidential vacations, of course, is a bipartisan sport; George W. Bush received his own share of criticism for the time he spent relaxing at his Crawford Texas ranch (not that presidents can afford to truly relax during their time away from the White House.)  My hope, when writing my post last year, was that Obama’s lame-duck status would inoculate him from further vacation criticism.  Alas, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate.  The recent flooding in Louisiana, which killed 13 people and left thousands homeless, took place while Obama was vacationing, thus provoking still another round of vacation angst, with Obama’s critics wondering why he didn’t cut his vacation short to tour the devastated area. Never mind that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards defended Obama’s decision not end his vacation early, arguing that a presidential visit during the initial relief effort would do more harm than good.   To add political fuel to the fire, Donald Trump – now campaigning under new management – saw an opportunity to curry favor with voters by flying out to Louisiana with his vice presidential running mate Mike Pence, despite warnings from Edwards that this was not the time for the candidate to conduct a photo op. Trump and Pence toured southern Louisiana by motorcade, often stopping to talk with displaced residents.  In the end, Trump’s visit was welcomed by Louisiana politicians, include Edwards himself who acknowledged after the fact that his visit “helped shine a spotlight” on the flood relief efforts.   Perhaps not coincidentally, Obama is scheduled to fly out to Louisiana tomorrow.

As I noted above, I’ve posted before about why I think presidential vacations are actually a good idea.  Rather than write still another post on the topic, I’ve decided to repost my previous one, dating from 2011, which makes the case for why presidents need to get out of Washington for some presidential rest and relaxation.  Interestingly, however, if Trump wins the presidency, it may be a while before we engage in another national lampooning of presidential vacations.  This is because Trump evidently doesn’t believe in taking time off – ever. As his campaign spokesperson told the Boston Globe, “Mr. Trump prefers to work.”

To be clear, that isn’t necessarily a good thing for a president.  Indeed, for reasons I explain below, I’d rather see President Trump spend some time vacationing, even if it provokes the type of political backlash Obama just endured.

But please – avoid the nude beaches.

Vacation Advice to the President: Avoid The Nude Beach

If it’s August, I know three things will happen:

  1. France will essentially shut down;
  2. I’ll be late writing my APSA paper;
  3. The President will be criticized for taking a vacation.

And right on cue, the lead story in most media outlets today centered on the critical reaction to the First Family’s departure for a 10-day stay at Martha’s Vineyard. It is, of course, now customary for the political opposition to rail against the President’s willingness to take time off while the country’s future is at stake. And at taxpayer’s expense, no less!  (Never mind that the lodging is paid for privately – what about all those security and transportation costs!)  President Bush’s travels to his Crawford, Texas ranch elicited the same indignant reaction, as did Bill Clinton’s vacations (which often included trips to Martha’s Vineyard as well), George H. W. Bush’s frequent stays at the family compound in Kennebunkport (where he terrorized the locals in his speedboat) and Ronald Reagan’s regular trips west to his California ranch to clear brush, and ride horses with Nancy.

I don’t know when taking a vacation started becoming bad politics, although I think it began with Reagan’s trips to California. Of course August is always a slow news month, which makes it easier to justify running the “Should the President Be on Vacation At a Time Like This?” story. Although this is the Obamas’ third trip to Martha’s Vineyard, the attacks on him seem more intense this time. I think this is for at least two reasons.  First, the stock market’s recent roller-coaster ride has entered another downward plunge, amid continuing reports of weak job growth. Second, we are deep into the invisible primary season, and his vacation timing and locale provides ample fodder for Republican candidates out on the campaign hustings to scold the president for his seeming obliviousness to the plight of the common man.  For example, consider Mitt Romney’s remarks from two days ago:  “if you’re the president of the United States, and the nation is in crisis, and we’re in a jobs crisis right now, then you shouldn’t be out vacationing.”

Of course, the choice of locale doesn’t help. Much of the criticism centers on the message the President seems to be sending by staying in opulent vacations digs hobnobbing with the glitterati at a time when almost 1 in 10 Americans lack jobs.  As one columnist put it, “Which begs the question – why did the president go ahead with his vacation despite the worst approval ratings of his presidency, plunging stock markets, falling consumer confidence, and overwhelming public disillusion with his handling of the economy? I think the answer lies in Obama’s professorial-style arrogance, and a condescending approach towards ordinary Americans.”

Forgive me if I don’t share the outrage. The reality is that presidential vacations aren’t like the ones you and I take (if I ever took one!) Sure, there’s some recreational downtime.  But it’s mostly much of the same daily grind: the intelligence briefing, the meeting with staff, the constant stream of memoranda and official documents. In terms of intensity, I think it’s a lot closer to vacationing with Clark Griswold and his family: things are always going wrong, and the stress level is very high.

Moreover, Obama’s vacationing no more frequently than did his immediate predecessors. Indeed, at this point, Obama’s vacation time (I don’t count time spent at Camp David) seems about average for presidents.  By one count, in their first year as president, Reagan (42 vacation days) and both Bushes spent more time on vacation than did Obama, while Clinton and Carter spent less. (I’ve never been to Plains, GA, but perhaps the locale partly explains Carter’s aversion to vacationing? Or maybe Democrats just work harder.)

In any case, Obama has a ways to go to match his immediate predecessor’s vacation time. Across his eight years as president Bush took 77 vacation trips to his Texas ranch, spending 69 days there during his first year alone.  By comparison, Obama only vacationed 26 days during year one of his presidency.  And this doesn’t count the more than 450 days Bush spent at Camp David. Similarly, Clinton spent 171 days “on vacation” during his eight years.  Keep in mind as well that Obama has two kids, and something tells me they have some say in the vacation decision.

But there’s a more important reason why I’m not sympathetic to the “no time for vacation” crowd.  History suggests that these trips help presidents cope with the burden of being president.  And if they cope better, the nation benefits as well. Have you seen before and after pictures of the President?  He’s clearly aged at a rapid clip since taking office. It’s worth remembering that at one time presidential vacations were viewed in a more positive light. Franklin D. Roosevelt made forty-one trips to his cabin in Warm Springs, Georgia during his presidency, often spending a week or more in a working vacation. He had purchased the property there shortly before reentering politics, in large part because he believed the warm springs to be therapeutic. Aides noted that Roosevelt invariably came back from these working vacations reinvigorated.   (We now know, of course, that he spent his last visit to Warm Springs secretly rendezvousing with his former mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who had to be quickly secreted away when the FDR suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died).  Of course, media criticism of FDR may have been muted because the visits to Warm Springs could be linked to the foundation he established there to treat polio victims.

But Harry Truman made 11 separate trips to the “Little White House” in Key West Florida, often staying three weeks or more at a time.  (Here is an exterior shot of the building which is open to visitors).

During the day he would sit by the beach, while aides played volleyball, in between work sessions. (The shorter guy holding onto the post is presidency scholar [and my dissertation chair] Dick Neustadt, author of Presidential Power, for which this blog post is named).

Most evenings he played small stakes poker (he was reputed to be a middling player) in a small room with close friends. (Truman sat in the corner with his back to the wall.  The table is still there, complete with playing cards, if you want to visit).  Today, of course, the thought of the President gambling with his cronies at “seaside resort”, while the stock market dropped 500 points, would elicit howls of outrage from the chattering class.  But somehow the republic survived Truman’s trips.  As I suspect it will survive the next ten days.

Unless the President has a Clark Griswold moment.

And now, I’m heading out to the pool for some well-deserved vacation time.


Why They Really Support Trump: The View From The Campaign Trail

Last Saturday I attended a Trump rally in Windham, New Hampshire – a relatively affluent town (median income was $127,868 in 2014) of just under of 15,000 people located in the southern portion of the Granite State.  Regular readers will know that I’ve attended several Trump rallies, but this was the first one since I was at Trump’s coronation in Cleveland, and I was eager to see whether he was attracting new supporters and, if so, what they saw in him. I’ve learned through experience that the reasons Trump supporters give for backing him often bear scant resemblance to what the twits on my twitterfeed tell me is really motivating Trump voters.  The experience provided a fascinating window into the minds of Trump supporters.

New Hampshire is considered to be a battleground state, with the latest Huffpost polling aggregator giving Clinton almost a 5% lead.



Drew Linzer’s poll tracker, which uses a slightly different algorithm, gives Clinton a 7% lead in New Hampshire.


Because Trump had been in the region at two local private fundraisers earlier in the day (one on the Cape, and the second on Nantucket), it made sense for him to make a campaign stop in New Hampshire. But his choice to hold the rally in a high school gym did not work out well.  When we arrived, tickets in hand, about 40 minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. start, we saw cars lined up on the entrance road for a couple of miles, and scores of people appeared to be walking away from the high school.  It turned out the fire marshals had already closed the doors to the packed gymnasium, citing local fire codes.  That worked out well for me, as it gave me the opportunity to talk in depth with dozens of Trump supporters who remained outside the rally, hoping for a glimpse of Trump. (Note the child with the oversized Make America Great Again red cap!)

(As it turned out, about halfway through Trump’s speech, people began trickling outside, complaining about the stifling heat inside the gymnasium.  “You’re lucky you’re out here,” one person muttered to me as he stumbled outside, bathed in sweat.  Scott Brown, who introduced Trump, was one who left early as seen in this blurry picture:)

I consciously sought to talk with about an even mix of men and women (there were not a lot of racial or ethnic minorities in the crowd that I could see).  I have found that if I make it clear that I am a political scientist doing research (I show them my business card), and not a member of the media, people at these rallies are only too glad to talk to me, and in great depth.  I began by asking them if they were supporting Trump, and if so, why.   From there I probed more deeply, asking about the previous candidates they may have supported, what they thought of Trump’s stances on issues and his qualifications for office, and how strongly they were committed to voting for him.  As much as possible, however, I let them take charge of the conversation.  My goal was to elicit a more thorough understanding of what they thought of Trump than one can get through the more fixed interview protocol used in surveys.

It quickly became clear that two themes dominated the thinking of Trump supporters.  The first, expressed – unprompted by me – by every person I talked to, was economic anxiety.  Interestingly, that anxiety was not directed so much at their own situation but toward that of their children, or others close to them.

One women, in her forties, got emotional as she told me her daughter and son-in-law were about to have twins.  “They work so very hard,” she said, “and yet they aren’t getting ahead.”  A second woman, who appeared to be in her early thirties, and who is a nurse, said students graduating from nursing school today are starting at salaries $10 lower than what she earned starting out a decade earlier.  “That’s not enough to pay off their loans,” she observed.  She said she had been an Obama supporter, in part because she backed Obamacare, but she now thought the health care law was a disaster for both providers and consumers.   A third woman told me she was a first-generation immigrant who was attracted to Trump because she believed in capitalism.  “I’ve lived under socialism,” she told me.  “I want capitalism.”  Like many of the people I talked to, she liked Trump because of his business background, and his lack of political experience, both of which she saw as virtues.

When I pushed these people to explain how they thought Trump could speed up the slow economic growth they associated with the Obama presidency, the common response was some variation of, “I don’t know, but we have to try something new.”  Others responded by noting that “it can’t get any worse” under a Trump presidency. One man, who appeared in his mid-forties, recounted a conversation he had with business associates on this topic: “They told me that if it requires blowing up the existing system to get meaningful change, it has to be done.”  Here is where I saw how Trump’s lack of political finesse worked in his favor among these voters – something that’s hard to see based on the more critical coverage he gets on cable news and social media.

I asked several people what they thought of Trump’s often inflammatory comments. One woman acknowledged that she sometimes wished he would “tone it down a little.” (She also pointed to several of the items being hawked outside the event, including the ubiquitous “Hillary Sucks – But Monica Sucks Better” t-shirt, as offensive.) But most of those I talked to saw Trump’s blunt talk as a virtue.  “Sometimes you have to say these things” to make changes, one man told me.  A second man, who appeared to be in his 70’s, asked me, “Have you ever worked in New York?”  When I replied no, he said, “Well, that’s how you talk when you do business in New York. There are a lot of bad people there, and that’s how you get things done with them.”

I pressed several respondents on whether they thought there were racial undertones to Trump’s statements on immigration, and whether they thought other (not them!) Trump supporters might be partially animated by racist beliefs.  Not one person agreed with the notion, although one person acknowledged “I can’t speak for what motivates all of his supporters.”  One individual, a Republican Party official who was at the rally registering voters, told me, “Here in New Hampshire, voters tend to associate Trump’s comments on building a wall and immigration with the opiate crisis, which has hit people hard here. They think doing anything to secure the borders is going to help.”

The second theme that emerged, again unprompted by me, was a deep antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. One man, in his early 40’s, told me he wasn’t voting for Trump as much as he was against Clinton. Almost to a person those I talked to expressed a fundamental belief that she could not be trusted.  At one point in our conversation, the woman whose daughter is having twins lowered her voice to tell me, “I’m a Roman Catholic and a good Christian, but I just have to say this: that woman [Hillary Clinton] is evil.” When I pressed several of them to compare her knowledge on issues like foreign policy to Trump’s, they pushed back against the idea that she was somehow more qualified than him.  One man visibly recoiled when I suggested she might be, on paper, better prepared to serve as commander-in-chief.  “You can’t believe a word she says!” he replied incredulously.  As I’ve noted in previous posts,  despite fact-checking statistics that seem to show Clinton’s statements are more often factually correct than are Trump’s, there is a deep and abiding perception among a good portion of the population that Clinton is simply not trustworthy.  Some of that mistrust, according to those at the NH Trump rally, goes back to events occurring under Bill’s watch.  People I talked to often referenced the two of them together.

Many of the people I interviewed did not start out as Trump supporters.  Several were originally Kasich or Rubio backers, but most said they were now supporting Trump. One Kasich supporter who was now voting for Trump said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Clinton. One woman, who appeared in her early 20’s, said she had read Trump’s book The Art of the Deal when she was a teenager, and it had inspired her to go into real estate.  “I’ve always admired him,” she acknowledged.

I interviewed only one person, a young woman who appeared to be in her twenties, who said she was not voting for Trump. “I was just curious to see a Trump rally,” she told me.  When pressed, she told me she was voting for Clinton, but not because she supported her, but because “she is a Democrat. I’m voting for the Party.”  As I noted above, at about the mid-point of Trump’s speech, spectators began trickling out complaining about the oppressive heat inside the building.  Unfortunately for some of them, the Trump supporters outside the building thought they were protestors getting tossed from the premises, and their appearance sometimes incited boos and heckling from the crowd.  Throughout Trump’s speech, those outside periodically erupted into chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump!”, “Build that Wall!” and “Lock her up!”  One of the more imaginative chants was started by a Trump supporter who said, “Everyone talks about Trump and 1984” – apparently referencing Orwell’s classic book about authoritarian rule.  “Well, I have a better date:  1789!”  Whereupon people began chanting, “1789! 1789!” As one who teaches the intro course on American politics, I felt a certain pride in this particular chant.

Because we wanted to beat the traffic, we left the rally before Trump concluded his speech.  You can watch the full version here.  As always, I was struck by the contrast between what Trump supporters told me regarding why they support his candidacy, and what I hear on cable news and read on social media. (I’m not sure how this event was covered, but it had a heavy local media presence.)


Granted, this was a rally in New Hampshire, and it may not be representative of what Trump supporters elsewhere believe.  But the deep concern about the economic future of the country is something I’ve heard from Trump supporters at other rallies I’ve attended as well.  As one Trump supporter in New Hampshire explained to me, “These people still believe in the American Dream about getting ahead, but they they think it is slipping away from us.”  The other aspect of the interviews that stuck with me is how thoughtful those I talked with were when giving their responses.  It was clear they were knowledgeable about the candidates and the issues, and that their support was based on a careful consideration of both. Of course, I don’t doubt that there were the occasional conspiracy theorists sprinkled in Trump’s crowd as well.  But on the whole this clearly wasn’t a rally of the brown-shirted thugs that social media often makes Trump’s supporters out to be.  Trump has clearly tapped into a genuine feeling of economic anxiety among a significant number of voters.  Whether that will be enough to propel him to the presidency remains to be seen.  But it is a feeling that Clinton and her supporters would do well to take seriously.

Addendum 4:19 8/11/16:  This Wall St. Journal article on the impact of Chinese imports on New Hampshire towns and communities in other states dovetails exactly with what Trump supporters were telling me at his rally on Saturday.

In Sanders’ Country, Berned Supporters Not Yet Ready To Back Clinton

Yesterday our local volunteer fire department (motto: “We’ve never lost a foundation!”) held its annual picnic and I took the opportunity to canvass the picnickers regarding their views toward the presidential candidates. I’m in the heart of Bernie territory (he won our town by a comfortable margin over Clinton in the state primary) and so I was particularly interested in their views toward Hillary Clinton, a couple days after the conclusion of the Democratic convention. Were they coalescing behind her?

The short answer appears to be: “No.” Several expressed deep disappointment over the Tim Kaine pick, arguing that Clinton missed a major opportunity to reach out to the progressive wing of the party by choosing a less centrist, more charismatic person. More generally, almost everyone I talked to described Hillary as a deeply flawed candidate, one who simply did not excite them. More worrisome, they seemed to believe that Trump was going to win in November. None of them expressed any willingness to vote for Trump, but all had stories of fellow Bernie supporters who were now pledging to do just that. On the whole, it was a very dispirited bunch – not exactly a promising sign two days after the convention held to unify the Party!

To be sure, one needs to be careful about generalizing to all Bernie supporters based on a very small and unrepresentative sampling at a local fire department. But I have learned the hard way that what I read on my twitter feed, and hear on the cable shows, is not very likely to tell me much about how rank-and-file voters are thinking – something I discovered when I belatedly caught on to the Trump phenomenon only after attending his rallies. Moreover, my non-random sample is consistent with the results of a recent state-wide poll* that found, when given a choice between Clinton, Trump or Gary Johnson, only 53% of Bernie supporters say they will support Clinton. Interestingly, given the choice options, 30% of Sanders’ supporters chose “someone else” – but not Jill Stein, who garnered only 1% support. Remarkably, Clinton gets under 50% support statewide in this bluest of blue states, according to this poll.

Many Clinton supporters are taking solace in a recent Pew poll showing that in a two-way race between Trump and Clinton, 90% of “consistent” Sanders’ supporters will choose Clinton. But keep in mind that the Pew survey evidently did not give respondents the option to choose a third-party candidate, or “other”. So it may be overstating support for Clinton among Sanders’ supporters who in November will have the option of voting for someone other than Clinton (or Trump).

I have long argued that most Sanders’ supporters will come around to Clinton eventually. (Of course, I also argued that Donald Trump would not win the Republican nomination!) I still feel that way. But here in the heart of Bernie-land, I sense very little excitement for Clinton’s candidacy as yet. It may be that his supporters are still in the early stages of grief, and have yet to come to terms with the fact that their candidate has lost. As one Vermont delegate told the Vermont Digger: “I realize that this is a process of bereavement, completely, and that’s five phases. I am not at the depression part anymore, but I’m not quite at acceptance.” Apparently many Sanders’ delegates went into the Democratic Convention believing that Bernie still had a shot at winning, and were completely unprepared when he came out in Clinton’s favor. So they have not had much time to adjust to this new reality. For Bernie’s part, he was on Face the Nation this morning vowing to do everything he could to defeat Trump. At the same time, however, he also said part of his role in the campaign would be to make sure Clinton didn’t waver from the policy commitments she had worked out in conjunction with the Sanders’ camp. Some might construe that as less than a full commitment to Clinton’s candidacy.

Bernie supporters. Here in Vermont they are Feeling the Bern. It’s just not the type of Bern they expected. And it’s going to take a while to heal – if it ever does.

*The Vermont poll was in the field July 11-23, so concluded before the Democratic National Convention.

Did Donald Trump The Media Once Again?

Two days ago, in the midst of the Democratic National Convention, Trump held an extended press conference – it lasted over an hour – that once more showcased his uncanny ability to run circles around the media.   Trump began the conference by pointedly noting that “It has been 235 days since Crooked Hillary has held a press conference” – an observation not lost on the press.  Say what you will about Donald – he’s not shy about mixing it up with journalists.  Thereafter the press conference turned into Donald performance art – he took all questions, and responded in his usual rambling, bombastic, speak-first-think-later mode.  And, as is generally the case, he made news that led most of the major media outlets that day.  In this case it was his response to a question regarding whether he had any knowledge of Russians hacking DNC emails.  I want you to listen to his response to this question. This is the portion, particularly the last 17 seconds, which was replayed endlessly on television and radio for the next 48 hours.

After this statement, Trump went on to say, “”They probably have them. I’d like to have released. ..Now, if Russia or China or any other country has those e-mails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”  However, this follow up remark didn’t get as much press coverage.

Almost as soon as he finished the last sentence in the video about the media, my twitter feed exploded in righteous indignation.  According to the denizens of my twitterverse, Trump  had just invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account!   How could any real American countenance such an act?  In the hothouse environment of social media, the ramifications of Donald statements expanded wildly.  Had he committed treason? Was this a felony?  Could he be prosecuted?  According to many commentators, The Donald’s statement immediately disqualified him from receiving national security briefings – if not from running for the Presidency at all. (Senator Harry Reid suggested Trump be given false security briefings.) Mainstream media outlets joined the fray running stories with headlines proclaiming Trump had invited Russians to meddle in U.S. politics.  Clinton’s campaign was only too happy to pile on, claiming that Trump’s statement was a clear indication of his disloyalty to America.  During his speech at the Democratic Convention, former CIA director Leon Panetta made direct reference to Trump’s remarks as evidence that he was unfit to be president.

Meanwhile, Donald’s campaign put out a statement arguing that Trump was merely asking the Russians to release Clinton’s missing emails if they had them.  This excuse went nowhere with Trump’s critics, who dismissed it out of hand and continued their full-throated prosecution of what they viewed as his clear invitation for the Russians to conduct an illegal act and hack Clinton’s emails. As is his wont, rather than roll his comments back, Trump used twitter to double down on his initial comments:

He later claimed that he was being sarcastic when he made the comments, but the denizens of my twitter feed were having none of it.

At first glance it would seem that this type of negative coverage would prove damaging to Trump’s campaign.  But I don’t think that’s the case – in fact, I think it probably helped him. Here’s why.  If you are wearing partisan blinders, remove them now, and then go back and listen to the video excerpt I posted above. Try to listen to it as if you were my neighbors, Joe and Jane Sixpack – a hardworking couple who have only a mild interest in politics, use social media just to keep up with their kids and religiously avoid cable news talk shows.  Their political leanings run moderate, they love watching The Big Bang Theory and Love It or List It, and they are only now beginning to tune into the presidential race.  My guess is that this excerpt is not going to trigger a deep conversation on their part about whether Trump broke treason laws.  Instead, to the degree that it triggers any response at all, I think Joe and Jane Sixpack will be reminded of Hillary’s missing emails and will link that back to her email server problems.  And that probably will be the end of the conversation about this event – they will file it away as one more data point regarding her untrustworthiness and move on.

I understand the need for hard-core partisans to frame media events, like Trump’s press conference, within a preconceived world view.   But for most Americans who only tangentially pay attention to politics, Trump’s excerpted comments will likely be viewed for what it appears to be on first listening, without any effort at deeper analysis: a straightforward question referring to Hillary’s missing emails. Yes, I realize that partisans don’t see it this way – but their views on Trump are already baked in.   It is the less ideologically committed voters who both sides need to appeal to, and my guess is they aren’t going to see Trump’s statement as a sign of disloyalty.

I long ago gave up trying to decide whether Trump consciously thinks through his media strategy, or he is simply acting on instincts honed through years of being in the media spotlight.  But whatever the motivation, this most recent press conference, and the ensuing debate over his remarks, is the latest reminder of how he has successful parlayed overblown media coverage into his current position as the Republican nominee for president.  Months ago, when Trump first announced his candidacy and it was clear his polling numbers were on the rise, I made a gentle plea for pundits  to try to cover him as just another candidate, rather than giving him the outsized exposure they had been prone to do, and that he so craves.  Alas, as always, my voice went unheard, and here we are.

Next up: how Trump’s four-point post-convention poll bump proves the event in Cleveland was a total disaster.