Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

To My Favorite Student in the Class of 2016

It’s that time of year again.  Middlebury held its commencement ceremony Sunday, and as I have done ever since I started this blog, I commemorate the event by sitting down on the deck and, while the bluebirds fly by,  pouring a deep glass of single malt (thanks Tuesday Luncheon auditors), and raising a toast to you, My Favorite Student.

Who, you ask, is My Favorite Student? You know who you are.

Four years ago you dragged yourself across campus in the dark to make that first 8 am class in Twilight Hall, only to doze off six minutes into my opening lecture on why you should study American politics.  And yet you kept coming, week after week, likely inspired by my promise that “90% of success in life is just showing up.”  By the semester’s end, you realized that it truly was “great to study American politics in America” and you signed on to become a political science major.

Four years later you have reaped the many benefits from this decision.  Perhaps none is more consequential than getting added to the distribution list to this Presidential Power blog.  Your participation during the Live Blogging (Fill in the Election) results made listening to Wolf Blitzer so much more tolerable.

You heard my impassioned plea regarding the consequences of a legal career (the rhinoplasty to repair damage from your cocaine habit, the estranged children, the massive debt, the adultery with the pool boy, the long hours writing briefs defending BP [“It was just a little spill! In Louisiana, for god’s sake!”] and, of course, the terminal cancer) and still asked me for a letter of recommendation to law school;

You listened, amazed, at my lecture on the American Revolution, during which I quote from memory and with perfect inflection Captain Kirk’s famous speech about the Constitution – “We, the PEOPLE!… Down the centuries you have slurred the meaning of the words!” – and then asked your classmate: “Who’s Captain Kirk?”;

You now understand that political science is the “queen” of the social sciences, and why after four years this major has better prepared you to improve the world than if you had chosen any other discipline (but especially economics) – unless you blow it and go to law school;

You know now that just because a pundit says it is so, you still need to ask for evidence;

You didn’t make me explain “Teabagging” during my lecture on the Tea Party movement;

You gave me a gift of a bottle of scotch after the final class lecture that wasn’t Old Smugglers and didn’t come in a plastic bottle;

You figured out that my political views and partisan affiliation are exactly the same as yours;

You entered my blog contests for a chance to win an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” t-shirt, and then sent me a picture of you wearing your prize;

You stifled a gasp when entering my office, and managed not to fixate on the coffee stains and food remnants;

You learned, from “my son”, how to really do “the wave”;

You laughed at all my jokes, even the second time through (“Did you hear about the two hunters from Ripton who drove to Yellowstone to shoot grizzly?  The sign said ‘Yellowstone – Bear Left’, so they went home”);

You understood that when I hectored you in class, it was to make a broader teaching point, and not (necessarily) to humiliate you, although that was an ancillary benefit;

You remembered not to bring your Strawberry, U-Pad or other hand-held electronic device to exams;

You took on responsibility for sending the seemingly endless stream of emails the night before exams, asking all the questions that the other students wanted to ask;

You know that when we next see each other, I will not recall your name, but I will remember everything you ever said to, or wrote for, me during your entire four years at Middlebury.  (Which means at our next meeting you must greet me by first telling me who you are);

You brought me free beer during Election Night at the Grille, so that by evening’s end I was spouting utter nonsense even though all my electoral projections were dead on;

You understand now what really happened when they tried to “Free Willy”;

You know as well how to survive a nuclear holocaust;

You stayed home until you were sure you could not infect me;

You became part of my twitterverse by joining the other Twits who now receive my infrequent  twittings.

And, finally, you taught me more than you realize during your four years here.  Students often don’t appreciate that my interactions with them provides the impetus and the spark for keeping up with developments not just in my area of expertise but in society more generally. How else would I learn about The Cable, or FaceSpace, or the myriad other technological innovations?  Always remember that the questions you ask often inspire lectures or blogs or tweets!  In short, education at Middlebury is an interactive process – a two-way street – from which I benefit as much, or more, than do you. That is why I stay in this job despite the fact that, as I have reminded you countless times, Middlebury pays me nothing.

So, assuming you didn’t get heat stroke, let me end by sending you – My Favorite Student – best wishes in all your future endeavors.  Do stay in touch, and remember to thank your parents for getting you vaccinated; for rousing you out of bed for all those 5 am trips to the skating rink; for the endless piano lessons; for reminding you to finish those application essays; for instilling a strong sense of values based on discipline, hard work, and rooting for Boston sports teams; and for forking over the $76,000 a year (none of which went to me) to attend Middlebury College.  They did all this because they love you and they want to be sure you don’t have to move back home again.

And parents, you should realize that although you won’t ever see that money again, and that your kids are in fact going to move back home for a bit, it was well worth the investment. Contrary to what you probably believe deep in your soul, your child did not squander your retirement money on endless nights of booze and partying. They actually learned to think and to communicate and to treat anything they read in the New York Times with skepticism. Nor did s/he waste four years by majoring in political science.  Read the papers.  Listen to the news.  More than any other discipline, it is politics that most determines whether tomorrow will be an improvement over today.  Your child has a head start in fulfilling that promise.

So, to paraphrase the late, great Richard Neustadt, “Trust the kids.”  After all, you were one too and look how your life turned out!  (Ok, maybe a bad example….)

And finally, if you don’t want to take the elevator down while your spouse holds the bag, remember to always, always, know your limits.

Good luck, stay in touch, and may your scotch bottle never run dry…

With fond memories,

Matt (which you may call me only after you are handed your diploma!)

P.S. To My Favorite Student: If you would like to continue to get direct email notifications of new presidential power blog postings, please remember to provide me with an updated email address before your Middlebury email expires. And the same goes for you parents out there who also wish to get blog notifications.  Unlike the Middlebury alumni office, I’ll never ask for money.  (But I won’t turn down an endowed chair!)

Cue Kevin Bacon! National Polls Show General Election Dead Heat!

Cue the panic! Two new national polls are out,  and and they show Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a near tie in a hypothetical general election matchup. That represents a considerable tightening of the survey results from a month ago, when Clinton held double digit leads over Trump in most national polls, as this Huffington Post polling average shows.


Naturally, these latest results provided irresistible fodder for the talking heads on the Sunday talk shows this morning, and they dove into the topic with gusto. The general consensus seemed to be that these latest polls show how vulnerable Clinton is, why Trump has underappreciated strengths, and why Democrats should be ready to panic. You should, of course, ignore most of this chatter – now that the nominating races are essentially over, the chattering class has to talk about something else, and head-to-head polls are a readily available topic, particularly if they help feed the horse-race narrative that drives these shows’ ratings.

The fact is that we should not be surprised the polls have tightened in this way. With the Republican race all but over, Trump is consolidating his support among likely Republican voters, while a significant chunk of Sanders’ voters are refusing to concede the Democratic race to Clinton. That resistance is fueled by results, like this one from the NBC/Wall St. poll, that suggest Sanders will run stronger against Trump than will Clinton.

Sanders and his surrogates are seizing on these results to argue that the Democratic super delegates who initially expressed support for Clinton should reconsider that decision. As I noted in my recent post at U.S. News, I don’t expect Sanderistas to consolidate as quickly behind Clinton as Clinton supporters did for Obama in 2008. Unlike Clinton and Obama in 2008, Sanders represents a more distinct ideological choice from Clinton, as reflected in their different coalitions of support during the current election cycle. Exit polls indicate she’s beating him consistently among self-proclaimed Democrats, while he wins among independents. There’s also a huge generational gap, with younger voters strongly supporting Sanders while the over-45 crowd generally supports her.

The bottom line is that Sanders’ supporters aren’t ready as yet to fall into line behind Clinton despite the fact that she is almost certainly going to be the Democratic nominee. In the NBC poll, only 66% of Sanders supporters say they will back Clinton in a head-to-head matchup against Trump. The ABC poll has a similar result, with 70% of Sanders’ Democratic nomination supporters saying they will back Clinton over Trump. That’s down from 77% in ABC’s March poll, indicating she’s losing support among Sanders’ voters as she gets closer to clinching the nomination. In that same period Trump has gained 10% among Sanders backers. Not surprisingly, the 18-29 year-olds comprise a good chunk of those who are reluctant to vote for Clinton. Back in March, Clinton was winning this age group over Trump by 19% in the ABC poll – that margin is now down to 3%.

Clearly, then, Sanders’ supporters as yet show little inclination to switch over to Clinton. But why should they? Sanders has made it clear he’s in the race to the end of the primary process – and perhaps even beyond, into the convention. He’s laid out a clear, if improbable, strategy for how he could still claim the Democratic nomination. And his backers are unusually idealistic and passionate in their support, and less committed to the Democratic Party than are Hillary’s supporters. So we shouldn’t be surprised by polls that show the general election contest between Trump and Clinton is tightening. One side is consolidating behind their nominee, while the other remains divided. Remember, exit polls in some states at this time in 2008, when the Democratic race also remained contested, indicated that 45-50% of Clinton supporters were telling pollsters they wouldn’t back Obama in the general election race against McCain. Eventually, however, most of them backed their party’s nominee. Sanders’ supporters may be slower to come around this election cycle, for the reasons I’ve suggested above, but it’s too early to take these recent survey results as their final word. Head-to-head polling does not really begin to become a reliable predictor of the general election results until after the nominating conventions are over. This year the Democrats hold theirs in late July – more than two months away. Before we begin explaining why Sanders voters will never back Clinton, let’s revisit the polling results after she’s officially nominated and has begun the process of consolidating her support, as Trump is doing now. My guess is that the great bulk of Sanders’ voters will choose her over Trump.

(Addendum 2:05 P.M.:  RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different algorithm for averaging polls, now shows Trump ahead of Clinton in the polling average by .2 – 43.4%-43.2. That should induce additional panic!)

In the meantime, however, I expect two more months of this from the pundits.

What Does Bernie Want?

It may be, as Julia Azari recently argued, that there is no good reason for Bernie Sanders to get out of the Democratic race for the presidency. As she notes, what little research there is on the topic suggests that lengthy primaries probably don’t hurt the nominee’s general election chances. This is in part because it is policy differences, more than the contentious nature of a nominating contest, that divides parties. Of course, as Azari acknowledges, researchers are generalizing from a very small sample, and many of the comparisons the media makes are to the 2008 presidential race which, as I argue below, may not be a very relevant example. In any case, I suspect that Azari would agree with me that if Sanders isn’t hurting Clinton’s general election chances by staying in the race, he’s probably not helping them either. It’s long past the point where one could argue that he’s sharpening her debating skills, or helping her develop explanations for policy stances or to defend past actions (speaking fees anyone?) Whether you believe Sanders is staying in because he actually has a shot at the nomination, as his fervent supporters believe , or because he’s fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party  – neither objective seems all that compatible with Clinton’s goal of closing this nomination out and pivoting toward the general election.

Of course, Sanders’ supporters will point out that Clinton stayed in the race for the duration in 2008, only conceding after the last primary was held. But Sanders isn’t Clinton, and this isn’t 2008. Eight years ago Clinton was viewed, for the most part, as slightly less liberal than Barack Obama by most Democratic voters, although these ideological placements varied a bit as the campaign dragged on.

To the degree that this influenced Obama in a very competitive nominating contest, she served as something of an ideological anchor, preventing him from moving too far to the Left. In 2016, however, the perceived ideological gap between the two Democratic candidates appears larger. According to exit polls, about 2/3 of the roughly 30% of Democratic voters who favor more liberal issues support Sanders, whereas Clinton won 70% of those who want to see a continuation of Obama’s policies.

This suggests that to the extent that issues matter, he’s been pressuring her from the Left of the ideological spectrum, as evidenced by her repositioning on issues like trade and social security. Moreover, there’s been a big influx of self-described liberals voting in the Democratic nominating process, compared to eight years ago, which has made it more likely that Sanders’ ideological positioning will exert some pull on Clinton’s policy views.

More importantly, however, in 2008 there was no doubt that both Obama and Clinton were mainstream Democrats, whose ideological views were shared by most Democratic voters. This is not the case in 2016. According to research by Middlebury College’s Kate Reinmuth, Sanders has beaten Clinton among self-identified Democrats in only two primaries for which we have exit polls: those in his home state of  Vermont and in neighboring New Hampshire. In the remaining 17 nominating contests (again, for which we have exit polls), she beat Sanders among Democratic voters in every one. Here is a table created by Reinmuth showing how Sanders has done among Democrats versus Independents.


Among the approximately 70% of voters self-identifying as Democrats, Sanders wins less than a third of the vote, on average. In contrast, among the roughly 25% of voters who are independents, Sanders wins about 60% of the vote, according to exit polls. That pattern, by the way, continued in the West Virginia primary. Although Clinton lost the primary to Sanders decisively, 51%-36%, she again beat him, 49%-45% among the 56% of West Virginia voters who self-identified as Democrats.

Given his middling support among rank-and-file Democratic voters, Sanders may be less concerned about the impact of his staying in the race on Clinton’s chances than if he were a more traditional Democrat. To be clear, I have no doubt that Sanders is sincere in wanting to defeat Trump in November. But to the extent that he is playing a longer game, one whose end objective is remaking the Democratic Party in a more progressive image, one could see why he might calculate that it is worth fighting for every last delegate, even if it does make it more difficult for Clinton to pivot to the general election. Given the clear generational disparity in their respective coalitions, Sanders may believe he represents the future of the Democratic Party to a much greater degree than does she.

Ideally, of course, Sanders hopes to accomplish both goals: defeating Trump in November, and repositioning the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction in the years to come. And to be fair to him, it is not clear that those objectives are incompatible. But to the extent that they are, I suspect many of his followers would urge Sanders to remain true to his progressive principles, and to fight the good fight through the remaining contests up to the convention – even if it harms Clinton’s general election chances. Indeed, a recent NBC poll indicates that 89% of Bernie supporters want him to stay in the race, compared to only 28% of Clinton supporters.

Of course, Sanders’ supporters aren’t the only ones urging him to stay in the race. Donald Trump recently tweeted that Sanders should continue competing for the presidency – even if it means running as a third-party candidate!

It may be the only issue on which The Donald and FeelTheBern crowd agree.

For local listeners, I’ll be on Vermont Public Radio tomorrow to talk Bernie – send in your questions now!

Explaining Trump’s Success: What We Still Get Wrong

With the announcements earlier this week by Ted Cruz and John Kasich that they were suspending their campaigns, the path is now clear for Donald Trump to become the 2016 Republican nominee. That prospect has prompted a collective act of self-flagellation by journalists, pundits and data crunchers, all asking essentially the same two questions: “How did this happen? And how come we didn’t see it coming?” (A far, far smaller number – one, as far as I can see  – are saying, “I told you so!”) But while there is considerable overlap in some of these postmortems, there is also substantial disagreement as well, much of it a function of the analysts’ partisan, ideological and professional biases. So, in the rush to explain Trump, we see Republicans blaming Obama for pushing polarizing policies, Democrats accusing the Republican leadership of partisan malpractice, and everybody pointing fingers at the media. To be sure, there is likely no simple answer for Trump’s rise, something political scientist Justin Tiehen has documented, tongue only partly in cheek, in a series of tweets identifying each new explanation for Trump’s ascension as they are made. At last count Tiehen’s list numbered some 90-plus publicly-cited explanations for the Trump phenomenon.

As regular readers know, I long ago made my mea culpa, and in very public fashion (go to the March 6 tab under the view screen), for my failure to take his candidacy seriously. So perhaps I’m not the most qualified person to weigh in on this issue. But it seems to me that a significant number of these analyses continue to misunderstand the primary reason that Trump has won the Republican nomination, and for the same reason: they spend too much time arguing with one another regarding who supports Trump and why, and not enough actually listening to what Trump supporters say. As the New York Times Jim Rutenburg writes in his scathing indictment of election-year media coverage, including that of Trump: “But the lesson … was that nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting, given that politics is an essentially human endeavor and therefore can defy prediction and reason.” I’m exhibit A in Rutenburg’s indictment. I had no qualms condemning Trump’s candidacy based on my own read of him, and what he stood for, without bothering to see what others thought. In my defense, I listened to what Trump said – my first post came within an hour after The Donald descended the escalator in Trump Towers to announce his candidacy. But I didn’t bother finding out until much later whether his message was getting a reception, and why. It wasn’t until I spent more than an hour in line, in sub-freezing temperatures, waiting with thousands of other people to get into a Trump rally in New Hampshire, that I begin to realize just how much I had “misunderestimated” him, to quote another underestimated politician. To be sure, prior to the Trump rally, I had spent much of my academic leave trailing the presidential candidates as they crisscrossed New Hampshire, flitting from campaign event to campaign event. As I noted in my blog post at the time , however, Trump’s rally was unlike any rally I had seen to that point, (and thereafter as well, for that matter). If I hadn’t bothered to go to the rally, I think I would have continued to be baffled by his ability to attract support. I subsequently followed the candidates, including Trump, down to South Carolina, and then to Florida, before circling back up north. During that time I attended a couple more Trump rallies, and compared them to the experience of watching Trump events on television (to say nothing of the excerpts of his campaign events repeated endlessly on cable news.) What I saw, and what the cable news people discussed, made it seem as if we were witnessing totally different events. During Trump’s rallies I made it a point to actually talk to his supporters. This is something the media often had trouble doing, at least as far as I could tell, since at most of these rallies they were penned up at the back of the event, and were prevented from mingling with Trump supporters. And, of course, I never caught any of them standing in line with the hoi polloi, particularly in subfreezing temperatures!  The cable talking heads, meanwhile, seemed to premise their assessments of  Trump’s candidacy mostly on the 30-second sound bites – typically of his most inflammatory comments – that they endlessly replayed.

Two essential points became clear to me through these experiences. First, Trump’s lack of political experience, and of a related voting record, has been a huge boon to his candidacy. The reason is that it has freed him from the need to hew to the Republican Party orthodoxies on domestic and foreign policy that have been increasingly discredited in the eyes of many potential voters. This has allowed Trump to adopt a potent set of policy positions – what I have labeled economic populism and America First foreign policy – that cuts across existing partisan and ideological divisions in a way that no other candidate has done as effectively during the current election cycle. On some issues, most notably on trade and to a lesser extent on his general aversion to putting U.S. boots on the ground in military conflicts, Trump’s message overlaps with that of Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. This explains a good deal of the opposition to him from the Republican establishment – they think Trump is a closet liberal, and on some issues they are right. Most notably, he’s quite willing to break, more or less, with the longstanding Republican economic orthodoxy defined by fealty to free trade, balanced budgets, tax cutting, reduced government spending, and entitlement reform. Equally notably, Trump pays lip service to the Republican positions on social issues such as abortion, so that it is pretty clear to his supporters that his candidacy isn’t primarily rooted in these concerns, and that he’s basically adopting social policy stances that will get him through the Republican nominating process. In this respect, Cruz was right: Trump embodies many New York values that are anathema to the traditional Republican Party platform. But they don’t seem of particular importance to his supporters, who are predominantly motivated by economic concerns, and who long ago rejected traditional Republican policies in this area.

This is where Kevin Drum’s claim that “for the most part [Trump’s] not really saying anything new or different… . Policywise, Trump is a pretty typical modern Republican” has proved so spectacularly wrong.  When I ask Trump supporters why they back him, they say it is precisely because he is talking about issues like trade and immigration in ways that no one else does. Of course, he does so in such a general, ill-defined manner that it is possible to read almost anything into his policy pronouncements, and he remains stubbornly unclear on how he proposes to achieve many of his goals, all part of his overarching promise to “Make American Great Again”. (Yes, I have the cap.) But, for the most part, his supporters seem willing to cut him some slack. When I ask why, a common response is that given the failure of the political establishment to do anything on the issues that concern them – most notably immigration, trade, income growth and creating high-paying jobs – they are willing to take a chance on Trump.  This, I gather, is as much an indictment of the current political establishment as it is a ringing endorsement of Trump’s ill-defined policy positions.

The second and related facet of the Trump rally that has proved so illuminating is that he uses it to validate his supporters’ views on issues like immigration and trade without casting aspersions on their motives. Where the chattering class and political elite routinely ascribe the views of the lower- and middle-class and predominantly white Trump supporters on these issues to a toxic mix of xenophobia and racism, Trump attributes them to decades of stagnant wages, lost jobs, and declining hope for future against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized political system. Finally, his supporters tell me, someone is actually listening to what we are saying, rather than casting aspersions on our motives.  In short, Trump is giving voice to a significant portion of the electorate that feels that their concerns are not being addressed by a highly polarized and deeply partisan political process.  The system is rigged by both sides of the political establishment, Trump says, and he is the man to fix it.

And it is not just what Trump says, but how he says it. He speaks with a bluntness that is the antithesis of the politically-correct language his fellow Republicans employ. When professional politicians talk about their policy positions, as when Rubio and Cruz debated their voting records on issues like immigration, their language seems designed to obfuscate and dissemble, not to clarify. Trump, in contrast is refreshingly direct: “We are going to build a wall!” But what of all those inflammatory comments that are the focal point of so much of the criticism directed Trump’s way, and which dominate his news coverage? When I talk to his supporters, they almost universally dismiss the comments as a blatant, and highly effective, way to gain media exposure. In short, they seem more than willing to accept the occasional offensive outburst as the price to pay for getting a politician who speaks to them directly, on issues they care about, and without demonizing their motives.

My point here is that in all of the postmortems – the focus on the size of the Republican candidate field and related coordination issues, and Trump’s celebrity status and the skewed media coverage, and tactical mistakes, and all of the other 90-plus reasons being bandied about – it is easy to overlook, as I did, a basic reason for Trump’s success: he has adopted a set of policy positions that have attracted the greatest support in the Republican field. If I sound chastened, it is because I am. I was quick to judge Trump’s candidacy based on my own biases, and without bothering to listen to those who support him. I won’t make that mistake again. To be clear, this is not meant to be a brief in defense of his candidacy. It is, instead, a social scientist’s effort to understand why Trump has gained so much support, and why I didn’t see it coming. Yes, there are a lot of plausible explanations for his success. In my view, his ability to carve out an attractive platform on a set of issues of greatest concern to those who participated in the Republican nominating process has to be near the top of the list.

So what happens now? My guess, looking toward the general election, is that Trump is going to run into much steeper opposition in the form of a more skeptical general election audience that includes more voters less disposed to support him, and a more effective attack on his candidacy from the opposing party – one that will magnify his inability to articulate a defense of his policies in a sustained and detailed manner. Even Republicans are predicting (and not without some glee) doom for Trump’s candidacy and only hoping he doesn’t bring down the entire Republican Party when he crashes and burns. On the other hand, some of the standard political science presidential forecast models, which do not depend on assessments of a candidate’s personal traits, or favorability ratings, suggest this might be a good year for the Republican candidate. If they hold true this cycle, I may be underestimating Trump’s chances come November. Of course, that wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong about him.  This time, however, I’m going to try to attend his rallies and talk to his supporters before I make any predictions.