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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.

polls

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.

Sanders

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.

Why Trump’s Vice Presidential Choice Is Worth More Than Warm Spit

It is easy to mock, as much of social media did, Ted Cruz’s decision last week to announce that Carly Fiorina will be his vice presidential running mate. For critics (myself included), it appeared to be nothing more than a last-moment Hail Mary pass designed to blunt Donald Trump’s momentum coming out of The Donald’s impressive victories during the “Acela” primaries. But despite the whiff of desperation associated with the announcement, there is also an underlying logic at work in Cruz’ decision, at least in theory. For starters, he captured the news cycle for a good 72 hours, helping steal some of the media coverage from The Donald’s post-primaries foreign policy speech. It also might boost Cruz’ standing among some core groups, including social conservatives and women, in the crucial state of Indiana which holds its primary next Tuesday. Cruz is probably hoping that Fiorina’s selection, in the aftermath of Trump’s inflammatory suggestion that Hillary Clinton owes much of her support to her gender, may galvanize enough women to come out for him to take the state.  Indiana probably represents’ Cruz last, best hope of blocking Trump’s road to the nomination. If you will recall from the debates, Fiorina was an early critic of Trump’s, one who seemed unfazed by his attacks. And, looking ahead to the California primary, one might argue that Fiorina helps Cruz in a state that she calls her home, although frankly she’s never showed that she has much support there.

Of course, it is also possible that Fiorina will boost Cruz’ general election chances, in the unlikely event that he wins the Republican nomination. Indeed, one of Fiorina’s standard talking points in her stump speech was that, as a woman, she was ideally suited to take on Clinton.  But do vice presidential selections really matter in the general election?  Conventional wisdom says they do.   As political scientist Carl Tubessing noted back in the 1970’s, vice presidential selections are historically understood as serving some combination of the following purposes: ideological balancing, regional balancing, healing the wounds of a bitter nomination fight or as a means of securing delegates to secure the nomination at the convention. Testing these intuitions, however, has proved rather difficult for political scientists. At the risk of overgeneralizing, most political science research of which I am aware suggests that when controlling for the usual factors that influence the general election vote, the choice of a vice presidential candidate seems not to matter very much.

But perhaps this is asking too much for a vice presidential choice? It may be that even if the pick doesn’t influence the overall popular vote, the vice presidential pick can help the president win the vice president’s home state. That was the logic, presumably, that drove John Kennedy to pick Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in 1960, and which has prompted current observers to argue that Ohio Governor John Kasich might be Trump’s ideal candidate. Here, however, the research is more mixed.  Devine and Kopko suggest the choice has an electoral impact “only … when s/he comes from a relatively less-populous state and has served that state for many years as an elected official. Think Joe Biden.” Of course, smaller states will have less of an impact on the Electoral College. Using slightly different methodology, however, Heersink and Peterson look at presidential elections in the period 1884-2012 and find that the vice presidential choice boosts the presidential ticket, on average, by 2.7% in the vice president’s home state, and by 2.2% in crucial swing states. While not a huge effect, it is large enough, they argue, to justify choosing a vice presidential candidate from an important and preferably large swing state.

In my view, however, the vice presidential pick ought not to be judged solely or even primarily in terms of its electoral impact. Instead, its importance lies in how well it helps presidents govern. No less an expert than Donald Trump understands this. When asked by the New York Times if he was bothered by the seeming reluctance of noteworthy Republicans to run as his vice president, Trump replied: “I don’t care. Whether people support or endorse me or not, it makes zero influence on the voters. Historically, people don’t vote based on who is vice president. I want someone who can help me govern.”

Trump’s approach is, in my view, exactly right. The evidence suggests George W. Bush didn’t select Richard Cheney because Cheney would bring Wyoming into the fold – he did so because he needed Cheney’s defense and foreign policy expertise. As Robert Draper recounts in his insightful book Dead Certain , Bush told Cheney, who was leading Bush’s V.P search, that “I don’t know what’s going to come onto my desk, but I’m going to need someone who’s seen things before, who can give me advice to make good decisions.” (Bush also liked that Cheney did not have ambitions to run for higher office.) While I disagree with my colleagues who suggest Cheney served as Bush’s “co-president”, by all accounts he was one of Bush’s most influential advisers, particularly early in Bush’s presidency. Similarly, President Obama selected Joe Biden as his running mate not to win over Delaware, but to provide advice and influence in Congress, particularly the Senate, where Biden had served several terms. Indeed, at least since Jimmy Carter moved Walter Mondale into the West Wing and scheduled regular weekly meetings with him,  vice presidents have played increasingly important advisory roles. It’s hard to argue that the vice presidency today is, as John Nance Garner allegedly once proclaimed, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Trump clearly understands why the vice presidential choice today is worth considerably more, and it has less to do with electoral considerations than it does with helping him govern. Of course, the ideal choice would provide Trump both electoral benefits, presumably by boosting Trump’s chances in a large, swing state, and would also provide him with governing expertise, most importantly in working with Congress. At first glance Kasich seems to fit both criteria, but he has been out of Congress for a number of years. Former House Speaker John Boehner knows the current House as well as anyone, but he left office with dismal approval ratings even in his home state of Ohio, although this may reflect voters’ attitudes toward Congress more generally. Florida Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio potentially attract voters in that crucial swing state, but Scott lacks Washington experience and it’s hard to see “Little” Marco signing up on Trump’s team.

Of course, there’s a risk for Trump in choosing an establishment candidate as vice president, given his desire to portray himself as an outsider. In interviews, however, he has suggested that he would lean toward choosing someone with political experience. Given his recent comments regarding Clinton and gender, however, he might be tempted to choose a woman, such as New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte. But this risks losing a Republican Senate seat.  Iowa Senator Joni Ernst also comes to mind but she has similar liabilities.

Speculating about what Trump will do in any endeavor is always a risky business. But it appears that in looking for someone who can help him govern, Trump has the right criteria in mind when deciding who to choose as his running mate. In the end, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump throws conventional wisdom out the window, and decides instead to go with a winner. And who wins more than this guy?  Come on, Donald – Let’s really make American great again!