The Donald, Debates and Those Smug Political Scientists

It has become increasingly clear to me that beyond the uptick he has caused in their respective audiences, political pundits are enjoying Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the polls not least because they believe it exposes political scientists’ inability to explain the 2015-16 presidential electoral dynamics. As @JGreenDC recently tweeted, “[t]he most pleasurable part of this campaign cycle is that traditional insiders don’t have any idea what’s going on and they’re losing cachet.” By “traditional insiders” the pundits mean – as this Josh Barro tweet suggests – my arrogant political scientist colleagues! Barro tweets: “My favorite part is watching smug political scientists be dumbfounded.”  (Me?  Smug?  I’m sure Barro was referring to others in the profession. After all, only one pundit has blocked my twitter feed… far.)

However, as I discovered in an interview last week on Ari Melber’s Let’s Talk radio show, a post I wrote for US News in mid-August headlined “Do the Rules Apply to Donald?” may have inadvertently contributed to the perception that political scientists are baffled by Trump’s staying power. In asking me to explain Trump’s position atop the polls, Melber pointed out that in the article I noted that the duration of Trump’s front-runner status already far exceeded that experienced by the four Republicans – Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Herman Cain – who spent a significant period leading the polls in the 2012 Republican race. On average, their period of discovery, scrutiny and, eventually, a polling decline lasted about two months. Trump, in contrast, has been leading polls going on four months, with no clear sign of a polling decline as yet.

As I conceded to Melber, when The Donald announced his candidacy last July, I did not anticipate that he would remain atop the polls for this long. (Nor, I suspect, did many of my colleagues). But this doesn’t mean we are clueless when it comes to understanding why he has remained the front-runner for so long. As I wrote in July soon after Trump began his meteoric rise in the polls, his candidacy was being fueled by a media that found his controversial, over-the-top rhetoric impossible to ignore.  I concluded that post by writing, “The sooner the media begins evaluating The Donald on the details of his policies and his governing expertise, rather than on his deliberately provocative comments designed to mobilize a disaffected public, the sooner The Donald’s political bubble is likely to burst. Alas, I have little confidence that most journalists, in this era of dwindling audiences and shrinking profit margins, will be able to resist taking the easy road by dismissing The Donald as a serious candidate. To date, it is a media strategy that has The Donald laughing all the way to the top of polls.”

In retrospect, where I miscalculated was in not fully believing my own prediction; clearly I underestimated the media’s willingness to resist The Donald’s ability to dictate his press coverage. It turns out that pundits have found it impossible not to report on Trump’s rhetorical excesses, even as they chide themselves for doing so. As John Sides demonstrates, The Donald’s standing in the polls closely tracks the amount of media coverage he has received; as coverage goes up, so does his standing in the polls.

Note that it hardly matters whether the coverage is negative or not – as Sides indicates, it is not as if the media has refrained from criticizing The Donald for his often intemperate remarks. But that simply provides him with more free publicity, which seems to boost his polling support.

So what, if anything, will cause Trump to drop out of the top polling spot? The simple answer is that it will require someone more newsworthy to begin to eat into his media coverage.  For what it is worth, for the first time in months someone other than Trump – in this case Ben Carson – landed atop a recent national poll, although it may be too early to read much into this. This one poll notwithstanding, Trump remains in the lead based on aggregate polling.

And it would not be surprising if Trump gets a temporary polling boost based on tonight’s Republican debate due to the renewed media focus on his candidacy. Of course, that depends in part on whether the media finds someone other than Trump’s performance even more newsworthy. In this respect, tonight offers one of the few remaining opportunities for underfunded candidates, such as John Kasich or Marco Rubio, who are currently trying to break out as the alternative to Trump, to take advantage of the free media and have their Carly Fiorina debate moment. Fiorina, you will recall, saw her polling numbers blip upward after each of the first two Republican debates in which she participated although she has found it difficult to maintain that momentum. For those like Jeb Bush who have the resources to play a long game based on winning delegates, on the other hand, tonight’s debate may be less crucial, at least in the short run. Still, he undoubtedly wants to perform well if for no other reason than to stem the spate of stories citing his recent staff cutbacks, and his consultation with “Mommy and Daddy” Bush, as evidence that his candidacy is in trouble.

I suspect the immediate media focus tonight, given recent polls, will be on Ben Carson. It will be interesting to see how much the CNBC moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla focus their critical questions on the Good Doctor, given some of his recent statements equating abortion with slavery and linking gun control to the Holocaust. You will recall that Jake Tapper spent much of his time moderating the first CNN Republican debate by trying to goad the candidates into personally attacking one another, while the Fox crew focused much more on substantive policy differences. Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of Tapper’s strategy.

As always, I’ll be live blogging the main debate, beginning shortly before it gets started at 8 p.m. EDT on CNBC. (Alas, it is not showing on any over-the-air broadcast channels.) Ten candidates will participate in the grownup event, while the remaining four – Lindsey Graham, Bobbie Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum, hold their own “kiddie” discussion at 6 p.m. I hope you can join in by posting comments at this site – it is always more fun with some audience participation. Just post in the comment box, or hit the twitter follow button at the top of the page.

See you at 7:45!

Joe Biden Is Still Not Running For President

Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement a few moments ago that he is not running for president should surprise no one. Pundits, desperate to derail the Clinton coronation, held out hope that by entering the race Biden’s candidacy would at least create the semblance of contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. But as I told The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy in an interview yesterday, Biden was never likely to enter the race because he had no realistic chance of beating Hillary, barring a Benghazi-related smoking email that sent her to the Big House. Given that fact, the logical play for Biden was to fuel speculation that he might run by playing the Hamlet card for as long as he could before the endless media speculation threatened to turn him in a caricature of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo (who in 1992 famously toyed with running for president up until the eve of the New Hampshire primary.)

Make no mistake about it. If Biden saw a path to victory, he would have thrown his hat into the ring long ago. But that path didn’t exist, short of a Clinton indictment. On most issues – with the prominent exception of foreign policy – his views are mostly indistinguishable from her’s. This left him struggling to create a public rationale for a Biden candidacy. Yesterday, at an event honoring former Vice President Walter Mondale, in bid to create such a rationale, Biden went so far as to revise his account of the events leading up to the President’s decision to send in a Seal team to assassinate Osama bin Laden.  After previously stating that he had advised against the raid, Biden changed his story yesterday and said he had privately advised the President to pursue the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The changed was apparently a thinly-veiled effort to make the case that on the most important decisions, he was the President’s closest and most trusted confidant – even closer and more trusted than the President’s then Secretary of State Clinton. The gambit exposed just how weak his case for running for president really was. Indeed, except for the additional gravitas afforded him by serving two terms as Vice President, it was never clear why his run for the presidency today would end any differently than his two previous unsuccessful attempts in the 1988 and 2008 cycles*.

Some pundits will point to last Tuesday’s Democratic debate as the tipping point for a Biden candidacy. In the aftermath of Hillary’s strong performance, a number of pundits pontificated that it removed any pretext for a Biden run. But, as I tweeted on social media at the time the debate had no impact on the underlying electoral dynamics which made a Biden run a longshot all along.

Instead, what it did was make pundits realize that, their fervent hopes to the contrary notwithstanding, there was never any valid rationale for Biden to run.

Absent the indictment, Clinton was going to clean his clock, strong debate or no strong debate. All the polling data led to that conclusion, not to mention the other indicators of Clinton’s strength, including money raised and endorsements received.  As evidence, note that after more than a month of getting hammered in the press for her emails, Clinton continued to lead her nearest rivals by 20% or more in national polls, and she was using her prodigious fundraising to put together a massive campaign infrastructure that dwarfed her rivals’.

So where does this leave the Democratic race? Precisely where it was before Biden’s announcement: with Clinton firmly in the lead. The latest polls indicate that she has pulled even with Sanders in New Hampshire, buoyed no doubt in part by her debate performance but also by the slew of media ads she has been running there for more than a month. Sanders is yet to get on the air in New Hampshire.  Nationally, polls show a slight uptick for Clinton of late, while Sanders’ “surge” seems to have leveled off, although one probably should not drawn any firm conclusions about what might be a short-term fluctuation.

There’s still a long way to go, of course. Sanders, who also did well in Tuesday’s debate, may yet be able to rally enough support to win in Iowa, a caucus state in which Clinton now leads, but which is notoriously difficult to poll. If so, he could conceivably parlay that victory into an upset in New Hampshire. But even then he faces an uphill climb to expand his support beyond the professors/young people/Ben and Jerry’s aging hipster crowd in order to compete against Clinton in states like South Carolina and Nevada that have larger minority populations.  But if Sanders is going to beat Clinton, he can’t count on Biden to help him bring her down.

And what of Uncle Joe? In his speech today, Biden acknowledged that, “As my family and I have worked through the grieving process, I’ve said all along what I’ve said time and again to others, that it may very well be that the process by the time we get through it closes the window. I’ve concluded it has closed.” But that is wrong – Biden’s window of opportunity has not closed. It was never open.

*Correction. An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated Biden ran for President in 2000.

Notes From the Campaign Trail: Martin O’Malley in New Hampshire

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley hit the campaign hustings in New Hampshire last Thursday, hoping to build momentum off what most observers thought was a strong, if overshadowed, debate performance last Tuesday, and your intrepid blogger was there to chronicle the event and to demonstrate his lack of photography skills.

The event, held at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, drew a standing room only crowd of about 200 (when I tweeted that total out during the event, a twitter follower [and likely Sanders supporter] tweeted back: “That’s a large crowd?”) In contrast to the Kasich NH event I attended, which attracted mostly middle-aged people, this crowd was composed primarily of students, which is not surprising given the location. But it is also the case that O’Malley is really targeting this age demographic, as he seeks to supplant Bernie Sanders as the main Democratic alternative to Hillary Clinton. Most of the O’Malley staff there were also young, and they were busy taking names and handing out swag (I scored a nice O’Malley Blue thermal sleeve to hold my Miller Lite cans.)


O’Malley was wearing a dress shirt and tie, with sleeves slightly rolled up, and was greeted with polite applause as entered the room. He opened with a short – perhaps 10 minute – stump speech touting his record as Governor, and as Mayor of Baltimore, before taking questions, which covered a number of topics, ranging from climate change to combating racial bias to protecting union rights. In citing his record, he started by emphasizing his data-driven approach to governing both as Baltimore’s mayor (“City Stats”) and as Governor, in which he pushed hard to get better measures of problems, such as the types and sources of crime, in order to better craft and target potential solutions. In O’Malley’s telling, that data-driven approach has been adopted by many other state governments, and serves as a model of how he would govern as president.

In parsing O’Malley’s answers to questions, it is becomes immediately clear what his campaign strategy is – and why he has had trouble gaining polling traction. For the most part, O’Malley is staking out positions that appeal to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (his critics in Maryland labeled him a traditional “tax and spend liberal”), but he does so in a way that acknowledges that there are usually two sides to every issues, and that any effort to find solutions must involve working with the other side. For example, in response to a question about the need for stronger gun control, O’Malley noted that as Maryland’s Governor he signed into law one of the toughest gun control bills in the nation. Among its provisions, it banned several types of assault weapons, limited gun magazine size, instituted fingerprint checks for hand gun purchases, and generally earned the ire of the NRA. (You will recall that in Tuesday’s debate O’Malley cited the National Rifle Association as the political enemy of which he’s most proud.) As O’Malley told the story, however, he laid the groundwork for passing this legislation by first meeting with the state’s hunters to make it clear that he had no intention of taking away their guns. (It is worth noting that the legislation was passed by a Democratically-controlled state legislature.)

O’Malley’s record on gun control is arguably stronger than that of any one of the Democrats’ in the campaign and makes a potentially appealing contrast with Sanders who, you will recall, found himself on the defensive during Tuesday’s debate over several gun-related votes he made while serving in Congress. (Notably, when asked by Anderson Cooper whether Sanders was tough enough on guns, Clinton replied, “No, not at all.”) And, in fact, on a number of issues – raising the minimum wage, support for same-sex marriage, raising corporate taxes – O’Malley has staked out positions that progressive Democrats should find appealing. As yet, however, he has not been able to attract much support in the polls. Nationally, the HuffingtonPost aggregate polling has him fourth, with less than 2% support.

He’s not doing much better in New Hampshire, where he also languishes in fourth place, with less than 2% polling support.

As I watched O’Malley make his case to the students, it struck me that one reason why he has yet to attract more support is his willingness to acknowledge that to make any headway toward the goals he espouses requires compromising with those whose views with which they may not agree. Again and again during Thursday’s event, he touted his ability as executive – whether as Mayor or Governor – to bring opposing sides together to get things done. Moreover, he did so in a relatively understated manner; although O’Malley showed flashes of humor, for the most part he makes his points in a low-key classroom lecturing style. This is in sharp contrast to Sanders’ fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners assault on the “billionaire class.” For many potential voters, particularly younger ones, who are fed up with politics as usual, I can see why Sanders’ sense of moral clarity and outrage is particularly appealing. As one commenter to a previous post wrote, “Clinton is all about the ‘What’ and the ‘How;’ Bernie is all about the ‘Why’.” That is, Bernie’s appeal is based in part on his ability to make the case for why economic inequality is unfair.  I think the commenter’s point about Clinton also applies to O’Malley – as a former executive, he is acutely aware that progress only comes through compromise, and therefore the “why” is often not enough – one has to understand how to build support for issues by bridging differences, rather than attacking opponents. This invariably means compromise – a dirty word to those who base their fight on principle and moral clarity. Now, one can argue that O’Malley can talk-the-talk regarding the need to compromise, but he didn’t necessarily walk-the-walk; when he stepped down after his second term as Governor, critics suggested that while O’Malley was able to almost eliminate the huge state budget deficit he inherited when taking office, he did so largely by raising taxes, rather than reducing spending.  This alienated enough voters to propel long-shot Republican Larry Hogan into office as his replacement. So he wasn’t nearly as willing to reach out for compromise as he suggests.

To date O’Malley has made 17 visits, spending about 20 days, in the Granite State, but with little to show so far. It’s hard to see whether he will get a short-term boost based on Tuesday’s debate – the first NH post-debate poll has him at 3% and debate metrics indicate that he spoke for only 18 minutes at Tuesday’s debate – more than 10 minutes less than Clinton or Sanders. O’Malley noted during the campaign event that Cooper told him beforehand that he would not get as much podium time as either Clinton or Sanders. (Not surprisingly, given her strong debate performance, Clinton has moved into a tie with Sanders in New Hampshire, although I remind you of the usual caveats of relying on a single poll to gauge voter sentiments.) But there are five more debates to go. To break through, O’Malley’s task is to persuade voters that he shares Sanders’ moral outrage toward the inequities – economic, social, and racial – that afflict society, but that he has a better track record at addressing those inequities. At the same time, he needs to convince them that he is not carrying any of the trust issues and negative baggage associated with Clinton’s candidacy. This is a tall order, particularly given how little money he has been able to raise so far.  That’s all the more reason for him to take advantage of the remaining debates to position himself as the realistic alternative to Hillary Clinton. But it would help his case if the debate moderators gave him equal time.

Bush, Trump, Sanders and Clinton: the post-debate State of the Race

There are two campaign-related issues to discuss: the debate’s impact on the Democratic race, and the third quarter fundraising totals. Let me begin with the Democratic debate. As I noted in my last post, the post-debate reaction among pundits seemed to split between the “traditionalists”, who thought Clinton won based on conventional debate scoring measures (content, delivery, poise, etc.) and those who cited social media metrics, such as tweets, facebook mentions and google searches, as evidence that Bernie came out on top. Among the latter group, there were lots of suggestions that, given the social media measures showing Sanders winning, the mainstream media (MSM) was “in the tank” for Hillary – an argument that would certainly surprise Clinton supporters, given the negative nature of the media coverage of her campaign this last month. As I told my students, however, there were good reasons to believe that social media metrics probably did not offer a representative sample of the opinions of those who watched the debate, largely because Bernie’s supporters, particularly younger voters, are disproportionately more likely to use social media. I also suggested that a lot of the social media traffic was driven by people trying to find out more about this wild-haired radical from Vermont.

We are now getting the first polling data which promises to offer a more representative sample of debate watchers and, consistent with my earlier post, it suggests that Hillary “won” the debate, at least in the narrow sense of the word. So, an NBC poll Survey Monkey online poll indicates that among Democrats, more than half—56%— thought Clinton won the debate. Similarly, a Gravis media automated poll of registered Democrats showed 62% of respondents thought Clinton won, compared to 30% for Bernie.  Done correctly, these polls arguably provide a better measure of who “won” the debate.

Moreover, Hillary’s performance garnered her some very high favorable ratings.

Hillary’s victory margin in the two polls, probably not coincidentally, almost exactly mirrors her current lead in the HuffingingtonPost aggregate polling (which includes polls that include Joe Biden). This suggest that one’s view on who won the debate was heavily influenced by which candidate one was supporting going into that debate – a finding that is consistent with previous research on this topic. Given that dynamic, it is perhaps not surprising that neither of these early polls indicate that the debate had much impact on the overall race for the Democratic nomination. In one sense, of course, this might be viewed as a lost opportunity for Bernie, since he needs to make up ground and it’s not clear that he did so in this first side-by-side event with his chief rival. On the other hand, Bernie used the debate to gain much needed exposure and, not incidentally, as a very productive fundraising tool, with early reports indicating he raised over $1 million during the debate itself.  And his favorable ratings were also quite high as a result of his debate performance, according to the Gravis poll. In short, even if Bernie didn’t win the debate, it’s hard to argue he lost.

Yesterday was the deadline for candidates to file third-quarter FEC campaign expenditure reports and most of the results are now publicly available. I’ll have much more to say about these figures when the complete totals come out, but for now I would remind you to look at the fundraising figures as is, rather than how the punditocracy tells you to look at them. Thus, while Jeb Bush’s third-quarter total dropped from the previous quarter, he still raised $13 million, the second-highest fundraising total among Republicans who have reported so far,  and he  remains well positioned to stay in the race for the long haul. For Bush, the focus seems less on winning the early polling race, and more on positioning himself to win delegates over the course of a lengthy nominating process. This won’t stop pundits from printing a slew of stories regarding how Bush’s lower numbers are making donors nervous, etc., just as they did when Hillary’s totals were released earlier this month. But at this point, looking at the overall picture, one would probably rather be in Bush’s shoes than that of almost any other Republican candidate – with the conspicuous exception of Donald Trump.

The Donald keeps chugging along, defying expectations that his polling will nosedive anytime soon. Two more recent polls show him leading the Republican field in the South Carolina and Nevada – two important states that come early in the Republican nomination calendar. As I told Sirius Radio’s Ari Melber in an interview last night, however, it is important to remember that based on past surveys, it’s likely that only about 40% of potential voters are paying close attention to the presidential race so far. This suggests that The Donald is still benefiting in the polls from his high name recognition and celebrity factor, as well as his innate talent for attracting media coverage. The key issue remains whether opposition support, particularly within the Republican Party establishment, coalesces around of one of Donald’s rivals as more candidates are winnowed from the field. In the meantime, to add insult to injury, The Donald raised almost $4 million from about 75,000 individual donors this last quarter – this for a man who brags about how much money he has!

America – it’s a great country.

Addendum 2:20 – I should have also noted this third poll by YouGov which, consistent with the other two polls, shows Hillary winning the debate 38%-22% over Sanders who finished second.  Consistent with my surmise regarding the skewed nature of social media use when evaluating debate results, Clinton won every age group in the YouGov poll except those under 30 years.  Among this latter group, Sanders was deemed the winner by 32% compared to 29% who thought Hillary won.  The YouGov poll has interesting crosstabs results which I should probably discuss in a future post.

And now, I’m off to a Martin O’Malley rally!