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!

Does New York Love Donald Trump’s Values?

Only four days before next Tuesday’s crucial New York primary, the Trump Traveling Circus came to Plattsburgh in upstate New York on Friday, and your intrepid blogger was at the rally. Here’s what I saw.

I had originally intended to attend Trump’s Albany rally last Monday, but begin to hear rumors that Trump was planning an additional rally in upstate New York, closer to where I live, so I postponed the Albany trip. Sure enough, Trump announced that he would be coming to Plattsburgh, a city of about 20,000 located just across Lake Champlain and slightly north from Burlington, Vermont. Trump’s strategy in heading upstate was clear: because New York allocates 81 of its 95 delegates based on the results in its 27 congressional districts (3 delegates per district) and only 14 on a statewide basis, Trump has been crisscrossing the state trying to sew up those congressional delegates. Plattsburgh was the latest stop in the Trump road show. Note that candidates who fail to clear the 20% threshold in a district don’t get any of its delegates so, given current polling, Trump appears to have a good shot at winning almost all the state’s delegates. Based on current delegate projections, doing very well in his home state is crucial to Trump’s effort to lock up the nomination before the convention. Plattsburgh had the additional advantage of having an airport, which allowed Trump to fly out directly after the rally to his next campaign event in Connecticut.

Initially Trump planned to come to on Saturday, but the Crete Civic Center was booked with a home show, so he switched the rally to Friday. That left media organizations scrambling to get credentials, but all the major Vermont and upstate New York outlets were there as far as I could tell, including WCAX’s own Kyle Midura, who has been covering Trump’s candidacy this year. Midura noted that he had been there since 11 a.m., and when we finally left the rally premises at 4:30, the WCAX satellite truck was still there.  Although there was some national media there too, there were not nearly the number of national reporters there that I have seen in earlier Trump rallies.  But the Trump rally led all the local newscasts in New York and Vermont. (That’s Channel 5’s Stewart Ledbetter on the bottom, Channel 3’s Kyle on top.) The media were located in the center of the arena floor, on a platform. There was a clean camera feed provided by the campaign, so when the talking heads did their stand ups on their own cameras, they could still access events on the main stage using the clean feed.

There were also a healthy number of college students – no surprise here since Plattsburgh is home to SUNY-Plattsburgh, one of the state’s numerous state universities. Since the rally started at 3 p.m., making it hard for working people to attend, the rally was dominated by students, who lent a raucous air to the proceeding, even for a Trump rally. Outside there was the usual row of vendors hawking Trump-related items, including this R-rated t-shirt. (The other side was even more vulgar!)

We arrived very early and easily cleared security – in contrast to the Trump rallies I attended in New Hampshire and South Carolina, there were no lines at the security checkpoints here. This gave me ample time to interview people. I talked with a student from SUNY who was covering the event for her communications class. She noted that she recognized many of the students here, and said Trump had strong student support particularly among SUNY’s fraternities. (I saw dozens of students – mostly men – wearing red baseball caps with the slogan “Make America Great Again” along with the occasional “Make Donald Drump Again”.) The women students, she said, seemed more ambivalent about his candidacy. And, in fact, I found almost no women students who would go on record saying they supported The Donald. Several claimed they were only here because their friends were attending.

Interestingly, however, several older women, including a couple of academics working at the university, made it quite clear that they were voting for Trump. They dismissed his incendiary comments, including his disparaging comments about some women, as designed to gain media attention. When asked why they supported him, they said because he is talking about issues that neither party is addressing. Both noted that Trump has increased political discussion and participation among their friends. Again, however, none of the women would allow me to take their picture or identify them. “My colleagues would harass me!” one declares. Clearly, for some, there’s still a stigma attached to being identified openly as a Trump supporter.

Finally, a speaker walked on stage to say Trump’s plane had landed, and to thank us for helping Trump “Make America great again.” The crowd cheered, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and the first “USA, USA!” chants broke out. There was a palpable level of anticipation among the crowd, which had now filled slightly more than half the arena floor. (I am later told a head count at the door shows attendance just slightly south of 3,000 people. Reportedly the arena seats 4,000.)  And then the Donald walked on stage, to a roar from the crowd. After praising the crowd and this “great part of the world” he immediately launched into this general theme, – “We are going to make America great again” – and proceeded to riff on the issues I’ve heard him address in earlier Trump rallies – the need for smart trade, securing the borders, Lying Ted “he’s so far down in the polls”, John Kasich “he supported NAFTA”, China’s currency manipulation “if growth drops below 7% in China it’s a catastrophe”, repealing Obamacare “it’s been a disaster”, his love of Hispanics, the U.S. debt and how he is not beholden to any special interests “I flew my own plane here”. He recounted how when he began his campaign last June, “no one was talking about immigration.” He reminded the audience that he had outlasted all but two of the 16 Republicans opposing him, and he’s “millions of votes” ahead of the remaining two.

By now, Trump and his followers are so familiar with his material that they both anticipate the punch lines. And so, after describing how he is going to build a “great wall”, one that might have his name on it, and which will have a big door to allow legal immigrants to come back into the country, Trump asks, “And who is going to pay for it?” “Mexico” the crowd roars, delighted with itself. Periodically chants of “Build that wall, build that wall” broke out. (Note the slogan on the back of the young man’s t-shirt.)


However, some details of the Trump stump speech were clearly tailored for this specific audience. He spent considerable time citing economic statistics documenting an economic slowdown and a loss of jobs in upstate New York, including Plattsburgh. Perhaps most notable, however, was his riff on “New York values” which was a direct attack on Cruz’ effort early in the campaign to use that phrase as a way to portray Trump as a closet liberal who was out of touch with mainstream Republican values. In New York, Trump has taken great delight in throwing that phrase back at Cruz, and at this rally he went into some detail describing just what he means by New York values, referencing a variety of groups that embody those values, including police, and firefighters who went into the World Trade Center on 9-11, and transit workers, and restaurant and factory workers. New York values, Trump declared, refer to “honesty and straight talking even though sometimes that gets me into trouble.” This direct appeal to the “better angels of our nature” was conspicuously absent from Trump’s earlier rallies, and it seemed to play very well with this crowd, which grew noticeably more quiet as he recited the litany of New York values, including love of community and acts of kindness.  It also represents an effort, I suspect, to make Trump more palatable to a general election audience.

The other new theme, at least for me, was Trump’s vehement indictment of the “rigged” nominating process. Trump has always sprinkled his stump speech with attacks against the party establishment, but here he went out of his way to critique the process itself, citing in particular the recent Colorado convention that awarded all the state’s Republican delegates to Cruz. Again, as I noted while I was live tweeting the event, this is an effort for Trump to lay the groundwork to rally public opinion to his side in case there’s a contested convention.  By suggesting that the Republican Party establishment is gaming the system to prevent him from winning the nomination, Trump bolsters his standing as the outside candidate representing Republican Party voters, if not the elites, and makes it harder for the Party to deny him the nomination even if he falls a bit short in the delegate race.

Throughout the rally I waited for the obligatory protest moment, even as Trump assured us that his rallies are the safest ones, but only one occurred inside the civic center, and it was so small and relatively muted that Trump didn’t even bother to issue his trademark response asking the cameras to focus on his huge crowds. Instead he dismissed the protestors as “weak” and moved on with his speech. (When we left the rally there was about a dozen protestors, with signs, who had been relegated to the street outside the immediate convention premises.) Still while this was clearly a pro-Trump rally, it seemed to me to lack the intensity of passion I’ve seen in earlier Trump rallies, perhaps because this one was dominated by students, many of whom seemed most interested in being part of the circus more than they were in supporting Trump as a candidate.  But the rally did not lack for its moments.  As he typically does, Trump called out audience members, as when he pointed out this “strong, good looking student” who had been hoisted on to someone’s shoulders and began flexing his biceps. It was that kind of a rally – one as much as a giant frat party as it was political event.

Trump wrapped up his speech with his characteristic recitation of major themes: knocking out ISIS, helping our veterans, winning on the border, winning on trade, winning with health care, getting rid of Common Core (which got one of the biggest cheers of the event), and saving the 2nd amendment (more big cheers.) “We’re going to win so much when I’m president that you are going to come to me and say, ‘we’re sick of winning’ but, no, we are going to keep on winning!” After telling the audience how much he loved them, he waded into the crowd, surrounded by an anxious security detail, and began signing anything that moved.


As we watched the crowd swarm in around Trump, my wife struck up a conversation with another woman who said she came with her 16-year old son. “He’s never interested in doing anything,” she told us, but he asked her to bring him to a Trump rally. Like many people we talked to, she acknowledged that Trump is not her ideal candidate, but that he is saying things on issues like immigration and Common Core that need to be said, and she noted – as many in the audience did – that he has boosted interest in politics among her peers. Of course, heightened interest doesn’t necessarily translate into direct support for Trump. But in contrast to some pundits who believe Trump “is not saying anything new or different,” it’s pretty clear from attending these rallies that his supporters think otherwise. Clearly his policy views are resonating with a significant number of potential Republican voters in a way that more mainstream Republicans’ issue stances are not. As I’ve noted elsewhere, he seems to have adopted an effective mix of economic populism on the domestic side and American Security First as his foreign policy that has, so far, proved to be an unorthodox and winning combination among Republicans. It may be that this is because he pushes his views on these topics with a maddening lack of specificity, which allows supporters to infer what they want from Trump’s speeches.  Whatever the explanation, it seems to be working.

How well this plays in a general election, of course, remains to be seen. But I know this – I dismissed Trump as cartoon character with no chance of winning once before.  I won’t make that mistake again.