Tag Archives: 2016 Republican nomination

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.

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.

On, Wisconsin: BernieMentum, The Donald’s Gaffes and What Tonight Really Means

If the current polls hold up and Ted Cruz pulls out a victory over Donald Trump in Wisconsin, the media spin will immediately focus on The Donald’s “terrible two weeks” as the proximate cause of his defeat. As the New York Times puts it:  “A Cruz victory will suggest that a backlash against Mr. Trump has set in after a series of nasty episodes, including his insults of Heidi Cruz and the arrest of Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, on a charge of manhandling a female reporter.”  This narrative fits nicely with the media’s tendency to portray political campaigns as a horse race in which the tactical decisions by candidates collectively exert a huge influence on the election outcome. Under such a dynamic, a candidate’s fortunes can ebb and flow quickly as the result of even a single misstep, as when a campaign manager allegedly pushes around a female reporter, or a candidate insults another candidate’s wife.

But as the Times own analyst Nate Cohn reminds,  there is an alternative explanation for why Trump may not do well in Wisconsin tonight – one more consistent with how political scientists view the nominating process.  Simply put, Wisconsin is not a good state for Trump, demographically speaking. That is, even without Trump’s “gaffes”, it didn’t look like he would do particularly well in a state whose voters tend to be, on average, a bit more educated, with higher incomes, and more religious than the typical Trump voter, to cite only a couple of demographic classes.  As research by Middlebury College student Tina Berger shows (see below), although Trump’s support ranges across demographic classes, for the most part exit polls suggest he does a bit better among downscale white voters. Here are his averages based on income according to exit polls – although he does well across income groups, he does slightly better among lower income voters.  The last column is the percentage of times Trump won that demographic group in a particular nominating contest.

trump and income

And here is the same type of analysis based on education, again using exit poll data Berger has analyzed.  Once more, although he does well among all eduction levels, his strength increases among the less well-educated.

trump and education

Moreover, for what it is worth,  polls in Wisconsin are not consistent with the narrative that he is being hurt by his recent remarks about abortion or the incident involving his campaign manager. But that will not stop the media from claiming otherwise should he lose the state. Polls close there in less than two hours, but we may be in for a long night based on current polling which gives Cruz a slight lead over Trump.


On the Democratic side, meanwhile, all the talk is about Bernie Sanders’ “momentum” coming off of his string of five victories in the six most recent Democratic contests. But as a concept by which to explain a candidate’s success and failures, momentum is a much touted but poorly defined term. It is possible to believe a candidate can gain momentum as a result of a series of victories if those wins drive opponents from the field, and the winning candidate then picks up some of the departed candidates’ votes. But that is not what has happened with Bernie and Clinton – no Democrat has dropped out as a result of Bernie’s victories.  However, if by momentum one means additional votes picked up in subsequent contests solely due to the victories themselves, then I’m skeptical that the concept has any meaning. This is particularly true in Sanders’ case, since all his recent victories came in caucus states and, along with his defeat in the Arizona, netted him roughly thirty additional delegates. This is not nearly the pace he needs to achieve if he hopes to close delegate gap with Clinton before the Democratic convention. And it doesn’t look like Wisconsin is going to do much to change those dynamics. Assuming currently polling holds up, he may net a half dozen or so additional delegates tonight.  That’s not my definition of momentum!

And that is the problem Sanders faces looking ahead – the Democratic method of allocating delegates proportionally makes it very hard for him to cut into Clinton’s lead in any significant fashion even if he ekes out victories in delegate-rich primary states which, so far, he has been largely unable to do. If Clinton performs well in the New York primary, where she had a strong lead in the polls, she could in one night erase any of the delegate gains Sanders has accumulated by winning 6 of the 7 most recent contests.  So much for his momentum.

This, of course, is precisely what the punditocracy does not want to hear, since it undercuts the horse race narrative that drives so much of their coverage. And so no matter what the outcome tonight, I expect to hear a lot about “momentum” and Trump’s gaffes and how we have witnessed a potential “gamechanger” in Wisconsin. And, with roughly two weeks before the New York primaries, the media pundits will have plenty of time to speculate, based on the usual “well-placed sources”, about strife in the campaign of (fill in the name of the candidate who lost) and how they are considering retooling their campaign strategy and bringing in new advisers and changing tactics and kissing babies and changing hairstyles, etc.

And the winners? Why, they will have momentum!

I’ll be intermittently live blogging the results tonight at this site, then on Australian television bright and early tomorrow morning to break it all down, just in case you live Down Under!

In the meantime, On, Wisconsin!


As Vermont Goes, So Goes Kasich?

John Kasich took his long-shot campaign north to Vermont today in anticipation of this state’s Super Tuesday primary tomorrow, and your intrepid blogger battled moderate temperatures and fields of solar panels to give you this report:

We arrived at the Castleton University Campus Center about 15 minutes prior to Kasich’s scheduled 11:30 a.m. talk and already the crowd had spilled out of the auditorium and into the adjoining lobby area. By now we are veterans of these crowds, and we knew enough to push people out of the way until we got a proper vantage point from our usual slot near the media, who were lined up in the back of the room. All three of Vermont’s major television networks were covering the events.

This was easily the largest audience we’ve seen in the four Kasich Town Halls we’ve attended. Although I wasn’t able to do a good hand count, I’m estimating that there were between 750-1,000 people in the auditorium, including a couple rows of people on the stage behind him. Demographically, the crowd had a good mix of college students and older individuals. From the start, they seemed favorably disposed toward him, applauding as he walked on stage and generally seeming to react positively to his message.

For his part, it is clear what Kasich’s strategy is in coming to Vermont again (he was here on the day of the South Carolina Republican primary as well.) Kasich is trying to distinguish himself as the “grown up” in an increasingly infantile Republican race, and he trying to peel off moderates and independents to supplement his narrow support among the Republican base. To this end, he’s hoping to do well in Vermont and Massachusetts tomorrow, so that he’s at least in the conversation as the race moves to the Midwest with primaries in Michigan on March 8 and in his home state of Ohio on March 15. Michigan is a winner-take-most delegates state with 55 delegates up for grabs, and Ohio is winner-take-all with 66 delegates to be awarded. Currently, he trails in the polls in every state tomorrow, and it is unclear how much support, and money, he will retain if he is shut out. So he is banking on a victory in Vermont. There has not been much polling of the Republican race here, but a recent VPR/Castleton poll has him tied for third with Cruz with about 10%, trailing both Rubio (17%) and Trump (32%). My sense, however, is that both Rubio and Cruz have likely dropped off since that poll was taken.  In any case, I think Kasich senses that Vermont is his best chance to claim a victory tomorrow.

Toward that end he retained his sunny optimism and trademark humorous asides that have characterized his demeanor in recent campaign events, refusing to criticize any of his opponents, although he clearly took a swipe at their policies, particularly on immigration, where he described promises to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, including breaking up families, as simply unrealistic. But in this particular speech he also made a concerted effort to emphasize his support for women’s rights, both in the context of defeating ISIS (“they treat women as property – did you know that?”) and in emphasizing job and educational opportunities for women. He also made a point of introducing his wife and his two daughters to the crowd, which I had not seen him do before.  Again, I wonder what his polling data is telling him regarding his support among women here, and in the race more generally.

After announcing that he intends to remain “the adult in the race”, Kasich launched into his familiar story about how he talked his way into a 25-minute one-on-one meeting with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office as an 18-year old. He also paid homage to Bernie Sanders, noting that they had worked together in the Senate. When the crowd booed Bernie’s name, Kasich shushed them, saying he wanted to adopt one of Bernie’s policies of giving things away for free: “How about Ben and Jerry’s ice cream free for a year?” (Throughout the speech, Kasich sprinkled in local references, noting, for instance, the abundance of solar panels through the state despite his never seeing any sun during his visits here.)

He then recited the usual biographical details, noting his maternal grandmother was an immigrant, at which point he took the opportunity to assail his opponents’ more draconian immigration policies. “There was a time when we invited people here….it made us a healthier nation.” He talked about his father working in the coal mines, and getting cheated by his employer, and his mother as a radio “pioneer” – she would yell at the radio while listening to programs he said, to much laughter. After acknowledging that Vermont is a “pretty secular” state, he discussed his spiritual beliefs, and the importance of having a purpose in life. He would return to this theme later when addressing why people become addicted to drugs, or join ISIS – “they are searching for something.” He then noted that although the presidency is an important job, it is “not going to help address the issues facing Castleton.” Instead, he emphasized the need to act locally by strengthening communities and education opportunities.  These are familiar themes for Kasich, ones I have seen him address in previous campaign stops, but he seemed a bit more relaxed, and also more energized, this time around, perhaps sensing that he was speaking, for the most part, to a receptive audience.

“Life is but a breathe,” Kasich said near the end of his speech, “you are here and then gone.” He noted, to much laughter, that when he his eulogy is read, he hopes that 80% of it is true. He concluded by noting that “if you liked what you heard here today, please vote for me tomorrow. If you didn’t like it, please don’t tell anyone!”  Again the crowd laughed.

Kasich took about a half-dozen questions, ranging from how to deal with climate change – “Some of it is man-made but I don’t know how much”, ISIS – “We need to destroy them”, the Russians and Putin –  “I will support the Ukrainians”, and making college more affordable (the latter question came from a 12-year old girl.) Kasich emphasized the role of community colleges and the need to hold down costs by cutting out non-academic expenses. Except for the very first audience question – “Can you get me Donald Trump’s autograph?” – the questioners seemed generally interested in Kasich’s responses. Perhaps the most interesting exchange took place when a man read a very lengthy and somewhat convoluted statement regarding a possible connection between spending for a U.S. State Department government program and shadowy groups that traffic in child pornography. Rather than respond in detail, Kasich asked the man to give him the sheet of statistics he was holding, and promised to follow up on the issue.

As I noted above, Kasich seemed more energized, and at the same time more relaxed, than in his previous campaign events. When I saw him in South Carolina a couple weeks ago, perhaps because he was cognizant that he was not going to do well there, he seemed more subdued. Vermont is an important state for him – if he can’t do well here tomorrow it is hard to make the case for why he should go on. (Some might argue it is already hard to make that case!) After getting an initial burst of publicity, and fund-raising, off of his second place finish in New Hampshire, he needs to show that he is still viable. His hope, of course, is that either Cruz or Rubio will drop out after tomorrow, and that he will then be positioned as the primary alternative to Trump, who he thinks he can beat in a one-on-one contest. Even if they don’t, he needs to beat them somewhere to remain credible. Vermont and Massachusetts probably offer this best hope to do so tomorrow. Win or lose, however, Kasich is publicly claiming he is in the race for the long haul. As he prepared to leave the auditorium today, he quoted Arnold (The Terminator) Schwarzenegger, promising “I’ll be back!” We’ll see if he has the opportunity to keep that promise.

For those of you in Vermont, I’ll be on WCAX (Channel 3) later today (at 5:30) on the :30 to preview tomorrow’s Super Tuesday events.

Does The Party Decide? Explaining the Trump Phenomenon

Longtime readers know that I have periodically expressed skepticism regarding “The Party Decides” thesis. That is the argument, made most thoroughly by the book of that title,  that party leaders act in effect as gatekeepers who control who wins their party’s nomination. They do so through a variety of signaling mechanisms, such as endorsements, or by steering financial contributions, that collectively help winnow the candidate field and, ideally, focuses voter support behind a single candidate – preferably one who shares the party’s dominant ideological perspective and can still win the general election. Moreover, much of that winnowing takes place prior to any actual voting for party delegates, as party leaders work behind the scenes to eliminate unwanted candidates as soon as possible.

My skepticism rests on three essential points. First, the authors use what I consider to be a rather generous definition of “party”, or intense policy demanders. This allows them to claim that, for the most part, party leaders have retained control of the nominating process despite ostensibly significant changes in how delegates are selected, as in the movement from a convention-centered nominating process to the current post-McGovern-Fraser emphasis on caucus and primaries. (By the way, the book does a wonderful job providing an historical overview of the evolution of the presidential nominating process, which is an important reason why I continue to assign it in my elections class.) A second concern – and perhaps an unfair one – is the difficulty the authors have in showing how this coordinating process actually takes place. As far as I can tell, there’s no smoking memo where party leaders confirm which candidates they will support. So one must infer the existence of a party-driven winnowing process.

Of course, as I tell my students, when it comes to explaining political behavior, you don’t beat something with nothing. If the party isn’t deciding, then who is? My sense is that at least since the McGovern-Fraser reforms, it is more typically the voters who decide – at least those voters who participate in the series of caucuses and primaries that constitute the modern nominating process.  Admittedly, they are not generally representative of the broader public but neither are they the equivalent, at least from my perspective, of the traditional “party bosses” who used to control blocs of delegates. However, voters aren’t free to choose just any candidate.  Instead, they choose from a candidate menu that is heavily influenced by the media’s perception of which candidates are truly viable. The media does not do well with candidate complexity, and so it moves early to simplify the narrative by classifying candidates based on expected strength.  For example, think of the segmentation of the Republican debate participants by the various cable networks into a “grown up” and “kiddie table”. Under this alternative scenario, party elites don’t decide so much as they anticipate who the likely nominee will be based on their read of the political landscape and potential candidates. When the indicators all point in the direction of a particular candidate, party leaders endorse early, in order to position themselves for any benefits that may accrue from being among the first to jump on the winning candidate’s bandwagon. But when the crystal ball is a bit foggier, they wait to endorse, heeding the famous adage to “don’t back no losers.” It is precisely that uncertainty, I believe, that has caused many Republican leaders to hold back on endorsing anyone during the current election cycle. It is not, as some political scientists claim, that they have simply decided not to endorse – it is that they don’t know who to endorse.

Of course, one can’t possibly do full justice in a blog post to the Party Decides thesis, which rests on a slew of data and careful analysis – you really should read the book and decide for yourself. For what it is worth, most of my students who have experience working on campaigns seem not to buy the argument.  However, I haven’t presented any evidence indicating that my alternative take is more plausible (although my students and I are working on it!)

“But what about Donald Trump?” you may ask.  With his commanding victory yesterday in Nevada, Trump has now won three of the four Republican nominating contests to date.  Moreover, despite not having the support of the Republican Party (at least not by the usual indicators) he seems to be gaining strength and appears poised to do quite well on Super Tuesday.  Doesn’t he disprove the Party Decide thesis?

Perhaps.  But I’m in no position to make that case! I often tell my students that in contrast to the general election, political scientists have a more difficult time predicting the outcome of the nominating process – there are too many candidates and decision points, and the party label doesn’t serve as a useful decision cue. But this year I made it quite clear that I was certain about one thing: Donald Trump would not win the Republican nomination. Indeed, on the day he made his announcement that he was running, I wrote what I believed to be a very clever and amusing tongue-firmly-in-cheek post explaining why I was breaking my long tradition of not voting in presidential elections in order to cast my ballot for The Donald.  Alas, it was too clever by half and, at this point, the laugh is on me. Make no mistake about it: Donald Trump is clearly the front-runner for the Republican nomination. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Note that I disagree with my colleagues who claim the Republican Party has implicitly allowed him to take the lead. I just think they don’t have any tools to stop him. He clearly doesn’t need their endorsements to win – I think one member of Congress has endorsed him so far although if my theory is correct I expect more members to get on the Trump bandwagon. Nor does he need party funding. Indeed, he has proved a master at getting free publicity and he has spent comparatively little on advertising. Leading party members and fellow candidates – most notably Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and poor Jeb! Bush – have openly criticized him. But it seems to have no effect – instead, Trump uses that opposition as a selling point to his followers, as I’ve seen firsthand at his rallies.

And it is those rallies that, to me, hold the key to understanding Trump’s success. I’ve described them elsewhere,  but a couple of points are worth highlighting. First, it is commonplace to describe Trump’s followers as “angry.” But his rallies are anything but an expression of anger – in fact, audience members seem to take particular delight in hearing Trump explain how he will make America Great Again. These are festive events, replete with vendors hawking Trump memorabilia, musicians playing, and crowd members chatting excitedly despite lengthy lines and often inclement weather.  Audiences even participate at key moments, as when Trump asks “Who is going to pay for the wall?” and they scream out in unison “Mexico!” The second point is that Trump does not talk down to his audience – instead, he takes their views seriously, and by expressing those views in plain, often politically-incorrect (and admittedly superficial) talking points, he appears to validate them. Yes, part of his support is driven by economic discontent – for many middle and lower-income Americans, wages have been stagnant for some time, manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and the future holds little promise of improvement. But he is winning across all income groups, although his support is  stronger among lower- and middle-income voters.

In addition to his policy stances, then, part of his appeal is that he appears to be on his audience’s side – he doesn’t try to excuse or explain their beliefs as an illustration of intolerance or bigotry. Instead, he says they are right to hold those beliefs, and if elected president he is going to act on them. At the same time he doesn’t pretend to be one of them. Instead, he flaunts his wealth, his education, his beautiful wife and his “New York values” lifestyle. In so doing, he comes across as authentic. But he also says, “See – I’ve made it. Don’t you want to make it too?” They understand that Trump doesn’t have to be doing this – he tells them as much in his standard stump speech – but that he really does want to make America, and by extension, his audience, great again. And they really believe he will – or at least they are willing to take that chance. After all, what do they have to lose?

Yes, we need to be careful in overstating the extent of Trump’s support – but it appears to be growing, despite high unfavorable ratings. And it is not immediately clear who the alternative candidate will be. Despite repeated media attempts to prop him up, Marco Rubio hasn’t come close to challenging Trump since his overhyped third-place finish in Iowa. Ted Cruz has a solid core of conservative followers, but he’s shown little ability to expand beyond that base. Maybe John Kasich will take off, but so far his brand of sunny optimism and social conservatism hasn’t caught on, despite a strong resume. And Ben Carson’s support continues to dwindle.

So what will it be?  Will The Party decide to back The Donald, or to block him? At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter.