Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Why They Really Support Trump: The View From The Campaign Trail

Last Saturday I attended a Trump rally in Windham, New Hampshire – a relatively affluent town (median income was $127,868 in 2014) of just under of 15,000 people located in the southern portion of the Granite State.  Regular readers will know that I’ve attended several Trump rallies, but this was the first one since I was at Trump’s coronation in Cleveland, and I was eager to see whether he was attracting new supporters and, if so, what they saw in him. I’ve learned through experience that the reasons Trump supporters give for backing him often bear scant resemblance to what the twits on my twitterfeed tell me is really motivating Trump voters.  The experience provided a fascinating window into the minds of Trump supporters.

New Hampshire is considered to be a battleground state, with the latest Huffpost polling aggregator giving Clinton almost a 5% lead.

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Drew Linzer’s poll tracker, which uses a slightly different algorithm, gives Clinton a 7% lead in New Hampshire.

 

Because Trump had been in the region at two local private fundraisers earlier in the day (one on the Cape, and the second on Nantucket), it made sense for him to make a campaign stop in New Hampshire. But his choice to hold the rally in a high school gym did not work out well.  When we arrived, tickets in hand, about 40 minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. start, we saw cars lined up on the entrance road for a couple of miles, and scores of people appeared to be walking away from the high school.  It turned out the fire marshals had already closed the doors to the packed gymnasium, citing local fire codes.  That worked out well for me, as it gave me the opportunity to talk in depth with dozens of Trump supporters who remained outside the rally, hoping for a glimpse of Trump. (Note the child with the oversized Make America Great Again red cap!)

(As it turned out, about halfway through Trump’s speech, people began trickling outside, complaining about the stifling heat inside the gymnasium.  “You’re lucky you’re out here,” one person muttered to me as he stumbled outside, bathed in sweat.  Scott Brown, who introduced Trump, was one who left early as seen in this blurry picture:)

I consciously sought to talk with about an even mix of men and women (there were not a lot of racial or ethnic minorities in the crowd that I could see).  I have found that if I make it clear that I am a political scientist doing research (I show them my business card), and not a member of the media, people at these rallies are only too glad to talk to me, and in great depth.  I began by asking them if they were supporting Trump, and if so, why.   From there I probed more deeply, asking about the previous candidates they may have supported, what they thought of Trump’s stances on issues and his qualifications for office, and how strongly they were committed to voting for him.  As much as possible, however, I let them take charge of the conversation.  My goal was to elicit a more thorough understanding of what they thought of Trump than one can get through the more fixed interview protocol used in surveys.

It quickly became clear that two themes dominated the thinking of Trump supporters.  The first, expressed – unprompted by me – by every person I talked to, was economic anxiety.  Interestingly, that anxiety was not directed so much at their own situation but toward that of their children, or others close to them.

One women, in her forties, got emotional as she told me her daughter and son-in-law were about to have twins.  “They work so very hard,” she said, “and yet they aren’t getting ahead.”  A second woman, who appeared to be in her early thirties, and who is a nurse, said students graduating from nursing school today are starting at salaries $10 lower than what she earned starting out a decade earlier.  “That’s not enough to pay off their loans,” she observed.  She said she had been an Obama supporter, in part because she backed Obamacare, but she now thought the health care law was a disaster for both providers and consumers.   A third woman told me she was a first-generation immigrant who was attracted to Trump because she believed in capitalism.  “I’ve lived under socialism,” she told me.  “I want capitalism.”  Like many of the people I talked to, she liked Trump because of his business background, and his lack of political experience, both of which she saw as virtues.

When I pushed these people to explain how they thought Trump could speed up the slow economic growth they associated with the Obama presidency, the common response was some variation of, “I don’t know, but we have to try something new.”  Others responded by noting that “it can’t get any worse” under a Trump presidency. One man, who appeared in his mid-forties, recounted a conversation he had with business associates on this topic: “They told me that if it requires blowing up the existing system to get meaningful change, it has to be done.”  Here is where I saw how Trump’s lack of political finesse worked in his favor among these voters – something that’s hard to see based on the more critical coverage he gets on cable news and social media.

I asked several people what they thought of Trump’s often inflammatory comments. One woman acknowledged that she sometimes wished he would “tone it down a little.” (She also pointed to several of the items being hawked outside the event, including the ubiquitous “Hillary Sucks – But Monica Sucks Better” t-shirt, as offensive.) But most of those I talked to saw Trump’s blunt talk as a virtue.  “Sometimes you have to say these things” to make changes, one man told me.  A second man, who appeared to be in his 70’s, asked me, “Have you ever worked in New York?”  When I replied no, he said, “Well, that’s how you talk when you do business in New York. There are a lot of bad people there, and that’s how you get things done with them.”

I pressed several respondents on whether they thought there were racial undertones to Trump’s statements on immigration, and whether they thought other (not them!) Trump supporters might be partially animated by racist beliefs.  Not one person agreed with the notion, although one person acknowledged “I can’t speak for what motivates all of his supporters.”  One individual, a Republican Party official who was at the rally registering voters, told me, “Here in New Hampshire, voters tend to associate Trump’s comments on building a wall and immigration with the opiate crisis, which has hit people hard here. They think doing anything to secure the borders is going to help.”

The second theme that emerged, again unprompted by me, was a deep antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. One man, in his early 40’s, told me he wasn’t voting for Trump as much as he was against Clinton. Almost to a person those I talked to expressed a fundamental belief that she could not be trusted.  At one point in our conversation, the woman whose daughter is having twins lowered her voice to tell me, “I’m a Roman Catholic and a good Christian, but I just have to say this: that woman [Hillary Clinton] is evil.” When I pressed several of them to compare her knowledge on issues like foreign policy to Trump’s, they pushed back against the idea that she was somehow more qualified than him.  One man visibly recoiled when I suggested she might be, on paper, better prepared to serve as commander-in-chief.  “You can’t believe a word she says!” he replied incredulously.  As I’ve noted in previous posts,  despite fact-checking statistics that seem to show Clinton’s statements are more often factually correct than are Trump’s, there is a deep and abiding perception among a good portion of the population that Clinton is simply not trustworthy.  Some of that mistrust, according to those at the NH Trump rally, goes back to events occurring under Bill’s watch.  People I talked to often referenced the two of them together.

Many of the people I interviewed did not start out as Trump supporters.  Several were originally Kasich or Rubio backers, but most said they were now supporting Trump. One Kasich supporter who was now voting for Trump said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Clinton. One woman, who appeared in her early 20’s, said she had read Trump’s book The Art of the Deal when she was a teenager, and it had inspired her to go into real estate.  “I’ve always admired him,” she acknowledged.

I interviewed only one person, a young woman who appeared to be in her twenties, who said she was not voting for Trump. “I was just curious to see a Trump rally,” she told me.  When pressed, she told me she was voting for Clinton, but not because she supported her, but because “she is a Democrat. I’m voting for the Party.”  As I noted above, at about the mid-point of Trump’s speech, spectators began trickling out complaining about the oppressive heat inside the building.  Unfortunately for some of them, the Trump supporters outside the building thought they were protestors getting tossed from the premises, and their appearance sometimes incited boos and heckling from the crowd.  Throughout Trump’s speech, those outside periodically erupted into chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump!”, “Build that Wall!” and “Lock her up!”  One of the more imaginative chants was started by a Trump supporter who said, “Everyone talks about Trump and 1984” – apparently referencing Orwell’s classic book about authoritarian rule.  “Well, I have a better date:  1789!”  Whereupon people began chanting, “1789! 1789!” As one who teaches the intro course on American politics, I felt a certain pride in this particular chant.

Because we wanted to beat the traffic, we left the rally before Trump concluded his speech.  You can watch the full version here.  As always, I was struck by the contrast between what Trump supporters told me regarding why they support his candidacy, and what I hear on cable news and read on social media. (I’m not sure how this event was covered, but it had a heavy local media presence.)

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Granted, this was a rally in New Hampshire, and it may not be representative of what Trump supporters elsewhere believe.  But the deep concern about the economic future of the country is something I’ve heard from Trump supporters at other rallies I’ve attended as well.  As one Trump supporter in New Hampshire explained to me, “These people still believe in the American Dream about getting ahead, but they they think it is slipping away from us.”  The other aspect of the interviews that stuck with me is how thoughtful those I talked with were when giving their responses.  It was clear they were knowledgeable about the candidates and the issues, and that their support was based on a careful consideration of both. Of course, I don’t doubt that there were the occasional conspiracy theorists sprinkled in Trump’s crowd as well.  But on the whole this clearly wasn’t a rally of the brown-shirted thugs that social media often makes Trump’s supporters out to be.  Trump has clearly tapped into a genuine feeling of economic anxiety among a significant number of voters.  Whether that will be enough to propel him to the presidency remains to be seen.  But it is a feeling that Clinton and her supporters would do well to take seriously.

Addendum 4:19 8/11/16:  This Wall St. Journal article on the impact of Chinese imports on New Hampshire towns and communities in other states dovetails exactly with what Trump supporters were telling me at his rally on Saturday.

What I Saw in Cleveland: Trump Rocked, But Can He Roll?

The measure of an effective convention is the size and durability of the boost (if any) it produces in the nominee’s support.  Early polling results suggests Donald Trump may have received a small boost in his support from the recently-concluded Republican convention, mostly from previously undecided Republicans, but it’s still too early to judge whether, and how much, it improved his chances in November. This hasn’t stopped pundits on both sides of the political aisle from rendering their own verdict, however premature, of course.  Here’s my take, based on my brief time in Cleveland, capped by a ringside seat (if sitting in the nosebleed seats counts as ringside) to watch Trump’s lengthy, and loud, acceptance speech.

The goal of any party convention is to unify the party behind the presumptive nominee, and to articulate the major themes on which the candidate will run in the general election.  For the most part, I thought Trump accomplished these objectives.  I flew into Ohio expecting to see a very divided set of Republican delegates, and braced for major demonstrations in the streets.  Neither expectation was met.  In fact, despite the media’s tendency to focus attention on dissenting delegates and other controversies (see coverage of Melania’s partly plagiarized speech), this was a relatively tame event. Once Trump’s team, allied with the Republican Party leadership, beat back an early effort to amend the rules to allow the delegates to vote their conscience, the battle for the nomination was essentially over.  The state roll call on Tuesday went relatively smoothly, with New York’s delegates, as announced by Trump’s son Donald, putting Trump over the top to become the party nominee.  Similarly, while Ted Cruz’ failure to endorse Trump received a lot of airtime on the cable shows, it wasn’t clear to me (I wasn’t in the arena for this) that it played all that well with most delegates.  In my view, Cruz’ decision not to endorse was made with an eye toward his bid for the presidency in 2020, on the assumption that he won’t be tainted when Trump is defeated come November. I suspect it will have little impact on the 2016 race.

Perhaps equally surprising, I saw little evidence of sustained protests against Trump on the streets.  To be sure, there were organized demonstrations held nightly at the public square a short distance from the Quickens Loans Arena, but they were largely peaceful and mostly out of site to delegates entering the arena.  Perhaps the most boisterous opposition I saw was by religious groups that evidently viewed Trump’s candidacy as a harbinger of a coming apocalypse.

There was an incident in which a protester tried to burn an American flag near the convention arena entrance, but according to the waitress I talked to in Flannery’s Irish Pub who saw the event, he wasn’t even able to ignite the flag – but did ignite himself – before police wrestled him down.  Protests that same night led to maybe two dozen arrests. The next day security was significantly beefed up in that area, including the use of mounted police, and I didn’t see any significant protests as I entered the arena that night.

On the whole, this man holding a sign proclaiming that “Trump eats farts” while posing for pictures with one of Cleveland’s finest pretty much sums up the tenor of the protests that I saw in Cleveland.

It may be that the highly visible security presence deterred more violent protests.  Indeed, security was tight all over.  As I headed to the courthouse to pick up my security clearance, a platoon of some 40 or more officers came sprinting by me.

There were uniformed officers and security in riot gear holding weaponry everywhere, and police used bomb-sniffing dogs to check for explosives in packages on the street.

To get into the security perimeter around the arena one had to pass an extensive security check, which was more thorough than anything I’ve gone through to get onto an airplane.  That included turning on smart phones to prove they were real.  For the most part, the process went very quickly, but it made me reconsider how much time I wanted to spend in the arena, since I didn’t look forward to going through security every time I had to reenter.

Security was a bit less stringent at the convention center a couple of blocks away from the arena, where the print media (of which I was, allegedly, one) were penned up to write their copy. Evidently we weren’t considered high priority targets for terrorists. Rather than spending time in my designated space with the international media in the far corner of the print press room, my wife – er, camerawoman – and I staked out a position in a pub just opposite the arena entrance where I could drink some local beer, send the occasional tweet, and watch the talking heads like Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd interact with the little people. It was a taxing assignment, but someone has to speak truth to power.

On the final night of the convention, I decided to watch the proceedings from the highest point in the Quicken Loan arena seats, to the left of the main stage, about level with the balloons clustered on the arena ceiling.  (My media credentials limited me to the upper balcony seating.)  On the way in I saw a gaggle of reporters surrounding someone who I assumed must be very important.  It was Don King, the boxing promoter. He had missed out on snaring a formal speaking slot, but that didn’t stop him from talking.

From my nosebleed seats the speakers seem quite tiny, but I had a fine view of the proceedings via the overhead screen.  The most anticipated speaker of the night, other than Donald, was his daughter Ivanka, and she delivered, both substantively and in presentation. To the extent that her comments on issues like equal pay and child care reflects her father’s views, it is a reminder of how Trump is willing, in some areas, to go against the Republican Party orthodoxy in a bid to reach out to more moderate voters.  Whether he succeeded is another question altogether.

When Ivanka introduced her father, the place erupted in applause and a glow of camera phone flashes as Donald walked on stage, his hair looking less unruly than usual.

Even though I was about as far from Trump as one could be, I’m pretty sure I could have heard his speech even had there been no amplification – he practically shouted it out, which may have been partly a function of his adjusting to using a teleprompter, rather than the more informal speaking style I’ve seen from him at his rallies.

As many commentators have noted, Trump’s speech painted a rather grim picture of the state of affairs in the U.S., beginning with his opening statement that “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life” followed by a lengthy recitation of facts and statistics chronicling just how bad the situation purportedly is. But that’s to be expected from a candidate who is running against the incumbent party – it would be more surprising if he painted a more upbeat picture. As he has throughout the campaign, Trump targeted his message to what he called “the forgotten men and women of our country. And they are forgotten, but they’re not gonna be forgotten long. These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.”  The reference to the forgotten men and women, of course, hearkens back to FDR’s use of that term in his famous radio address during the 1932 presidential campaign when he called for plans that “put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”  At the end of his acceptance speech, Trump repeated his claim that “I am your voice.”

As I watched the speech, one incident in particular stood out as a testament to Trump’s maturation as a candidate.  As security quickly surrounded the lone protestor who tried to disrupt the speech, Trump refrained from issuing his characteristic order to “Throw him out” which I had seen so often on the campaign trail and instead, after the protestor was gone, took the time – to great applause – to praise law enforcement for their hard work without ever directly referencing the disruption.

So, what impact will the convention, and Trump’s speech, have on the presidential race?  My sense is that, despite the media focus on a “divided party,” Trump accomplished his first objective, which was to unify the Republican Party behind his candidacy. (Contrary to the impression the media conveyed, when I heard delegates chanting “Lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton, it sounded less like an angry mob and much more like a rollicking party. Delegates were having fun with the chant – or so it seemed to me inside the arena.) And I think his message will resonate with that portion of the electorate that has experienced years of stagnant wages, and who are worried about growing economic inequality and security issues. But although he modified his stance on immigration to target countries rather than Muslims, and made a direct appeal on Thursday night to the groups, including African-Americans, Latinos and members of the LGBT community that historically vote Democrat, it is not clear to me how effective he was in expanding his electoral coalition beyond his current base of low-to-middle-income mostly white male voters.  And I am skeptical that he will be very successful in peeling off very many Sanders supporters to join his cause, despite his direct effort to reach out to them in his speech. But won’t stop him from trying, as evidenced by today’s twitterfest from Trump decrying the DNC email scandal.

The other unknown, of course, is how much of a boost Hillary Clinton will get when the spotlight turns to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week.  Ironically, despite all the media buildup anticipating a very divisive Republican convention, it is the Democrats who seem more divided at the moment, at least if the Sandersistas follow through on their pledge to bring 100,000 protestors to the City of Brotherly Love. My guess, however, is that Democrats will leave Philadelphia next Thursday more unified than they appear to be now, just as Republicans did.

Let me conclude by repeating what I told the camera crew from the Cleveland visitors bureau when they interviewed me about what I thought about their fair city:  everywhere we went people were incredibly nice and helpful, whether it was the man on the rapid transit train explaining how to get to downtown Cleveland, the judicial clerk who sent me to the correct courthouse to get my security pass, or the rapid transit official who let me jump the turnstile when I lost my farecard.   I know Cleveland gets a bad rap – burning rivers, Lebron James, Lebron James again, etc. (City Motto: We’re not Detroit!)  But from what I saw in the brief time I spent there, Cleveland Rocks.

 

 

 

 

Does Trump Have His Eye On Newt?

We have entered a political lull between the period in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became their party’s presumptive nominees and the party conventions signifying the kickoff to the general election campaign. In a bid to drum up items of interest during this slow news period, the media will spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about who the two candidates will choose as their vice presidential running mates (along with a healthy dose of Clinton’s email woes) – an exercise that both candidates will be only to happy to encourage.  These stories will contain the obligatory reference to John Nance Garner’s quip that the Vice Presidency is not “worth a bucket of warm piss”, and then will play the speculation game by pointing out the ways in which various potential candidates do or do not help the president win the general election.  We’ll see references to which vice presidential candidate best “balances” the ticket – geographically, or with certain voting blocs (women, religious groups, etc.), or to compensate for a candidate’s perceived lack of expertise in certain areas.

All this begs the question: is there any evidence that the vice president pick even matters, in terms of influencing the general election?  Generally speaking, the short answer is no – at least not in terms of the overall presidential vote.  There is some evidence that a vice presidential candidate chosen from a swing state could be electorally consequential by boosting a presidential candidate’s support there. But the effect, if it exists, is likely quite modest. However, as I suggested to Deutsche Welle (DW) reporter Michael Knigge,  as with many aspects of this election, prior research may be – I stress may be – less relevant this time around.  This is particularly the case when it comes to Donald Trump’s vice presidential choice.  The reason is that Trump, perhaps more than almost any major party nominee in modern history, lacks any governing experience at any political level.  Beginning at least with the Carter-Mondale relationship presidents have increasingly integrated their vice president into their policy advising process.  As a consequence, the vice presidential choice has been increasingly likely to turn on how well the presidential candidate believes his vice presidential nominee will help him or her govern, as opposed to boosting his electoral chances. Dick Cheney wasn’t selected by Bush because he could deliver Wyoming and its three Electoral College votes – he was chosen because he possessed the foreign policy experience George W. Bush lacked, as Bush makes clear in his memoirs.  Similarly, Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was not made in order to bring Delaware into the Democratic column in 2008.  Instead, Obama was hoping to capitalize on Biden’s years of experience in the Senate.  And even candidates who are chosen in part for electoral reasons, as Al Gore was in 1992,  often provide needed governing expertise as well.  In his memoirs, Bill Clinton notes that he had weekly lunches with Gore throughout his presidency:  “Al Gore helped me a lot in the early days….giving me a continuing crash course in how Washington works.”

Trump, in his public comments, seems to recognize that he needs to select someone with governing experience, preferably working in Congress. It seems, however, that as vice presidents have become an important part of the presidential staff, personal compatibility with the presidential candidate has become an increasingly important factor influencing the selection as well.  In listing the qualities that ultimately led him to offer the position to Cheney, Bush said, “I wanted someone with whom I was comfortable, someone willing to serve as part of a team, someone with the Washington experience that I lacked… .”

At first glance, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is reportedly the front-runner to become Trump’s running mate, seems to provide the type of congressional experience that Trump will sorely need if he’s to get his legislative agenda through Congress.  Even Gingrich’s harshest critics acknowledge that he is smart, and a savvy player of the Washington game. But Gingrich has also acquired a reputation for erratic behavior and a penchant for floating big think, but perhaps impractical ideas – see his proposal during the 2012 campaign for establishing a moon base by 2020.   More importantly, perhaps, Gingrich seems to suffer from some of the same weaknesses Trump exhibits – a lack of self-discipline and a penchant for rhetorical excess that often attracts media attention for the wrong reasons.   And his personal life – particular his marriages – isn’t likely to sit well with conservative voters who are already suspicious of Trump’s right-wing credentials and moral rectitude.

Electorally, it is not clear that Gingrich brings much to the ticket. It is true that Gingrich won his home state of Georgia easily four years earlier during the race for the Republican nomination, which might matter if Democrats try to turn that state blue – a long-shot proposition at this point.  However, there are lots of more important swing states out there (see: Ohio) and politicians (see: John Kasich) who would make a better choice for electoral reasons alone.  The problem, however, is that many of the Republicans who bring the most electorally, including Kasich, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, have expressed no interest in being Trump’s running mate.  Gingrich, on the other hand, seems perfectly willing to climb aboard the Trump presidential train.

One important quality that Gingrich does possess, at least according to press reports, is that Trump likes and trusts him, something that is evident in Trump’s comments about Newt during their joint appearance at a rally yesterday in Cincinnati.

 

Who knows?  A Trump-Gingrich presidential ticket might create the type of creative synergy not seen since….well, since ever.   Or, the two might create a combustible mix of inflated egos and excessive rhetoric that will end up self-destructing on the campaign trail. Either way, it would be one hell of a ride.

Why Trump Is Losing…er….Winning This Race

Donald Trump is losing the presidential race.  I know, because the pundits are telling me so.  According to them, Donald Trump has endured a very bad week – no, a very bad month! – one that has severely damaged his presidential candidacy. Beginning with his questionable attack on the ethnic heritage of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, through his tone-deaf response to the Orlando night-club tragedy, to the recent FEC report indicating Trump had raised virtually no money in the last fiscal quarter, and ending with the shakeup of his campaign staff, Trump managed to destroy whatever momentum he might have gained by locking up the Republican nomination. As a result, the pundits say, he has lost ground to Clinton in the presidential race, as measured in recent surveys showing Clinton expanding her lead.  Some pundits are already proclaiming Trump be “an incredibly weak presumptive nominee, perhaps among the weakest ever” with some predicting he won’t break 40% in the popular vote. Not surprisingly, there are indications that Republicans are experiencing deep buyer’s remorse, and efforts to free delegates to vote their conscience at the Republican convention are picking up steam. No wonder Trump’s unfavorable rating has reached a record high of 70%!

Welcome to the media’s Silly Season.  With both major parties’ nominations essentially clinched (pay no attention to those contested convention rumors) we are officially entering a protracted period in which pundits handicap the presidential contest in terms of each candidate’s ability to “win” a media cycle, which is typically the period associated with a dominant news story. To win, the media must judge a candidate to have gotten the better of their rival in terms of reacting to that news story, or creating a new one.  They can do so by any number of means – a clever advertisement, a carefully prepared speech, an effective photo op or simply by avoiding the all-important “gaffe”.  Often polls are used to “prove” the accuracy of the media’s collective judgment regarding who won.  Under this horserace scenario, after clinching their respective nominations candidates start off essentially even, and whoever is better at winning these media cycles will eventually take home the ultimate prize come November: the presidency. And right now, thanks to Trump’s gaffes, Clinton is pulling ahead.

There’s only one problem with the framework: it’s almost certainly wrong.  Presidential elections are not horseraces, in which the winning candidate’s trip to the finish line can only be charted on a step-by-step basis, with no clear way at the start to predict which one will get there first. In fact, decades of political science research shows that there is an underlying structural equilibrium to a presidential contest based on fundamental factors such as the state of the economy, whether the nation is at war, and how long the incumbent party has occupied the White House, and that much of what the media cites as critical in their daily coverage has almost no lasting impact on this dynamic.

This is not to say that campaigns don’t matter.  They do.  But not in the way that this on-going media narrative suggests.  Instead, campaigns serve as a means by which each candidate makes those fundamental factors salient to voters, preferably in ways that advantage their candidacy at the expense of their opponent’s.   Crucially, however, these campaigns cannot create their own reality via clever tactics – they must deal with the hand fate has dealt them.  Assuming both candidates play their hands effectively in a strategic sense by choosing the proper frame, the outcome is not as open-ended as the pundits’ horserace perspective would have us believe.

Now it is possible that this year will be different – that Trump’s candidacy will be so gaffe-prone and disorganized that it will override the fundamentals in a way that hands Clinton the victory.  Or perhaps he will choose the wrong campaign frame given the underlying fundamentals. This is what some analysts believe happened in 2000, when Democratic nominee Al Gore adopted a populist strategy rather than focusing on the rather favorable economic conditions he inherited from his predecessor.  It may be, then, that the pundits are right – that Trump’s recent “gaffes” are evidence that he’s not up to snuff when it comes to running a national campaign.  On the other hand, the same criticisms were leveled at him through the nominating race, and yet he somehow managed to vanquish 16 opponents.

No matter.  The pundits have spoken. Trump’s poor choice of campaign tactics has left him dangerously behind in the race for the Presidency, and there’s the possibility he may never catch up……Wait!  Great Britain, in a stunning demonstration of populist strength, has voted to leave the European Union!  Given the obvious parallels between the Brexit movement and Trump’s candidacy, this is good news for Trump, and clear evidence that we’ve been underestimating his chances of winning!  The race is on again!

(Note: as my academic leave comes to an end and I finish up a book project, I’ll be posting shorter pieces that, alas, may be a little lighter on the political science research side than I’d like.  Please bear with me, but I do have a day job to keep.)

Is Trump More Honest Than Hillary?

The latest Quinnipiac nationwide survey of registered voters has Hillary Clinton holding a slight lead over Donald Trump, 45%-41% (margin of error of +/- 2.5%). That’s consistent with the polling averages at Huffington Post, which have Clinton up 42.7%-40.8%, and at RealClearPolitics, which has Clinton leading Trump 44%-42.5%.  Of course, as I’ve noted before, head-to-head polling is still not very predictive at this point in the race, and really won’t be until after the nominating conventions. This is particularly true with Clinton still in a fight for the Democratic nomination, while Trump is moving ahead to unify Republicans behind him. It is also the case that fully 15% of respondents chose not to back either candidate. Nonetheless, it is interesting to look at the internals of recent polls to get a sense of what is driving the results.

Perhaps the most surprising result in the Quinnipiac polls is that when asked who they found more trustworthy and honest, Clinton or Trump, 44% of respondents chose Trump, compared to 39% who selected Clinton. Obviously some of the responses are conditioned by the respondent’s partisan affiliation – Democrats rate Hillary higher, while Republicans view Trump as more trustworthy.  But among independents, Trump led by an even greater 15%, 44%-29%.

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How can this be? Isn’t Trump the candidate that Politifact fact-checked and rated close to 80% of the statements of his that they checked as false, mostly false or meriting a Pants on Fire? Given his documented record of making false statements, how could survey respondents rate him more trustworthy than Clinton? This result isn’t unique to Quinnipiac, mind you. In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, Trump also “led” Clinton 42%-41% among registered voters on the honesty/trustworthiness question.

One explanation is that because Clinton hasn’t been able to secure her party’s nomination, some Democrats and likely Sanders’ supporters are more willing to say that Trump is more trustworthy as a form of protesting Clinton’s candidacy rather than as a statement in favor of Trump’s honesty. As evidence, note that more than twice as many Democrats – 10% – said Trump was more trustworthy than did Republicans – 5% – about Clinton.

A second possible explanation is that Trump draws disproportionately from less educated supporters who may be less able to judge the veracity of Trump’s statements – or less willing to care whether what he says is true or not.

Note that in the Quinnipiac survey, those without a college education are more likely to rate Trump as the more honest of the two than are the college educated.

However, I think a third factor is at play here. For many Trump supporters, his trustworthiness and honesty is not measured by how factually correct his statements are. Instead, it is better gauged by his willingness to speak candidly about issues, even if he does so in ways that are not viewed as politically correct, and which may create a media backlash. Again and again I heard his followers at his rallies say that they appreciated his willingness to talk about issues that other candidates shied away from, regardless of the potential consequences. They tended to dismiss his exaggerations as “Donald being Donald”.  In contrast, for many voters, Clinton often appears too clever by half, with her every statement carefully crafted to appeal to a potential voting bloc or interest group. That, combined with her long history of being embroiled in controversy, from Whitewater through the Lewinsky affair to concerns  about her finances to the current questions about her speaking fees and the ongoing email controversy, has made many voters uneasy regarding her credibility. Her careful parsing of statements regarding whether she exchanged classified material on her private email server is a case in point. Did she lie? Probably not. Was she being completely candid? Many voters have their doubts.

In short, when asked about candidate honesty or trustworthiness, many voters do not respond  in terms of whether the candidates’ statements are factually accurate. Instead, they are using a slightly different metric – one based on whether they think the candidate’s statements are candid and sincere. I was reminded of this a couple weeks back when a CNN panel of talking heads was vigorously debating how much blowback Trump would receive if his tax returns showed that he was only worth $4 billion or even less, as opposed to the more than $10 billion Trump claims. If his tax returns show he is lying, it would certainly earn Trump still another Pants on Fire rating.  And yet my sense is that for potential Trump supporters, the answer isn’t nearly as important as the talking heads were making it out to be. Potential Trump supporters know he is very rich – he practically shouts it at them in every rally, when he explains how he can’t be bought. If it turns out he is only half as rich as he claimed to be, he’s still very rich, and his broader point still holds, at least to his potential supporters.

My point here is not to defend Trump or, for that matter, to make a virtue of his spouting blatant falsehoods. Nor should we exaggerate the differences in the survey results between Trump and Clinton when respondents are asked to compare the two candidates’ honesty and trustworthiness. The difference is not great, at least based on recent polls. But the fact that Trump is viewed by slightly more respondents as more trustworthy, instead of Clinton, does seem somewhat shocking, given the almost daily media story documenting still another Trump statement as untrue. The explanation, I think, is that many voters, when asked about trustworthiness and honesty, think in terms of candidate sincerity and candidness, as much or more than they do about the factual accuracy of candidate statements.

Is Clinton honest? Is Trump? It depends on the meaning of honesty!