How the 2016 campaign will matter

When teaching about presidential elections, I enjoy going through various details of campaign strategy and then telling my students that you can predict election results with remarkable accuracy based primarily on the state of the economy and presidential approval, six months before the election, i.e., before the campaign even really happens.

So, how can all that campaign stuff (47%, Sarah Palin’s existence, infamous debate moments, etc.) not really matter?  Short version: the truth is, despite all the small stuff, we can count on both campaigns to run reasonably optimal strategies that ultimately pretty much cancel each other out (e.g., Democrats don’t waste time campaigning in Texas and bad-mouthing women voters; Republican candidates don’t campaign in New York and complain that rich people have too much influence).  So, as long as both candidates do pretty much what’s expected, the underlying fundamentals of partisanship, the economy, presidential approval, war when it’s happening, etc., win out.

Here’s what makes 2016 so fun– it appears that Donald Trump has very little intent or ability to run his optimal campaign strategy.  It’s amazing the number of people who think that Donald Trump simply does not obey political gravity and that he has re-written all the political rules.  Sure, he surprised us in the primaries, but what works for rabid Tea Party voters does not work for a general election campaign.  And, so far, Trump seems utterly incapable of learning that.

Josh Marshall:

He’s spent the last six weeks in an erratic barrage of self-inflicted wounds and petulant attacks on people who he needs to be critical allies. Not just Rubio or Kasich but any other candidate would be spending this time fleshing out a campaign team – usually bringing in the best operatives from the defeated primary challengers – developing campaign themes focused on the Democrats’ nominee, raising and stockpiling money. These may not be exciting tasks but they are the critical work of standing up a national campaign, which is one part flash mob, one part Fortune 500 corporation. It’s a big, big thing that takes a lot of managerial work to set up.

Others might do it well or poorly. But Trump isn’t doing any of it…

Almost every day since he clinched the nomination almost six weeks ago has been a surreal tour through Trump’s damaged psyche – the insecurities, silly feuds, the mix of self-serving lies and attacks on people he’s supposed to be courting or justifying a supposed refusal to do things hefinds himself actually unable to do (raise a billion dollars). More than anything he’s attacking almost everyone but the person he’s running against – and that, not terribly effectively. The major themes of his campaign appear to be racist “Mexican” judges, his ability to predict terror attacks and the inevitable destruction of the American republic.

It would be like sitting in the stands watching a football game. But one team isn’t even taking the field because the quarterback is on the sidelines knifing his coaches and teammates. Trump issues daily attacks on GOP insiders as corrupt pansies; they attack him as an unstable racist. You almost feel sorry for the Dems: where’s their angle in on the 2016 campaign?

Alan Abramowitz’s prediction model says a generic Republican should be the favorite this year.  But there’s nothing generic about Trump.  Dylan Matthews’ sums it up:

Abramowitz just thinks his model is wrong this year. “The model is based on the assumption that the parties are going to nominate mainstream candidates who will be able to unite the party, and that the outcome will be similar to a generic vote, a generic presidential vote for a generic Democrat versus a generic Republican,” he told me. “That’s usually a pretty reasonable assumption and produces pretty accurate predictions.”

“Usually a pretty reasonable assumption” doesn’t mean it’s always a reasonable assumption, though, and Abramowitz thinks this is a year when it clearly, obviously, isn’t. Since Trump isn’t a mainstream candidate, he breaks the models. “It would not shock me if he ends up losing,” Abramowitz said, and “if Clinton wins the election by a very comfortable margin.” …

Election models are valuable so long as the election is broadly similar in terms of candidate quality, campaign tactics, and party coalitions to the elections that have happened before.

That is, election models are good at predicting elections that are like past elections. They are bad at predicting elections that are not like past elections.

So here’s the question: Is 2016 genuinely different from the elections that came before it? Or do the modelers just want to believe it is?

And 2016 is not like other elections because Trump is not like other candidates.  And decidedly not in a good way for his campaign.

And, lastly, Yglesias on Trump’s general election campaign struggles:

Having won the nomination, a bit of a counter-conventional wisdom began to emerge holding that Trump is some kind of strategic mastermind whose bizarre statements don’t hurt him because they are like catnip to his supporters.

But just as the old CW that Trump’s rants would hurt him is wrong, the new CW is also wrong. Trump’s unfavorables are sky-high and rising. A general election is different from a primary in fundamental ways, and what helped him win the primary is going to hurt him between now and November. Indeed, one main reason earlier nominees didn’t pursue Trump’s route to victory is precisely because they knew this. Trump’s attacks on the Mexican ancestry of a federal judge, for example, are viewed as racist and wrong by most Americans.

 If you actually want to become president, campaigning à la Trump doesn’t work — which is what left the path wide open for him…

Republican primary voters are fundamentally different

The key thing to understand is that Trump has won the hearts of Republican primary voters with “transgressive” statements that are popular with Republicans but unpopular with the American people writ large…

Traditionally, Republican Party politicians have tried to shy away from saying overtly racist things precisely because racism is not a winning general election platform. At times it’s possible to thread the needle between what the base wants to hear and what the general public wants to hear with “dog whistle” messages.

What Trump found was that a plain old whistle was louder and more effective at reaching its intended audience of cranky older white people. The problem is that everyone else can hear it too, and there aren’t enough cranky older white people to win a general election…

So in order to win, Trump would need to unlearn the lessons of his primary campaign and try his best to act like a more normal politician — most fundamentally by not saying bizarre, irresponsible, blatantly racist things. Given his very long track record as a colorful public figure and totally nonexistent track record as an on-message politician, that seems unlikely to happen. [emphasis mine]

Of course, there’s many months to go, but at this point all indications are that Trump’s significant sub-optimality as a candidate and as a campaigner may well be decisive.

Quick hits

1) Jamelle Bouie on Obama and gun control.

2) The fact that the US is the only modern nation to not adopt the metric system is so representative of the worst of American exceptionalism.  That said, we actually do already use the metric system a ton.

3) A serious look at why professional male athletes in various sports do or do not wear protective cups.  All I can say is there would clearly be a lot of child-less hockey players if not for them.

4) So, the kids today don’t like using periods.  Call me an old fogey, but I’m a really big fan of a very clear visual marker of where one sentence concludes and another begins.

5) Jeffrey Goldberg with a really good take on what Obama actually believes about radical Islam.

The fundamental difference between Obama and Trump on issues related to Islamist extremism (apart from the obvious, such as that, unlike Trump, Obama a) has killed Islamist terrorists; b) regularly studies the problem and allows himself to be briefed by serious people about the problem; and c) is not racist or temperamentally unsuitable for national leadership) is that Trump apparently believes that two civilizations are in conflict. Obama believes that the clash is taking place within a single civilization, and that Americans are sometimes collateral damage in this fight between Muslim modernizers and Muslim fundamentalists.

6) Mark Joseph Stern argues that the Stanford rape case demonstrates massive liberal hypocrisy on issues of basic fairness in the criminal justice system. He’s right.

7) Neck tattoos as a signalling device.

8) Best-named SuperPac ever?

9) Ron Fournier lets loose on Trump:

You could argue that it’s important to give the enemy a name. OK, let’s do that:

Islamic extremism. Islamic extremism. Islamic extremism.

Radical Islam. Radical Islam. Radical Islam.

Wait for it… No, ISIS didn’t crumble.

You’re wrong, Donald Trump. Words don’t win wars.

But your words do undermine the commander-in-chief. Your words do exploit fears, stir prejudices, and divide Americans. Your words might even win you the election.

Which is the point, right? In March, you said talk about terrorist attacks “is probably why I’m number one in the polls.”

Forty-nine innocent people dead and you took a victory lap in their blood.


10) But not quite as well as genuine #neverTrumper, Rick Wilson.

11) Very thorough and fair look at the difficulties in addressing America’s gun problem in the Atlantic.

12) A big problem– way too easy for straw buyers to get away with it.  That said, if we actually had better laws (i.e., every transfer or theft of a gun had to be reported), it would be easy to prosecute them.  And straw buyers are a huge problem.

13) One of those oh-so-good viral posts floating around the internet of late:

“How about we treat every young man who wants to buy a gun like every woman who wants to get an abortion — mandatory 48-hr waiting period, parental permission, a note from his doctor proving he understands what he’s about to do, a video he has to watch about the effects of gun violence, an ultrasound wand up the ass (just because). Let’s close down all but one gun shop in every state and make him travel hundreds of miles, take time off work, and stay overnight in a strange town to get a gun. Make him walk through a gauntlet of people holding photos of loved ones who were shot to death, people who call him a murderer and beg him not to buy a gun.
It makes more sense to do this with young men and guns than with women and health care, right? I mean, no woman getting an abortion has killed a room full of people in seconds, right?”

14)  Donald Trump sure knows how to feed the conspiracy theorists.  There’s something going on here!

15) In the headline says it all category, “For every gun used in self-defense, six more are used to commit a crime.”

16) So that quick hit last week about math suggesting there is almost surely alien intelligence?  Then again, maybe not.  It’s all about the assumptions.

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