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.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to How the 2016 campaign will matter

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    The biggest problem of all is the huge and growing gap between the traditional Republican platform and what a big portion of their voters want. Do those voters want Social Security and Medicare changed? No.
    Do those GOP voters favor small government? Not really. They want a government big enough to address their issues, as long as they feel they are benefiting as well as other groups.
    Do these voters support free trade? No. They see their jobs taken away by it.
    Do they favor big tax cuts for the already wealthy? No. They actually want the wealthy to pay more.
    So where does the GOP establishment go to find enough voters to win elections?
    Maybe they have to readjust some of those principles.

  2. John F. says:

    An optimal campaign strategy for Trump would be to relentlessly attack HRC. Right now he’s not pivoting like most politicians would be by attacking his opponent but that’s probably going to change with a new campaign manager. You may argue that he’s not humble and wise enough to listen to sage advice but he may be forced under tremendous pressure including his tanking poll numbers to reevaluate his current approach.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Of course he’s going to relentlessly attack Hillary Clinton. Not even he’s that dumb. The problem for him is all the other stupid, decidedly sub-optimal stuff he will continue to do.

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