Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post-Debates Recap: Is 2016 An Exception Or the New Normal?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engaged in the final scheduled debate last night, passing a milepost marking the home stretch of the campaign. The overall dynamics and candidate strategy on display last night closely resembled those of the first two debates. Clinton was once again well-prepped and bent on goading Trump into counterproductive responses on his main points of vulnerability. Trump was once again extemporaneous and free-associative, focusing on broad themes instead of policy details.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump has been badly hurt by the debates. On September 26, the day of the first debate, the FiveThirtyEight model estimated that Clinton was leading Trump by 46 percent to 45 percent in the national popular vote and by 278 to 260 in the electoral vote, with just a 55 percent projected chance of winning the election. Today, Clinton is estimated to hold a lead of 50 percent to 43 percent in the popular vote and 343 to 194 in the electoral vote, adding up to an 87 percent chance of victory on November 8.

This shift no doubt partially reflects other developments that have occurred over the period that the debates were held—especially the Billy Bush tape and subsequent accusations against Trump. And Clinton was already the favorite to win the race even before they occurred. But I think the bulk of the evidence points toward the debates having a significant independent effect on the relative standing of the candidates, especially because they generated negative news coverage of Trump that persisted for days after the events themselves. Trump's refusal last night to commit to respecting the outcome of the election is likewise poised to dominate this week's coverage—to his further disadvantage—which means that the debates may continue to hurt his chances further over the next several days.

If true, the power of the debates to shift public opinion is another way in which the 2016 election departs from the usual pattern. Though debates receive a lot of attention every year, and media figures always spend a lot of time explaining which candidate "won" each face-off, previous research had concluded that the effects of debate performances on the horse race tended to be quite temporary when they existed at all. If Clinton winds up winning the election by a margin comparable to her current lead, we may regard the debates in retrospect as significant events in the trajectory of the race.

Political scientists have taken our share of lumps this election from our critics, largely because most of us didn't expect the Republican Party to nominate Trump (a conclusion which, to be fair, we were hardly alone in reaching). One recurrent point of difference between political science and popular media is that many journalists and pundits tend to interpret electoral outcomes as mostly reflecting the different personalities and strategies of the candidates, while political scientists more commonly emphasize the role of fundamental factors like partisanship and economic performance in shaping the choices of voters. (This view is sometimes caricatured as a belief that "campaigns don't matter," which no political scientist I know has ever claimed.)

If the debates are revealed to be a major factor in determining the vote margin in the 2016 election, however, it's fair to point out that campaign effects turned out to be bigger than some of us assumed. When analysis built on investigation of previous elections fails to hold in a new case, there are three possible explanations:

1. The analysis was flawed even when applied to previous cases.

2. The analysis was sound in the past, but the current case doesn't fit because the world has changed—and future cases will resemble the current case more than past cases.

3. The analysis was sound in the past and will be again in the future, but the current case represents a temporary deviation from the long-term norm.

Our least charitable critics will probably argue that (1) is likely to be true—we just don't know what we're talking about and never did. But as even they must acknowledge, there's plenty of reason to believe that this particular election is just different from previous elections, with Trump's nomination either a cause or a symptom of this difference.

We can even come up with very plausible hypotheses about why the debates would matter more for a candidate like Trump than a candidate like Mitt Romney or John McCain: perhaps voters had less confidence in Trump's ability to do the job of president, rendering a substandard debate performance all the more damaging to his chances. Or maybe the press coverage of Trump has been much more negative than previous candidates over the same period. Alternatively, though it's tempting to rely on a Trump-centric explanation to account for everything that's distinctive about this election, maybe the debates mattered more because of something unique about Hillary Clinton. Perhaps her relatively strong debate performances helped her consolidate the support of younger voters and independents who never liked Trump but preferred Bernie Sanders to Clinton and were won over once the debates focused their attention on the choice before them this November.

The bigger challenge is to distinguish condition (2) from condition (3). In the heat of a campaign's final weeks, when it's very hard to step back and gain a broader perspective, we often assume that the current state of the world will pertain indefinitely into the future—for example, that Trump's particular brand of politics is here to stay in the Republican Party even if he loses the election. Sometimes that's right, but sometimes we're simply in the midst of a temporary departure from the usual order of things. Until we are able to gain the benefit of experience—or, as political scientists might put it, more data—we won't know for sure how much of what's extraordinary about the 2016 election is merely a product of the moment, and how much is a foreshadowing of the new normal.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Paul Ryan's Job Just Keeps Getting Harder

The luck of the Irish is not smiling on Paul Ryan. Last week, I noted that the probable loss of Donald Trump in the presidential race has placed Ryan in an increasingly precarious position. If Hillary Clinton is the next president and the Democrats gain control of the Senate, responsibility for leading the partisan opposition will fall to Ryan (assuming that he remains speaker of the House). Ryan will then face the challenge of negotiating regular bipartisan agreements with Clinton and Senate Democrats to fund the government and increase the national debt ceiling while simultaneously avoiding threats to his leadership from the hard-liners in the House Freedom Caucus—a difficult task that his predecessor John Boehner ultimately found impossible to achieve.

Unfortunately for Ryan, things just keep getting worse by the day:

1. Trump's position in the polls continues to slide in the wake of the well-publicized assault charges against him. A few surveys released yesterday even suggested that the margin between Clinton and Trump in the national popular vote is flirting with double digits, while the Clinton campaign hinted at a tactical offensive into a few traditionally red states that amounts to a declaration of victory three weeks before Election Day. This decline doesn't have much of an effect on Trump's already-slim chances of winning, but it does increase the likelihood of significant Republican losses in House elections that could leave any future majority with a very narrow margin of control—further enhancing the leverage of the Freedom Caucus over Ryan's speakership.

2. Trump has taken to repeatedly attacking Ryan personally for distancing himself from the presidential ticket, even accusing Ryan of hoping for a Trump defeat so that he could run for president himself in 2020. Ryan might not care too much about what Trump personally thinks of him, but it doesn't help his own future standing in the Republican Party to be charged with disloyalty to the GOP's presidential standard-bearer.

3. Trump's increasingly vociferous claims that a "rigged" electoral system is poised to deny him the presidency suggest that he, or at the very least many of his supporters, will not accept the legitimacy of a Clinton victory in November—which would in turn lead to demands on Republican elected officials to demonstrate their own thorough rejection of the new president. With 84 percent of Trump supporters in Florida—presumably representative of the national party—agreeing that Clinton should be in jail, it's near-certain that some conservatives will pressure Ryan and other Republican congressional leaders to initiate impeachment proceedings against a future President Clinton just as they did for the last President Clinton. Ryan is unlikely to view impeachment as a smart political move, but resisting it may not be a costless act for him within the GOP.

The Republican base is poised for a volcanic eruption if Clinton wins this election, and it will be difficult for Ryan to avoid sustaining some of the damage. Ryan has already signaled that he will respond to a second Clinton presidency by attempting to recalibrate the grounds of Republican opposition, exchanging Trumpist ultra-nationalism for more intellectually-styled lines of attack that paint Clinton as a big-government leftist who is hostile to individual liberty. But it will be difficult for Ryan to lead any larger reform effort within the GOP that successfully marginalizes the party's rightmost fringe given his own growing political vulnerability. As things stand now, he'll need a little luck just to keep his current job for the next four years.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Sky Is Blue, the Pope Is Catholic, and Evan McMullin Will Not Become President

The American founders' creation of the electoral college as our nation's unique mechanism of presidential selection offers the understandable temptation to cleverly game out odd little scenarios based on its various idiosyncrasies. Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight proposes one today which, he says, could result in neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump assuming the presidency next January, but instead a little-known candidate named Evan McMullin.

If you haven't heard of McMullin, he's a former Republican congressional aide who's running for president as an anti-Trump conservative. McMullin doesn't have much of a campaign—he's only listed on the ballot in 11 states worth a total of 84 electoral votes—but two new polls show him winning about 20 percent of the popular vote in Utah. (That Utah seems to be his best state by far is not a surprise; Trump is particularly unpopular among Mormons, who are usually staunch Republican voters, and McMullin is a Mormon himself.) In one of the polls, McMullin is actually running only four points behind both Clinton and Trump, who are tied with 26 percent apiece.

As Morris envisions it, the chain of events leading to a McMullin administration begin with our hero placing first in Utah and winning its 6 electoral votes. Then, the other 49 states (plus D.C.) would need to be divided closely enough between Clinton and Trump that neither major-party candidate collects the 270 votes necessary to win a national majority in the electoral college. The resolution of the election would then be thrown to the House of Representatives, as the Constitution provides in such circumstances; the House must choose from among the top three finishers, and each state delegation receives one collective vote regardless of size. Morris suggests that enough House Republicans would prefer McMullin to Trump that he could prevail over the GOP's official nominee in such an eventuality.

One problem with this analysis is that it's very hard to envision McMullin winning Utah under any circumstances that don't also provide Clinton with an overall majority in the electoral college. Trump would simultaneously need to collapse in Utah—where even the more McMullin-friendly poll shows him four points ahead of McMullin, and the other poll has him up by 14—while regaining his electoral standing in must-win states like Florida and North Carolina where he's currently trailing the Democratic ticket. It's hard to imagine what turn of events would produce such a strong geographic divergence in Trump's popular appeal between now and Election Day, especially since third-party candidates usually perform less well in the actual voting returns than they do in pre-election polls.

But the even more fanciful component of this scenario is the prospect of a Republican Congress blocking Trump from assuming the presidency in favor of McMullin. Such a decision would arguably represent the biggest partisan defection in the history of American politics. Given the palpable fear with which the vast majority of Republican politicians now regard their party's voters, such a revolt against the duly chosen nominee would be completely out of character for today's Republican leaders—and, in all probability, would constitute career suicide for all involved. (One can easily foresee the revenge that Trump himself would attempt to exert on House members who abandoned him in this way, with the likely support of conservative media figures and a Republican primary electorate irate about such an "undemocratic" maneuver.)

The Trump candidacy has evoked a very unusual, though understandable, response in many political analysts. Put simply, they still can't quite believe that Republicans really want Trump to be president of the United States, and therefore half-expect the party to grasp any opportunity to shove him aside. But any prediction requiring Republican politicians to nervily stand up to their own voters is especially unrealistic in the current political environment. Unless Hillary Clinton wins 270 electoral votes on November 8, expect President Trump to be sworn in on January 20.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Paul Ryan's In More Trouble Than Mitch McConnell

The events of the past two weeks have taken a lot of the suspense out of the outcome of the presidential race, unless you're the kind of person who is fascinated by the question of whether normally "red" states like Arizona and Georgia will actually flip into the Democratic column this year. (Full disclosure: I am that kind of person.) Comebacks are possible in politics, but the Trump campaign seems particularly ill-equipped to make one—especially with damaging revelations and counterproductive strategies emerging on what now seems like an hourly basis.

A decisive Republican loss in the presidential contest would probably be accompanied by a switch in party control of the Senate. All but one of the competitive Senate races this year are for seats now held by Republican incumbents, and a net change of four seats would be sufficient to produce a Democratic majority in the event of a Hillary Clinton victory (since the vice president would break a 50-50 tie). Most Republican Senate candidates are likely to outrun Donald Trump in their home states, but GOP nominees in electoral battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire will find it difficult to attract enough crossover support from Clinton voters to prevail over a national Democratic wave, should it appear. If Trump demoralizes enough of his own party's supporters that Republican turnout falls across the nation, Democrats could wind up winning a near-sweep of the key Senate races.

Compared to the Senate, Republican prospects in the House look considerably brighter. It's difficult to know exactly how vulnerable the Republican House majority is in the wake of Trump's latest problems; we suffer from a lack of good survey data on congressional races (media polling budgets are getting tighter, and the presidential race has consumed virtually all of the attention this year). But Republicans have the twin advantages of a structural edge in the configuration of House districts and a superior crop of candidates compared to Democrats, who failed to recruit a large number of high-quality challengers. A pro-Democratic electoral tide would need to be quite massive indeed to flip the 30 seats necessary to shift party control of the House.

And yet Paul Ryan is in a much tougher position, politically speaking, than Mitch McConnell.

Even if the House GOP ultimately retains its majority, the party's likely margin of control narrows by the day with each new Trump mishap. Ryan is already operating with little room for error, as he is situated between the hard-line House Freedom Caucus on one side and the opposition Democrats on the other. A Democratic victory in the presidential race would mean that Ryan would, like his predecessor John Boehner, need to cut bipartisan deals in order to fund the government—which would inevitably leave him open, as Boehner was, to criticism from party purists that he did not sufficiently defend conservative principles. The fact that the new Democratic president would be a figure uniquely loathed on the popular right—especially after a presidential campaign in which the Republican opposition characterized her as a literal criminal—further threatens Ryan's ability to hold off such attacks.

Boehner's departure from the speakership last year was prompted by the unique constitutional requirement that the Speaker be elected by a majority vote of the full House, which gives any dissident faction of the majority party tremendous procedural leverage. Even if Ryan were able to win an initial vote for Speaker this coming January, he would serve under a constant threat of defenestration from an purist right motivated by fierce antipathy to Hillary Clinton and to any Republican who faces her with less than total opposition.

By comparison, McConnell has it easy. To be sure, he is more likely than Ryan to lose his governing majority in this election. But if the worst happens, he will slip smoothly back into his role as minority leader, leading filibusters against Democratic legislation and waiting for the 2018 midterms, which will provide Senate Republicans with a very favorable set of vulnerable Democratic seats.

Ryan was famously reluctant to seek the speakership upon Boehner's resignation. When he was finally prevailed upon to do so, he probably assumed that there was a fairly good chance of a Republican presidential victory in 2016—which would both hand him an opportunity to implement his national policy agenda and relieve him of responsibility for leading the opposition to a Democratic administration.

Today, those hopes have faded away entirely. Ryan as much as conceded the presidential race in a conference call with House Republicans earlier this week, telling them to do whatever they needed to do in order to save their own seats. Even that admission earned him some blowback from conservative purists within his own caucus—a preview of what may turn out to be an even uglier conflict within the Republican Party if Trump goes down to defeat. If Ryan is handed a narrow majority on November 8 along with four guaranteed years of a Democratic president, he will need to draw upon all his political acumen in order to prevent suffering the same fate as John Boehner.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Informational Divide in American Party Politics

Democrats and Republicans not only disagree about which public policies are desirable, but increasingly differ as well over which sources of information are reliable—and, therefore, which facts are really facts. It's hard to understand Donald Trump's rise without noting conservative citizens' increasing rejection of the power of scholarly experts and the "mainstream media" to determine what is and is not true. Today, Matt Grossmann and I write in Inside Higher Ed about "how information became ideological"—and the particular challenge that this trend poses to the traditional role of universities as intellectual authorities seeking to inform policy debates.

Monday, October 10, 2016

2nd Debate Recap: Back to the Tape

I wrote earlier that Donald Trump's real audience tonight was the press and other Republican politicians more than the voters. On this score, Trump probably emerged from the debate having preserved, but not necessarily improved, his current standing. The general media consensus seems to be that Trump, even if he did not "win" the debate outright, performed better than he had last time. He at least avoided any kind of immediately embarrassing gaffe or line-crossing in the eyes of the press that would be a candidate for constant TV replay and/or viral video status over the next week.

At the same time, the debate failed to produce a sufficiently memorable positive story for Trump that would be likely to divert attention for very long from his remarks on the Access Hollywood bus, which will probably continue to dominate media coverage and political chatter over the following days. Most debates, despite their extensive advance hype, tend to soon fade into history without pushing the race very far in either direction, and the emergence of other, more fascinating developments over the weekend may hasten this pattern in the present case.

We can probably conclude from Hillary Clinton's fairly unmemorable performance that her campaign wouldn't mind if people spend the next week talking about the Trump tape rather than the debate. Clinton was well-drilled as always, but she lacked some of the prefabricated attack lines that she had brought to the first event. Even her response to the subject of the tape was less impassioned than it could have been, which suggests that she has adopted the front-runner's traditional strategy of staying out of the way of the opposition as the clock runs down.

Van Jones of CNN advanced the theory that Trump's good-enough performance was actually the worst-case scenario for Republicans, because a total meltdown would have prompted them to dump Trump from the ticket and replace him with a stronger candidate. But Trump can't actually be dumped—people are already voting in some states—and the Republicans are stuck with him as their official nominee for the duration. Whether or not Republican leaders renounce him or deny his campaign the resources of the Republican National Committee will not be affected by his debate performance Sunday night, but rather will be determined by the fallout of the Access Hollywood tape—and the natural question of whether any more damaging revelations still await us.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Trump's Audience Tonight: Other Republicans & the Media

Tonight's presidential debate employs a "town hall" format, in which candidates take questions from undecided voters in attendance as well as the moderators. But we shouldn't think of the most important audience as the mass public at large. For this debate, the people who will decide the winner are not the average citizens watching in the hall or at home but rather the partisan and media authorities who will determine in the wake of tonight's event whether Donald Trump's campaign is salvageable.

Trump is now in a precarious position. His problem is not only that he has become very likely to lose the presidential race to Clinton but that he is also being judged as toxic to the political fortunes of the larger Republican Party, both on the ballot this November and thereafter. Several Republican congressional candidates in highly competitive races have already distanced themselves from Trump this weekend. But many more party leaders are still nominally Trump supporters, even if they seldom spend much time talking about him.

If the news media collectively decide that Trump has had a poor debate tonight—especially if he is seen as failing to effectively address his Access Hollywood comments—Republican politicians won't wait around until all the polls are in before renouncing him. We can then expect even more denunciations and declarations of non-support in the hours and days after the debate, almost assuring that Trump is damaged further in the eyes of the public as open conflict erupts between the Trump campaign and a growing faction of Republican critics.

A normal presidential candidate would grasp this political reality. He or she would engage in extensive pre-debate preparations with an eye toward reassuring Republican leaders and ensuring that media expectations for a debate performance would be met or exceeded. But Trump is not a normal candidate with normal calculations, and we therefore do not have any particular reason to believe that his behavior tonight will have either the intention or the effect of impressing elite observers in the party or the press. We also have good reason to expect that Hillary Clinton will walk into the debate with the goal of further baiting Trump into sabotaging himself in front of this key audience, putting other Republicans in the awkward position of having to choose sides between Trump's strong supporters and the increasingly anti-Trump larger electorate.

Trump is a man who is capable of surprise, so it's possible that the debate will proceed in an unexpected direction. But regardless of what he says and does tonight, the people whom he needs to impress the most are not regular voters but rather the politicians and media figures who are currently preparing a death watch around his candidacy. We'll know by tomorrow how many defenders Trump has left within the ranks of his own party, and thus whether Trump still stands a chance of avoiding a disastrous final few weeks before the election.