Monday, June 27, 2016

More on Donald Trump as Media Creature

Ever since Donald Trump took a clear lead in the Republican presidential nomination race some months ago, a debate has been occurring over the extent to which the news media aided his rise. At one level, this question is purely analytical, engaging a topic that has long interested political scientists: what are the main sources of influence on the political behavior of citizens, and to what degree can exposure to new information via media exposure pull voters away from their pre-existing political orientations? The non-traditional nature of the Trump candidacy—and the unique manner in which it has been covered by the press—provides a particularly valuable case study with which to explore this relationship in a systematic fashion.

But few people, whether academics or not, find it easy to suspend normative judgment where Trump is concerned. As a result, suggestions that the media may well have played a role, even if unintentionally, in assisting Trump's campaign can easily take on the form of angry indictments of the journalistic profession—or are at least interpreted as such by defensive newspeople. In response to perceived accusations of abetting a candidate who is widely disdained and feared among well-educated metropolitans of the political left, right, and center alike, a pundit class that in other contexts openly acknowledges and even overstates the capacity of media coverage to influence electoral outcomes—how often have we been told by talking heads that "winning the news cycle" is the key to winning the election?—has pushed back repeatedly against the notion that it bears any responsibility for Trump's success in gaining the Republican nomination and advancing closer to the presidency.

A few days ago, John Sides and Kalev Leetaru published a detailed analysis that contains an extensive empirical examination of the media's role in boosting Trump. Sides and Leetaru present a variety of data, but their central point is simple: Trump received a disproportionate share of media attention during the Republican primaries, the coverage devoted to Trump was not unusually negative in tone compared to other candidates, and Trump's standing among Republican primary voters over time closely reflected the contemporaneous volume of publicity that his candidacy was generating in the press.

Sides and Leetaru mostly focus on analyzing news coverage since Trump announced his candidacy last summer, though they note that Trump's 30-year status as a national figure is itself a product of substantial media attention. "Celebrities," they observe, "including Trump, are created in part by their own efforts and in part by news outlets’ willingness to write about them."

If anything, I think Sides and Leetaru may understate the media's role in fueling Trump's political ambitions. They refer to Trump's career as a tabloid personality and reality TV star prior to his presidential campaign, comparing him to the Kardashians in his demonstrated success at creating a symbiotic relationship with news outlets who provided him with the publicity he sought.

But Kim Kardashian, for all her fame and gifts, would have a hard time getting millions of voters to view her as a good potential president. For decades, Trump has benefited from media coverage that not only has made him a household name, but has also portrayed him as having skills that would be generally considered assets in the world of politics. Trump managed to build a national reputation as an exceptionally shrewd businessman and negotiator through popular media accounts, and his years of appearances on morning shows, newsmagazines, and interview programs like Larry King Live often invited him to comment on current events under the assumption that his business success naturally gave him valuable insight on the political topics of the day.

The volume and generally deferential character of this media attention encouraged Trump to flirt with a political career as early as the late 1990s. His later phase as an outspoken critic of Barack Obama was similarly given substantial amplification by national media outlets; Trump made regular appearances on Fox News Channel (including a weekly "Monday Mornings with Trump" feature on Fox and Friends) and CNBC during much of Obama's presidency, treated once again as a captain of industry who could boast substantial expertise on the subject of politics.

Now that Trump is a viable candidate for president of the United States, political journalists have published and broadcast a number of more critical stories about his past and present career. Today, Trump is frequently portrayed as someone with severely limited knowledge of public affairs; as a candidate who intentionally skews the truth, appeals to popular prejudices, and incites violence among his supporters; and even as a business mogul who is much less successful, wealthy, and ethical than he claims. Members of the press who reject the "Trump as media creation" argument often point out that Trump is the most unpopular major-party nominee in the history of public opinion polling, suggesting that the coverage Trump has received has damaged rather than boosted him in the eyes of the electorate.

To be sure, it is likely that Trump will face mostly negative press coverage from now until November that will, if anything, make it more difficult for him to win the presidency. But critics both inside and outside the news media who view Trump as self-evidently unqualified for national office should examine the basis upon which millions of Republican primary voters formed the opposite impression. Donald Trump did not descend into the American electoral arena on an escalator from oblivion; the media presented him to us as a political authority for many years before they began to decide that maybe he was just an authoritarian.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Rubio Is Running

When he jumped into the 2016 presidential race last year, Marco Rubio announced that he would not seek reelection to his Florida Senate seat even if he failed to win the Republican nomination. At the time, this made sense. Unlike Rand Paul this year or Joe Biden in 2008, Rubio represents a large, politically competitive state where he would face serious opposition for reelection. He would be spending a lot of time out of state (and away from the floor of the Senate) on the presidential campaign trail, and keeping a foot in the Senate race might suggest to Republican voters and donors that he was not fully committed to seeking the presidency. Leaving Congress also allowed him to appeal to anti-Washington sentiment in the Republican electorate by rhetorically trashing the place on his way out the door. Even if Rubio lost the Republican nomination, he would have been a logical candidate for vice president on a ticket headed by someone like Scott Walker or Chris Christie.

But now Rubio's unfulfilled presidential ambitions have dictated a change of mind. After swearing up and down ever since he ended his presidential campaign more than three months ago that he would not jump back into the Florida Senate race, Rubio confirmed today that he will indeed seek reelection. He is not being very coy about the reasoning behind this reversal; as the New York Times reported, Rubio wants to run for president again and believes that he would be a weaker candidate running from the private sector.

At first glance, this seems like an odd calculation. Plenty of ex-officeholders, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton, have successfully won a major-party presidential nomination. Running for president while out of office frees a candidate from the duties of another position (or from being accused of shirking those duties) and allows him or her to avoid the pitfalls of being forced to take positions on controversial legislation that might later prove politically disadvantageous—as Rubio himself knows well from his Gang of Eight experience. Moreover, Rubio is no shoo-in for reelection this year, especially on a Trump-headed Republican ballot; a defeat would likely be permanently fatal to his presidential chances.

But Rubio's calculus makes a bit more sense if we game out the next four years a bit. First, Trump's nomination makes Hillary Clinton a strong favorite to assume the presidency next January. If she wins, Republicans will spent the next four years in opposition mode, competing among themselves to lead the charge against her administration. And right there in the center of the arena will be Rubio rival—and runner-up in the 2016 Republican presidential race—Ted Cruz. With a Clinton victory ensuring that no incumbent will be running for the 2020 Republican nomination, the stage would be set for Cruz to mount a second presidential campaign of his own. If Rubio no longer served in the Senate, Cruz would be able to contrast his own ongoing legislative activity fighting for the conservative cause (and against Clinton) with Rubio's absenteeism.

Rubio still has a substantial fan base among Republican consultants and high-dollar donors, but his disappointing 2016 candidacy is a much weaker foundation on which to build a second presidential campaign than previous candidates, like Clinton, Romney, McCain, or Reagan, who needed more than one try to win their party's nomination. He may well be worried that leaving the Senate this year would permanently marginalize him as the GOP moves on to other candidates, while remaining in Congress would allow him to rebuild his public reputation. Under the circumstances, Rubio's decision to risk defeat for a shot at another Senate term makes political sense—but it is safe to say that his sights remain set not on the U.S. Capitol, but on a different white building farther down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Honest Graft on the Primary Concerns Podcast

This week, I was interviewed by Brian Beutler of the New Republic about the Bernie Sanders–Hillary Clinton race and the future of the Democratic Party, following up from my recent Vox interview on the subject. We were joined by fellow political scientist Theda Skocpol of Harvard. The interview is now posted as part of the New Republic's weekly Primary Concerns podcast, which you can listen to here or on iTunes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Democratic Endgame Begins (Or, How Trump Undercuts Sanders's Leverage)

Tuesday night's Democratic primary in the District of Columbia brought the 2016 presidential delegate selection season to an official end, four and a half months after it began with the Iowa caucuses. While Hillary Clinton has accumulated enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination, her opponent Bernie Sanders remains—for now—an active presidential candidate. At some date in the near future, Sanders will no longer be a candidate and will instead be a supporter of the Clinton campaign. The precise sequence by which Sanders moves from A to B is presumably the main topic of discussion at a private meeting between Clinton and Sanders that occurred in Washington Tuesday evening.

It is clear that Sanders intends to use his current status as an active rival candidate to extract concessions from Clinton and, by extension, the Democratic National Committee. Clinton supporters frustrated at Sanders's behavior might object that their own candidate, in a similar position eight years ago, dropped out of the race at the end of the primaries and immediately endorsed the victorious Barack Obama without apparent conditions. Yet Clinton did receive something quite valuable in exchange for her unequivocal support of Obama in June 2008: credentials as a loyal Democrat and team player that not only gave her the opportunity to hold a high-level position in the Obama administration, but also allowed her to position herself as Obama's (tacitly-sanctioned) successor in the presidential office once he reached the constitutionally-prescribed two-term limit.

Sanders has a different set of interests. His age prevents him from being a realistic candidate in 2024 or even 2020, and his independence makes him a poor fit for a position in somebody else's presidential administration. Instead, he has three other objectives in mind: (1) winning demonstrable influence over the Democratic platform in order to be able to boast to his supporters that they succeeded in pulling the party to the ideological left; (2) forcing reforms to the presidential nomination process, both as another achievement to claim for his campaign and as a procedural benefit to future insurgent candidacies; and (3) visiting revenge upon DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whom Sanders blames for exhibiting a perceived favoritism toward the Clinton campaign during the nomination process.

This is an ambitious wish list for a losing presidential candidate to expect from the winner, and it seems unlikely that Sanders will be in a position to insist upon all of his demands. Indeed, his leverage over Clinton is quickly beginning to weaken—in part because of the identity of the presumptive Republican nominee.

The looming nomination of Donald Trump undercuts Sanders's bargaining position in three ways. First, Trump's routine dominance of the daily political news directs attention away from the Democratic race, making it more difficult for Sanders to win the publicity he needs to press his case. Second, Trump is something of a custom-built Democrat repellant, which will encourage even Clinton-wary Democratic voters to rally quickly around her as the only person standing between their archnemesis and the White House even if Sanders himself remains a holdout. Third, Clinton and her advisors likely view Trump as eminently beatable whether or not they receive Sanders's blessing, which makes them more likely to call Sanders's bluff than if they were facing a race against Marco Rubio or John Kasich.

Given Sanders's rapidly eroding strategic position, here's my best guess for how the Clinton-Sanders contest gets resolved:

(1) Sanders will soon suspend his campaign and make a public gesture of support for Clinton—though he might save a wholehearted endorsement until the convention itself.

(2) With Clinton's support, Sanders will win approval of platform language echoing his anti-Wall Street campaign message.

(3) The Democratic convention will approve a resolution calling for an internal party commission to study potential "democratizing" reforms to the presidential nomination process prior to the 2020 elections. It is less likely that the resolution will commit to specific reform provisions sought by Sanders such as requiring open primaries or abolishing superdelegates.

(4) Wasserman Schultz will stay at the DNC through November.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Monday, June 06, 2016

The Reason Sanders Wouldn't Have Won Lives in the White House

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a long retrospective article on the Sanders presidential campaign entitled "How Bernie Sanders Missed His Chance to Beat Hillary Clinton." While the story departs from the official Sanders campaign line in conceding that the Democratic nomination race is effectively over, it is otherwise an extremely sympathetic account told from the perspective of Sanders, his wife, and his top advisors.

These figures—and, by extension, the Post writers—characterize the election as a tantalizing near-miss for Sanders, who supposedly fell just short of victory due to a variety of relatively minor factors under his own control. The article suggests that if Sanders had started just a bit earlier in building a national campaign infrastructure, in forging an appeal to black and Latino Democrats, in criticizing Hillary Clinton, and in (I'm not kidding here) posing for more selfies with voters at his rallies, he might have pulled off an astounding upset victory over Clinton.

It's only natural for a candidate in Sanders's current position to engage in this sort of "if-we-had-only-done-X" thinking, but the understandable frustrations produced by electoral defeat do not necessarily lead to sound analysis. In particular, a stronger Sanders campaign would have provoked a more formidable strategic response from Clinton, who more or less coasted after Super Tuesday (and especially after her March 15 victories) on a secure delegate lead rather than directly engage in counterattacks on Sanders. Nate Silver noted that the Clinton campaign and pro-Clinton super PACs have about $77 million in cash that could have been spent against Sanders had he continued to pose a threat to her nomination.

What would an anti-Sanders rhetorical offensive have looked like, and how effective would it have been? Sanders has various political vulnerabilities, but surely the biggest in this particular race would have been his longstanding ambivalence about the Obama presidency. Sanders has smartly avoided direct criticism of Obama during his run—though, as Clinton noted from time to time, some of his attacks on her served as implicit rebukes to the sitting president as well—but he was on record suggesting that Obama should be opposed from the left prior to the 2012 election. Retrospective analyses like the Post's that lament the time it took for Sanders to become comfortable speaking in black churches and discussing racial issues—suggesting that he could have seriously competed with Clinton for black support had he only found his footing a bit earlier—need to contend with the likely effect that a hypothetical television ad based on film of Sanders criticizing Obama and encouraging a primary challenge would have had on his popularity among African-American voters.

If Clinton had really found herself in trouble, she would have been able to call on campaign help from Obama himself. Obama has chosen to formally remain on the sidelines so far, but it is hard to believe that he would have refused to come to Clinton's aid against Sanders had the need arisen. Indeed, he is preparing to do so once she reaches the required number of delegates to secure the nomination, and will work to begin unifying the Democratic Party behind her despite Sanders's pledge to soldier on to the convention in July.

Given Obama's popularity among Democrats, it is difficult to see how it would have benefited Sanders had the race become anything like a referendum on the incumbent's performance. Sanders ran an impressive campaign and far exceeded initial expectations, but he never had much chance of actually winning the Democratic nomination.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

What the Trump vs. Sanders Polls Do, and Don't, Tell Us

A Quinnipiac poll released today shows what has become a familiar pattern: Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by 4 percentage points in the national popular vote (45 percent to 41 percent), while Bernie Sanders leads Trump by a 9-point margin (48 percent to 39 percent). These results are consistent with other recent poll results; the aggregator estimates Clinton's current lead over Trump at 2 points as of today, while Sanders leads Trump by 11 points.

The reason for this persistent gap is not difficult to divine: Sanders is viewed much more favorably than Clinton in the broader electorate. calculates his current favorability rating at +9 (49 percent favorable to 40 percent unfavorable); Clinton is currently at –16 (40 percent favorable to 56 percent unfavorable) and Trump at –21 (37 percent favorable to 58 percent unfavorable).

Purist insurgencies like the Sanders campaign usually lack direct evidence that they might be stronger general-election nominees than their primary opponents, which causes them to fall back on "hidden vote" theories claiming that they would inspire large numbers of previously inert citizens to flock to the polls to their behalf—thus compensating for their comparatively weaker standing among habitual voters. (This was Barry Goldwater's professed path to victory in 1964, an election that he lost by 23 points.) But Sanders and his supporters can currently point to national surveys suggesting that he would be a more electable candidate for the Democratic Party, which have become incorporated into his current pitch for why superdelegates should reverse the results of the pledged delegate count in order to award him the nomination.

Of course, popularity in June does not guarantee popularity in November. The flaw in Sanders's argument is that he has yet to demonstrate that he can survive a sustained blast of negative attacks. His advocacy of higher taxes on the middle class, support for government-run universal health care, past dalliances into leftist foreign policy, and self-identification as a "socialist" all represent potentially serious political vulnerabilities for Sanders, who represents a small, left-leaning state where he hasn't faced a serious electoral challenge in over 20 years and who therefore has little experience in defending his record against well-financed opposition in an unfriendly political constituency.

The fact that Sanders is currently polling well in a hypothetical matchup against Trump therefore don't necessarily predict how a general election between the two would turn out. Sanders would begin the race unburdened by the negative popular evaluations that now weigh down the Clinton campaign; on the other hand, November is a long way off, and there would be plenty of time for him to lose his current relative appeal—while Clinton, as more of a known quantity, may be less vulnerable to further Republican attacks and may in fact make a modest recovery in the polls once the Democratic nomination contest has concluded. Most Democratic leaders view Clinton, for all her flaws, as still representing a safer choice for the party's nomination (putting aside the question of whether it would be appropriate for the superdelegates to overturn the results of the pledged delegate count).

But these polls do tell us something useful about the election all the same. Some observers who view Trump as a potentially formidable general election candidate have suggested that he could receive a significant crossover vote from Democrats. "Because Trump isn’t a doctrinaire conservative—because he appeals on emotion and not policy—the theory is that he can win white working-class Democrats and other disaffected voters in the Democratic coalition," wrote Jamelle Bouie of Slate in a March critical appraisal.

If Trump had a unique appeal to non-Republicans, however, we'd expect to see evidence of it in trial heat polls against Sanders, who may be viewed as more or less a generic Democratic candidate by a general electorate who is not yet very familiar with him. Sanders's fairly wide lead at this stage indicates that there is no substantial population of Democrats who are sufficiently attracted to the Trump candidacy that they would support him over either candidate of their own party.

Perhaps things will change, and Trump will succeed in crafting a message that appeals to Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents—or perhaps the Democratic nominee will alienate a sufficiently large sector of the electorate that such an achievement won't be necessary. But while the polls can't tell us for sure whether Clinton or Sanders would be a stronger general-election candidate, they do continue to demonstrate that the Trump fan club has very few non-Republican members. Regardless of the final outcome in 2016, it is therefore unlikely that the Trump candidacy will fundamentally redefine the two parties' mass bases of support.