March 24, 2016

Eric Fehrnstrom thinks that Donald Trump could beat Hillary Clinton. Barring the unforeseeable, he’s wrong, and more importantly for my purposes here, including the unforeseeable in ostensibly serious political analysis kind of negates the point of offering serious political analysis. 

Despite what you’ve no doubt seen many times in social media and the blogosphere, “we’ll see” and “you never know” and “crazier things have happened” are NOT actually serious analytical claims. To be fair, Mitt Romney’s former senior advisor didn’t explicitly rely on any of these Facebook comment-level insights. Instead, Fehrnstrom throws out several weak claims that are nonetheless popular among media pundits these days and ties them together with the conclusion that this is an “unconventional political year.”

Let’s consider Fehrnstrom’s particulars:

-Terrorist attacks scare people so much that they may respond to Trump’s bellicosity.

While it’s true that fear can cause people to do stupid things, believing that it will throw millions of voters who otherwise would have voted Democratic into the arms of a draft dodging reality TV star roundly condemned by national security experts as a buffoon whose rhetoric provides aid and comfort to terrorists is more than a bit of a stretch.

-Trump’s message to blue collar workers on trade will change the Electoral College map that otherwise heavily favors the Democratic nominee.

Here Fehrnstrom argues that Democratic and independent voters will hand over all three branches of the federal government to the GOP because the Republican nominee opposes international trade deals. Over at Vox.com Matt Yglesias discounts this notion with actual data suggesting that “there isn’t a growing tide of anti-trade sentiment [for Trump] to ride.” But even if we accept this baseless (but popular) media storyline, is it really reasonable to assume that Clinton won’t be able to get sufficiently left on this issue to take this lane away from Trump? Bernie Sanders hasn’t just been whistling Dixie on the stump you know.

-Without President Obama on the ballot, the enthusiasm of the Obama coalition and minority turnout will be down, a point suggested by the fact that the GOP has seen much higher primary turnout than have the Democrats.

The idea that primary turnout differentials suggest that Democratic turnout will lag behind Republican turnout in the fall is very popular in the media right now. Both pundits and candidate cheer leaders have relished the opportunity to link actual hard data to attention grabbing and useful conclusions. On this point, Fehrnstrom was self-conscious enough to point out that [a]n analysis by the FiveThirtyEight blog says there is no correlation between primary and general election turnout,” but then goes on to dismiss this substantive, evidence-based conclusion with the entirely unsubstantiated claim that it’s “premature” to assume that there won’t be a GOP turnout advantage in November.So, apparently we should discount everything we know on this front because, you know, maybe we’re wrong. The use of primary turnout out numbers to speculate about general election turnout is a great example of what you get in our hyper-competitive, 24/7 commercial news media marketplace, quality standards based on demonstrably uncritical consumer perceptions.

The argument that minorities in particular won’t turnout because President Obama isn’t on the ballot is also a short-sighted one. Even if we accept the basic premise that his presence was key to minority turnout, it is quite clear that President Obama will be very present on the 2016 campaign trail and in the minds of voters. The White House has sent very clear signals that nothing is more important to the president than protecting the accomplishments of his administration. Frankly, given his public approval gains and widely acknowledged late term boldness, I think it more reasonable to assume that he will be an outsized presence on the campaign trail, and one with the visibility, credibility, and capability to advance his party’s case to the American people in ways Trump and the GOP will be very hard pressed to effectively counter.

Fehrnstrom’s analysis, like almost every other media analysis of this race, suffers from a misplaced focus on the presidential candidates themselves; on their styles and rhetoric, and most erroneously, on their present public opinion poll numbers. It seems no matter how clearly or how often experts explain that candidate preference polling this far out is NOT predictive, virtually everyone else continues to give credence to whatever poll numbers support their self-interested conclusions, often offered alongside a sort of obligatory small print acknowledgement of the limited utility of polls.Interestingly, on this point, Fehrnstrom almost gets it right. 

He properly discounts the utility of polls showing Clinton beating Trump, on the one hand, but nonetheless wrongly implies that the case for her strength against Trump is reliant on such polling data. The reality is that Clinton’s strong advantage over any GOP rival is due to long established patterns of voter behavior that, regardless of how unconventional this election is shaping up to be, are very unlikely to change.Indeed, it could be argued that the perceived novelty and uncertainty in this election will actually push as many voters toward well-worn assumptions and calculations as away from them in the voting booth this November.Of course, that line of argument isn’t sustainable (read marketable) in the 24/7 commercial news media universe.

The polls, media coverage, and even to an extent the campaigns themselves, will continue to operate as if this election for president is about a choice between two candidates.This candidate-centric focus is now so embedded in the Information Age habits and conscious assumptions of political and media actors that expecting anything else from most of them is folly, but it only takes a bit of analytical distance to realize that there simply is no good reason to cast aside decades of social science research showing that voter behavior is far more stable and predictable than attention grabbing politicians, political operatives, or ratings hungry media outlets are willing to admit, no matter how “unconventional” this political year may be.

The voters in 2016 will not suddenly elevate considerations of candidate character or the salience of particular policy positions above deeply embedded political and social identity preferences simply because of a media-fueled obsession with “anti-establishment” sentiments. It is, in my opinion, profoundly unreasonable to assume that average voters will abandon the subconscious assumptions that make all but a tiny few reliable party voters in presidential elections, or to assume that the indisputably clear institutional partisan stakes of the 2016 election will not push voters back toward conventional binary (read partisan) calculations in the voting booth.

The focus on candidates, their characters and their sales pitches animated by anxieties and concerns traceable to potential swing voter groups will miss the forest for the trees in this election-cycle even more than it has in the past as long as Hilary Clinton plays the partisan hand she is dealt this fall. She is a stronger general election candidate than her rival for the party nod because she is a disciplined pol able to keep her head and stick to the plan without being distracted by the daily noise, and because Sanders’ anti-establishment “revolution” makes him much less well positioned to frame and exploit a campaign narrative centered on an explicitly partisan argument. No 21st Century presidential candidate has ever had a better incentive or opportunity to frame a general election in explicitly partisan (rather than candidate or even issue-centric) terms that Hillary Clinton will in this election.

If the Democrats frame this election as a choice between a third Obama term and four years of unchecked Tea Party Republican control of the entire federal government (not to mention decades of Tea Party control of the Supreme Court), passionate insurgency, frustration and anger however pent up, and self-righteous moralism left and right will give way to prudence and a natural conservatism among average voters. Timid Democratic minds, no doubt, will worry (aloud) that the G.O.P. could benefit from tagging Clinton as Obama III, but the reality is that the only voters moved by such a tact are already securely aboard enemy vessels.

An explicitly partisan frame will work for Clinton because when you strip away all the hype and hysteria, the 2016 American electorate simply isn’t conservative enough on economic or social, domestic or foreign policy to endorse unchecked Republican governance. Furthermore, there is no “reasonable doubt” about the consequences of single-party control of the federal government today thanks, ironically enough, to the pervasive hatred and distrust of both political party “establishments” in Washington.Adding insult to GOP injury here, Hilary Clinton’s personal favorability/trust issues will not only be less salient they will also be very easily blunted in a race against The Donald, or Ted Cruz for that matter. The contrast between a Democratic narrative centered on the concrete, Washington party power stakes and the continued candidate-centric anti-Clinton G.O.P. narrative, will ultimately help shore up Democratic and moderate “swing voter” turnout for Clinton negating any and all of the hypothesized realigning effects of Donald Trump’s cross-party populist appeal.

2016 presidential election, Eric Fehrnstrom, Clinton, Trump

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