Saturday, August 26, 2017

What went wrong?

Two years ago, not many people thought that Donald Trump would get the Republican nomination.  In late July, a McClatchy/Marist College polls asked Republicans "Do you think Donald Trump is a serious presidential candidate, or a distraction from the presidential primary process?"  44% said a serious candidate, and 51% said that he was a distraction.  On August 13, 2015, I had a post that offered probabilities of getting the nomination:  40% for Jeb Bush, 20% for Marco Rubio, 15% for John Kasich, 12.5% for other declared candidates, and 12.5% for someone else.  If I'd gone farther, I think I would have put Trump at or near the top of the others, with maybe 5%. I give myself some credit for not being impressed with the field--this was when people were still talking about the "deep bench." But no matter how you slice it, I thought Trump had little chance of winning.  Sometimes unusual things happen--someone who had little chance of winning could make it because of a lot of unpredictable things.  But looking at the campaign, I don't think that Trump got all that many lucky breaks, so I'm not going to try to defend my prediction that way.  I think that a large part of the reason I didn't give him much chance was that I thought he wouldn't stay in very long--that the first time he encountered adversity he would quit, complaining that the rules were rigged against him.  But why was I confident of that?  I was certainly familiar with Donald Trump--I'd been hearing his name since the early 1980s.  But I didn't really know much about him--I hadn't read any of his books, or biographies of him, or watched his media appearances.  So my mistake was in taking general familiarity for real knowledge about him--I should have started by thinking about what would happen if he was serious about the race, and if I had I would have rated him higher.

The same post offered some ideas about the sources of his support at the time. I said that a large part of his appeal was negative--people distrusted politics and politicians, and he was an outsider.  An alternative is that he made a positive connection to a large number of voters.  Reporters who attended his rallies were often struck by the energy, and many people talked about an "enthusiasm gap" in favor of Trump during the general election campaign.  A Pew survey in October 20-5, 2016 asked separate questions about whether Trump and Clinton would be:  great, good, average, poor, or terrible.  The results:

                          Trump             Clinton
Great                    9%                  10%
Good                  17%                  28%
Average              15%                 18%
Poor                   12%                  12%
Terrible              47%                  31%

That's not much enthusiasm for Trump, but it includes both supporters and opponents.  If we limit it to people who said they would support the candidate:

                         Trump             Clinton
Great                  21%                  19%
Good                  39%                  54%
Average              30%                  25 %
Poor                      7%                   2%
Terrible                 2%                   0%

At least in this respect, Clinton supporters were move favorable about their candidate than Trump supporters were about theirs.  In fact, 10% of the people who said they would vote for Trump thought that he would be a poor or terrible president.

On a possibly related note, of the people who had the same expectations of Trump and Clinton (e. g., said both would be average), 75% said they would vote for Trump.  I haven't investigated, but one possibility is that they were Republicans who figured that even if he wouldn't be especially good, Republicans in Congress would get their way if he were president.  So I think my original analysis was correct on that point--Trump got the Republican nomination more because of his opponents' weakness than because of his strength.  After he got the nomination, party loyalty kept him close enough to have a chance.  

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]


  1. David J. LittleboyAugust 27, 2017 at 4:15 AM

    Hmm. I think Trump got both the nomination and the election because of his base: well-off suburban and rural (especially rural) white folks who don't like not being allowed to say racist/sexist things. He fired up his base and got them out to the polls. I got lost in Tewksbury MA (deep rural MA) the spring before the election. There were zillions of Trump posters. Everywhere. In the yards of lovely New England homes owned by white folks, most of whom have never seen a Hispanic person in person. We asked for directions, and noticed that the first bloke we came across looked like a pro-wrestler: amazingly muscular body, shaved head, tattoos. Someone you'd see at a Trump rally.

    OK, flaky computer nerd with flaky theory: but the median income of the Trump voters was US$10,000 above the median income for non-Hispanic whites. In the US, that's US$10,000 over the most affluent demographic we've got.

    The wanting to say racist/sexist things bit explains why the plethora of gross things he said or was caught saying made no dents in his support: this is what his supporters wanted to hear. (And, of course, I claim that the few tens of thousands of votes he pulled out of his arse in the three swing states he won were not disaffected rust belters, but well off rural whites.

    Sorry to be grumpy, but I think Trump, whether by brilliance or accident, pulled off a standard, vanilla-flavored, garden variety political upset by having a base and getting them out. (Helped in no small part by voter suppression, of course.) I submit that the continued solidity of his support among that group supports my theory.

    1. I agree that his biggest fans are mostly prejudiced people who sense that he shares their prejudices. But fortunately, there aren't enough people like that to get someone a major party nomination. I think what made the difference was people who were dissatisfied with the government and attracted by an outsider who said he could straighten things out (similar to Ross Perot's appeal back in 1992).

      On income, Trump's supporters seem to have averaged lower incomes than Clinton's. That's consistent with their being above the median, since most people with low incomes don't vote.

  2. David J. LittleboyAugust 30, 2017 at 9:53 AM

    "there aren't enough people like that to get someone a major party nomination."

    You are way more of an optimist than I. But didn't we just have an election in which exactly that happened? (This one's arguable, but I really think Trump has a base that's about 33% of the US population, and thus at least 60% of the Republican party. So that's plenty to win the Republican nomination fair and square. And those are the people sticking with him despite the racist remarks.)

    "Trump's supporters seem to have averaged lower incomes than Clinton's."

    I'm pretty sure this is simply wrong.

    "Of the one in three Americans who earn less than $50,000 a year, a majority voted for Clinton. A majority of those who earn more backed Trump."

    You may have been misled by the plethora of articles claiming that the Dems lost the white working class vote _recently_. We didn't. We lost them in the 60s with desegregation. "I don't want my tax money going to them" was what the physical plant workers at Harvard told my father when he went to work there in the 1990s. (Father was horrified.) Said articles also liked to argue that we could get said voters back. We can't. (Partly due to the problem that with the unions gone, there are no decent working class jobs. So that whole trope was insane.)

    1. I think that many of the people who approve of Trump are not Trump enthusiasts, but Republicans who would prefer someone else but stick with him as long as he follows standard Republican policies (it will be interesting to see what will happen now that he's made some deviation from them). Income and vote is a longer story--I will have a post on it soon.