Dead Man Stalking

posted in: 2016 Election, Debates | 0

If you want to convince voters you are not a sexual predator, there are better ways than spending ninety nationally televised minutes stalking your female opponent around a debate stage. Donald Trump’s body language during Sunday night’s tense, ugly exchange with Hillary Clinton reinforced the disturbing dialogue contained in the Access Hollywood tape leaked last Friday, and, along with attempts to dismiss his references to sexual assault as simple locker room talk, did nothing to reverse the rapid collapse of his support that started over the weekend. By Monday morning, professional athletes who make their offices in locker rooms had taken to Twitter to denounce the candidate and his claims.

With angry facial expressions and the same mysterious, chronic sniffle he had during the first debate, the Republican nominee paced around the town hall stage, following Clinton as she spoke and invading her personal space. His words were as disturbing as his nonverbal communication. He gave voice to every dark conspiracy theory about the Clintons, emptying a sewer of unsubstantiated allegations at his opponent that reached its ugly apex with the chilling promise that once in power he would instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her and throw her in jail. It was a measure of how threatened Trump feels that he needed to escalate his attacks to this point. And it was a symphony for core supporters who have been hungering for a direct attack like this on the Clintons. Everyone else could be forgiven if they felt they needed a shower.

This assault may have assuaged Trump’s damaged ego but it did nothing to advance his candidacy, which remains in free fall. Hillary tacitly acknowledged as much by largely ignoring her opponents’ tirades and attempting as best as possible to engage those undecided voters who asked a relatively small share of the evening’s questions. By offering Read More

Can the Republican Party Ask Itself to Step Down?

By now you’ve seen the video that’s sending shockwaves through the Trump campaign and the Republican Party. To hear Donald Trump express his entitled belief that his celebrity status permits him to assault women at will shouldn’t be surprising by now. This is who he is. But that doesn’t make it any less nauseating to watch.

In the immediate aftermath of the tape’s release we witnessed a familiar cycle of condemnation from Republicans trying to walk an impossibly fine line between distancing themselves from the candidate’s words and behavior without distancing themselves from the candidate. These are the same Republicans who have drawn the meaningless distinction between not endorsing Trump and still planning to vote for him, the same Republicans who when repeatedly presented with evidence disqualifying their candidate have refused to abandon him out of fear of the wrath of his supporters. How many times have they said the candidate’s words or actions are unacceptable, but not unacceptable enough to put country over party and call for his defeat?

These acts of cowardice are largely responsible for normalizing the candidate’s behavior and preventing him from being held accountable for a campaign built on a foundation of fraud. Only now, when the political cost of being associated with him may finally be too high do we hear rumblings from party leaders considering what might happen should Trump step down from the ticket. These discussions are motivated by fear. It is now harder than ever to hide from the candidate, but to drop him means defying that plurality of the Republican base which carried him to the nomination and who would leave with him in the unlikely event that he were to abandon the race. This is the Republican dilemma in bold relief, the dilemma of a party that radicalized its voters and can neither live with nor without them.

It is an unsustainable situation and tonight we are one step closer to Republicans having to decide whether to sacrifice an election or their longterm viability.

Worth Repeating

posted in: Supreme Court | 0

After failing to prevent Donald Trump from claiming the Republican nomination, party loyalists have tried hard to prop him up while distancing themselves from his words and ideas. That dance has proved difficult, and the decision not to oppose him will have lasting consequences. Now, as Trump’s post-debate behavior threatens to send Republicans running for shelter, I thought it would be worth remembering why so many Republicans have fought hard to advance the candidacy of someone they find abhorrent, and why a Trump defeat will be a watershed event for our politics. The following was originally published in February under the title “The Whole Ballgame.”


News reports had barely confirmed the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that his chamber would neither offer its advice nor consent to any nomination made by President Obama to fill the suddenly vacant Supreme Court seat. The timing of McConnell’s proclamation may have been distasteful, but his effort to get in front of the coming confirmation battle was telling. By staking out an absolutist position – no hearings, no vote, no compromise – he was telegraphing how he cannot afford to have a Democrat make this pick. Court appointments in recent years have been contentious as a matter of course, but this one is different because it could fundamentally alter the structure of political competition, striking a lethal blow to conservative hopes for majority status in a new political alignment.

Not surprisingly, McConnell’s rejectionist approach rapidly became the de facto party position. Republican senators and leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination lined up behind him to demand that the next president appoint Scalia’s replacement because, after all, it’s an election year and we have to wait for the people to speak before the president can act. While the implication that the people didn’t speak three years ago when they elected the current president surely plays well in partisan circles where questions about Obama’s legitimacy are not new, McConnell and company must have realized they were saying these things out loud where everyone could hear them. Why take such an extreme position and risk being painted as obstructionists during an election year when it was possible to sound accommodating, go through the motions of considering the president’s nominee, and then vote no? Because McConnell doesn’t want to personify this fight by placing a potentially sympathetic nominee in the spotlight or lose control of the nomination process by holding unpredictable hearings. Republicans control the senate calendar but that is the only card they hold, and everything is suddenly, unexpectedly on the line.

When movement conservatives were engaged in their decades-long march from obscurity in the 1950s to control of the Republican Party and the country decades later, they learned that if you want to change social conditions you have to control the courts, and if you want to control the courts you have to run the executive branch, where Read More

The Psychological is Political

posted in: 2016 Election, Debates | 0

We are now living in Donald Trump’s psyche and it is a frightening place.

In my late-night reaction to Monday’s debate, I wrote:

It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with the aftermath of being humiliated on such a large stage. His history suggests he will try to strike back angrily to reassert his dominance, potentially compounding the damage he did tonight. As we said yesterday, debates historically do not determine elections. The structure of this contest has been stable and the electorate remains deeply divided. But too many people watched Trump reinforce the doubts they harbor about him for tonight’s fiasco not to move the polls in Clinton’s direction, and for someone who is incapable of losing that will be a heavy burden to bear.

The stress of Monday’s beating caused Trump to unravel as predicted. He initially claimed victory by pointing to Internet polls stuffed by his supporters, but when every scientific survey released mid-week made it clear he had lost ground to Clinton he abandoned his denial and started lashing out. Because there is no model in Trump’s world for losing, and certainly no model for losing to a woman, his words and actions betrayed a desperate attempt to restore equilibrium. The redirected object of his rage was Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe whose weight and ethnicity had been derided years ago by the candidate, as Clinton pointedly noted at the close of Monday’s debate. Trump spent the better part of the week re-litigating his relationship to Machado, culminating in a bizarre Twitter rant in the early hours of Friday morning, where he called Machado disgusting, urged Americans to check out her (nonexistent) sex tape, and accused Clinton—once again cast in the role of “Crooked Hillary”—of helping Machado become an American citizen in order to use her as a debate prop.

Trump’s actions baffled political professionals who accurately regarded them as self-destructive. But it should be clear by now that Trump’s campaign is a deeply personal representation of his inner life. Actions that make little sense in conventional political terms can be understood as gratifying his gaping emotional needs. He is a deeply aggrieved Read More

Well That Was Different

posted in: 2016 Election, Debates | 0

There have been presidential debates in every election since 1976, but there has never been a spectacle like what we saw this evening because we have never seen a candidate as fragile and unprepared as Donald Trump. I said yesterday that the bar for Trump was set so low it was glued to the floor, yet he was unable to surpass it. Trump showed up for an episode of reality TV but what he found was a formidable opponent who came prepared for a job interview in front of one-hundred million people. Set aside for a moment Trump’s word salad answers, turn off the volume and look at body language and facial expressions. Trump was angry and defensive to the point where he couldn’t control his rage. Clinton was poised, practiced and in charge. She looked like a president. He looked petulant. If there had been a mercy rule, this debate would have been called by 10 pm.

We said yesterday that Hillary faced a challenge in debating an unpredictable and unconventional candidate, and I suggested that her best strategy might be to pick at Trump’s ego with calculated putdowns without appearing overbearing. She did that and more, controlling the debate from start to finish and aggressively attacking Trump’s character and accomplishments. We said Trump would have to refrain from being overly aggressive to avoid coming across as hostile, and I expected him to exercise some restraint, at least at first. But he couldn’t control himself. He spent the debate with his face contorted in anger, and he constantly interrupted and lashed out at Clinton. He appeared the bully while Hillary remained calm. To say this will not go over well with the white educated women he needs to win Pennsylvania is a bit of an understatement.

I was surprised by how much this debate resembled the primary debates where Trump avoided policy specifics and self-restraint. Only this time his opponent dominated him, and he reacted by becoming increasingly unhinged. Much can and will be written about the questionable content of many of his answers in contrast to Clinton’s cogent responses, but I think the biggest takeaway will be the contrast between Clinton’s presidential cool and Trump’s disqualifying temperament. It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with the aftermath of being humiliated on such a large stage. His history suggests he will try to strike back angrily to reassert his dominance, potentially compounding the damage he did tonight. As we said yesterday, debates historically do not determine elections. The structure of this contest has been stable and the electorate remains deeply divided. But too many people watched Trump reinforce the doubts they harbor about him for tonight’s fiasco not to move the polls in Clinton’s direction, and for someone who is incapable of losing that will be a heavy burden to bear.

Debate Prep

posted in: 2016 Election, Debates | 0

Here are a few points to help you survive the debate phase of the campaign, which starts Monday and ends October 19:

  • They are not debates: At best they are joint press conferences. At worst they illustrate everything that’s wrong with style-over-substance election coverage. Although the candidates may at times engage one another, nobody is keeping score, and they will talk past each other if that’s what their strategies require. The public gets to see the candidates side by side, which can facilitate useful comparisons, but don’t expect them to stay on topic or answer questions if it doesn’t suit them.
  • Watch for nonverbal communication: Except for those rare viral moments, we won’t remember much of what’s said on the debate stage. But we will internalize how it was communicated, and we may not be fully conscious of our reactions. Clinton is not a natural orator but she can be effective in small group settings, and she will need to have those interpersonal skills working for her. Communicating in an easy, relatable manner is the best way for her to address her significant trust issues and “surpass expectations” with a press corps expecting her to come across as wonkish and aloof. Trump, on the other hand, has a showman’s sense of the moment but lacks self-control. He will certainly be advised to modulate his presentation to look respectable, but he will have to maintain that posture for a very long time.
  • Gender will be an ever-present subtext: As the first female major party nominee, Clinton will be confronting deeply engrained biases about how women communicate strength and competence. She will not have the latitude to go after Donald Trump the way Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden would, will almost certainly have to suffer through commentary about her clothing choices, and may face a replay of the Matt Lauer commander-in-chief interview where she was repeatedly interrupted. At the same time, Trump will have to refrain from being overly aggressive to avoid coming across as hostile. In a 2000 senate debate, Clinton’s male opponent left the podium and walked into her space on the debate stage. She was effectively elected at that point.

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Intensity

posted in: Polls | 0

More on the latest polls by way of a quick lesson on public opinion. Over the past weeks as polls have tightened, it has been tempting to assume that people are changing their minds and moving their support from Clinton to Trump. It’s intuitive to believe that two candidates are moving closer to each other because one is picking up support from the other. Public opinion can in fact move like this if enough people undergo a change of heart about the candidates.

But public opinion also has a characteristic called intensity: how strongly people feel about something. In election polling, how strongly people feel about a candidate can be a good proxy for how likely they are to vote. For that matter, low intensity voters may be less likely to sit through a pollster’s questions, keeping their preferences from being recorded in the first place. And that may explain what we’ve been seeing in the September polling.

There’s good reason to believe Hillary’s September swoon is about changes in the intensity of her support, not wholesale movement from her camp to Trump. Two of the constants in this election season are a high degree of polarization and unprecedented levels of disaffection with the major candidates. These characteristics have combined to provide this election with an unusually high degree of stability, with Clinton maintaining a lead ranging from narrow to comfortable. In this environment, it is extremely difficult to change minds and get large numbers of voters to jump from one team to the other. But it is fairly easy for candidates going through a rough stretch to turn weak supporters into undecided voters and demoralize their partisans.

From late August, when she was fundraising rather than campaigning, through late last week, Clinton has faced negative press about her integrity and health, was the subject of intense scrutiny for her “basket of deplorables” comment, and lost the better part of a week recuperating from pneumonia. In a campaign where both candidates are widely disliked, periods of extended press attention correlate with falling poll numbers as voters are reminded of what Read More

Prove You’re Not A Fraud

posted in: Media Coverage | 0

We awoke this morning to a new campaign reality. The elite media are calling Donald Trump a liar:

“Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic” – New York Times

“Trump Admits Obama Was Born In US, But Falsely Blames Clinton For Rumors” – Washington Post

“We just got played.” – John King on CNN

For the first time in this election cycle, the consensus media frame questioned the veracity of the Republican presidential nominee in blunt and certain terms. Consider this lede from the Post:

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Friday acknowledged for the first time that President Obama was born in the United States, ending his long history of stoking unfounded doubts about the nation’s first African American president but also seeking to falsely blame Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for starting the rumors.

Or consider this lede from the Associated Press:

After five years as the chief promoter of a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace, Donald Trump abruptly reversed course Friday and acknowledged the fact that the president was born in America. He then immediately peddled another false conspiracy. “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” Trump declared, enunciating each word in a brief statement at the end of a campaign appearance. “Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.” But as the GOP presidential nominee sought to put that false conspiracy theory to rest, he stoked another, claiming the “birther movement” was begun by his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. There is no evidence this is true.”

Until yesterday, the press was unwilling to call Trump a liar for fear of undermining their capacity to remain neutral in their coverage. So what changed? Perhaps it was the sense, as John King put it, that reporters had been suckered into Read More

Ohio

posted in: Polls | 0

The past few weeks have been hard on the Clinton campaign and it’s showing up in the polls as an erosion of support nationwide. But only in the past few days have I started receiving panicky email from liberal and #NeverTrump readers finding themselves for the first time imagining a Trump presidency as more than a reality TV plot turn. Despite my efforts to caution against reading too much into individual polling, two surveys released yesterday showing Trump with a low single-digit lead in Ohio seem to have breached a psychological barrier for some who had taken comfort in the blue bulwark which for months had dominated the electoral map. So allow me to offer some perspective on the Ohio polls in an effort to reassure those readers, then address the important message the polls are giving us.

About a week ago, I wrote that the structure of the presidential race had not changed in a meaningful way for months. In the interim, Hillary Clinton developed pneumonia, was criticized for keeping it secret for two days, was captured on video losing her balance as she left a September 11 remembrance in New York, faced a wall of critical coverage for packing half of Trump’s supporters into a “basket of deplorables” (an awkward turn of phrase which brings to mind something you should be able to order on Amazon), then was invisible in the campaign as she recovered from her illness. And the structure of the presidential race still has not changed in a meaningful way. As we have seen at other moments when the news agenda focused negatively on Clinton, weak supporters who may not particularly like her headed to Gary Johnson or undecided, but Clinton and Trump continued to bounce around in the same range of support.

So what happened in Ohio? Four polls were released covering roughly the same survey period: a Bloomberg Politics poll showing Trump up by five, a CNN poll showing Trump up by four, a Quinnipiac poll showing Trump up by one, and a CBS/YouGov poll showing Clinton up by seven. Clearly all these results cannot be true, even if you account for the Read More

About Those Polls

posted in: Polls | 0

Labor Day is behind us and we are about to be bombarded by post-holiday national and statewide polls marking the traditional start of the general election campaign. Of course, the notion that the campaign begins in the fall is a fiction left over from a time when presidential candidates declared their intentions in the same calendar year as the election. In reality, the presidential campaign is starting to wind down. Even though we have seen a number of polls suggesting the presidential contest is tightening there have been no changes to the fundamental structure of the race. To help you navigate the upcoming polling overload, here are four brief things to remember:

1. Hillary Clinton is still favored. Why? Because of this:

EV Map

Remember this map from a few weeks ago? It portrays states where Hillary has a built-in demographic or political advantage, enough states for her to win the election. And this is without states where Clinton has an edge or is competitive, like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, Georgia and Arizona. At this point, it will take a significant external event to alter the dynamics of a race where Clinton has numerous paths to 270 and Trump does not. Read More

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