Keep Calm and Carry On: The Anxious Months Ahead

By Rick Valelly

The Republican and Democratic nominating conventions are over, and you may be breathing a sigh of relief. Or perhaps the politics bug has bitten you, and you are asking yourself what difference the conventions made. Both had around 25 million prime-time viewers; Republicans, slightly fewer, but more people watched Donald Trump’s acceptance speech than watched Hillary Clinton’s speech.

If you watched both, you undoubtedly noticed that the tone, choreography, and portrayal of party unity differed greatly between the two conventions. Sen. Bernie Sanders openly (some thought skillfully) threw his support to Hillary Clinton. But Sen. Ted Cruz pointedly refused to do the same for Trump. Trump’s acceptance speech was rather long and had a dark tone. Clinton’s was much sunnier. The evening before Clinton formally accepted, President Obama extolled America’s current greatness, not America’s lost greatness.

The polling of the Gallup organization (the oldest and most experienced such organization, for what it’s worth) clearly suggests that the public picked up on the differences. Those who paid attention to Clinton’s convention seem to have thought it was pretty good, while those who paid attention to Trump’s convention came away somewhat disenchanted.

But that may not matter, and the reason is partisan tribalism. The vast majority of citizens still identify with one of the major parties. Democrats want a third term for a Democrat in the White House. Republicans really think it is time for a change. Even if the change is unpredictable, they may be willing to take their chances.

Back to Gallup for a moment. The weekend after the Republican convention Gallup asked a random sample of about 1,000 adults (mixing respondents with landlines and respondents with cellphones) about their opinion of the Republican party post-convention. Thirty-five percent said they had a more favorable opinion, while 52% said they had a less favorable opinion of the party. Asked if they were more likely or less likely to vote for the Republican nominee, the sample split about the same way: 36% said more likely, 51% said less likely. Asked about Trump’s acceptance speech, 35% said it was excellent, 17% said that it was “just OK,” and 36% said that it was “poor or terrible.”

The contrasts with the Democratic convention are striking. A different sample of adults, polled the weekend after the Democratic convention, had 44% holding a more favorable view of Democrats than before the convention, and 42% holding a less favorable view. And 45% said they were more likely to vote for Clinton, while 41% said that their attention to the convention made them less likely to vote for her — for a “plus” of 4 points compared to Trump’s “minus” of 15 points. About 44% said her acceptance speech was excellent, 17% said it was “just OK,” and 20% said that it was “poor or terrible.”

Gallup’s numbers suggest that one convention was a success, the other, by contrast, a failure. Other polls asking about vote intentions (taken between the Democratic convention and the time that I sat down to write this article) show that Clinton has had a significant “bounce” that erases the bounce that Trump received — leaving Clinton noticeably ahead of Trump as I write this.

Whether you’re pleased or worried by Clinton’s “bump”, don’t put too much stock in it. Political scientists used to think that bounces and bumps reflected large numbers of people making up their minds due to the convention, after sitting on the fence. Now we suspect instead that people who are enthusiastic about their party’s nominee are more likely to answer the phone or take online polls than they were prior to the convention. If that’s the case, then Trump’s supporters flooded the surveys for a few days — and then Clinton’s did the same. The upshot? The race may well settle back to being the tug of war that it was before the conventions.

Back to the Undecided

In other words, the underlying partisan balance in the electorate and the underlying balance of candidate preference will reassert themselves. As they do attention will probably turn to the roughly 15% of likely voters who are still persuadable. How will they “break” between late August and the time when early and absentee voting start in the states that permit it, on through to Election Day? What can the two candidates — and their political parties — do to persuade them?

It could be that Donald Trump’s unusual behavior will moot these questions. Key leaders of his own party have rebuked him repeatedly, and polls show that the public views him more unfavorably than Clinton. If the election morphs into a referendum on Trump’s behavior — a sustained debate about whether, as the President has suggested, he is actually unfit for the office — then a majority of the persuadables may break for Hillary Clinton.

Rick Valelly is Claude C. Smith ‘14 Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College.

Rick Valelly is Claude C. Smith ‘14 Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College.

But Clinton is also a flawed and disliked candidate. One respected poll has found that about 6 in 10 Republican identifiers think that “Trump’s call to for Russia to uncover the e-mails of Hillary Clinton” was “appropriate.” That would seem to represent a lot of dislike for Hillary Clinton abroad in the land.

Clinton’s ad campaign is therefore going to matter. It seems that her ad campaign will be far more extensive than Trump’s. What will her ads emphasize? One school of thought says that whatever else her ads say, they should be sure to emphasize the low rate of unemployment, the rise in consumer demand, and the prospect of continued improvement in the rate of GDP growth. Historically, candidates who repeatedly clarify the state of the macroeconomy through their ads succeed against candidates who do not or cannot do that; only Clinton can align with the Obama Administration’s record. The last person to be in the same position was Al Gore, whose ads failed to align him with Bill Clinton’s economic record. Oops.

The problem here is that Sen. Bernie Sanders demonstrated that wealth and income inequality, and the possibility of oligarchy in this country, genuinely bother much of the Democratic base — and many Democrats might well think that a sustained effort to focus on Obama’s macroeconomic performance is not only beside the point but amounts to a betrayal of Sanders’ convention rapprochement with Clinton. Moreover, Trump’s message is for big change all across the board. Trump’s message is powerfully in sync with the “time for a change” sentiment that historically has been very strong after one party has held the White House for two terms. Some analysts also point to the “right track/wrong track” poll questions. About 70% of the country thinks that the U.S. is moving in the “wrong direction” (although it should be noted that the last time that a majority saw the country moving in the “right direction” was January, 2004). Clinton needs to address that sentiment, in this view.

If Clinton faces a conundrum about what her campaign message will be, her opponent’s choice of a campaign message was much simpler — and he understood that very early, coining his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Quite cleverly, it substitutes for an ad blitz that the Trump campaign may never make (and given the free media does not seem to need). Clinton’s message choice is yet to come, and it may well be fateful.

The one other way that Clinton’s campaign can make a difference is the so-called ground game: personal contacting of likely Democratic voters to get them to turn out. Get-out-the-vote efforts do not add a lot. But in 2012 they helped Obama, at the end of the campaign, to offset Mitt Romney’s surge in ad spending.

All of this is to say that this exceptionally consequential election will likely be suspenseful and close. My mother keeps asking me when we will really know. The right answer is Election Day, of course. But you should keep checking RealClearPolitics, which provides an average of all reputable polls. Its average of the head-to-head polls becomes increasingly accurate as we get closer to November 8th. Whether the polls are reassuring or scary is up to you.

POSTSCRIPT: Last week I claimed that a small handful of political scientists attended the two conventions. My Facebook feed subsequently showed that some 6 or 7 might have been here in Philadelphia doing fieldwork, even if they were not inside the Wells Fargo Center. I also claimed that presidents seek to fulfill or openly recognize about 80% of their platform pledges. That figure was too high. The last time anyone counted — long ago — the proportion was actually about two-thirds.

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