Tag Archives: presidential race

The rock, the hard place, and the eternally sought-after undecideds

The elections podcast by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight team contained this rather interesting moment near its end on Monday:

NATE SILVER: Neither of these candidates has really won that many people over. Clinton is still at only about 42 percent in the [national] polls, down from about 44 or 45 percent right after the convention. 42 percent is not that good. It’s better than being at 39 percent, which is what Trump is at, but some of the marginal Clinton voters now have gone to [Libertarian candidate Gary] Johnson and [Green candidate Jill] Stein. How could Clinton potential lose this election if her favorables are slightly less bad than Trump’s?  If more of her voters go to Johnson and Stein. I think she needs a plan for dealing with that. If you assume that third party vote will fade… well, maybe… […]  but you certainly can’t count on that. I’ve never seen an election before where the number of decideds like goes up as the election goes on. [Laughter]

In this of all election cycles, maybe we should consider this before laughing.

This is an election cycle where, unlike in the last one, significant swings have proven possible and suggest exactly those unthinkable reversals. A lot of the restrictions I talked about in the last presidential cycle seem to continue to ensnare presidential contenders – most notably that Trump is trying what Romney wouldn’t, to say he’s at once in favor of two diametrically opposed immigration policies. But woven in between first Obama’s and now Clinton’s inability to effectively harness the news cycles and first Romney’s and now Trump’s need to hold two positions at once, there’s an almost supernatural destabilizing element: the decided voter who un-decides.

To fully credit them, there’s most likely no singular bloc of voters who fit that description. Even from the same part of the political spectrum, the motivation for a particular de-decider will vary, and as a result their undeciding can arrive at any number of times. While this seemingly new phenomenon is in some ways a reflection of this race – between two major candidates with net negative popularity, and maybe popular to get buyer’s remorse from – it’s also a manifestation of alienation from the two parties themselves.

That dislike for the two major parties doesn’t precisely fall evenly, and so neither do the un-decided. Amid recent allegations of corruption and other non-ideological criticisms, Hillary Clinton is perhaps more vulnerable to losing support for appearing to embody some of the greatest flaws in the system more generally. For Trump, similar allegations might limit or even undo his support, but the perception of him as an electoral outsider might also soften the blow.

Perhaps more coherently than any other recent presidential election, this one has been predicated on ideas of candidates’ relative flaws. With both major candidates facing limited enthusiasm and low popularity, running against their opponent has played a much bigger and more universal role this year than previously.

One of the problems that strategy poses, however, is that some of your support won’t kick in until it looks like you might lose. On the level of this that we have reached this year, what’s more, some of your supporters won’t necessarily stick around once it looks like you will safely carry the election. Conscientious voting has been raised as an issue in both primaries and into the general election, priming voters to ask themselves that if they don’t absolutely need to make a lesser-of-two-evils choice, then why bother.

2016-09-07_0936(The Princeton Election Consortium’s national meta-margin and FiveThirtyEight’s national polling averages, both showing the “sine wave” fluctuations Nate Silver mentioned earlier in the same podcast.)

For Clinton, someone absorbing support from her left and her right on the basis of her not being Trump, this creates boom-bust cycles of her support, or as Nate Silver put it – sine waves across the electoral polling. Like last year, the two major parties have pretty much played each other into a Democratic-leaning stalemate on the national level.

What seems to be new this year is that the sea is choppy, not that we’re in a different boat. The real proof of this dynamic, of course, will be born out in whether Clinton recovers some of these supporters now that the race is tightening again. Until then, as Silver said, we haven’t yet seen a race where the number of undecided voters goes up… but there’s always a first time.

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Into the general

The post-convention speculation has begun, but perhaps we should heed Nate Silver’s advice to wait a little longer, a smidgen more past the 100-day mark until the general presidential election. To tide us over, let’s talk about the map that Clinton and Trump find themselves confronted with. Here’s one I drew up based off of how different voting blocs in the electoral college have cast their votes since 1992.

2016-07-31_1130

To put it simply, there’s two complimentary groups of voting blocs, who can on occasion get caught up in the excitement for a candidate that wins the country as a whole, but by and large, vote consistently for a particular political party’s candidates. After drawing up categories of voting blocs based on that, there emerges a third group – those who never demonstrated a clear preference for one major party or another, and overwhelmingly voted with the electoral college’s result as a whole.

Briefly, let me explain the logic behind using this time period. The fall of the Soviet bloc has receded in most people’s memory, but it actually doesn’t seem that far of a stretch to view it as a slate-cleansing point.

As an event, it cuts to a core change within the Democratic Party – the movement from progressive capitalism in the styles of Roosevelt and Johnson towards the more centrist economics of Clinton and Obama. Unions disintegrated, protectionism faded, and the Democrats redirected their attention away from structuring the economy in general and towards resolving dysfunctional outcomes case by case. The demonstration of the Soviet model’s failure on the global stage, no doubt, played a role in the transition. Liberation was curtailed to inclusion, and environmentalism mutated into today’s green capitalism.

While the Democrats’ sought a new future to imagine, the Republican Party changed the tone in which they viewed the past. By the 1980s, it had been captured by the conservative movement which very openly expressed interest in returning most social practices to a part true and part mythologized past. That remains one of the motivating concerns of most people in the conservative movement – a return to the social arrangements before Roe v Wade, before the Civil Rights Act, before Lawrence v Texas.

Under Reagan that was an optimistic expectation, a simple step back before continuing to evolve as a nation along preferred conservative lines. Under George Bush that idea had begun to sour. Once the fall of the Soviet Union occurred, large sections of the Republican base were on the verge of open revolt – a clean return to the Pax Americana they thought they remembered was increasingly out of reach. That bred a sense of desperation, and out of that came most of the support for Ross Perot, the perceived recapturing of the Republican Party with George Walker Bush, the Tea Party movement, and even now Donald Trump’s candidacy. As others have said, Republicans’ morning in America has become their midnight darkest – a paranoia that began in the early 1990s.

Even as both of these broad portions of political thought in the US rethought their positions, their voters became more consistent and more polarized. So, in that way, the 1992 presidential election was the first of a series of nationwide demonstrations of a new voting pattern. Born out of the earlier party realignment driven by Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the past six elections have been the crystallization of those dynamics.

2016-08-01_1859.png

The math of this model can help paint a particular picture of what strategies Clinton and Trump can draw on. Forget the parties, their political histories, their precisely constituencies – it’s just red, blue, and everyone else.

Thinking of it in those terms, there’s three groups of electoral voting blocs with their own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Team Blue: This group tops out at 246 electoral votes, just a mere 24 votes short of a win. It’s not just the biggest of the groups, but it’s also the one with best retention. The other team has only poached one of its voting blocs one time – which is only worth 4 votes. Although durable and large, it still falls short of a win on its own and suffers from not having many inroads to winning the support of other electoral blocs, making it possible for it to strike out at convincing anyone else (think 2004).
  • Team Red: Topping off at 219 electoral votes, this set of electoral voting blocs is not as close to a win as the leading team, but it’s a much closer second than the distant third. It holds a track record of getting three times as many electoral votes against popular Team Blue candidates than vice versa. What it has in better appeal, however, it lacks in stability, with a fully majority of its components’ votes having gone Blue at one time or another (occasionally multiple times).
  • Team Consensus: A mere 73 votes, this is the smallest group. In part because it plays kingmaker between the two teams, its preferences as a whole are the best predictor of which candidate in a given year will win. Those preferences aren’t to be treated as loosely shared either – in half of this time period’s elections they’ve voted unanimously for the electoral college’s winner. The most likely outcome after that has only seen one defector among them. As the smallest of these blocs within the electoral college however, it can’t fully capture either party’s interest because it’s mathematically impossible to win with it alone.

A sort of a political rock-paper-scissors has emerged here. Blue is big and dependable but has to convince others to come along, Red is almost as big and great a pulling in outside support but perpetually at risk of its coalition disintegrating, and there’s a powerful bloc outside of the two which adeptly supplies the votes to put either over the top but can only choose between these two larger factions’ preferences.

electoral college weighted proportionality

What does this mean for this year’s nominees? More than anything else, it shows how Clinton has followed conventional thought on these political realities and Trump has eschewed that sort of traditional approach.

For Team Blue’s leader (that’s Clinton), the biggest concern within this electoral model is to invite in of Team Consensus and encourage defections from Team Red as much as possible. That’s been followed through on – as she’s selected her running mate from a recurrently defecting Red bloc (Virginia), who is fluent in the minority language common to one of the largest ethnic groups in several Team Consensus blocs (New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida all are among the most Latin@ states in the country).

Meanwhile, Team Red’s leader faces a two-front conflict: to maintain a lead in the many states that threaten to break from the pack as well as to bring in support from outside of that group. During the primary contests earlier this year, I noted that Trump appealed more strongly to voters inclined towards the messages of Team Red but living in areas that skew Blue, particularly compared to his rivals. Since then, many have noted that Trump biggest gains have largely come in the form of unexpectedly effective performances in swing states amid news about unusually anemic support for him from Republican bastions.

Don’t worry, someone else did the math and this isn’t a party realignment (at least, not yet). We’ll have a more direct answer to that come November, but the difference is speaks to is more that between Clinton’s and Trump’s strategies. The former is playing the game the way you’re expected to, in spite of the difficulties is poses. The latter, however, seems frustrated by the differences he must balance, so he’s trying to upend the table they’re competing on.

With him now breaking an unspoken rule of every would-be president – don’t criticize the immediate family of a fallen service member – he truly is betting on the possibility that this contest can play out differently than anyone expects. No matter what, this speaks to the kind of temperament he has as a person, but he took seriously the possibility that he could win states no Republican has in my lifetime (namely Pennsylvania), something Clinton never appeared to considered even with unusual polling statistics coming out of Utah and Mississippi. He’s the kind of person who’s quick to set his heart on something, and ignore any signals about what is necessary to give up to reach it.

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