Jim Campbell: A new analysis in Polarized dispels election controversy

Overlooked “Unfavorability” Trends Raise Doubts that Comey Cost Clinton the Election

In her newly released What Happened and in interviews accompanying the book’s release, Hillary Clinton claims that former FBI Director James Comey’s late October re-opening of the investigation into the mishandling of national security emails was “the determining factor” in her 2016 presidential election loss. In the new afterword of the paperback edition of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America, I report evidence indicating that Comey’s letter did not cause Clinton’s loss.The suspected Comey-effect is tested by examining changes in Gallup’s unfavorability ratings of Clinton and Trump. The data shows that the decline in Clinton’s poll lead over Trump in the last weeks of the campaign was not the result of voters becoming more negative about Clinton (as would be the case if they were moved by the Comey letter). It was the result of voters becoming less negative about Trump (a development with no plausible link to the Comey letter). Comey didn’t drive voters away from Clinton. Rather, “Never Trump” Republicans were grudgingly becoming “Reluctant Trump” voters.

This finding is consistent with the earlier finding of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s (AAPOR) Ad Hoc Committee on 2016 Election Polling. The Committee found evidence that “Clinton’s support started to drop on October 24th or 25th,” perhaps even earlier. This was at least three or four days before Comey’s letter was released.

Read on for the relevant excerpt and details from the afterword of my forthcoming paperback edition of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America:

In the closing weeks of the campaign, with what they saw as a Clinton victory looming darkly over the horizon, many disgruntled conservative hold-outs came back to the Republican column. As they rationalized or reconsidered their choice, unfavorable opinions about Trump among Republicans declined (about 7 points). Even so, about a fifth of Trump’s voters admitted that they still held an unfavorable view of him. More than a quarter of Trump’s voters said their candidate lacked the temperament to be president. For many, “Never Trump” had become “Reluctantly Trump.” They held their noses and cast their votes. Between Trump and Clinton, about 85% of conservative votes went to Trump. Along with sour views of national conditions, polarization had offset or overridden the grave reservations many conservatives had about a Trump vote.

Widespread and intense polarized views, across the public and between the parties, shaped the 2016 election. On one side of the spectrum, polarization compelled liberals to overlook Clinton’s scandals and deficiencies as a candidate as well as a sputtering economy and unstable international conditions. On the other side, dissatisfaction with national conditions and polarization compelled conservatives to vote for a candidate many thought lacked the rudimentary leadership qualities needed in a president. Non-ideological centrists again were caught in the middle–by ideology, by the candidates’ considerable shortcomings, and by generally dreary views of national conditions. Their vote split favored Clinton over Trump (52% to 40%, with 8% going to minor party candidates), close to its two-party division in 2012. The three components of the vote (polarization, the candidates, and national conditions) left voters closely enough divided to make an electoral vote majority for Trump possible.

Although the above explanation of the election is supported by the evidence and fits established theory, two other controversial explanations have gained some currency. They trace Trump’s surprising victory to Russia’s meddling in the election (by hacking Democratic emails and releasing them through Wikileaks) and FBI Director Comey’s late October letter, re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s mishandling of confidential national security emails. Some, including Clinton herself, contend Wikileaks and Comey’s letter caused the collapse of Clinton’s lead over Trump in the closing weeks of the campaign.

The evidence says otherwise. Contrary to the speculation, neither Wikileaks nor Comey’s letter had anything to do with the shriveling of Clinton’s lead. If either had been responsible, they would also have caused more voters to view Clinton negatively–but opinions about her did not grow more negative. Unfavorable opinions of Clinton were remarkably steady. From August to late September, Hillary Clinton’s unfavorables in Gallup polls averaged 55%. Her unfavorables in the Gallup poll completed on the day Comey released his letter (October 28) stood at 55%. In the exit polls, after Wikileaks and after Comey’s letter, her unfavorables were unchanged at 55%. Opinions about Hillary Clinton, a figure in the political spotlight for a quarter century, had long been highly and solidly polarized. Nothing Wikileaks revealed or Comey said was going to change minds about her at that late stage of the game.

The race tightened in the last weeks of the campaign because Trump’s unfavorables declined (by about 5 points). They declined as some conservatives and moderates with qualms about Trump came to the unpleasant realization that voting for Trump was the only possible way they could help prevent Clinton’s election. Some dealt with the dissonance of voting for a candidate they disliked by rationalizing, reassessing, or otherwise softening their views of Trump, trying to convince themselves that maybe “the lesser to two evils” was not really so awful after all. In voting, as in everything else, people tend to postpone unpleasant decisions as long as they can and make them as painless to themselves as they can.

The decay of Clinton’s October poll lead was not about Russian and Wikileaks meddling in the election and not about Comey’s letter. It was about polarization, in conjunction with dissatisfaction about national conditions, belatedly overriding the serious concerns many voters had about Donald Trump as a potential president. Trump’s candidacy put polarization to the test. His election testified to how powerful polarization has become. The highly polarized views of Americans and the highly polarized positions of the parties were critical to how voters perceived and responded to the candidates’ shortcomings and the nation’s problems.

James E. Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. His books include The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National VoteThe Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections, and Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.

Adam Seth Levine: Does Populist Rhetoric Undermine Itself?

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by Adam Seth Levine

The 2016 presidential race features no shortage of populist rhetoric. While scholars and commentators disagree about the extent to which candidates such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders are truly populists, there is no doubt that they have frequently employed rhetoric that contains two essential features: first, a critique of contemporary political and economic life and, second, a call for broader participation by the people that will set things right in response to an elite held responsible for these problems.

At first blush, these two features would seem to be perfectly compatible with one another. However, a growing body of research shows that they often are not. In fact, the sharper the critique of contemporary life—and, in particular, the more it is phrased in terms that are personally relevant—the more likely it is to undermine people’s desire to heed the call to action. In short, populist rhetoric is often self-undermining.

This line of research uses experiments to randomly assign people to receive populist rhetoric (or not) and then measures their level of political engagement. The general conclusion that emerges is that, when rhetoric reminds people about critiques of economic and political life that relate directly to their personal financial concerns and/or ways in which our democracy fails to be responsive the wishes of the citizenry, then such rhetoric often reduces rather than increases their willingness to spend scarce resources on activism. At the same time, however, it does increase people’s concern about the issues and willingness to express support for remedies. So, it satisfies one goal while at the same time undermining another. This pattern is important because, while public opinion can impact the shape of the political agenda and the likelihood of policy change, that link is not automatic. Such change is more likely to arise when there is also organized activism pushing for it.

For instance, in my 2015 book, American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction, I conducted a series of experiments in which some participants were randomly assigned to receive general information about a civic organization along with populist appeals related to its work to address health care costs or education costs, while others just received the general information. I found that when the populist rhetoric reminded people about financial constraints they were personally facing (e.g. students with education loans, or people without health insurance facing large health care costs), then it reduced their willingness to donate money to the organization. If they were in the labor force, it also reduced their willingness to spend time by joining the organization. Yet, in all cases, people become more concerned about the issue at hand and were more likely to consider it a political priority. In short, reminding people about their financial constraints often does not motivate them to want to spend money or time on politics, even if it heightens concern about the problem.

What about critiques of contemporary political life? During the 2016 race, both Trump and Sanders have repeatedly warned that citizens’ voices are not being heard and that the election is rigged. Robyn Stiles and I recently tested the effect of this kind of rhetoric on people’s willingness to be electorally engaged. We found that in each case messages about elections being rigged or the wealthy buying elections reduced electoral engagement, even though they increased the degree to which people expressed increasing concern about the problem. In short, telling people that their voice may not matter does not make them want to spend scarce resources exercising it, even if it makes them more likely to support policies that would reduce political inequality.

While these two experiments by no means cover the full range of populist rhetoric, they do highlight the central point: there is often a critical and unrecognized tension within the two main goals of populist rhetoric. What to do? One answer is that sparking activism in response to people’s concerns about contemporary economic and political life will often require tapping into motivations other than the issues themselves. After all, people get involved in politics for many reasons that are not solely about the personal grievances and policy goals they hold, such as motivations tied to social influence and other social goals (e.g. the desire to respond affirmatively to a friend). Invoking these motivations is not always easy, but at the same time holds greater promise for sparking activism in situations where the rhetoric itself is self-undermining.

Levine

Adam Seth Levine is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. He has published in a variety of outlets such as the Journal of Politics, Political Analysis, Review of Behavioral Economics, and Political Communication. His work has won numerous awards, including the 2011 E. E. Schattschneider Prize. This prize is the highest dissertation award in the field of American government and is given annually by the American Political Science Association. He is the author of American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.