This Election May Not be as Weird as we Think

Political Science research suggests that the election is, in basic ways, about what we would expect.

Trump ClintonSomething I have been thinking about quite a bit of late is the degree to which, despite the very unusual nature of the Trump candidacy, that this election is not all that unusual.  By this I mean that the actual behavior of voters, en masse, is not all that much outside the norm.  This derives from a political science literature that argues that candidate quality and horse-race journalism doesn’t have the effects on outcomes that we tend to think that they do.

Along these lines I would point to this entry at The Monkey Cage by Andrew Gelman:  Krugman wonders how the race could be close. Political science wonders how it could be otherwise.

First, just based on general information — nothing about the candidates, just economic trends — we’d expect the election to be pretty close.

When I did my best attempt to fit the Hibbs model, which predicts incumbent-party vote share using change in per-capita income growth, I got a forecast of 52 percent of the two-party vote for the Democratic nominee.

Other forecasts give slightly different answers, as there are many ways of constructing a prediction model given past elections, but the general consensus is that the fundamentals predict the election is likely to be close. The economy is going okay but not great; the president is somewhat popular; there is a small minus for the Democrats in that the incumbent is not running for reelection, but a small minus for the Republicans in that they control both houses of Congress and, hence, represent a less appealing choice for centrist voters who prefer divided government.

So, to start with, no explanation is needed for why the election might be close. Yes, Donald Trump is an unusual candidate, but research by political scientist Steven Rosenstone and others suggests that when it comes to the general election, Americans vote party more than candidate.

[…]

To put it another way, the electoral landslides in postwar presidential elections were in 1964, 1972, and 1984 — all years in which the economy was booming. This year, the economy is doing okay but not booming, hence the more equivocal forecast.

The link in the quote is to another Gelman piece (at Slate) that discusses the ways that 2016 is unlike 1964 or 1972 and it worth a read as well.

Now, we shall see how things turn out, and there will be plenty for analysts to address, both in the short term and the long run.  But, the fact that a major party nominee is competitive is not all that surprising, even candidate Trump.  This does not let the GOP nomination process off the hook for producing said candidate, however.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2016, Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. James Pearce says:

    Americans vote party more than candidate.

    I’d be curious to see if this is still true 50 years hence.

  2. @James Pearce:

    I’d be curious to see if this is still true 50 years hence.

    One suspects it will be. Party is a powerful signaling device that shapes choice. There is a reason that parties emerge, whether planned for or not, in every representative democracy that exists.

    Now, given parties may come and go, but that is a different issue.

  3. Joe says:

    I think this should make me feel better about my fellow voters. I am not sure it does.

  4. Pch101 says:

    In the old days, Hillary Clinton would have been a male liberal Northeastern Republican running against a Dixiecrat named Trump.

    Trump is popular with elements of his party’s base while not being at all popular with his party establishment, but this is not new to American politics. (Goldwater was one earlier example.)

    Racism and xenophobia have been integral to the US political system from the start, so that isn’t new, either. That’s not surprising, given that this nation that is so devoted to talking about freedom had enslaved more than one in six of its residents when it was founded.

    The one thing that is truly unique is that the US is probably going to have a female head of government. But that is only notable because we are fairly late to that party compared to much of the rest of the developed world.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    I strongly suspect that if two years ago you were to ask Republicans “how extreme would a candidate have to be before you would write them off and either stay home, vote 3rd party or vote for the Democrat?”, they would have described someone significantly less extreme than Trump. But in the instance, people root for whoever they perceive as their “team”. Unfortunately, Americans don’t seem to have any inherent sense that overcomes that.

  6. Pete S says:

    I am not sure I would agree with the title of this article – this election has been extraordinarily weird. The weirdness just has not translated to polling results which are significantly different from what we would see for Generic D vs. Generic R. The word I would use for that is depressing.

    At this point I don’t know what Trump could do to lose the 40+% of the vote he seems to be headed for. Somehow the people who want to stick it to the elites of both parties, including their own, and people who would vote for a corpse as long as it had an R after its name, comes out to the normal garden variety Republican support.

  7. Pch101 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    By Republican standards, Trump is crude, but he isn’t extreme.

    Liberals dislike Trump because he is or pretends to be a xenophobic misogynist bigot who shoots badly from the hip.

    Establishment Republicans don’t like Trump because of his trade populism and because they don’t trust him on taxes, plus he is considered to be an untrustworthy infiltrator instead of a party loyalist.

    Social conservatives dislike him because they don’t trust him on pro-life matters.

    Conservative foreign policy wonks don’t like him because they think that he will be a reckless puppet.

    Notice how the liberal concerns re: race and gender aren’t really on the conservative list of grievances. The GOP establishment has long tolerated the xenophobic elements of its base while occasionally celebrating it, such as Reagan kicking off his 1980 presidential campaign by talking about “states rights” just miles from where the civil rights workers were murdered.

    Trump is uniquely boorish for a modern presidential candidate and it may be surprising to some that a Republican would be so unabashedly populist. But otherwise, he is no aberration; he embodies much of what the GOP base wants.

  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    Americans vote party more than candidate.

    Americans vote team more than party. This is why trying to discuss politics is like trying to convince a Yankees fan that they should support the Red Sox. Even if the Red Sox are an objectively better team this season, the mere attempt only serves to make the Yankee fan even more obstinately a Yankee fan.

  9. Tillman says:

    This derives from a political science literature that argues that candidate quality and horserace journalism doesn’t have the effects on outcomes that we tend to think that they do.

    You mean all those comments before the first debate that said the polls were close only because the media was using horserace coverage and not covering Trump’s faults enough was unscientific? Color me surprised.

    But this point — that it’s team or party above candidate — should give anyone pause when they attempt to defend a preferred politician against another, or when they lazily moralize about the supporters of one politician or another. That’s always a good time to review one’s biases.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    Nope, sorry, I cannot agree that Trump just isn’t that far outside the usual range of candidates, so it’s really not unexpected (much less appalling) that people are treating him as just another R.

    Trump is entirely without qualifications. He makes Ross Perot look like Adlai Stevenson.

    Trump is incoherent, inconsistent, and incapable of self-control. He makes Dan Quayle sound erudite, and Sarah Palin eloquent.

    Trump has never held a job, position, or office that would in any way provide him with experience relevant to being President of the United States.

    Trump has no academic background that would suggest he knows anything about anything, and has done nothing to dispel that impression in his campaign.

    This is all before we even get to behavior indistinguishable from narcissistic personality disorder, ADHD, and a handful of other syndromes.

    This is not just another R. It requires a deliberate act of will to pretend that it is.

  11. @Stormy Dragon:

    Americans vote team more than party.

    In some ways, that is a distinction without a difference.

  12. @DrDaveT: It is possible for it to be simultaneously true that a) Trump is outside many various norms as a candidate, and b) that that fact does not make as much difference as one might think that it should.

    This is not just another R. It requires a deliberate act of will to pretend that it is.

    That is not what this post is saying.

  13. @Steven L. Taylor: This is what I was alluding to here:

    But, the fact that a major party nominee is competitive is not all that surprising, even candidate Trump. This does not let the GOP nomination process off the hook for producing said candidate, however.

  14. @Pete S:

    At this point I don’t know what Trump could do to lose the 40+% of the vote he seems to be headed for.

    Exactly.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    I hope the Hibbs model is right. I’ve said going back to Johnson that I judge a president on GDP growth and unnecessary casualties. Following the link, that seems to be Hibbs’ model. However, I don’t think other people see it the same way. Larry Bartels’ model, based on personal income growth and incumbent party terms in the White House, is on it’s face more credible. Bartels model was proposed as a tool to understand elections, not to predict them. (I know you know this stuff, Dr. Taylor.) It uses third quarter income data, which is not available before the election. But making estimates, I believe it’s also close to where we stand. The incumbency factor makes sense to me, it’s what I’ve called the Rainbows and Unicorns problem. The Dems have been in power for eight years and I still don’t see rainbows and unicorns, throw him out and try the other bunch. I give Bartels more credence because very few people vote on published statistics. They have a “folk understanding” of how the economy is doing and they at least know how long Presidents have been in office. (Boy howdy, seems like Obama’s been President forever.) In our modern wars, casualties affect very few people. I only distantly know people who’s families have been affected and it’s now only local news except for the occasional national casualty count story.

    I suspect Bartels is closer to right. Which is a shame because his model predicts stronger headwinds in ’20.

  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The distinction is that people choose to vote largely due to their emotional attachment to the party’s “:culture” rather than as a rational endorsement of the party’s platform or candidate. The question isn’t really whether Clinton or Trump would be better as president, but rather do you consider yourself as belonging to the group of people who are Republican voters or the group of people who are Democratic voters?

  17. Mister Bluster says:

    @James Pearce:.. 50 years hence.

    Well, I should be closing in on 120.
    I can only hope I get to push The History Eraser Button by then!
    https://vimeo.com/126720159

    (kinda’ like Trump on Twittter. he can’t stop himself.)

  18. An Interested Party says:

    The distinction is that people choose to vote largely due to their emotional attachment to the party’s “:culture” rather than as a rational endorsement of the party’s platform or candidate.

    While that might apply to some people, that certainly doesn’t apply to all…there are distinct differences between the platforms and the candidates of the two major parties and plenty of people see these differences and choose accordingly…

  19. CSK says:

    A lot of Trump supporters claim to loathe the Republican Party because they feel it has betrayed them: Obama hasn’t been impeached and removed from office; Paul Ryan hasn’t been run out of town on a rail; Hillary Clinton hasn’t been tried, convicted, and executed; Bill Clinton the Rapist is still running around free as a bird…

    They want to “burn it all down.” Surely this constitutes a big difference from at least the recent past. In a way, they remind me a bit of some sixties radicals, only coming from the other side.

  20. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It is possible for it to be simultaneously true that a) Trump is outside many various norms as a candidate, and b) that that fact does not make as much difference as one might think that it should.

    Certainly. I was perhaps not clear — my horror is that many people are, despite Trump’s obvious characteristics (and his pride in them), apparently treating him as just another candidate for ‘their’ side and convincing themselves that he’s really not like he is. That requires (I assert) a deliberate act of will; one can’t accidentally not notice what he’s like.

    To be even more clear, I was complaining about non-Trumpkin Republican behavior, not about your article or the insane 27% of the base that knows what Trump is like and wants him because of that.

  21. DrDaveT says:

    @gVOR08:

    I’ve said going back to Johnson that I judge a president on GDP growth and unnecessary casualties.

    Does “unnecessary casualties” include those killed by the police and the judicial system?

    Allow me to suggest that you might want to add “quality of life of the bottom N%” to your criteria, for some value of N between 10 and 50. Different values can be argued, but GDP growth isn’t valuable if it isn’t making life better for people who don’t already have it good.

  22. @Stormy Dragon:

    The distinction is that people choose to vote largely due to their emotional attachment to the party’s “:culture” rather than as a rational endorsement of the party’s platform or candidate. The question isn’t really whether Clinton or Trump would be better as president, but rather do you consider yourself as belonging to the group of people who are Republican voters or the group of people who are Democratic voters?

    Yes, but my point is that most people don’t approach politics in a calmly rational way (even though they likely think they do). And even when they try to reason their way through the process, motivating thinking and confirmation bias leads them to stick with their party/team.

  23. @DrDaveT: Gotcha and indeed.

  24. george says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And I think most people don’t even try to reason their way through it in the first place. If you’re a Cub fan (to choose an arbitrary example) you stick with them despite years of bad trades, bad players, bad coaching (well, you get the idea), because they’re your team.

    I think this applies to a very large number of voters too. Most of the Trump voters I’ve personally talked to (a statistically tiny and unrepresentative sample to be sure) fall into that category; they’re voting for him because they vote Republican, and he’s the guy the team put on the mound for this game.

    Its a lousy reason to vote for anyone, but most people just don’t care enough about politics to give it more than a passing thought; even going to the polling station is felt to be an imposition; to actually waste time (their words not mine) researching the candidates is beyond the pale. And I’m talking about university educated professionals (most of whom are voting for Clinton, but also just because that’s their team – in this case I’d say they’re unconsciously making the right choice). When I press them why, it ultimately comes down to their not thinking it makes any real difference. The example of Bush going to war doesn’t convince many (perhaps I don’t argue it well), they point out that Democratic presidents went into more wars than Republicans during the last century. And after that they’re bored, and we’re talking about the Cubs.

  25. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    the insane 27% of the base

    If the 27% of the electorate who are crazy were evenly distributed between the two parties it would result in 27% of the GOP base being crazy. As is, I suspect the real number is north of 50%.

  26. @Steven L. Taylor:

    To quote Heinlein, “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.”

  27. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Does “unnecessary casualties” include those killed by the police and the judicial system?

    At that point I was talking about my judgement, not election forecasts, so no. These are largely state and local issues. I personally wouldn’t count them against a prez.

    Allow me to suggest that you might want to add “quality of life of the bottom N%” to your criteria, for some value of N between 10 and 50. Different values can be argued, but GDP growth isn’t valuable if it isn’t making life better for people who don’t already have it good.

    My standard went back to Johnson when inequality was, rightly or wrongly, not much of an issue. Today I might consider adding change in the Gini coefficient or some other measure to my personal evaluation. Having said that, I don’t know that I wish to blame Obama for inaction by Congress. We really should tax rich people more, not as a matter of “fairness” but as an economic issue. I don’t see it happening with Hillary and a GOP Congress no matter how much she might want it.

  28. Andrew says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, but my point is that most people don’t approach politics in a calmly rational way (even though they likely think they do). And even when they try to reason their way through the process, motivating thinking and confirmation bias leads them to stick with their party/team.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    Unions, Country Clubs, Law firms, Doctor’s offices. These places, the more exclusive they are, are prime examples on how politics is team sorted.
    Oh, you want to join to play golf? Oh, sorry, I hear you vote (D).
    Oh, you want to join the union, but you vote (R)?

  29. DrDaveT says:

    @gVOR08:

    These are largely state and local issues.

    …in every state and locality. How is that not a national issue? Was slavery only a “state and local” issue? Just because the actual perps are state or local employees doesn’t make the issue itself local.

    I don’t know that I wish to blame Obama for inaction by Congress.

    I guess I don’t see how a President can be responsible for GDP growth, but not for changes in income distribution. It’s neither or both.

    …but that’s a good reason to not judge Presidents (solely) by outcomes. Bush isn’t culpable for the Iraq war because it turned out badly; he’s culpable because (a) he lied in order to be allowed to do it, and (b) every moderately sane observer knew at the time that it would turn out badly.

  30. Hal_10000 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    That’s a very good point. A lot of Trump voters I know are more in the “I’ve always voted Republican” camp than the “Trump is awesome” camp. When I left the Republican Party in 2004, it was hard because it was so much a part of my political identity.

  31. Tyrell says:

    1856 – one of the worst slate of candidates in history.
    Three of them – James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, and the irrepressible John Charles “The Pathfinder” Fremont.

  32. @Hal_10000: Identity is a strong force. Plus, most people get their partisan affiliations from their parents and then have them constantly reinforced by their friends, their church, etc.

  33. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: “…in every state and locality. How is that not a national issue?:

    Could it be because the Federal Government doesn’t set national standards for how police should be trained, appoint local judges, set standards judicial conduct or jury selection? I could go on, but I expect you’ve already either acknowledged or rejected my point.

    As to the fact that these things happen everywhere (although I really suspect that they probably do not occur as universally as we might suppose living in major metropolitan centers), that is more a problem with the humans living in the areas in question. Again, this is not a problem that the government has been particularly successful in addressing, It’s the same reason we can’t get more even income distribution–too many Jenoses and Guarnaris.

  34. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: I mistakenly left out JKB in paragraph three. My apologies.

  35. DrDaveT says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I could go on, but I expect you’ve already either acknowledged or rejected my point.

    Conceding in advance that your argument is unconvincing is an interesting rhetorical tactic. It’s certainly disarming :-).

    My point is that ALL civil rights issues are in this category — they are national problems that the bigots wish to characterize as local, isolated, a few bad apples, etc. The solution to slavery was not to treat it as a local issue. The solution to Jim Crow was not to treat it as a collection of local issues. “This is not a problem that the government has been particularly successful in addressing” is not a reason not to try — it’s a reason to try harder, to do better, to actually make a difference.

    How best to do that? That’s open to discussion. Federal standards for police training would almost certainly not be the right answer. Prosecution of police officers who kill in the absence of a legitimate threat would be a good start — get rid of the ridiculous “I felt threatened” defense. Active involvement of police associations, to make them either publicly defend the indefensible or join in the search for a solution, would be another. Standing around and saying “It’s a local issue” isn’t going to save any lives, on either side of the Thin Blue Line.

  36. Stormy Dragon says:

    @george:

    Its a lousy reason to vote for anyone, but most people just don’t care enough about politics to give it more than a passing thought; even going to the polling station is felt to be an imposition; to actually waste time (their words not mine) researching the candidates is beyond the pale.

    I don’t think it’s an issue of caring or not caring, it’s just a fundamental aspect of human psychology. For most of our evolution, we lived in small family-tribal groups. Even if your family-tribe was crap, you had to remain loyal to it because without it you were probably going to die. So most people have a drive that puts loyalty above reason that often ends up getting applied to groups like political parties, churches, etc.

    This frequently leads to all manner of problems in our modern more highly interconnected world, but it’s probably not something that can be fixed; it’s just part of the human condition.

  37. Zachriel says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Identity is a strong force.

    Sure. Group identity is a strong force, but political considerations will still lead people to be loyal to party. For instance, if someone is anti-abortion, and even though Trump is ambiguous on the issue, the person may still vote Republican because they are the best alternative. A Republican president strengthens and emboldens anti-abortion Republicans.

  38. Tillman says:

    @george:

    The example of Bush going to war doesn’t convince many (perhaps I don’t argue it well), they point out that Democratic presidents went into more wars than Republicans during the last century.

    Yeah, but one was a good war and the other was a bad war, so they cancel out. Last century? That’s rather broad, ain’t it?

  39. george says:

    @Tillman:

    Last century? That’s rather broad, ain’t it?

    Most of them are middle aged or older (as am I), the last few decades have gone by in a blur. The Vietnam war still feels recent (but the Korean War and of course WW2 are long ago, and WW1 is just history).

    That sounds flippant, but for those who don’t follow politics its the natural reaction. I don’t follow much hockey, so I’m still thinking of Gretzky when I think of it; intellectually I know he’s retired, but that’s an after thought.

    Most people just aren’t political. 40% don’t even bother voting, and I’d guess half of those who do barely spend more than a day thinking about it before they’re in the booth – and that includes very well educated people who just find politics boring (no different than not following science is what one of my friends says, a physics prof, except that nature affects us much stronger than politics does given that we’re physical beings).

    This is a political blog, so for us politics is both interesting and important. Lots of people disagree on both counts, so for them what happened several decades ago is as current as Gretzky is to me on hockey. Trying to explain how the parties have changed since then gets a reaction not unlike what they’d get if they tried to explain the changes in say quantum physics since then – glazed over eyes as soon as it got even a bit technical.

  40. @Zachriel: I think this is true. Although I also think that being “pro-life” or “pro-choice” is also an identity issue in many cases.

  41. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Plus, most people get their partisan affiliations from their parents

    I don’t doubt that this is true, but it sounds really weird to those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s.

  42. @DrDaveT:

    I don’t doubt that this is true, but it sounds really weird to those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s.

    But it was true then, as well, in the aggregate. Sure, there were any number of counter-culture movements and there are always individual examples of kids rebelling against their parents’ beliefs. Still, most basic belief structures are passed down from parent to child, especially politics and religion.

    Heck, my kids are Dallas Cowboys and Texas Longhorn fans because I am, despite having grown up in Alabama (two of them having been born here) and despite the fact that Dallas in particular has stunk during most of the time they have been alive.

  43. And I am not being flippant about the sports team example. It is an interesting example of how deep attachments can be made when one is young that can make up one’s identity. And if we look at, say, college football in the South, or Yanks-Sox, etc., affiliation with teams can be a major element of identity.