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Larry Jacobs questions the belief that Donald Trump is unelectable

Larry Jacobs
University of Minnesota
Larry Jacobs

In a presentation Wednesday night at Carleton College about the 2016 presidential campaign, University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs poured quite a bit of cold water on the widespread belief in some Democratic Party circles that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is unelectable because he is behind in many current matchup-polls against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, because he does poorly among women and because so many Republicans are openly stating that they cannot support him.

Splash of cold water #1, on the idea that current polls show that Trump trails badly: Jacobs said the margin by which Clinton leads Trump in an average of recent polls is similar to the margin by which Ronald Reagan trailed Jimmy Carter in the Gallup Poll in 1980, Bill Clinton trailed George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Barack Obama trailed John McCain in 2008, all at roughly the stage in those campaigns comparable to the current stage of this year’s campaigns. (I assume you know, Reagan, Clinton and Obama all won those races.) Polls are not destiny, and especially not six months before Election Day.

Splash #2, on the idea that his lack of appeal to female voters dooms Trump: Jacobs pointed to a recent Quinnipiac Poll of the race in Florida, in which Clinton led Trump by 13 percentage points among women. A lot more people seemed to think this was a big deal than the number who noticed that Trump is benefitting, in the same poll, from what Jacobs called a “reverse gender gap,” a 13-percent lead for Trump among men. In a recent Ohio Quinnipiac Poll, Clinton led by 7 points among women but Trump led by 15 among men.

Splash #3, on the dislike being expressed by many Republicans toward Trump: Jacobs said his reading of recent political developments suggests that it’s hard to overstate the power of partisan loyalty in recent elections. He described the power as a “tractor beam,” an unfamiliar term to me. Wikipedia tells me a tractor beam is “A device with the ability to attract one object to another from a distance. The concept originates in fiction: the term was coined by E. E. Smith (an update of his earlier ‘attractor beam’”) in his novel “Spacehounds of IPC,” a novel with which, I confess, I was also unfamiliar.

But Jacobs’ point, one gathers, is that a lot of people may say they won’t vote for the nominee of the party they usually support, but as Election Day approaches, and the tractor beam kicks into full power, most of them in this period of political history return to their party’s ticket, even if they have to hold their noses a bit.

Jacobs’ short talk, and similar 2016 election talks by three other visiting political scientists, was part of an event honoring Steve Schier, the long-time Carleton political scientist who has announced his retirement at the end of current academic year. During my embarrassingly many years scribbling about politics, Schier was one of the academics who generally made himself available when a journalist needed the benefit of his expertise and was unfailingly helpful. This ink-stained wretch wishes him the best in the next chapter of his story.

This link will get you an overview of Schier’s life and career, plus a short video of him summarizing the findings of a book he wrote on the previous presidential election cycle.

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Comments (37)

  1. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 05/12/2016 - 09:55 am.

    If you only read headlines, you might have a belief that Trump is unelectable. But various sources with decent track records (prediction markets, analytic sites like 538, more thoughtful journalists) have consistently stated it as Trump being a big underdog– but that underdogs do sometimes win. Especially if external events happen late in the cycle (terrorist attack, natural disaster, economic shock, etc). So I’m fairly confident that Clinton will win– but that’s a far cry from Trump being unelectable. Weird stuff happens.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/12/2016 - 10:01 am.


    Who is questioning the belief that Hillary is unelectable?

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/12/2016 - 10:18 am.

    “Larry Jacobs poured quite a bit of cold water on the widespread belief in some Democratic Party circles that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is unelectable because he is behind in many current matchup-polls against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, because he does poorly among women and because so many Republicans are openly stating that they cannot support him.”

    Can Mr. Jacobs point to one single Democrat is willing to say this, or who even thinks it?

    “Splash of cold water #1, on the idea that current polls show that Trump trails badly”

    It’s hard to imagine andexperienced politician thinking national polls matter this early. Particularly in this electoral season where polls have performed badly.

    “Splash #2, on the idea that his lack of appeal to female voters dooms Trump:”

    Republican women will come home to the Republican Party. Again this is something no Democrat doubts.

    “Splash #3, on the dislike being expressed by many Republicans toward Trump:”

    The Party of Palin will find a way of rationalizing away their dislike. And in this regard, the Democratic Party isn’t helped by the fact that we are nominating a candidate who is also widely disliked, and who whose weaknesses disturbingly match up to Trump’s strengths. In an election where the Republicans are nominating a candidate who couldn’t possibly be more in tune with the mood of the electorate, Democrats could not have found a candidate less in tune with that mood.

    Given these pretty straightforward realities. no Democrat, anywhere, who has given any real thought to what is before us, could possibly think that electing Hillary isn’t perhaps the biggest, most difficult, and the most important electoral challenge we have ever faced.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/12/2016 - 11:25 am.

      “no Democrat, anywhere, who has given any real thought”

      You’re the only one, Hiram, bringing any thoughtfulness to this matter – at least among the Democrats I hear.

      All the other Democrats, especially the Clintonistas, are whistling in the dark, hoping that if they make enough noise walking down this dark alley, the bogeyman won’t get them.

      They also figure it helps to ridicule anyone who speaks of the serious flaws of Clinton as a candidate. There’s quite a lot of that here on Minnpost.

      Trump could win this election, all right.

      Aside from the usual banter, there’s one little thing no one wants to talk about: the possibility that maybe a Clinton staffer would be indicted in this email snafu. This might have a big impact. Like most everyone, I figure Clinton herself has no criminal liability. But staff who may have gone a little too far in protecting her interests might be another story. There were some interesting observations by a former judge on the recent developments

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/12/2016 - 03:36 pm.

      Many Here

      It seems to me that many here comment that there is no way Trump can win.

      If Hillary needs to pull further to the Left to secure those ranks, I’ll end up voting for Trump. And since Trump is happy to court the center now that he has tied up the Right side voters. This should make for an interesting Fall.

  4. Submitted by Pat Berg on 05/12/2016 - 10:24 am.

    Tractor beam

    Not a big Star Trek fan, eh, Eric? 😉

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/12/2016 - 11:04 am.

      Beat me to the holodeck…

      Ah, yes, back to “The Black Hole.” where phasers have no effect and tractor beams fail.

      Nice grab from the transporter, Pat!

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/16/2016 - 11:54 am.

      Reverse Thrusters!

      I have to confess that I read the entire E. E. Smith series when I was a kid. Good stuff!

  5. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 05/12/2016 - 10:31 am.


    How in the world did Eric Black, a notably bright and well read fellow, get this far in life without knowing way a “tractor beam” is? I’m astonished!

  6. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 05/12/2016 - 10:33 am.

    Tractor beam

    “tractor beam” : see Stanley Hubbard’s comments yesterday about jumping on the Trump bandwagon.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/12/2016 - 11:02 am.


    One reason I’m not actually a democrat, although I tend to vote for democrats, is that parties astonishing ability to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory. I don’t believe in my lifetime I’ve ever seen this unique ability on such fantastic display as in this election cycle (Although Kerry, Mr. I was against it before I was for it, comes pretty close). If Trump gets into the White House is will be simply because the democrats absolutely refused to run their strongest candidate, and instead actually ran their weakest candidate.

    I wonder sometimes if Clinton democrats originally dismissed Clinton’s weakness under the assumption that republicans couldn’t produce a stronger candidate. The focus seemed to be on getting Clinton into the White House rather than winning the election per se.

    Also, I think it’s kind of strange that no one is talking about the fact that Sanders has consistently polled stronger than Clinton in match-ups with Trump. And in New Hampshire, Sanders specifically pulled in those voters who were leaning towards Trump.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/12/2016 - 12:40 pm.

      And Don’t Forget

      1988, when Dukakis managed to lose handily to the first G. Bush. Or 2000 when Gore lost his home state (and not to Nadar), then let James Baker steal Florida for Bush. Baker said, “The votes have been counted, and re-counted…” when they hadn’t even been counted once.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/12/2016 - 04:06 pm.

      The fact that

      Sanders polls well against Trump -now-, when he hasn’t faced any serious attacks compared to those against Clinton, doesn’t mean that he would do as well after what will be a vicious election campaign.

      • Submitted by Phil Dech on 05/13/2016 - 10:06 am.

        Good point.

        Trump hasn’t really been put under the microscope yet either, though. Nobody has really put his feet to the fire yet, IMHO. Whereas Clinton has been in the crosshairs for decades, hard to imagine much new coming to light.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/13/2016 - 10:50 am.

        See, this is the problem…

        Clinton supporters have been bragging about how tough Clinton is going to be since the beginning. The problem is those bragging rights seem to emerge exclusively from her Benghazi testimony and ignore the fact that after 30 years of attacks, she’s the most disliked, un-trusted, and divisive candidate in the field other than Trump. And in the beginning she was even more distrusted and disliked than Trump.

        You could brag about her ability to withstand attacks IF she had emerged from 30 years of attacks as a beloved, trusted, and unifying candidate, but as it is, you have to admit that she’d while she’s survived attacks, she’s not overcome them.

        Meanwhile, when Clinton announced her new take no prisoners attack strategy against Sanders in New York, it blew up in her face, Sanders fought back, and Clinton supporters started whining out the awful attacks Sanders was launching in response. Some bunch of tough guys. Whatever.

        • Submitted by Phil Dech on 05/13/2016 - 11:31 am.

          I guess my point is

          that it is hard to see the dial moving much in either direction for Clinton, but it is a wild card what people would think of either Sanders or Trump once the full-bore, white hot scrutiny of these next few months hits them.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/13/2016 - 01:34 pm.

            I take your point but…

            Know quantities aren’t the best candidates when they’re “known” for being disliked, divisive, and distrusted. After months of this debate it’s clear that Clinton and her supporters were completely unprepared for the response she’s been getting on the left. Supporters seem to have assumed that the quantity Clinton is “known” for was universally their perspective which was one that ignored huge failings and weaknesses.

            Clinton is going to need to move the dial, right now she’s uncomfortably close to a dead heat with Trump. Sanders starts out with several advantages and none of the baggage. Sanders has been winning elections for various offices for decades, he obviously knows a thing or two about fending off attacks.

            The other problem is the assumption that any campaign against Clinton is going to be based on known avenues of attack rather than some other strategy. Trump isn’t ideological, he’ll just do whatever works. I think the idea that Clinton wins simply by fending off attacks instead of offering a popular and compelling vision of her own is very dangerous campaign assumption.

  8. Submitted by Doug Gray on 05/12/2016 - 11:17 am.


    Were you out of the country or something in the late 60s? If so here’s some more phrases for you: “Beam me up, Scotty.” “Fascinating.” “He’s dead, Jim.” “I canna’ change the laws of physics, Captain.”

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/16/2016 - 12:01 pm.

      Stop The Ship, I Want Off!

      Too much LDS in the ’60s?

      I’d cut Eric a little slack. Unless you’re exposed to a particular genre, you don’t get it when someone else brings it up in conversation. I was steeped in the lore of Asimov, Heinlein, and Niven as I grew up, but I would be hard pressed to recognize the nuances of the Japanese anime or latest pop singers people tap into these days. We all have our areas of popular culture we fawn over and those that never cross our daily lives.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/12/2016 - 11:22 am.

    Jumping on the wagon

    I, too, am more than a little surprised that Eric had no idea what a “Tractor Beam” is/was. I’ve not read that particular sci-fi novel, either, but it would be hard to avoid “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” over the past few decades, and both series feature “tractor beams.”

    As for Trump’s presumed unelectability, one need only look a few hundred miles to the south, where Kansas voters, despite piles of evidence to the contrary, elected Sam Brownback as Governor, a man whose economic proposals made no sense before he was elected, and whose economic expertise doesn’t even rise to the excruciatingly-low Trumpian standard. Kansas is now a kind of slow-motion economic catastrophe, with state agencies gutted, school districts closing up shop weeks early for lack of funding, and assorted other manifestations of the foolishness of supply-side tax cuts as a remedy for all things economic.

    What makes Trump’s election a concern in this household is not his goofy notions about policy, nor his misogyny, nor his ignorance of other cultures, nor his blatant racism, though all of those things ought to keep him from the Oval Office. In just about every way except chronology, Trump is a child. What’s concerning about his likely nomination by the GOP is that it’s already obvious that many Republicans, perhaps reflexively, as Larry Jacobs suggests, will probably vote for him. He could become the next President if things fall in what I humbly consider to be the wrong way, and should that come to pass, the nation and its people will suffer greatly as a result.

    • Submitted by Paul Copeland on 05/12/2016 - 04:10 pm.

      Brownbeck Example

      The most scary part about the Governor Sam Brownback example, is that after he did a tremendous amount of obvious damage to just about everything in the state, he was Re-Elected.

  10. Submitted by Mark Kulda on 05/12/2016 - 11:27 am.

    Regardless of what anybody think’s about Eric Black’s opinion…

    …the fact is that Steven Schier is hands down one of the best political scientists anywhere. He has the uncanny ability to take very complicated political issues and boil them down to very understandable concepts. Even though he is an Iowa native, he is a Minnesota treasure and we will sorely miss him in his retirement. We should all wish him well!

  11. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/12/2016 - 11:51 am.

    How Many Treks?

    Can’t remember the number of original TV episodes, later series episodes or even film releases; but, I do know one may intermix allusions in any Star Trek story.

    Trump has trekked through 16 primary opponents of the conventional kind to be presumptive/presumptuous nominee. That’s a significant record in jousting tilts, where strength of armor beats luster every time. For many marginalized Republicans, this is The Merry Month of May (ahem).

    The RNC is so nervous in its stodgy ranks it’s now attempting to tantalize Trump with money and other gratuity. Don’t/won’t these guys understand they are the sub-contractors on this project? Sure, Trump needs their cooperation and expertise in completing the job. He will use their money and directed expertise. He also knows that subs can be replaced if necessary in meeting completion dates.

    Everyone must finally admit that Donald Trump is the Prime contractor here. Let’s think about project status come September, after conventions and vacations, when all are back at work.

    Frankly, the DNC also needs to re-organize itself to create a contemporary campaign for 2016. They can find no comfort in looking back to ’08 or ’12 to those flawed opponents. Democrats are no longer what they once were, either. Old strategies may finally prove to be, well…old and outdated.

  12. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/12/2016 - 12:18 pm.

    Or, summed up in two words:

    Jesse Ventura

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/12/2016 - 06:52 pm.

      The difference is

      that no one took Jesse seriously — they voted for him as ‘none of the above’ with no expectation that he would get a significant number of votes. A lot of people, if they had an opportunity to vote again the next day, would not have voted for him.

  13. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/12/2016 - 01:14 pm.

    Of course, nothing is impossible

    What provoked the German people, generally seen as rational and sensible, to allow the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Many were fearful and angry about the direction was going, so they picked people who said and did what their small minds ago. Reestablish German world domination by use of force. The result- millions of unnecessary deaths and years of massive suffering caused by an immoral bully with no tolerance for dissent. Is our situation vastly different from that. The elephant in the room is the end of democracy as we have know it and another world war, possibility. Enough to wipe all the gains over the last 75 years.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/16/2016 - 12:03 pm.


      Wiping out 75 years of gains could seem like small potatoes if Trump wins. He would have his finger on the Button, which has the potential to wipe out 50,000 years of progress.

  14. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/12/2016 - 01:36 pm.

    I’m going to continue to trust the American voter to not elect an unstable fascist demagogue like Trump in the fall. That there is still a healthy, attentive, constructive majority of voters out there who recognize that the better candidate of the two, by far, is Hillary Clinton.

    The danger? That the Sanders flock will refuse to choose reality over a lost fantasy, and sit out the election in a pout. That they won’t see that there is a huge difference between Democratic ideals shared by Sanders and Clinton, and the mishmosh of undigested nasty sound bites in a pretend Republican like the loud-mouth name-caller who is “the presumptive candidate” for the GOP.

  15. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/12/2016 - 03:45 pm.


    “One reason I’m not actually a democrat, although I tend to vote for democrats, is that parties astonishing ability to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory.”

    I don’t rule out entirely that there are advocates of complacency within the Democratic Party, who make it their business to whisper into the ear of political science professors,” We’ve got it made. Hillary is beloved by the nation. Nearly losing the nomination to a blowhard, 74 year old socialist was nothing more than a statistical anomaly, and we have the newspaper polls to prove it.” Like unicorns, just because I have neither seen or heard of such people doesn’t prove they don’t exist. But the fact that Donald Trump has swept away a multitude of not awful GOP candidates should be significant to Democrats whose candidate barely won a one woman race.

    Republicans have nominated a candidate people hate. Democrats have nominated a candidate people just dislike. Among other things, it will be interesting to see which is worse in a general election, to be actively hated or indifferently disliked.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/12/2016 - 06:54 pm.


      is the strongest motivator.
      More people fear Trump’s election than fear Clinton’s.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/13/2016 - 08:23 am.


      Dude, the democrats that are going to nominate the most distrusted, un-liked, and divisive democratic candidate in American history are not mythical beings. Unicorns don’t vote in primaries. As for you’re description, I’ve been talking/arguing, and attacked by such democrats for months now. It never occurred to me to call them Unicorns.

      And the idea that Clinton is the most electable candidate because people are less afraid of her than Trump is a perfect example of the kind of obtuse political reasoning that has cost democrats soooooo many perfectly winnable elections. Instead of running a candidate that almost no one is afraid of…. lets run the candidate that people are afraid of… but just barely less afraid of than the republican.

      By he way, Trump has in fact defeated a host of awful candidates. The problem with republicans is that their party is simply incapable of producing capable candidates that are not prone magical thinking or possessed of toxic personalities. Any truly talented candidate could defeat Trump. Let’s not lower the bar even further by elevating Trump’s status. It was a matter of time before someone recognized the weakness of the republican party and exploited it, the success lay in the weakness of the party, not the genius of the exploitation. And likewise, the fact that a competent candidate could defeat Trump, brings us back to the anxieties about Clinton, who is NOT a competent or strong candidate.

  16. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 05/12/2016 - 06:06 pm.

    Left out of Mr Jacobs’ reasoning and the above comments

    Is the role of the media.

    There is a piece in Vox this week by a David Roberts that lays out incisively the role that the establishment media must and will play in elevating Mr Trump’s candidacy. His thesis is one variant of Both Siderism, namely,that our “political ecology” is predicated on the model of two essentially equal sides “clashing endlessly,” and that there are “entire classes of professionals” whose livelihoods depend on this. It has to do with income flows and it has to do with the cognitive framing that always comes to align itself with income flows. Accordingly, it is not possible for the media to recognize that there is one credible candidate (whether you agree with her policies or not) and one candidate who simply is not legitimate by any standard. Thus, he says, there will be a “tidal pull” to “normalize” the election by erecting a scaffolding of legitimacy around Mr. Trump while elevating each salacious item about Ms Clinton to ensure that the question of legitimacy is just another thing that “Both Sides” can debate. And, I would add, once there are two candidates deemed qualitatively equivalent, and where a large proportion of voters are uninformed, unthoughtful and swayed by the irrational, anything can decide an election .

    The counterbalance to this is that those whom the establishment media serve – those with most of the wealth and power – want, most of all, someone who will provide the stability that preserves the efficacy of their prerogatives, and that means Ms Clinton, even though many won’t say that out loud. How these conflicting drives play out in the media coverage will be consequential.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/12/2016 - 09:30 pm.

      On target again, Mr. Holtman

      That’s pretty much what those Wall Street speeches earned. It’s pretty clear both candidates are wrapped up in money, just a matter of which is scrutinized more than the other. I’m sure both would say they truly “earned it.”

  17. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 05/14/2016 - 07:58 am.

    Jacob’s chatter, relevant…really?

    How tyrants come to power could be illustrated by the silly wordplay of Jacobs… voicing the political?

    Or is he just one more of how many game-players that avoid saying anything more than words that titillate…nothing more?

    The people respond because it.s funny maybe, who knows?

    Or maybe it’s just more of the same, Minnesota Nice accepting too often a silly spoof that avoids the issues which arise in a nation that is heading for what in its catatonic state of self denial could be tyranny in the Oval Room, soon; too soon??

    Political games fester as Trump;s historian, butler advocates the death of Obama with a smile on his face,,,. BBC covers it well and the media keeps on smiling unable to call a future tyrant, a tyrant in the making? Who put those words in his ‘butler’s mouth…one guess is sufficient; it’s not the butler, eh?.

  18. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/22/2016 - 06:37 am.


    As of this moment, and before we take this any further, Democrats must ask themselves a different question then one raised by this article. We need to ask ourselves, is Hillary electable?

    At this critical moment in our history, have are we in the process of choosing a candidate who is simply not politically viable? Are we making the largest, most massive error in political judgment that is humanly possible?

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