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Presidential race driving you crazy? Here’s help

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Protesters disrupting a Donald Trump rally in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday.

A few thoughts on where the presidential race stands and how to think about it in the short- and medium-term future. Maybe I should call this whole thing “Note to Myself to Keep from Going Crazy,” but if you find any of it helpful, it’s a note to you too.

Thought 1: Spend less time looking at poll numbers. They don’t tell the future. The history is full of candidates who looked like losers in May and ended up winners, and vice versa.

The latest polls are estimates only of the evanescent present, and they are inherently fuzzy estimates of that. If you take the margin for error seriously (which, of course, we all should, but seldom do), they generally show a statistical Trump-Clinton tie. Even when they don’t, at their best they measure a passing moment that has passed by the time the data reaches you.

Not that long ago, the polls suggested Trump was unelectable. Some Democrats even hoped he would be nominated because he couldn’t possibly win. Be careful what you hope for.  Now it’s a margin-of-error race, according to most polls.

But a bigger error, outside the margin, is to forget that even at their best, they are not predictive.

Thought 1A: If you must obsess on the polls anyway (which I recommend against), here is the big factor that renders the current Trump-Clinton numbers particularly evanescent:

Donald Trump, against all expectations (which underscores the main theme about thinking you can know the future), has consolidated the support of most Republicans. This happened incredibly quickly after the previous understanding — that many Republicans could not and would not unify around Trump — was the common wisdom (and I use the term “wisdom” facetiously).

On the other hand, among Democrats who currently support Bernie Sanders, a growing portion are telling pollsters that they will not support Hillary Clinton if she is the nominee. According to Nate Cohn, the New York Times political number cruncher, in April 71-82 percent of Sanders supporters said they would support Clinton if she is the Dem nominee. In May, that range has dropped to 55-72 percent.

That’s a reasonably big drop and is obviously being produced, to a significant extent, by anger among Sanders supporters over the feeling that they and Bernie are not being treated fairly as they press to keep alive Sanders’ narrow path to the nomination. This is understandable and normal.

History suggests that many or most of them will eventually, perhaps with little enthusiasm, vote for the Democratic nominee. (Some will vote the Green Party ticket. Some will not vote. Very few will vote for Trump.) But most will, and Sanders will encourage them to vote strategically, which will mean an anti-Trump vote for Clinton. Until that shakes out, the current polling tells us even less than current polling usually does about what will happen in November. This was one of the main points of the Cohn piece I cited above.

Thought 2 is captured by two Churchill quotes: To fools like me, these two somewhat contradictory quotes have been taking up space in my brain for decades, so long, in fact, that I’ve gradually come to learn that one of them Winston Churchill never said, and the other he did say, but attributed it to a source that he didn’t specify. In other words, neither one of them is really a Churchill quote. They capture the blessing and curse of democracy.

The first one of them (the one no one can authenticate as having ever been said by Churchill) goes like this:

“The strongest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Trump is a liar, an egotist, a bully, a sexist and a racist. Or maybe he’s just pretending to be. He has never communicated a set of policy ideas that makes sense or that survives follow-up questions, which he generally deflects with bluster.

When one of his previous utterances becomes inconvenient, he either changes the policy, refuses to accept responsibility for it, or changes the subject. It’s hard to tell whether this is the real him, or just a role he developed for present purposes.

He now has the support of many normal Republicans who once swore they would never be for him and millions more who have always been for him but cannot, in the course of a five-minute discussion, make a coherent case for voting for him based on actual policies or actual things he has done or said. Perhaps the best explanation of this is captured in a smart piece by Walter Russell Mead. The core of Trump’s support are Americans who feel that they have seen who Democrats favor and seen who establishment Republicans favor, and none of it is good for them. They want something else that will be good for them and, for the moment at least, Trump has convinced them that he gets it and will do that.

Neither Trump nor any of his growing body of more normal-seeming surrogates can make clear how that will work,  but the rules of our discourse somehow get in the way of making this as plain as it needs to be made.

My life’s training as a journalist tells me that the most helpful way to handle a situation like this is to keep asking substantive questions and pointing out the problems with his previous earlier answers. But this doesn’t work in this case. Plus that method depends on the now-shredded assumption that a candidate in this condition will either develop some answers or be forced to slink off the stage and not come back until he has some answers. That assumption, apparently, is soooo 20th century.

The second quote, which Churchill actually did say, on the floor of Parliament, but of which he didn’t identify the source, is this:

“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Translation: Notwithstanding the deranged obloquy and vituperation above, if Trump does win 270 electoral votes, he gets to be president and gets control of the nuclear launch codes and we will just to have to hope, notwithstanding everything above, that he has just been pretending to be a reckless jerk.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/26/2016 - 09:32 am.

    Once again

    Most Americans are intellectually lazy
    They would rather accept something that they like on faith than analyze whether it is possible.
    As for your last paragraph, there is always impeachment. As the Republicans demonstrated, it is never too early to start talking about it.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/26/2016 - 09:41 am.

    Summer Landscape Project

    I know political junkies require periodic fixes, just like any other dependent group. Maybe it is too long to the conventions…but not for those of us who can wait for Party parades and platforms. Nothing really matters much between now and then, except the media need to feed its beast. The gruel is getting thinner by the day, it seems.

    There are no tickets to talk about, yet, no planks to inspect with respect to constructive issues. Groaning and moaning now changes nothing. Perhaps we should all take a long June holiday, refresh our systems and return for July fireworks, when all this current smoke clears rather more.

    I’m really disappointed that this space has given us current DNC abstraction of “nuclear launch codes.”
    Maybe current polling does matter right now, as that particular bit of Democrat derangement suggests. As for “deranged obloquy,” this old guy needs to do some more reading to come up to speed on that. It seems we are suffering several strains of plain old obloquy so far. Nice close.

    Keep those MinnFires burning, Eric.

    [Little did any of us know that “pivot West” meant toward California. How ironic, yes?]

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/26/2016 - 10:23 am.


    1. Quit Facebook. That will take care of about 90 percent of the problem. I was planning to re-join after the election, but I really don’t miss it.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/26/2016 - 10:51 am.

      Re: Advice

      Agreed. Political discussions on Facebook degenerate into flame-sessions within seconds, so I try to be diligent when it comes to not getting involved in them.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/26/2016 - 06:56 pm.

      Early About-Face for Me

      After trying Facebook for awhile in its early days, I decided to check my suspicion the site was (then) a data mining operation for Mr. Z & Co., so I checked the particulars of unsubscribing.

      I was given two options in fine print: Cancel my subscription with the option to re-join…while Facebook kept all my personal data at its disposal; Cancel my subscription, have all personal data scrubbed from its cyber vault, but never be allowed to re-join. Very fine print, indeed.

      That pretty much verified my suspicion. I rushed toward the fire escape behind door #2. Consequently, I have little sympathy for those concerned by recent revelations. Mr. Z, (to me) is not an honest broker.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/27/2016 - 10:13 am.


        I loved Facebook at first. It was great to connect with old friends. Then, after awhile, I realized why I had lost touch with most of them in the first place. A christmas card would have been enough in most cases.

        I wonder if under door number 2 the information really gets scrubbed. I think “not an honest broker” is actually a pretty charitable term for Zuckerberg.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/26/2016 - 02:21 pm.

    Trump’s resurgence

    Before Trump finally won enough primaries and delegates to become the presumptive R. nominee, i read somewhere (Minnpost?) that he would enjoy a resurgence among Republicans (as Larry Jacobs predicted might happen) and then that he would begin polling within margin of error distance of winning this horse race. Of course, you can’t believe polls, but the polls drive the pols you might say and also their frenetic pleas for money. It’s the “sky is falling’ desperate sounding pleas for money that drives me crazy.

    Minnpost is an island of sanity in this sea of chaos and confusion. I think it is, primarily by keeping focus on how the media itself creates a funhouse mirror (or lens) which no one can see anything clearly or in perspective. That’s what we have lost by the decline of our relatively short experiment with the “main stream media” which at least paid lip service to responsible journalism. So, Eric, Brianna, Laurie, etc. please keep up the great work!

    In the past few months I’ve been reading C. Wright Mills, (The Power Elite) and some of those he influenced, like Robert McChesney, on the mass, mass media, the control of money and advertising in politics. Seeing what is happening, it’s clearer to me now that for many of us, citizens, especially who get information from TV and radio, the tsunami of disconnected factoids which are blasted at our senses make it simply impossible to process and make much rational sense of. Many of us don’t. Trump knows this and has been validated by the visceral reaction he has elicited from those who support him. It’s impossible foe me to contemplate Trump actually winning this election. But if he does, it will be a long time before anyone can explain to me how or why other than to say in hindsight that whatever he did, “it worked.”

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/28/2016 - 11:35 am.

      Very good points

      It will also be valuable to get (if possible) some objectively solid views of exactly how “anti-establishment” sentiment of boomers and non-establishment indifference of millennials produced whatever outcome in November. I do not know now just what role Gen X is playing in current affairs.

      An element also worth review will be whatever influence European popular messaging may have played. Very little mention is made of this strong anti-Trump social/political reaction, particularly in Britain where it is quite energized. I wonder how much global social messaging factors in all of this, particularly regarding Trump and Sanders. Their “types” are fairly typical of many parliamentary contests throughout Europe, but not major races here.

      Whatever we do ultimately learn about 2016, I must believe now the general mood in America is one of “anti-stasis.” To me, all three leading candidates represent the gnawing feeling that life is generally going nowhere right now. More than usually, each one seems to represent resurrection more than anything else.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/27/2016 - 08:14 am.

    It’s a democracy.If the

    It’s a democracy.

    If the majority of voters decide to take you over Niagra Falls in a leaky lead canoe, you are along for the ride. They’ll get wet, too.

    We have passed several critical turning points in the functioning of our physical world — inevitable and immense climate change, the ultimate antibiotic resistant bacteria, and pandemics like zika–where the inadequacy and wrongness of the politics of Trump and his party are stripped of their shiny rhetoric and laid bare to die like they should.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/27/2016 - 08:43 am.

      Not Quite June

      It’s actually a republic of plurality. Anyone getting into a leaky lead canoe in the first place should not expect everyone else to provide rescue. The view from the tow path is usually just as good, if not better, certainly safer.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/28/2016 - 09:52 am.

        Sorry Jim, you and everyone else in the world are in the canoe. This is not a time to have a petty chiseler-in-chief.

  6. Submitted by Seth Leavitt on 05/28/2016 - 10:38 am.

    I wish your advice was different

    Your title “Presidential race driving you crazy? Here’s help” gave me hope.
    I need help.
    I am so tired of the “news” being all about the presidential race.

    I was hoping you would say, “Ignore it (the race)”.
    Then I was hoping some of your colleagues would follow that advice.

    Oh well – hopes dashed (once again).
    I guess I’ll just have to keep hoping.

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