On Trump, tractor beams — and the power of a surprising editorial

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Wednesday.

I don’t claim to understand how the boorish, mendacious, unqualified, incoherent Mr. Trump is, at least according to the polls, still in the race for president. In fact, according to most recent polling pending the post-debate polling, Trump was closing the gap on his opponent. I know various theories of how this is happening, but none of them add up in what’s left of my brain.

My friend Larry Jacobs — the U of M political scientist, in what turned out to be prescient prediction — said back in May, when many pundits viewed Trump as unelectable, that the race would tighten and remain close mostly because of what he called the “tractor beam” of partisanship. I won’t go into the origins, which have something to do with “Star Trek,” but a “tractor beam” is a very powerful magnetic force of attraction that, in Jacobs’ metaphor, draws voters back to their traditional party whether or not they like the party’s nominee.

We spend a lot of time analyzing the latest ad or gaffe or change of position by the candidates. But the overwhelming majority of voters are either Democrats who always vote for the Democratic nominee or Republicans who always vote for the Republican. And this trend has increased during our lifetimes.

Decline of the swing voter

Research by Michigan State Political Scientist Corwin Smidt suggests that from the 1960s to now, the portion of the electorate that regularly votes but doesn’t always vote for the same party (we usually call them “swing voters,” Smidt calls them “floating voters”) has declined fairly consistently over recent cycles and drifted down from about 15 percent in the mid-1960s to about 5 percent in 2012. (There’s a chart in this Washington Post piece that tracks that decline.)

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this, some of which revolve around the general polarization of the parties. But that connects to what Jacobs called the “tractor beam.” Trump does have passionate supporters, but when I run into people who plan to vote for him, their main reason is not that Trump would be a good president but that Hillary Clinton would be worse. That may have something to do with her personal negatives, but I believe it’s mostly a statement that the most important thing is to get the Democrats out of power and keep them out. Trump depends very heavily on the tractor beam to hold those voters, many of whom will vote for him with one hand while holding their nose with the other (and, if they had a third hand, crossing their fingers and hoping he doesn’t blow up the world).

I guess the “tractor beam” analysis must be true, but it is hard to square with the steady stream of famous, lifelong Republicans  who are willing to say publicly that they cannot and will not vote for Trump (plus at least one of the two living former Republican presidents who has said the same privately, but not publicly).

The tractor beam is working for Hillary Clinton, too. She is not every Democrat’s first choice. In fact, some polls suggest that the main threat to her candidacy is not that Democrats will vote for Trump, but that many, especially millennials, might vote for Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson or Green Party nominee Jill Stein. At least a lot of them say so now. Conventional political science wisdom is that those minor candidates usually fade in the stretch as more and more ambivalent supporters succumb to the “wasted vote” argument.

The surprise Arizona Republic editorial

But those Republicans who are held by the power of the beam are certainly getting plenty of messages Trump’s special awfulness is reason enough to break free of the beam, just this once. And so, the reason I went down this path this morning is that yesterday the Arizona Republic newspaper, which has been publishing since 1890 and has never endorsed a Democrat, yesterday endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

I’m no big fan of editorials. I’d rather know the name of the person or persons who are trying to influence my opinions and the idea that a newspaper, as an “institution” has an opinion that is arrived at in secret by a small group in a back room doesn’t work for me.

Still, the Republic’s endorsement, given the paper’s century-long track record, got my attention and even more so the strength of the denouncement of Trump it contained.

Read the whole endorsement editorial here, or, if you don’t, here are a few outtakes:

The challenges the United States faces domestically and internationally demand a steady hand, a cool head and the ability to think carefully before acting. Hillary Clinton understands this. Donald Trump does not. Clinton has the temperament and experience to be president. Donald Trump does not. …

Despite her flaws, Clinton is the superior choice. She does not casually say things that embolden our adversaries and frighten our allies. Her approach to governance is mature, confident and rational. That cannot be said of her opponent. …

Clinton retains her composure under pressure. She’s tough. She doesn’t back down. Trump responds to criticism with the petulance of verbal spit wads. That’s beneath our national dignity. When the president of the United States speaks, the world expects substance. Not a blistering tweet. …

Trump’s long history of objectifying women and his demeaning comments about women during the campaign are not just good-old-boy gaffes. They are evidence of deep character flaws. They are part of a pattern. Trump mocked a reporter’s physical handicap. Picked a fight with a Gold Star family. Insulted POWs. Suggested a Latino judge can’t be fair because of his heritage. Proposed banning Muslim immigration. Each of those comments show a stunning lack of human decency, empathy and respect. Taken together they reveal a candidate who doesn’t grasp our national ideals.

With apologies to my editorial-writer friends for making so many snide comments about the whole “editorial” institution, I also don’t much believe that they are very influential. But a recent Washington Post analysis suggested that one of the few instances in which editorials might make an impact is cases exactly like this one, when a conservative newspaper in a red state surprises its audience by endorsing a Democrat. (Maybe the same would be true in reverse, but the key is that if the paper goes against its own stereotype, it may pry readers’ minds open for moment.) Here’s how the Post piece put it:

Although research shows that most voters say a newspaper editorial had no influence on their vote, two recent studies suggest that there’s one exception to that rule: when the endorsements are unexpected.

Surprise editorials are the ones that count, as long as they make sense, given the paper’s usual tone.

“Endorsements which are consistent with respect to the newspaper’s discourse, and which come as a surprise compared to the newspaper’s endorsement history, have a large and potentially decisive effect in tied contests,” the Northwestern University economist Agustin Casas discovered, according to coverage in the magazine Pacific Standard. That research echoed earlier findings from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Arizona is rated as a swing state this year, although it has given its vote to the Republican nominee in nine of the last 10 elections (the exception was Bill Clinton over Bob Dole in 1996).

Arizona has 11 electoral votes, tied for the 14th biggest EV prize. The latest Real Clear Politics average of recent polls in Arizona shows Trump ahead by 1.6 percentage points.

(Minnesota has 10 EV’s, tied for the 18th biggest. For the zillionth time in a row, it is not considered a swing state.)

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/29/2016 - 09:48 am.

    Editorials

    “…I’m no big fan of editorials. I’d rather know the name of the person or persons who are trying to influence my opinions and the idea that a newspaper, as an “institution” has an opinion that is arrived at in secret by a small group in a back room doesn’t work for me.”

    Nor for me. It’s a long-standing pet peeve, and the rationale for it seems especially hypocritical when the policy of every newspaper I’ve ever dealt with over several decades requires writers of “Letters to the editor” to include their name and address. Because I’m personally acquainted with a few people who are (or were, until the recent collapse of the printed newspaper industry) professional journalists, I know that editorials sometimes genuinely ARE a kind of group project, but are also sometimes assigned to a member of the editorial team based on that member’s perceived expertise or interest. Institutions don’t write anything: people do. There’s plenty of sophistry about anonymous editorials, but I’ve not been persuaded by any of it. If something is important enough that it merits an editorial, the public ought to know who wrote it, and what in their background has given them the task of writing the editorial.

    Beyond that, the “tractor beam” seems a worthy and accurate concept, even for those of us who generally avoid party labels and membership, and I share Eric’s puzzlement (in my case it’s more like dismay) over how Mr. Trump could be a genuine candidate for the presidency, apparently considered by many to be a legitimate “leader.”

  2. Submitted by William Lindeke on 09/29/2016 - 09:55 am.

    Tractor Beam…

    Not to be that guy, but tractor beams play a more central role in Star Wars methinks.

  3. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 09/29/2016 - 10:21 am.

    Mechanism for effectiveness

    Surprising yet sensible editorials are effective — research shows that. But why? I’m not sure the research resolves what the mechanism is. One hypothesis would be that they “may pry readers’ minds open for moment,” that is, cause the readers to entertain new ideas. However, I have a different hypothesis. I suspect the readers who are influenced had already worked out for themselves everything the editorial contains. They just weren’t willing to act on those realizations because to do so would have violated a personal value of loyalty. The editorial may serve not as persuasion but as permission or even absolution. If the Arizona Republic says these things, then it is OK to have been thinking them.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/29/2016 - 01:50 pm.

      Good point,Max!

      Plus, the readers of this Arizona paper know who the editors are, but to make sure there was transparency, at least the on-line version that Eric links contained a section on Who Writes Our Editorial? that explained it.

      Another factor we have to consider in why people tend to vote against their better judgement, in this case for Trump while holding their noses against his negatives: the decades-long attacks on Hillary and Bill Clinton from the right-wing media. There has been a drumbeat of vicious labeling of Hillary Clinton, a drumbeat of lies told about her and exaggerations of the incorrectness of her having a private email account while she was Secretary of State. When you get right down to it, the extreme right has convinced a certain public in this country that Hillary Clinton is pretty much the Devil Incarnate. But all they can list in her “character negatives” is that she lies. On what, they really can’t say. They can’t say anything was revealed in her emails. Essentially, they are repeating lines fed to them over years, with astonishing redundancy, in a sustained anti-Clinton campaign.

      As Clinton said on Monday’s debate: “Words matter.” The Arizona editorial matters not just because the endorsement surprises; it matters because a lot of people will actually read that editorial, which for that reason may change some minds (besides absolving traditional Republicans as they follow their brains to a pro-Clinton vote).

  4. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 09/29/2016 - 02:04 pm.

    Reaction

    It’s revealing that this Arizona Republic editorial resulted in its receiving death threats. One might ask what might contribute to such a violent reaction. One might recall “second amendment” solutions posited by a “presidential” candidate.

  5. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 09/29/2016 - 06:00 pm.

    Tractor beams, like so much in political ‘science’, are imaginary, which is not to say that partisan behavior is not real: what draws people back to the party, however odious their candidates might be, are the core beliefs they hold in common with the party platform.

    When your partisanship requires you to deny too much of what you know to be true, the party becomes irrelevant. That has happened to many of us, whatever our party. It is about limits and tipping points and Republicans have gone well past.

    Topography and gravity make for a better metaphors here than any tractor beams that political science fiction provides.

    Editorials are not quite irrelevant now, but in this case they simply show that people, even editorial writers, are not lemmings, although most of today’s Republicans have come close; when partisan folks are led to the edge of the cliff of their core beliefs and expected to jump off, they don’t necessarily follow the leaders and may wave off folks as they can, the ones that are not really lemmings, anyhow.

  6. Submitted by Wade Brezina on 09/30/2016 - 01:25 pm.

    What appears surreal is in fact the unintended consequence…

    Watching the debate was surreal to me. My first political experience was working to elect a Republican rep. Unfortunately the world was starting to change then as Lee Atwater started what has become a very effective strategy for building Republican power. Gingrich and the K street revolution fueled this dramatic transformation.

    The bottom line strategies are based on the foundational work of Whitaker and Baxter. Every American needs to face up to what they discovered so many years ago and decide that they simply must care about our government. As it is we simply want a good fight or a good show. The Republicans may fight dirty and Trump certainly puts on one heck of a show. This is not a tractor beam. It is deliberate designed obfuscation deployed to get ordinary people to empower a political party.

    Wade

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