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

Larry Jacobs, the U of M political scientist, said back in May that the race would tighten and remain close mostly because of what he called the “tractor beam” of partisanship.

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

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.)

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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. …

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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.)