Trump, and the Punditry's Scary Groupthink
Over the past decade, Twitter has become an invaluable source of political news. In an era when television news – and even print media – have become increasingly partisan, Twitter has made it possible to create a personalized news channel that can be ideologically diverse and informative.
When news breaks, I can get a solid left-of-center perspective from smart writers like Benjy Sarlin, Greg Sargent, and Greg Dworkin. I can find good right-of-center takes from Heather Wilhelm, Charles C.W. Cooke, and Jay Cost. Libertarians? You can follow Peter Suderman, Megan McArdle, and Nick Gillespie. You can get the political scientists’ take, the law professors’ take, the feminists’ take, the pollsters’ take, the economists’ take, the election analysts’ take, the activists’ take. The list goes on, with apologies to those whose names I left off; this paragraph could quickly become a page.
The beauty of Twitter and aggregators is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
But that’s the good news. Let’s turn to the bad.
To be blunt, everyone has lost their damned minds lately. Twitter, and commentary in general, has become a giant echo chamber. My Twitter feed has devolved into a mélange of undifferentiated opinions explaining not only why Donald Trump shouldn’t win this election, but also how and why it can’t possibly happen. I don’t just mean an overall take that he’s likely to lose. I mean a complete and utter rejection of any evidence proffered that might point in a direction that is favorable to Trump. Oh, and by the way, he might also be the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.
This isn’t just unfortunate. It’s dangerous. I’m not worried about media influencing the election; media has less influence than it (and its critics) believe. I’m talking about pundits’ credibility. If the entire chattering class finds itself in the grips of a massive epistemic closure, if every bit of analysis is actually nothing more than a conclusion in search of an argument, if all we hear (as in the old apocryphal Pauline Kael story) are the voices of other people telling us that Trump is awful and that he can’t possibly win, then we’re like pilots flying without instruments. Maybe we’ll land safely, but the chances of a crash are much larger. Having just witnessed (and to some degree, participated in) just such a crash in the Republican primaries, I’m particularly on edge about this general election.
This anti-Trump consensus could support the conclusion that Trump’s inevitable loss is so obvious that there’s no room for dissent. We shouldn’t reject this possibility outright.
But I think there are actually legitimate reasons to push back on the conventional wisdom. For example, it’s almost universally accepted that Trump’s comments about the Hispanic judge are a huge liability.
This may be the case. But there is a counter argument to be made here. What aren’t people talking about right now? They aren’t talking about the facts of the Trump University lawsuit (polling during the Republican primary campaign showed that this was Trump supporters’ biggest concern). They also aren’t talking about Hillary Clinton’s widely praised speech attacking Trump on foreign policy.
Of course, they are talking about Trump’s racially inflammatory comments. But people know this about Trump. There’s nothing new there. For better or for worse, I think it’s baked in. I’m not sure he loses more ground from this.
We saw this same routine during the Republican primary season: deflect some new bad news with an outlandish statement that sucks the oxygen out of the room, and push the news narrative into a feedback loop that he keeps going, comprised of already existing negatives. We were assured that this wouldn’t work in the campaign against Clinton. I certainly thought that. Yet, here we are again, in the aftermath of what was billed as the first Clinton salvo of the general election campaign.
Is this what Trump is doing – purposely steering the conversation toward racial issues? Perhaps that’s giving him too much credit. It’s just surprising that almost no one is picking this up, especially after we just went through a primary campaign that he survived with this exact tactic.
Or consider the polling. Take the recent Public Policy Polling survey of registered voters in Florida, for example. It was conducted in the midst of the blowup over Trump’s “Mexican” judge comments and Clinton’s speech. If there’s one swing state where this dustup should have an effect, it is probably Florida. Yet Trump leads Clinton in the poll, for the first time in any poll since March.
Look at the poll’s internals. He’s definitely taken a hit with Hispanics. According to exit polls, Mitt Romney lost Florida Hispanics by 21 points. Trump trails by 26 among this group. The non-Hispanic white share of the electorate has also dropped 2 points.
So why is he ahead? He’s ahead because he marginally improved upon Romney’s showing among African-American voters (Romney lost by 92 points; Trump is down 87 points), and because he’s posted gains among non-Hispanic whites (Romney won by 24 points; Trump is up 28 points).
The standard rejoinder is that this just represents Clinton’s artificially degraded position as a result of the Democratic primary process, and that she’ll get a bounce when Sanders drops out. It may well be true. This is what PPP tweeted out, and most of the conservative writers I follow uncritically retweeted it. This was bizarre, given that they tend to dislike the Democratic polling firm.
Dig further into the crosstabs again, and you find that Clinton is losing 17 percent of very liberal voters, and 13 percent of somewhat liberal voters. This is certainly consistent with the notion that she can change their minds and bring some additional voters home. At the same time, Trump loses 9 percent of very conservative voters, and 17 percent of somewhat conservative voters. In other words, Trump also has room to grow his support.
Moreover, very liberal Democrats are 14 percent of the Florida electorate in the poll, while somewhat liberal voters are 16 percent of that electorate. Very conservative voters are 16 percent of the electorate, while somewhat conservative voters are 24 percent of the electorate. The math works out that if Clinton brings home all of the liberal voters, while Trump brings home all of the conservative voters, his position would actually improve.
We see the same thing, incidentally, in PPP’s follow-up poll of Pennsylvania, which shows a tied race. PPP points out that if Clinton brings home the Sanders vote, her position would improve. But Trump is losing almost 20 percent of conservative voters. If Clinton brings home liberal voters and Trump brings home conservative voters, Trump’s margin would increase. You can make a case that the NeverTrump conservative opposition to Trump will prove more durable than the liberal opposition to Clinton. You can point out that traditionally, more conservatives vote Democrat than liberals vote Republican. Will it play out this way? I don’t know. My gut tells me “yes.” But I can’t come up with any principled, data-driven reason why this would necessarily be the case. That’s a recipe for substituting what you want to happen for what is likely to happen.
Now we’re getting to the nut of the problem. One of the Internet’s flaws has always been that for all its diversity, it is unrepresentative in important ways. Even left-leaning blogs and websites have tended to be disproportionately white. It’s an ongoing topic of conversation and source of controversy on these sites.
What makes this cycle so tricky is that the re-emergence of strong class and cultural divides in the election has brought new cleavages to the fore, which are likewise underrepresented among commentators. Not only do you have a whole lot of white folk on Twitter, but you have a whole lot of white professionals with college degrees, disproportionately granted from elite universities. Most of them live in cities and neighborhoods dominated by white professionals with college degrees, disproportionately granted from elite universities, and go to workplaces with similar makeups. Somehow, the pundits look even less like America this cycle than in the past.
I believe that most people in my Twitter feed, left and right, don’t know many genuine Trump supporters, if any. I can count two, maybe three among my Facebook friends, and I went to high school in Oklahoma. It’s the exact problem I discussed back in January: There’s a cosmopolitan vs. traditionalist divide that runs through our politics, with cultural cosmopolitans running both parties.
The fact that Trump is so firmly positioning himself against those cosmopolitans, more so than any national politician since Ronald Reagan, makes it difficult to evaluate his campaign, and deprives us of the conversation we need, because for the first time in a long time, a major party candidate isn’t really trying to curry favor with opinion leaders.
None of this is to say that Trump will win. I would not at all be surprised if Trump implodes before autumn, or next week for that matter. Clinton really could bring home the Sanders voters, and the remaining NeverTrumpers could prove intransigent. President Obama’s popularity could continue to rise. Democrats will undoubtedly sharpen their attacks. All other things being equal, I still think there’s probably a 70 percent chance of Clinton winning.
But I will confess it is really difficult to sort out how much of this is a dispassionate analysis of the data, how much of it is me being influenced (perhaps correctly) by the overwhelming anti-Trump consensus out there, and how much of it is my own discomfort with Trump. If we’re being honest, it’s why so many of us were surprised by Trump’s continued rise in the polls last fall and then again in May. It’s why I think there’s a not-insignificant chance that we’re underestimating Trump’s chances of victory in November.