There are politicians who understand how self-defeating it is to tell voters their vote doesn’t matter because the election is rigged. And then there are politicians who either don’t understand or don’t care because their fragile ego needs to believe that a looming defeat could only be possible through chicanery. Here’s what it looks like when someone from category one is downballot from someone in category two.
Rubio, by the way, hasn’t trailed in a poll of the Florida Senate race since early June, an amazing show of resilience given that Clinton has built a steady lead of 3-4 points over Trump there over the last three weeks. How to explain that? One theory being kicked around among political nerds is that because Clinton’s in the unusual position of being highly unpopular yet also a near-lock at this point to win, voters can step back and assess how much of a mandate they really want to give her. Another theory, written up today in Politico, is that Trump’s wackiness on the stump is having the paradoxical effect of making other Republicans seem more moderate and centrist by comparison, which is helping them with swing voters.
Which effect prevails with a Trump-like candidate? We ran an experiment to find out, and presented our findings at the American Political Science Association meeting in September. In our study, we divided up a group of test subjects and presented some of them with a fictitious congressional candidate, Mark Stanton, who was randomly selected to be a Republican or a Democrat and held six issue positions that are generally considered extreme. (When Stanton was a Democrat, this included a fully government-run healthcare system, while as a Republican, his positions included advocating a fully privatized healthcare system and opposition to abortion under all circumstances.) Afterwards, we presented subjects with two more fictional candidates: Don Ochs, a relatively moderate candidate of the same party as Stanton, and then Nicholas Randall, a moderate candidate of the other party.
We presented a similar survey to other subjects, except they were never exposed to the extreme Stanton.
After introducing each candidate, we asked our participants to evaluate the candidates’ ideological positions and tell us how they would vote in an election between Ochs and Randall. We found that those who’d seen Stanton, the extreme candidate, rated his co-partisan as significantly more centrist than those who did not. Importantly, they also said they were more likely to vote for his co-partisan than the opposite-party candidate.
Interestingly, the researchers who conducted that experiment found that this “moderating” effect on downballot candidates only worked when the wacky candidate at the top was seen as unrepresentative of his party. That’s a big deal because, much to the dismay of Democrats, Hillary’s argument since the convention has been that Trump … doesn’t represent the mainstream Republican Party. That was her way of trying to peel off college-educated whites who aren’t crazy about Trump to begin with: The more she could convince the public that Republican voters owe no duty of party allegiance to Trump, the freer they would feel to cross the aisle and vote for Clinton. In her defense, it’s hard to argue that that strategy hasn’t worked. She’s cleaning up with white college grads in most polls, a momentous shift considering how loyal that group has been to the GOP for decades. It’s not overstating it, I think, to say that the reason she’s almost certainly going to win the election is that she broke (or rather, Trump broke and she capitalized on) the Republican bond with white voters of all economic strata. The price of that “Trump doesn’t represent you” pitch to GOPers, though, is that it’s made it harder for downballot Democrats to link their own GOP opponents to Trump. If Hillary Clinton’s out there claiming that Trump’s not like other Republicans, how can Patrick Murphy argue that Marco Rubio is exactly like Trump?
The grumbling on the left has grown loud enough that Clinton is reportedly shifting her message now and trying to attack downballot Republicans too, but as recently as a few days ago she was still hedging when offered an opportunity to link GOP Senate candidates like Joe Heck to Trump. I wonder if she’s worried that trying to tie Trump to people like Rubio or Pat Toomey might backfire by making him seem a bit more mainstream and acceptable by association with them, not just making them seem more radical by association with him. Clinton’s entire campaign has been devoted to the idea that Trump is unfit for office in every way, someone who poses a unique threat to America. Comparing him now to Rubio would make the “unique threat” attacks seem hollow, just mindless partisan blather aimed at her opponent without any real sting. I think she’ll launch some perfunctory attacks on downballot Republicans just to make Democrats happy but when push comes to shove she’s going to privilege her own message over theirs. That’s a lucky break for the GOP in a very unlucky year: A strong Democratic nominee who had run away with this race weeks ago would be out there killing Republicans on the stump right now with no fear of a Trump comeback. Hillary being Hillary, she has to protect her lead.