Craig Allen Smith – Navigating the Home Stretch of the 2016 American Presidential Campaign

This is a guest post by Craig Allen Smith, Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University

Having witnessed the referenda on Scotland’s independence and Brexit, world attention is now on the 2016 American presidential campaign.  The torrent of social media and non-stop news updates provide a disconcerting blend of information, misinformation, and trivia.  This is the first of two posts designed to provide a framework for interpreting those data points, headlines, tweets, and predictions (the second will appear after the election).  Today’s post discusses the procedural requirements that generate strategic challenges for candidates and suggests ways for observers (foreign and domestic) to understand  the campaign.

The Framework

In Presidential Campaign Communication, 2nd ed. I suggested that we view American presidential campaigns as a national conversation among three sets of participants: Citizens, Campaigners, and a greek chorus of Reporters (Smith, 2015). Their “trialogue” unfolds in four functional stages — Surfacing, Nominating, Consolidating, and Electing — each of which has “instrumental objectives” for advancement to the next. Thus the first strategic question is, “What must one do to advance?”

The instrumental objectives require the accumulation of “victory units” that include votes, volunteers, publicity, and money. Those resources are unequally dispersed; some have money to donate, some have time to volunteer, and some are more likely to vote than others.  Thus the second strategic question is, “Who holds the resources one needs for victory units?”

Candidates begin with no victory units and proceed to accumulate them through “rhetorical transactions” with those who have the desired resources. They trade words and symbolic actions for attention, campaign resources, and votes much as comedians trade jokes for laughs or buskers sing favorite songs to attract contributions. Thus the third strategic question is, “What need be said for candidates and audiences to complete their rhetorical transactions?” Those questions can help us to understand the current campaign.

“What must one do to advance?”

By 1 February 2016 the Surfacing stage had defined the campaign by rhetorically constituting the rules, issue publics, news habits, and candidacies (Smith 2016). The candidates who surfaced moved into the Nominating stage where they competed in state level party contests (primary elections, caucuses, or conventions) to win commitments from a majority of their national party’s convention delegates. Nominating led to the Consolidating stage when Donald Trump secured a majority of Republican delegates on 26 May and when Hillary Clinton secured a majority of Democratic delegates on 7 June. Both nominating campaigns had so fragmented their parties that both nominees had many fences to mend by the end of their national party conventions.

The Electing stage began with the nomination acceptance addresses that concluded the conventions (Trump’s on 21 July and Clinton’s on 28 July). It is crucial to understand that American presidential elections hinge not on the national popular vote but on electoral votes. Each state and the District of Columbia has a number of electors equal to its number of U.S. senators and Representatives. When votes are counted on election day the candidate with a plurality of votes in each state wins its electors (except for Maine and Nebraska, which award their electors by congressional districts).

Therefore, the strategic challenge for each candidate is to secure a plurality of voters in a combination of states that yield 270 electoral votes (a majority of the 538 electors). Remember that Vice-president Al Gore won the 2000 national popular vote but lost the electoral vote to George W. Bush whereas Bill Clinton twice won more than 68% of the electoral votes without polling 50% of the popular vote. Unfortunately, too many American pollsters focus on the largely meaningless popular vote. Daily they report polls of 45%-43% and the like without considering electoral strength.  This misleads many Citizens, Reporters, and even some candidates.

The proper way to track the candidates’ progress during the Electing stage is to follow state level polls that show which candidates lead which states by how much. When those polls suggest margins in excess of the margin for error, one can infer the candidate likely to win those electoral votes.  The inconclusive state polls identify the “battleground states” that can be won by the candidate who invests wisely their campaign resources.

Three excellent web sites daily update state polls and project electoral votes— electoral-vote.com, 270towin.com, and Nate Silver’s 538.com. All three sites average recent state polls and allocate electoral votes accordingly. Especially informative is electoral-vote.com because it includes the “tipping point” at which each candidate would win an electoral majority.

To appreciate the difference between national and state polls, let is consider the 18 October reports. The average of national polls put Clinton ahead by 3% (within the statistical margin for error) suggesting a popular vote both too close to call and —  Mr. Gore might remind us — meaningless.  But that day’s state polls showed Clinton surpassing the 270 electoral vote tipping point by winning every state where she then led Trump by 5% or more; Trump needed to win every state where he was within 6% of Clinton.  A week later the October 24th average of national polls showed Trump ahead by 1% whereas the tipping point still showed Clinton needing to win only the states where she led by 5%.

During the recent week Trump alleged repeatedly that the election is “rigged” and declined to commit himself to the outcome of the election. Perhaps he was reasoning that the Founders had rigged the election by creating the Electoral College, or perhaps he simply failed to understand the process. This week he is and is alleging that the polls are also rigged against him by dishonest media companies. Until we learn that a cabal of pollsters intentionally engaged in flawed polling it seems more reasonable to suspect that the politically inexperienced Trump has been seduced by his supporters’ cheers.

In short, national popularity is a good but indirect predictor of the presidential election because Americans are not electing the President of the People, we are voting to decide how our states will elect the next President of the United States.

“Who holds the resources one needs for victory units?”

Candidates need to win states, but which states do they need? Theoretically, the election should hinge on the eight battleground states where state polls report margins less than 5%.  But with two weeks to go Clinton leads by 5% or more in 23 states and DC with a total of 279 electoral votes and need not win any of those eight states. Unless she loses Pennsylvania (which voted for Barack Obama by margins of 10% and 5% and where she leads by 5%) or other states where she has even larger leads she need not win any of the eight battleground states.

State polls currently show Trump leading by 5% or more in 19 states with only 117 electoral votes, which explains why Trump needs those polls to be rigged, wrong, transient, or poorly related to voting. How could Trump win? From the October 25th Electoral-Vote.com tipping point site we can infer that Trump’s need for 270 electoral votes requires him to win (1) every state that he leads by 5% for 117 electoral votes, (2) every state that he leads by less than 5% (South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Ohio) for an additional 87 electoral votes, (3) every state that currently favors Clinton by less than 5% (Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida) for another 61 electoral votes, and (4) Pennsylvania and Nevada, where he trails by 5% and 6%, respectively. Therefore Trump’s first strategic priority must be to dramatically alter the situations in Pennsylvania and Nevada; unless he does so — or dramatically wins even stronger Clinton states with at least 11 electoral votes —he will lose.

If Trump can solve that problem he will also need to win Florida and Ohio (which Obama won by averages of 1.5% and 4%, respectively) and North Carolina (which Obama won by 1% then  lost by 2%). He currently leads Ohio by 2% but trails in Florida by 4% and North Carolina by 2%, all of which are within the margin for error and could conceivably vote for Clinton.

Five other battleground states voted for the previous Republican nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, by substantial margins. Their average margins of victory were 14% in Texas, 12.5% in Mississippi, 9.5% in South Carolina, 9% in Arizona, and 7% in Georgia.  But Trump currently trails Arizona by 1% (-10%) and his leads in the other four states are considerably smaller than were theirs: 3% in Texas (-11%) and Mississippi (-6.5%), 4% in South Carolina (-5.5%), and 3% in Georgia (-4%).

In short, Clinton need only win Pennsylvania (+5%) or Florida (+4%) to surpass 270 electoral votes; Trump can only win the presidency by winning every state where the current polls show him trailing by 5% or less. Of course, it is possible that Trump could win both Pennsylvania and Florida, but he would still be short of victory unless he also won all of the other battleground states.

“Who needs me to say what before granting me their resources?”

As the election nears, candidates need two resources: support and votes. It is one thing to entice citizens to prefer you over your opponent, and it is quite another matter to entice your supporters to vote. The last American presidential election in which 60% of those eligible voted was 1968. Put differently, for nearly half a century more than 40% of eligible American citizens have declined to cast a vote for president

Ideally, we might hope for rational policy discussions and uplifting talk to unify citizens behind their next president. But presidential campaigns are less a search for consensus than a push toward preference. Points of difference are exaggerated whenever possible to heighten contrast. This cycle saw Trump defeat sixteen other Republican candidates as Clinton outlasted Bernie Sanders. Many of those who supported the nominees’ adversaries have been reluctant to transfer their support to the nominees, such that many of the rhetorical transactions have amounted to attacks on the opposition. Clinton and Trump have attacked one another as unfit for the office. We rarely hear of undecided citizens who like both candidates. The polls discussed above suggest that the national aggregate preferences are roughly equal, but that electorally important states prefer Clinton.

For several months Trump has needed to expand his appeal, but he has been slow to do so. Instead he has repeated the themes that appeal to his base of support, even attacking Republicans such as McCain and Romney, and House Speaker Paul Ryan. He seems to expect that his attacks on Clinton will expand his support, but the polls discussed above provide little evidence of success.

But the ultimate question is, then, who will vote? The closing effort to “get out the vote” (GOTV) is crucial. Barack Obama’s GOTV efforts resulted in historic vote totals. The Clinton campaign has invested heavily in similar efforts, suggesting that the Trump campaign will need to perform even better if their votes are to exceed their state polls.

But Trump has raised less money than Clinton and has been slow to develop a GOTV operation. electoral-vote.com reported that “The Democrats have 5,100 paid staffers in the battleground states. The Republicans have 1,400.”  Trump has said all along that he speaks for those who have been excluded or who have seen little reason to vote. But those people, by definition, offer unreliable votes. They may well vote in record numbers, but Democrats are providing 3.6 times the guidance to potential voters about polling places, hours, and transportation.

Earlier in the campaign some Trump advisors apparently reasoned that winning the Republican nomination would commit the Republican Party to do their GOTV work for them. That could work in Republican strongholds, but many of Trump’s supporters dislike establishment Republicans nearly as much as they dislike Democrats. Indeed, the national polls suggest that Trump is doing well in states that he is sure to win while floundering in the battleground states. Wary of Trump, Republicans have turned their resources to “down ballot” races for the Senate, congressional seats, and governorships.

So the question is, what does Trump say to entice irregular voters who dislike both parties to vote? One wonders why his supporters would be more likely to vote if the election is “rigged” as he has been contending. On the other hand, the Clinton campaign must overcome the complacency that derives from their supporters’  confidence. They are increasingly responding that their supporters should provide an overwhelming landslide to undermine doubts and to provide her with Senate and perhaps congressional majorities.

Conclusions

I have suggested the the American presidential campaign is a national conversation in which the nominees face three strategic questions: What must one do to advance?, Who holds the resources one needs for victory units?, and “What need be said for candidates and audiences to complete their rhetorical transactions?

For Hillary Clinton to advance to the presidency she needs her supporters (and Trump’s opponents) to vote. She has thousands of GOTV workers in the battleground states to help convert the state poll percentages into votes, and if she does so she will win states providing more than the 270 electoral votes.

Donald Trump has a narrow path to the presidency. He needs to win every state in which he trails by 6% or less but he is running well behind his Republican predecessors in several of them. Trump urgently needs to cut into Clinton’s leads in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Florida to put them in play. Thus he needs to broaden his appeal but has been reluctant to do so. He then needs to generate a far greater turnout rate than Clinton in order to win battleground states where his polls lag, but he has assembled an anemic GOTV force. In the next post we will see how well the candidates performed.

Reference List

Smith, C. A. (2015). Presidential campaign communication (2nd ed.) Cambridge: Polity.

Smith, C. A. (2016, 20 April). The Surfacing Stage of the 2016 American Presidential Campaign: A Status Report. presidential-power.com.

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