Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The shift from “is not” to “is” framing or when the irresistible appeal of not-Trump meets the immovable obstacle of is-Cruz

[I wrote this (or at least dictated it to my phone) a month ago back when Cruz was still in the race, albeit fading fast. The tenses are, as a result, occasionally a bit weird but I'm still comfortable with the basic thesis.]

These two posts from TPM got me thinking:

From Trumpmentum. Yes, Trumpmentum. Really.

I don't deny this could still happen. It's quite possible. But it is worth noting that in the nationwide GOP primary polls, after a brief Cruz Boomlet (Dead Ted Bounce) Trump's numbers have rebounded and actually appear to be rising again. Yes, rising. (The rise could just be wobbliness in the polls; but he's at least stabilized his support nationwide.) Conventional wisdom was - perhaps still is - that Trump had hit his ceiling and the sheer weight of bad news was pulling him down. That probably wouldn't stop Trump from winning more primaries. But it would likely make it impossible for him to secure 1237 delegates. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz would accrue enough to make him a plausible alternative nominee.

Again, that's not what's happening. Cruz's numbers nationwide are going down, seemingly shedding at least a margin of support to both Trump and Kasich. There's also little doubt that a big win in New York, which seems highly likely, will give him a wave of good press and allow him to reclaim the look of a winner.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Trump will get 1237 delegates or that he'll be the nominee. I find it hard to figure out or at least game out the chances of any of this - mainly because all the possibilities seem deeply implausible and yet one must happen. What does seem clear to me is this: Conventional wisdom seems to be or has been that Trump had peaked and started to fall with mix of the Lewandowski 'assault', the terrible week with four different positions on abortion, various protester beatings and unified elite GOP denunciation. He likely couldn't be caught by any other candidate. But he might be a 'zombie' plurality winner - still in the lead but so clearly damaged and losing steam that he could with some ease be denied the nomination. But the polls show Cruz is falling and Trump has not just stabilized but actually seems to be gaining steam.

What's not totally clear to me is how much this is being driven by Trump and how much people seeing Ted Cruz is turning people against him. Remember, always start from the axiom of EHTD (Everybody Hates Ted Cruz). And you can't go far wrong. Clearly the anti-Cruz wall Cruz built in the Senate is holding strong. But whether it's more strength from Trump or the failure of the anti-Trump stalking horse doesn't really matter. The upshot is the same. Trump is getting stronger, not weaker. And that portends bad things for any effort to deny him in Cleveland.

And from New York City GOP Gala Crowd Ignores Ted Cruz During His Speech

Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) speech at the New York City Republican gala on Thursday night was met with a cool reception from the crowd, who spoke amongst themselves and milled about as Cruz delivered his campaign stump speech.

"I will admit to you, I haven’t built any buildings in New York City," Cruz said at the beginning of his address, drawing some applause, according to Buzzfeed News.

But it went downhill from there.

As Cruz continued with his speech, his applause lines drew little attention from the New York Republicans at the dinner, according to NBC News. The sound of chatter and cutlery on plates grew louder as Cruz's speech went on, according to Buzzfeed News. People also began wandering the room to chat with acquaintances at other tables.

Though  for very different reasons, both Romney and Trump were front runners who were highly unacceptable to a substantial faction of the party. The result has been two consecutive Republican primaries with a distinctive piston-like action. On a fairly regular basis, some alternative candidate suddenly moves up in terms of polls, coverage, buzz, and expectations, peaks briefly then goes back down.

As mentioned before, game theory gives us a pretty good model of how voters unhappy with the front runner can converge on a second choice, but I think another theory is needed to explain why these candidates almost always fade.

I would argue that we see a shift in voter thinking when the alternative candidate peaks. On the upstroke the question of whom to vote for is framed as who is a viable alternative? While on the downstroke the question is framed as is this a viable candidate? Put another way, the theory is that when people looking for a focal point, they are on the lookout for points that might attract other people; after they've converged, they start examining the choice more critically.

Another somewhat complementary theory is that some people will tentatively move toward a possible focal point only so long as others appear to be converging around that point. I want to be careful with this one. Momentum is perhaps the most overused term in political reporting, and I generally tune out when I hear it. However, in a case where voters unhappy with a front runner are trying to coordinate their efforts and present a united opposition, I think the concept makes sense.

(If all this is true, then both Nate and Nate got it completely backwards when they repeatedly declared Donald Trump to be another Herman Cain. Under these theories Trump was Romney; Rubio and the other candidates who had their brief moment in the sun were Cain.)

Being down to a two-man race changes the dynamic quite a bit, but we are still seeing a similar pattern. A week of bad news for Trump gets voters (and perhaps more importantly analysts and pundits) thinking about the possibility of Ted Cruz as a viable alternative and we see something of a bump. Then the thinking shifts to Ted Cruz as an actual candidate...

"Remember, always start from the axiom of EHTD"

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