Who will win the 2016 US presidential election? (update)

It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the tragic events in Orlando will have on this question. Currently, Pollster has HRC up by 5.6 percentage points, with the last contributing polls ending on June 8[1], 4 days before the shooting. So that’s our baseline. Of course, departures(if there are any) from this baseline over the next few weeks might occur for any number of reasons. But I hope clever polling folks will try to ask questions that help to isolate this causal factor.

What should we expect? In general, there has been *some* tendency for acts of terrorism (or the threats thereof) to benefit more conservative candidates. A lot of folks point to the 2004 election, in which former President Bush gained (what might have been a decisive) advantage over (then Sen.) Kerry on these grounds: “When voters were asked which of several issues mattered most in deciding their vote, roughly equal numbers picked the Bush campaign’s main issues of moral values (22 percent) and terrorism (19 percent), as picked the Kerry campaign’s main issues of economy/jobs (20 percent) and Iraq (15 percent)”[9]. And that does seem to be the conventional wisdom: Violent threats give a jolt to our lizard brains[12] that benefits the candidate with the more Neanderthal profile. Moreover, there is some evidence that Mr. Trump has already been the beneficiary of our lizard-braininess. Harry Enten points out that “Trump’s support rose in Republican primary polls in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in late 2015″[2].

But it’s worth recalling that this (bump in support for Mr. Trump – the Trump bump? Groan!) was a matter of attracting Republican primary voters away from other Republican candidates, not a matter of attracting independents (or even Democrats) away for the (presumptive) Democratic candidate. And independents appear to have views about terrorism that are more consonant with HRC’s views than with Mr. Trump’s. Below is a brief discussion of *one* example, but you can find all of the data[3] and work through it yourself if you don’t believe me 😉

Consider the question, “Do you think the U.S. should temporarily ban Muslims from other countries from entering the United States, or not?” Republicans answer (or answered in late 2015) as follows:

54% – Yes, ban ’em.
38% – No, don’t ban ’em.
8% – Not sure

Interestingly, Mr. Trump received 63% (=1542/2472, with 31 still outstanding) of the pledged delegates in this primary[4], a number quite close to those who want to ban Muslims from entering the US. Want to bet that support for Mr. Trump and support for the ban line up almost one-to-one? But independents have rather different views. In response to the same question, independents answered as follows:

35% – Yes, ban ’em.
59% – No, don’t ban ’em.
7% – Not sure

Here’s my point (if it’s not clear already). If you’re an independent, and you’re shopping for a presidential candidate, and terrorism is the only issue you care about, and one candidate says ban ’em, while the other says don’t, then you’re more likely to go with HRC (59%) than with Mr. Trump (35%).

Okay, my point’s not actually that stupid. Obviously, this model is far too simplistic. But it should raise some questions about the assumption that independents who consider terrorism to be a priority will be attracted to Mr. Trump rather than HRC since, arguably, her response doesn’t involve policies that they disapprove of. In a piece that uses another polling source for its data Jamelle Bouie makes a similar point: “A whopping 61 percent of Americans said they trusted Clinton to tackle an international crisis, compared to just 32 percent for Trump. And 54 percent said they had faith in Clinton to deal with terrorism, versus 40 percent for the real estate mogul. The same hawkish policies that drove Democratic opposition to her candidacy in the primary, may—in the post-Orlando world—help her win over a larger public that wants action against real and potential threats”[11].

(BTW, it’s not clear that the Orlando shooting was an act of terrorism at all. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, a heinous and despicable act of mass murder, and it deserves our unreserved condemnation. But not everything that meets these conditions is also an act of terrorism. This is a great subject for careful study[5], but not what’s needed here. If the electorate thinks the Orlando shooting was an act of terrorism, then its attitudes about how a president would and should behave are relevant. See below.)

But does it matter that Omar Saddiqui Mateen was born in New York and grew up in Florida? He was, after all, a home-grown killer, and Mr. Trump’s proposed ban wouldn’t have kept him out, so the immigration business might be thought to be a red herring here. Well, Mr. Trump continues to insist that Mr. Mateen was “born an Afghan”[6] which is, I suppose, true in the same sense that I was born an unholy mixture of Irish Catholic and Russian Jewish ancestry. Mr. Trump appears to be trying to use the actions of an American murderer to promote his own anti-immigrant agenda[7][8], so all of this seems fair game.

BTW, 23% of *Democrats* favor a ban of Muslims entering the USA. Could they jump ship and swim to Mr. Trump? You bet, though by the same token the 38% of Republicans who are against the ban could also desert their party to vote for HRC. So these numbers cut both ways.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t be too quick to think that even President Bush’s 2004 terrorism bump was just a matter of his being the more conservative candidate (as he surely was). Mr. Bush was also the incumbent, and they too get a bump from concerns with terrorism[10]. But there’s no incumbent here. So even if Mr. Trump gets the conservative bump, we should not expect it to be as large as President Bush’s bump, ceteris paribus of course.

And then there’s guns. Let me explain: To the extent that Mr. Trump and others frame Orlando as an act of foreign terrorism, he gets a bump courtesy of our lizard brains discussed above. But to the extent that HRC and others frame Orlando as a case of an American-born homophobic lunatic who had overly ready access to enough firepower to inflict 3-4 platoons worth of casualties, lizard brains take a back seat (I think) and leave a little more more for our neocortexes to work out the fact that one candidate would like to make it harder for the Omar Saddiqui Mateens of the world to obtain the means to mass murder while the other does not[13] and might even want a recall in cases where hollow point bullet fail to liquify their target’s organs[14]. President Obama’s remarks seem calibrated to help with this reframing[15].

If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations! I didn’t even read this much of my post. I’m supposed to be on vacation in Costa Rica, so maybe I should go outside and look at a banana tree or a monkey or whatever it is silly white people do while they’re here.



[1] http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/2016-general-election-trump-vs-clinton

[2] http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/be-wary-of-claims-about-how-the-orlando-attack-will-affect-the-election/ – I don’t mean to imply that Enten is a fool. He too notes many of the ways in which the results could be rather different than a moment’s reflection would suggest.

[3] http://www.pollingreport.com/terror.htm

[4] http://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/delegate-count-tracker

[5] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/terrorism/

[6] http://www.vox.com/2016/6/13/11924134/donald-trump-orlando-shooter-afghan



[9] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-bush-won-02-11-2004/

[10] http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/12/how-terrorism-affects-voter-psychology.html

[11]http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/06/will_donald_trump_s_swaggering_self_aggrandizing_response_to_the_orlando.html – Enten makes a similar point using yet another data source: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/be-wary-of-claims-about-how-the-orlando-attack-will-affect-the-election/

[12] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/where-addiction-meets-your-brain/201404/your-lizard-brain

[13] http://www.wsj.com/articles/hillary-clinton-calls-for-reinstatement-of-assault-weapons-ban-after-orlando-shooting-1465826332

[14] http://www.theonion.com/video/manufacturer-recalls-hollow-point-bullets-that-fai-14319 – Cited only for purposes of levity. And while I’m at it: http://www.theonion.com/article/no-way-to-prevent-this-says-only-nation-where-this-36131

[15] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/13/remarks-president-after-briefing-attack-orlando-florida



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