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How Trump or Clinton Will Reel You In

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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We're now out of nomination politics (barring any late-breaking "dump Trump" effort), and the general-election campaign is on. If there was any doubt about that, Barack Obama's endorsement of Hillary Clinton today will be the flag to start the race. 

What happens now? Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, in referring to the veepstakes, gives a great introduction to the larger subject of what campaigns really do at this point:  

Jamelle Bouie @jbouie
I guess this is a "hot take," but it is a waste of resources to mobilize base voters who by definition are *already mobilized*.
Twitter: Jamelle Bouie on Twitter

 

In one sense, presidential general-election campaigns are enormous undertakings to mobilize those most susceptible to being mobilized.

Remember, most voters have barely been paying attention so far. Hillary Clinton received almost 16 million votes in primaries and caucuses, and a little more than 13 million voted for Donald Trump. Barack Obama received about 66 million votes to win in November 2012. So both Clinton and Trump need to find more than 53 million new votes.

Most of those votes, fortunately for them, are easy to secure. Some will come from people who supported a different candidate for the nomination, but who always intended to support their party’s eventual nominee. There are also the party loyalists who skip primary elections, but who will turn out in November. 

What about the rest of the electorate? Lots of people need some nudging and other help.  Campaigns provide that. Voters who like candidates who talk about health care for all or equality for all, for example, may not describe themselves as dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, or even as Democrats at all. Yet they’ll notice from the news coverage and paid ads that Hillary Clinton uses this language and Donald Trump doesn’t. That's why electioneering efforts such as Obama's endorsement video "work": Few people will automatically do whatever the president says, even if they like him a lot, but lots of Democrats will see some or all of it and more fully associate Clinton with people and ideas they like. 

Voters will also be reminded of what people like themselves generally do in elections. Thus, many Christian conservatives have aligned with Trump since he won the Republican nomination, not because he supports them on policy, or because he says things they like to hear, but because Christian conservatives generally support the Republican ticket.

Once a voter leans in one direction, strong cognitive biases reinforce that direction: We all tend to listen with (at least) open minds and to give the benefit of the doubt to candidates we support, and to close our minds to those we oppose, even to the extent of finding them strongly repellent by November. The ubiquity of the campaign does a lot of that work. If you oppose Trump, you can’t just file that away until Election Day. He’s on your TV all the time, saying those things that drive you nuts. Clinton's opponents will have the same reaction to her.

Even if Democrats may not be thrilled with Clinton for any number of reasons, almost all of them will not only wind up supporting her; they will become genuinely enthusiastic – at least for the duration of the campaign season. And the same will normally be true of Republicans for the Republican nominee, and probably will wind up being true for many this year, even with Trump.

This dynamic helps explain why a candidate's choice for a vice president makes so little difference. For people even marginally engaged in politics, the rest of the presidential nominee's campaign is more than sufficient to mobilize them. And those who are so estranged from politics that it takes heavy lifting for the campaigns to get them to turn out aren’t going to be swayed by the choice of a running mate, because they don't really know who Senator Elizabeth Warren or Governor John Kasich is. (Only half of people polled about Warren, for example, have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of her; Kasich doesn't register that much higher. The rest haven't heard of them or don't know enough to have an opinion.)

We often think of voters as making choices: watching debates to see who makes the stronger points, comparing policies to see which candidate is closer to our own preferences, assessing the likely behavior of candidates in office. But even when we feel we’re making a dispassionate, logical selection, most of us, most of the time, already have a heavy thumb on the scale.

So campaigns aren’t about making the best arguments to convince the other side. They’re about finding the best cues to teach us to vote for the candidate we “should” be voting for in the first place -- the candidate that “people like us” vote for.  

  1. Of course, "people like themselves" could mean many things. An important part of politics has to do with which of the many groups we belong to are considered politically relevant. 

  2. That's why Sanders supporters, after months of the campaign, wind up not just preferring Bernie but actively "hating" Clinton -- and why, in a few weeks, almost all of them will wind up liking her again. It's difficult for us to vote for a candidate without coming to strongly like that candidate, and to vote against someone without coming to strongly dislike him or her. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net