Charm offensive.

Photographer: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

These Republicans Don't Love Trump. But They Hate Clinton.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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One of the hardest things for a foreigner to understand in U.S. politics, especially its rather extreme 2016 version, is the willingness of voters to support candidates they deemed unacceptable earlier in the campaign. Because the U.S. presidential election narrows to a two-candidate race, the calculus of voters and political operatives shifts in spectacular ways.

Plenty of this was on display in New Hampshire this week. On Wednesday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in the state, which gave him his best performance of the primary season -- 7.4 percent of the vote -- to push a simple message to Republicans. "If you are a Republican and you are not working for Donald Trump over the next 55 days, you are working for Hillary Clinton," he said at a party "unity breakfast." 

This is the man who summed up his attitude toward Trump in December 2015 by saying, "We do not need reality TV in the Oval Office right now. President of the United States is not a place for an entertainer.” I saw him on the stump in New Hampshire seven months ago, and he was dismissive of Trump. Then, it seemed that the group of pragmatic, traditional conservatives with strong management experience -- John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Christie -- still had a chance to surge ahead of the showman.

Michael Biundo, a veteran Republican consultant who worked for Rand Paul and then Kasich in the early stages of the campaign and who then mocked Trump on the social networks, has been the nominee's point man in the state since June. He's credited with setting up a genuine Trump ground game, with volunteers knocking on doors, a development that many analysts believed impossible just a few months ago. 

I asked the political consultant Patrick Hynes, of Laconia, about the apparent turnarounds. Hynes worked for Bush during the primaries, and for John McCain and Mitt Romney in the 2012 race. These are all traditional conservatives who have made known their visceral dislike of Trump. Hynes says the billionaire is not his first choice, yet he plans to vote for Trump in November and says the state's Republican machine has fallen in line, too.

"In the U.S., it always gets down to two," Hynes said. "There's Coca-Cola and there's Pepsi, and RC Cola goes the way of the dinosaurs. There's Ford and Chevy, and Chrysler is a distant third. There's McDonald's and Burger King, and Wendy's is a distant third."

Americans, of course, shouldn't act all that differently from people of other nationalities when it comes to making decisions. People like to reduce complexity, and binary decisions are the simplest. Research by Eldar Shafir, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky has shown, though, that sometimes having a third, middle option can simplify the choice thanks to a phenomenon called "extremeness aversion": As Simonson described it, "within an offered set, options with extreme values are relatively less attractive than options with intermediate values."

New Hampshire provides a prime example of this kind of thinking. Joe McQuaid, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state's most influential newspaper, has long crusaded against Trump, whom he compared to Biff, the bully from the "Back to the Future" movies (Trump called him a "lowlife" in response). The Union Leader, which has been staunchly Republican for more than a century, endorsed Christie in the primary, and McQuaid has claimed that the New Jersey governor promised him he wouldn't endorse Trump if he dropped out (Christie denies that). Now that Christie has reverted to the binary logic, McQuaid has not. 

In an editorial this week, he endorsed the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and his running-mate Bill Weld because "in today’s dark times, they are a bright light of hope and reason." To the conservative publisher, both Clinton and Trump represent extremes.

McQuaid appears genuinely optimistic that a third option could be viable in New Hampshire. When I asked him what he hoped to achieve by endorsing Johnson when Republican voters are mainly united behind Trump, he replied that he didn't "see a lot of evidence one way or the other." "Most of the big office-holders are doing the we-are-concentrating-on-state-races line," he said in an e-mail. "As for Trump, his primary vote total here was not huge."

Trump, however, won the New Hampshire primary in New Hampshire, with 35.3 percent, or more than 100,000 votes, more than twice as many as the runner-up,  Kasich. There's little chance that Johnson will make a dent here: Everyone else I talked to said they planned to back their party nominee, and both Hynes and an operative close to the Trump campaign confirmed that the state's Republican machine was working single-mindedly for Trump.

This is probably occurring because this election's stark belligerence makes it more about rejection than selection. McQuaid's approach is to pick a candidate to support "without holding your nose." This year, many Republicans "have a sense of dread and despair, a sense that Washington is broken and cannot be fixed, that everybody is a crook," Hynes says. So to them, the election is about not voting for Clinton, who embodies the status quo.

Under such circumstances, Shafir, Simonson and Tversky wrote, a candidate's negative features become more important than positives: "We propose that the positive features of options (their pros) will loom larger when choosing, whereas the negative features of options (their cons) will be weighted more heavily when rejecting. It is natural to select an option because of its positive features, and to reject an option because of its negative features."

Trump has Clinton and her strong negatives to thank for the somewhat reluctant unity of his backers here.

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:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net