The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
House of (Anti-Trump) Cards
Donald Trump continues to sow confusion among his enemies. On CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday, host John Dickerson asked inevitable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton if it was “fair game” for the Republican front-runner to bring up what Dickerson delicately called “that portion of your husband’s career”—which Dickerson did not define or describe except to refer to Monica Lewinsky. Mrs. Clinton’s reply:
Well, it’s been fair game going back to the Republicans for some years. They can do it again if they want to. That can be their choice as to how to run in this campaign. Didn’t work before. It won’t work again, because it is what people are focused on, not for the past, but for the future. . . .
So, I can’t run anybody else’s campaign. They can say whatever they want. More power to them. I think it’s a dead end, blind alley for them, but let them go. I’m going to talk about the differences between us, because I think that’s what Americans care about.
One imagines Trump watching attentively, taking notes: “Won’t work—dead end—blind alley. TRY DIFFERENT TACK.” One is certain that was not actually Trump’s reaction.
Here’s what Trump did say, albeit in an interview taped Saturday with Chuck Todd of NBC’s “Meet the Press”:
Todd: You’ve said you’re willing to bring up Bill Clinton’s past with women if Hillary Clinton attacks you for being a sexist. So is that a threat to her? Is that essentially what you’re saying is, “Hey, you want me to go down that road? You go down that road, I go down this road”? Is this sort of public threat—
Trump: Well, I don’t want to say it’s a threat.
Todd: What is it?
Trump: But it is a threat. Of course. I mean, I can call it a nicer name, yeah. She was saying “he has tendencies toward being sexist.”
Todd: Talking about who? You?
Trump: Talking about me. And I said, wait a minute. She’s married to an abuser. A woman claimed rape, and all sorts of things. I mean, horrible things. You read the books—
Todd: You do know, though, if you bring it up, people are going to bring up your—
Trump: It’s OK.
Todd: I mean, your first divorce was ugly.
Trump: No, 1, it’s fine—
Todd: All over the tabloids.
Trump: But, you know what? I wasn’t the President of the United States. And I wasn’t dealing in the Oval Office, all right? A big difference. I wasn’t the president. And my first wife thinks I’m great. And my second wife and my—and I have a great marriage. I mean, I have a great marriage. So I mean, it’s fine. I’m not saying don’t bring anything up with me. But when she says that, I had to bring it up. And by the way, they’ve become very unresponsive since then.
(Sound familiar? “As a practical matter, his tabloid lifestyle inoculates him against inquisitions into his private life.” We offered that observation about Trump way back in 2015.)
A panel later in the program featured this brief exchange between Todd and veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield, who now writes for the Daily Beast:
Greenfield: I am stunned by the willingness of Sen. Clinton’s supporters to fold everything Bill Clinton is accused of as a private matter. You know, philandering is a private matter. What Bill Clinton has been accused of is not, you know, he may be innocent of it but—
Todd: Well, and I can tell you, there are some in Clinton world who are very nervous about this, very nervous about this.
He ain’t kidding—and at the top of the list would be the lady on the other network protesting “it won’t work.”
Even Bernie Sanders, in a clip that appeared shortly before the Greenfield exchange, opined in a Friday speech that what “Bill Clinton did . . . was totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable.” Sanders framed that as a defense of Mrs. Clinton, believe it or not; his next words were: “But I am running against Hillary Clinton. I’m not running against Bill Clinton, though I gather he’s been in Iowa recently.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that the new WSJ/NBC/Marist poll finds Sanders within three points of Mrs. Clinton among likely Iowa caucus-goers, 45% to 48%. He leads her in New Hampshire among likely primary voters, 50% to 46%. The Vermonter has been ahead in New Hampshire for some time, but according to Real Clear Politics the Iowa margin is the tightest in any poll since October, and Sanders’s percentage there is his highest ever. That’s consistent with our speculation last weekthat Trump may be giving Sanders a boost by calling attention to what we will delicately call Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses.
Trump, meanwhile, is well ahead in New Hampshire: 30% to 14% for second-place Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz leads Trump narrowly in Iowa, 28% to 24%. The RCP nationwide average has Trump with 34% followed by Cruz, 20%; Rubio, 11%, Ben Carson, 9.5%, and the rest below 5%.
In that column last week we argued that it was vain to deny Trump is the front-runner, and we cited two pieces, by Vox’s Ezra Klein and the New York Times’s Ross Douthat, putting forward scenarios for a Trump loss (though Klein’s begged the “how” question: “Trump could just . . . not win,” he wrote, the ellipsis representing a long pause rather than an actual elision).
Today we would like to offer a theory in support of the proposition that Trump can win the nomination. If someone else wins, our theory will have been proved false, or at least irrelevant. But in case he does become the nominee, bookmark today’s column, return to it then, and see if it’s a persuasive explanation of what happened. (We’re borrowing that idea from Scott Adams’s fascinating “Master Persuader” series, of which our theory can be understood as a complement: Adams‘s focus is on Trump’s skills at salesmanship, while ours is on the voters’ mindset as they hypothetically move in his direction.)
The central premise of the argument that Trump can’t win is that his support has a “ceiling.” Proponents of this view point to two related sets of polling data: Trump’s relatively high disapproval ratings, even among Republicans; and the comparatively large percentage of respondents, again even in polls of Republicans, who say they would never vote for Trump.
They also emphasize the unreliability of early polls. We concede that point: Iowa polls are dubious because it is difficult to screen for likely caucus-goers, and the complexity of the caucus process makes outcomes hard to predict. New Hampshire has a partly open primary—unaffiliated voters can cast ballots for either party—so that an independent likely Republican voter can be a Democratic voter in the event, and vice versa. And because there is no national primary electorate, national polls are notional.
Trump skeptics say his high ratings in preference polls are an artifact of name recognition and porous voter screening, and that real voters won’t cast ballots for him. But it also could turn out that the early polls are underestimating Trump’s ultimate support.
Our theory is that Trump’s ceiling, not his support, is illusory. Trump’s high negatives and “nevers” are in substantial part the product of incredulity and social-acceptability bias. To expand his support, he has to overcome objections such as “He can’t be serious,” “He can’t win,” and “I’d look like a fool (or a bigot) if I supported him.”
Those objections, while each distinct from the others, are mutually reinforcing, which means that the weakening of one tends to weaken the others as well. Further—and this is the crucial point—the objections rest on assumptions about what other people think. Thus the weakening of the objections in others’ minds diminishes their factual basis and makes them harder to sustain.
The objections are something of a house of cards: All else equal, an improvement in Trump’s poll numbers causes a further improvement by making the objections harder to sustain—a preference cascade. (That suggests a purpose behind Trump’s seemingly odd habit of boasting about his poll numbers.) If such a cascade is under way, one would expect political and media professionals—those with the greatest cognitive investment in conventional assumptions about politics—to be the last to see it.
This theory explains why Trump has defied expectations and continued to rise since announcing his candidacy last summer (and also why the expectations have continued to defy Trump’s rise). The question is whether it carries over into actual voting. “Losing a presidential primary is often like going bankrupt,” Klein observes: “It happens slowly, then all at once.” True enough—but the same can be said of winning.
Obviously there is some ceiling on Trump’s support: There are other candidates in the race, whom voters may prefer for reasons of policy, experience or temperament; and it is no doubt true of every candidate—and perhaps truer of Trump than most—that some voters really will oppose him no matter what. (It’s also still possible Trump will say something stupid and self-destruct, though we daresay nobody is counting on that anymore.)
On the other hand, it’s very easy to imagine a scenario in which the preference cascade quickly accelerates as a result of actual voting. Here’s one: Suppose Trump wins convincingly in New Hampshire, along the lines of the WSJ/NBC poll. How much harder would it become to sustain the objection that “he can’t win”—especially if his support comes disproportionately from independents?
The “he can’t win” objection, after all, is about the general election as well as the primary. To be sure, here too objectors can point to current polls. The WSJ/NBC survey also asks registered voters in Iowa and New Hampshire—both swing states that have leaned Democratic in recent decades—to choose between Mrs. Clinton and three of the Republican candidates. She leads Trump by eight points in Iowa and one in New Hampshire. But she trails both Cruz, by four points in each state, and Rubio, by five in Iowa and 12 in New Hampshire. (Sanders does much better than Mrs. Clinton: The dyspeptic socialist is tied with Rubio in Iowa and leads all five other match-ups; again, Trump is the weakest of the three prospective opponents. But we’ll leave handicapping Sanders’s prospects as the nominee for another day.)
A national poll from Fox News gives Trump a three-point lead over Mrs. Clinton, but Rubio and Cruz are up by nine and seven points, respectively. So once again it is reasonable to think Trump is less electable than his GOP rivals.
But it’s very early for a general-election poll, and it has occurred to us these past couple of weeks that Trump, by virtue of his willingness to confront Mrs. Clinton over her husband’s offenses, could prove to be the Republican candidate most capable of beating her in November. We doubt we’re alone in entertaining that thought.
This weekend’s Sunday shows give reason to think the media are nearly as determined as Mrs. Clinton to evade the question. As noted, CBS’s Dickerson mentioned Monica Lewinsky but omitted Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. He framed the question to Mrs. Clinton as whether the issue was “fair game” and made no mention of her professed feminism or her role in smearing, and allegedly intimidating, her husband’s accusers. Trump was the only person on either CBS or NBC to utter the word “rape.” And as Ann Althouse observes, NBC’s Todd seemed anxious to change the subject in the above-quoted panel exchange:
I wish Greenfield had been allowed to say a little more, because he was getting critical of the notion that what Bill Clinton did was “a private matter.” If he’d gone on—beyond “philandering is a private manner [sic in NBC transcript]”—he would have talked about how Bill Clinton is accused of rape, which is a very serious crime and thus something in which the public authorities do involve themselves. Or he might have said that what happened with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky happened in the workplace and thus involves the problem of sexual harassment and the equality of women in the workplace. To pass that off as private is to sell out the women’s movement.
But somehow Chuck Todd had to break in just to say that the Clinton people are very nervous.
An editorial last week in the New York Times, titled “Donald Trump Drags Bill Clinton’s Baggage Out,” noted that Mrs. Clinton had no good answer when a voter posed the question directly to her:
Last month in New Hampshire, a young woman challenged Mrs. Clinton. . . . Speaking at a town hall event, the woman referred to several women who have said they were sexually harassed [sic] by her husband. “You recently came out to say that all rape victims should be believed,” she said, asking if Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones should also be believed.
Mrs. Clinton’s response was odd, and unhelpful. “I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence,” she said.
The editors don’t say what a “helpful” response might have been, and we’re at a loss to think of one. Earlier, a news story by the Times’s Amy Chozick described the exchange but sanitized the accusations by describing them as “sexual harassment” and left out the names of the accusers, creating the false impression that the questioner’s reference to rape was a non sequitur.
The Times editorial describes Mr. Clinton’s “philandering”—again with the euphemisms—as “a tired subject that few Americans want to hear more about.” And so it probably is. But will voters blame the messenger? Or will they realize that the surest way to put the subject to bed is to keep the Clintons out of the White House?
For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”