The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
‘I Don’t Know Anybody Who Supports Him’
The Washington Examiner’s Byron York spent the weekend with New Hampshire Republicans, who displayed “confusion, frustration, and just plain bewilderment at what is going on in their state’s presidential race.” How—assuming the polls are to be believed—is Donald Trump running away with this thing?
York himself posed that question to a pair of Republican activists, who responded in unison: “I don’t know anybody who supports him.” That experience turned out to be widespread:
After that conversation, I began to ask everyone I met: Do you know anyone who supports Donald Trump? In more cases than not—actually, in nearly all the cases—the answer was no. I asked one woman Friday night, and she said she hadn’t thought about it. I ran into her the next morning at breakfast, and she said, “That was a good question you asked me last night, and I’ve given it some thought.” And no, she didn’t know any Trump supporters.
Given Trump’s big lead in the polls, if so many politically active Republicans don’t know even one Trump supporter, either the polls are wrong or there is some serious GOP Pauline Kaelism at work in the nation’s first primary state.
There’s a big “if” there, to which we’ll return presently. York alludes to the late Pauline Kael, film critic of the New Yorker, who said in 1972: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon.” York means to suggest that the social divide between Trump supporters and Republican regulars (in blogger Dan McLaughlin’s term) is as wide as that between Manhattan and Middle America.
To bolster this hypothesis York cites another of his interviews:
I talked to a Republican political operative who has done a lot of work in New Hampshire. He has done so much work, in fact, that he knows many of the streets throughout the state by heart, and knows which houses display candidates’ political signs at primary time and which don’t.
He described driving down a street on the west side of Manchester, checking out the houses. He noticed Trump signs in front of houses that he knew had never displayed signs before. Seeing that, he began to think that all the talk about Trump appealing to a different kind of voter might be true.
Further evidence comes from a report a few days ago in the New York Times. Reporters Michael Barbaro and Ashley Parker interviewed a bunch of Republican regular voters (as opposed to party officials and operatives), with similar results. Their opening anecdote:
Jeanne Cleveland, a retired teacher, pursed her lips sourly at the mention of his name and tried to summarize her distaste in diplomatic terms.
“I think he’s arrogant,” she said. “I think he’s rude. I think—”
She paused, reaching for the right words. “Let’s just say, I don’t like the way he represents us as a country.”
To avoid any confusion, Mrs. Cleveland put it plainly: “I don’t like Trump.”
In this, the 70-year-old from Hollis, N.H., has ample, baffled and agonized company in New Hampshire as the presidential primary enters its final, frenzied weeks, with Donald J. Trump remaining atop poll after poll of the state’s Republican electorate.
Or is he? So deep is the dislike for him in some quarters that people like Mrs. Cleveland’s husband, Doug, question the accuracy of polls that so consistently identify Mr. Trump as leading the field with around 32 percent. “I’ve never met a single one of them,” Mr. Cleveland said about those said to be backing Mr. Trump. “Where are all these Trump supporters? Everyone we know is supporting somebody else.”
That Times piece characterizes Trump’s New Hampshire opponents as “the 68 Percent—the significant majority of Republican voters here who are immune to Mr. Trump’s charms and entreaties.”
Doug Cleveland’s question “Where are all the Trump supporters?” returns us to the big “if” we mentioned earlier. Two of the officials York interviewed were exceptions to his rule—exceptions that not only prove the rule but explain it:
I talked to two party officials, one county and one regional, who said they knew a lot of Trump supporters. “They’re not Republicans,” one told me, explaining at length that the Trump fans she knows are inexplicably devoted to him—unfazed by Trump’s lack of policy specifics or any of his controversial statements. The two officials described having conversations and asking which candidate a voter supports, whereupon the voter quickly glanced left and right, to see if it was OK to talk, and then said, “Trump.” That happens a lot, they told me.
Along similar lines, consider this quote from an Atlantic piece by Valeria Pelet:
“I have dreams where I go on the record and say that I’m Hispanic and I love Trump,” a 22-year-old Hispanic male who backs Trump told me. He declined to have his name published, however, because he’s interviewing for internships and did not want his name showing up next to Trump’s online. “My support is not just a fling or based on superficial facts. I have a political-science degree from one of the best schools in the country. I did my research, formulated an opinion, and I support him and it upsets me that I don’t have the freedom to talk about it,” he said.
What’s going on here is a phenomenon we’ve noted in the past with respect to Trump: social-acceptability bias. We’d reckon it probably is untrue that, in York’s words, “so many politically active Republicans don’t know even one Trump supporter.”
We’re not questioning the accuracy of York’s reporting or the sincerity of his sources, but rather suggesting that they don’t know that they know Trump supporters, because the Trump supporters they know are averse to the social disapprobation they would provoke by admitting it. You would expect this psychological effect to be especially strong among Republican regulars in interactions with local Republican officials, since the former would be inclined to respect the latter’s (to be sure rather modest) authority.
Social-acceptability bias, or peer pressure as it’s more commonly known, can influence preferences and behavior in ways other than discouraging honesty about one’s views. If people you respect convince you that Trump is unacceptable, that may be sufficient to dissuade you from ever considering a vote for him. McLaughlin hopes that’s what will happen with Republican regulars:
The need to court Republican Regulars is why the battle over what Trump represents remains so important. For most of these types of voters, Trump right now is not acceptable, mainly for reasons of temperament and consistency—but if they see the party establishment falling in line behind him, and if they see influential voices on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal and other widely-circulated sources treating Trump as a legitimate option, a chunk of them will resign themselves to the idea that this guy is on our side and has the best chance of beating Hillary and doing the things people elect Republicans to do. . . .
That’s exactly why it’s so important for publications like National Review to do things like an “Against Trump” issue to force a conversation on the issue that will seep out past NR’s regular readership, and why pulverizing Trump with negative ads will still need to be done sooner or later, and why members of the GOP establishment and Fox News pundits (whether out of hatred for Ted Cruz or just a reflexive urge to get in line behind whoever seems to be winning at a particular moment) are playing with fire by signalling in any way that Trump is someone they can live with.
But McLaughlin will take little comfort in this new ABC/Washington Post poll result, highlighted by NJ Advance Media:
Almost two-thirds of Republican voters and GOP-leaning independents say they believe businessman Donald Trump will be their presidential nominee and more than 6 in 10 are satisfied with that choice, according to a poll released Tuesday.
Trump is the favorite candidate of 37% in the ABC poll—illustrating the fallacy of the Times’s characterization of anti-Trump voters as “the 68%.” Somebody who favors a candidate other than Trump is not necessarily inalterably opposed to Trump.
If social-acceptability bias is leading some observers to underestimate Trump’s support in New Hampshire, it could pose a serious threat to his chances in Iowa. There, voters meet in caucuses, which means they express their preferences in front of their neighbors. If Trump’s organization in Iowa falls short—and reports on its quality have been widely mixed—it’s not unimaginable that Trump could finish a distant second, or even third. Then again, that might set him up to emerge from New Hampshire as the comeback kid.
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