New Hampshire and the Reinforcement Theory

In the coming days, our focus will be in Iowa, as it should be. Its caucuses are only five days away. Tomorrow, if I can find the time and will, I hope to tackle the Iowa debate and Trump’s infuriating decision to skip it. But before jumping into the Hawkeye State with both feet, let’s take a final pre-February look at New Hampshire, whose primary is now less than two weeks away.

A couple days ago, a Washington Examiner article was brought to my attention. Its author, Byron York, made a bewildering discovery. Over the weekend, York attended the New Hampshire Republican Party’s Presidential Town Hall, which “attracted the local officials, activists, and politicos who make up the state GOP establishment.” This last high-profile event in the state attracted a handful of GOP candidates to speak to the Republican audience. York, while covering the event, took the time to talk to those in attendance. What he discovered was a baffled electorate.

Nearly all the New Hampshire voters he talked to did not support Trump. Moreover, they had a tough time thinking of anyone they knew who did. They were totally miffed by the polls, which tell us that Trump has a strong plurality of support (about a third of the state, according to recent polling, and 20 points up on his closest competitors). Here are some thoughts from the confused Republicans:

  • “I don’t know anybody who supports him.”-Two Republican activists
  • “They’re not Republicans.”-Two party officials.
  • “I don’t see it. I don’t feel it. I don’t hear it, and I spend part of every day with Republican voters.”-A “well-connected state Republican”
  • “I have seen no mass emails, no door knocking, no phone banking.”
  • “I don’t know what is going on.”-Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu
  • “I don’t understand it. . . . It doesn’t make logical sense.”

Strange, right?

Well, perhaps not. It’s wishful thinking to think that York has unearthed evidence that Trump is not as popular as many of us fear. After all, it’s not just one or two polls, but relentless surveys, week after week, that inform us of Trump’s big lead. While he’s not a lock to win the state, I think we can trust that he is, and has been, holding a big lead for months.

What, then, accounts for the disconnect between the mystified Republicans at the Presidential Town Hall and the strong Trump poll numbers? Part of it might be the closeted Trump supporters I considered on Monday. Another part, however, was alluded to by York when he offered the possibility that there might be “some serious GOP Pauline Kaelism at work.”

Pauline Kael, you might know, is a late movie critic who famously noted of Nixon’s 1972 re-election, “I only know one person who voted for Nixon.” The quote is well-known because Nixon won 49 states that year. (Kael knew the point she was making, unbeknownst to most people who use this quote to criticize haughty east coast liberals.)

“Pauline Kaelism” conjures at a common problem — and I do think it’s a problem — of surrounding ourselves, insulating ourselves, with like-minded people and media. Remember how surprised many Republicans were that President Obama defeated Governor Romney four years ago? To them, it didn’t seem likely that a majority of the country could re-elect him after his ghastly first term. A reason why they felt that way was because most of their friends and media felt so similarly. Take a poll of a Republican’s or Democrat’s social group, and chances are most of them are in agreement politically. Then they seek out the media that reinforces their ideology. This is the reinforcement theory, and it’s a driver of the bitter and counterproductive partisanship of American politics. It’s why you know only a few Trump supporters, if any, or a whole bunch of them. (No, I take that back. You don’t know a whole bunch of them; if you did, that means you probably are one, and you wouldn’t be reading Presidential Politics for America.)

At the Presidential Town Hall, the voters who showed up were mainstream Republican voters who not only were interested in what the likes of Rubio, Kasich, and Bush had to say, but they were also voters who simply do not brush shoulders with Trump supporters. They already saw the world too differently to have overlapping peer circles. These two groups — Trumpeters and non-Trumpeters — had long ago split into separate social groups. This election didn’t divide them; they divided themselves before the election.

Thus, as much as I’d like to believe York found something that could keep New Hampshire competitive, I must confess it’d just be wishful thinking.

So what can keep New Hampshire competitive? We’re still counting on a Trump underperformance in Iowa, which would not only hurt his momentum, but also signal that his supporters are not that likely to show up to vote.

There has actually been little change recently in the Granite State. My posts last week noticed Kasich climbing, Bush stirring, and Christie fading. Kasich’s peak might be behind him, but aside from that, most trends have held over the last month; it’s still Trump by a mile and a handful of candidates fighting for second:

Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Bush, Christie

We now need to wait for Iowa to have any hope of a shake-up before the volatile final week. As I’ve said so many times before, if Trump wins Iowa, he’s going to win New Hampshire. At this point, there’s no other realistic way to catch him with so little time remaining. The establishment really wants a Cruz win in the caucuses.

Meanwhile, if Rubio, Bush, or Christie can have a strong Iowa finish (that would mean a third for Rubio, fourth for Bush, or fifth for Christie) (Kasich has given up on it), that would help the candidate heading into New Hampshire and mix these numbers up a bit. They couldn’t catch Trump if he wins Iowa, but they could earn a clear second and build momentum into the other February states. Ultimately, Iowa has never felt more important, and it’s just five days away.


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