October 19, 2016 — Peter D. Hart, chairman of Hart Research Associates, a public opinion research firm that provides polls for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, discussed the driving forces behind the 2016 presidential election, and the influence of voter demographics and public opinion on the race.
Hart also discussed down-ballot races, polling, and what to expect after Election Day, among other topics. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as well as the full audio recording.
The four trends that have led to the unusual 2016 election cycle
Everybody thinks that somehow this election came from nowhere. But it has been coming—it’s like a tsunami, and we should have seen it coming.
Rising incivility: “Everybody thinks that somehow this election came from nowhere. But it has been coming—it’s like a tsunami, and we should have seen it coming. You start off with the incivility of this election, and people say, ‘God, I’ve never seen anything like it,’ but 25 years ago we had Jerry Springer…you look at everything that happens, whether it’s Twitter or on the net, should we be surprised that there’s that much incivility? The answer is no.”
Rising inequality: “What this election has really been about is a hollowed out middle…what we find is essentially the number of upper income communities moving up, the number of lower income communities moving up…and the share of middle income has declined.”
A lack of quality candidates: “We ended up with Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, and if I said to you two years ago ‘these are going to be three major candidates,’ you’d say ‘collectively they have zero experience’…we’ve had nothing but amateur professionals everywhere.”
The breakdown of traditional institutions: “Traditional power is now ineffective. We all thought when Bush raised a hundred million dollars, we’d seen how this campaign was going to play out, but what we learned was just the opposite…traditional power is no longer where it is.”
What to expect from a Clinton presidency
“The biggest challenge for her is she’s so much better as a private person than as a public candidate. She needs to be able to figure out how to relate in an open and transparent way with the public… one of her greatest strengths we haven’t really seen, and that is her ability to reach across the aisle. She is a consensus builder, rather than an ideologue…she will get into Congress in a way that Barack Obama didn’t, and she will get legislation though, rather than saying ‘we’re going to have a stalemate.’”
The trouble with polling
[An average of polls] is like taking the wines of 2011 and saying we’re going to pour them all together and have an average of the wine.
“Polling has become so diverse and difficult and we’re in a period of transition…some polls are exceptionally well done, some polls are done less well. A lot of polling is now done online where you can’t draw a truly honest and complete sample…the other thing is what I call the proliferation of polls…if you look now, any university says ‘I’ve got a great way of creating publicity—we’re going to create this poll,’ and they may be good and they may be bad…[An average of polls] is like taking the wines of 2011 and saying we’re going to pour them all together and have an average of the wine. Well maybe so, but it leaves a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.”
The role of the media in the election
“Ratings have driven this. Donald Trump has been a magnet…I love the “Morning Joe” element—they created him, then essentially he turned on them, and they turned on him…It’s like watching the Daytona 500—we all were waiting for the crash. We got it finally—the hot mic was the crash.”
Donald Trump’s limited appeal
“The white working class is Donald Trump’s base. Essentially, he has been able to talk to them about real issues in their lives…this is the one group where he’s running ahead of Romney. Every other group he’s running behind what Romney got, and Romney lost by 3 points…what do you do with West Virginia? What is its future? This is a national crisis…I think that the Republicans have done an excellent job of rubbing salt in their wounds, but I don’t think anyone has been able to figure out a balm to be able to help them.”
“Take a look at white college [educated voters]. Romney won that by 13 points, and in this election, at best it’s at zero, it’s dead even. A lot of that is being driven by Millennials…the reason the Democrats are strong is you’ve moved from an 80 percent white electorate to a 70 percent white electorate. And until the Republicans can talk to non-whites, their opportunities are limited.”
How Hillary Clinton could win over young voters
“Hillary’s problem is people don’t trust her…I always thought the way to deal with it was about character…when EpiPen happened, I said, that is so important and so central, that she should be out in front of the factory, saying ‘this is an outrage, these are the people I’m going to hold accountable, and these are the people I’m fighting for.’ When Wells Fargo happened she should have been out in front of Wells Fargo and saying ‘these are the people I’m going to go out and get, and these are the people I’m fighting for.’ At that stage, she establishes her character—who she’s for and who she’s against…[Millennials] worry about the kinds of things that Bernie talked about. So they are most reluctant, they’ve held back…would they vote for Donald Trump? There was zero chance…it was 81 to 9, they had no interest in Donald Trump. It’s only a question of would they stay with a third party or would they not vote. We don’t know the answer in terms of not voting, but it would appear that the third party has diminished.”
What influences voter turnout?
I think it is based not necessarily on stress or anything else, it’s based on the candidates.
“I think it is based not necessarily on stress or anything else, it’s based on the candidates. The true danger for the Clinton campaign is who decides to turn out. If you look over a period of time, at the African American vote, look at their level of interest in ‘04, ’08 ‘12, and now in this election…the interest is way off.”
“Barack Obama and Michele will be the two heroes of this election, both in terms of a moral message, but also in terms of inspiring a group of people that have to get to the polls. The Latino vote is up at this stage of the game, but down from ‘08. So I don’t think the turnout is going to be as great. And if you’re a Republican, you need to worry about that because, not surprisingly, their vote is down…this campaign has been so negative and so desultory that people are not inspired to go out and vote.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.