Why most voters stick with Trump or Clinton no matter what

Despite serious reservations about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, voters overwhelmingly back the candidate on their partisan team. This election shows how deep that tendency runs. 

Craig Ruttle/AP
In this Wednesday, April 6, 2016 file photo, a Donald Trump supporter waves a US flag as he and others face off with anti-Trump protesters about 50 feet away, near the site of a campaign appearance by the Republican presidential candidate in Bethpage, NY.

Why would anyone vote for Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump? He/she is a disaster, obviously temperamental/untrustworthy. Have you heard the way she/he talks about emails/women? It’s unfit for the Oval Office. Sad!

In the craziness that is the 2016 election supporters of both candidates have a hard time understanding the choice their opponents have made. Most think their nominee the obviously superior Oval Office contender. In their view, the logic they’ve used to reach that conclusion is unassailable. How could any thinking voter conclude otherwise?

One word: teams.

While this political cycle is singular in many ways, and will be the source of political science doctoral dissertations for a century to come, in others it’s a reflection of normal American political behavior. One of those norms is that, in presidential elections, partisanship rules.

Most American voters have a party identity, either through family heritage, or where they live, or their job and education. And in all but outlier years, 85 to 90 percent of Republicans will back the GOP candidate. Eighty-five to 90 percent of Democrats will back the Democrat.

That’s pretty much where things stand Monday. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week, 89 percent of Democrats backed Clinton. Eight-six percent of Republicans backed Trump.

“This is what really does define American presidential elections, and many other elections. They are partisan,” says David Redlawsk, chair of the University of Delaware Department of Political Science and International Relations and co-author of the 2007 book “How Voters Decide.”

Now for the disclaimer: this is about the general dynamic of the overall US political process. In today’s partisan US, almost equally split between the two big parties, national elections are won and lost at the margins. A few percentage points either way makes all the difference in the world.

It might be important that Trump’s support from Republicans is a tick lower than Clinton’s support from Democrats. Recent sex assault allegations could drive Trump’s numbers down a bit further – they haven’t been fully reflected yet in major polls.

On the other hand, partisanship could partly explain why Trump’s percentage of the vote remains where it is. Since the first debate, he’s been hammered by week of bad news and missteps. He’s behind, substantially so, in average of major polls. But as Nate Cohn of the New York Times noted last week, the bottom hasn’t yet fallen out for Trump. He remains within striking distance in some major swing states.

Rank-and-file Republicans have yet to flee the Trump campaign in substantial proportions. There’s been a lot of talk about a split of the GOP into factions at its top levels, but that sort of fissure hasn’t shown up at lower levels, says Matt Grossmann, a professor of political science at Michigan State University and co-author of the new book “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.”

Nor will it show up, says Grossmann.

Voting against the other party

Among other things, negative partisanship is glue that unites both major parties in the modern age, whatever the failings of their own politicians.

“Everybody hates the other party a lot,” he says.

This is apparent in polls of Trump and Clinton supporters. Both Trump and Clinton voters cite the shortcomings of the other candidate as a big reason, in many cases the only reason, for their vote choice, according to recent Pew Research data. It’s the number one factor on both sides, outpacing runners-up “will bring change” (Trump) and “experience/will get things done” (Clinton).

Plus, both Clinton and Trump are adequate representatives of their respective party identities, in Grossman’s view. Clinton’s list of proposed policies and multi-point plans satisfies the desires of the Democratic Party’s many interest groups for pragmatic action on issues. Trump is in some ways a break with Republican orthodoxy, but overall he represents the symbolic ideological nature of the GOP.

To many in Trump’s party his anti-immigrant and nationalistic politics simply reflects the broad sweep of conservatism writ large. He’ll stand athwart what they see as the Democratic push of the nation leftwards, towards socialism.

While Trump is facing resistance from elements of the GOP, particularly educated women, “I think the notion is way overblown that this is a crack-up of the Republican Party,” says Grossmann.

Four types of US voters

In general, there are four different types of voters in America, according to research from the University of Delaware’s David Redlawsk and his co-author Richard Lau of Rutgers University.

One is the “rational choice” voter, the sort of person who reads every issue paper from every candidate and tries to sort out what is best for their self-interest. Another is the partisan model, called “early socialization,” who relies on a partisanship developed early in their life to provide clues for which candidate is likely to reflect their values.

Third is the single-issue voter, who looks at and decides based on a candidate’s position on guns, say, or education policy. The fourth type is the low-information voter, the sort of person easily swayed by illogical conspiracy charges.

The large majority of voters fall into the second, partisan-oriented category. They use “Democrat” or “Republican” as a confirmatory stamp about how a candidate would behave in office, without bothering to learn too much about positions and issues at stake.

“Our model 2 voter ... is absolutely prevalent,” says Redlawsk. “The current election is a perfect example of this.”

Remember when pundits chewed over the Bernie Sanders vote, and whether it would coalesce behind Clinton? In large part it has, given her 90 percent party support. Trump’s consolidated the vast majority of Republicans as well.

What about independents?

What about independents? Aren’t they a big slice of the electorate?

Yes they are, but most aren’t really free agents. Research has long shown that independents – who make up around a third of the electorate – are themselves split into thirds. About one-third are closet Republicans who just don’t like labels, one-third are closet Democrats who don’t want to call themselves such, and one-third are true swing voters.

That true swing vote has represented only about five percent of the electorate in recent years. And it’s the least-educated, lowest-information faction.

And the closet Republicans and Democrats vote just like their declared party member fellows.

“They are just as partisan as partisans,” says Redlawsk.

Emotion a factor

Laid out this way, the course of the election seems ... fixed, in the sense that there’s little flexibility for movement one way or another. That would explain why it is as close as it is, with Trump getting over 40 percent of the national vote. But surely there is room for other influences in elections, such as hope, a desire for change, and other emotions.

And that’s true. Redlawsk attended more than 100 candidate events leading up to this year’s Iowa caucuses, and he remembers in particular one Trump rally in the eastern part of the state near the Illinois border. He sat with the crowd, and when he came out of what was a typical full and heated Trump event, he thought, I get it. Trump is the superman who is going to fix things by the force of his will.

“This reached deeply to a very disaffected group of people,” Redlawsk says. “This is beyond the cognitive and thinking stuff. You can’t answer the question ‘Why Trump?’ without talking about his tapping of emotion.”

That’s not a new thing in US politics. The founding fathers squabbled over big issues like angry raccoons. The election of 1800 featured the worst kind of mud slung by supporters of Thomas Jefferson at John Adams, and vice versa.

“I think emotion has always mattered. The problem is, emotions are just a lot harder to get a handle on,” says Redlawsk.

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