It is usually not a good idea to compare polls from two different pollsters, but this is strange enough to deserve some further thoughts. In two polls roughly covering the same period, Quinnipiac has Clinton leading Trump by mere two percent, while ABC/WaPo has the gap at 12 percent. Looking under the hood, the difference is driven largely by the difference in attitude among the college educated Republicans, especially women: if they feel that they would rather choose Clinton over Trump, the gap grows hugely. If they do not, the gap is minuscule. Indeed, it is instructive that Quinnipiac does not place Trump as doing better than the ABC/WaPo, just that Clinton does much worse in their numbers.
This is not a new pattern: throughout the entire primary period, Trump has done poorly in head to head polls precisely because he has done badly among the college-educated, affluent partisan Republicans. His support among the working class Republicans and Republican-leaning independents without college education, in general, has been fairly consistent and stable. On such occasions when Trump appeared to have “surged” to near parity with Clinton, e.g. after he formally clinched the GOP nomination, he did so because, at least for that period, affluent and educated Republicans closed ranks behind him. When he begins to lose them, i.e. when Trump got into pissing contest with the Ohio judge and Republican big wigs began denouncing him, his numbers fall overall.
Taking a few steps back, this is a remarkable pattern. The conventional wisdom in political psychology, at least in relation to American politics, is that the educated and affluent voters with strong partisan ties are characterized by greater stability in their political choice. Yet, in this year’s race, these voters, at least among the Republicans, are the unstable ones. (One might wonder if the same would be true for the Democrats, if Sanders won the nomination, only to be opposed by a reasonably “moderate” Republican.)
There is, of course, a good reason why these voters should be unstable. Trump makes no sense to them. He seems “reasonable” enough some days, but totally out of loop the next. These “usual” voters might decide that Trump is acceptable some days, but that confidence is subverted the next. Without having had chance to build a strong prior on what to make of Trump, their decisions fluctuate wildly. However, these are not exactly unexpected reactions, even if these reactions seen out of the “conventional” voters might be. These are exactly how “low propensity” voters behave with regards conventional politics. Without interest or awareness of the political conventions, they make are forced to decisions on limited information and awareness. Since very little of their decisions are based on firm foundations but on episodic and idiosyncratic judgments, they are liable to change rapidly. They don’t know what they are “supposed” to think because they don’t spend that much time on politics, compared to those who pay attention to know what is “supposed” to go with the Democrats and Republicans.
But Trump is not “supposed” to go with the Republicans, at least the usual, conventional variety. He is obviously successful in connecting with the less affluent, less educated voters with a significant fraction of whom he has built a stable enough bond, for whatever reasons that are orthogonal to the usual “Republican” stripes. In so doing, he has inverted the psychology of how voters evaluate politics.
This begs the question whether the maintenance of the “usual” politics, including the notions of what “liberal” and “conservative” or “Democrat” and “Republican” are supposed to mean is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. The “usual” voters, with a certain understanding of politics show up at the polling place and make choices accordingly. In anticipation of that choice, political actors array themselves along the “usual” political dimension for these voters to see and identify who’s who. The voters’ understanding of what is supposed to go with what in politics, in turn, is shaped by the politics that they observe, which fits their existing preconceptions by design. Those who don’t get the conventions, on the other hand, do not know how to choose and are liable to stay out of the electorate. Thus, the circle is completed and the sunspot equilibrium sustains itself. But this equilibrium is sustained ONLY if the vast majority of the voters buy into the conventional politics, of what is “supposed” to go with what. Once the normally inactive voters are activated and the decisions are made on the factors normally kept out of the conventional politics–e.g. immigration, Islam-terrorism linkage, overall policy towards Middle East, etc.–there is no more reason to believe that the better awareness of the “conventional” politics–which, after all, isn’t there any more–should lead to greater participation or increased stability in vote choice.
This is just an interesting observation for now, probably of no consequence to the actual election. The only serious path for Trump to even the minimalist electoral victory in November requires that he keep all the Republican voters from 2012 while making a reasonably sized inroad among the “unusual” voters, of weak partisanship, lower education, and limited economic means. As things stand now, Trump may be able to pull off the latter feat with considerable ease, but the former seems difficult to say the least. The conventional wisdom might be that partisans, in the end, vote and stick to their party…but that presumes “conventional” politics which we do not have. If my hunch is right, we might see a big drop in turnout among the educated and the affluent, especially among the Republicans, coupled with a surge in turnout among the uneducated and working class. (I’d love to see an election where the turnout among those who didn’t graduate from college tops that for the college graduates, at least for one party–but that might be too much to ask, or is it?) That, from the perspective of someone who studies elections, will be truly a most beautiful and wonderful thing to see.