There is a certain something to momentum in politics.
I’m not talking about the kind of momentum that you hear about most of the time, when a candidate goes through a couple of states that favor them demographically (like Sanders in the Northwest or Cruz through the Bible Belt). Bur rather, I’m talking about the kind of momentum you get toward the end of an election when it begins to look like a nominee is inevitable, and when people in their primaries start looking forward to the general election.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders simply ran out of time. Sanders was making inroads with voters, raising a ton of money, and inspiring a veritable army of volunteers. All the while, voters were being reintroduced to Hillary Clinton, a presumptive nominee who is disliked to an almost historic degree. We discussed Sanders-Clinton at length last week, I hope that you click through and read it.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken to friends, read dozens of endorsements, and spoken to literally hundreds of strangers. In doing so, I noticed an unusual phenomenon — people who prefer Sanders on policy, and who like Sanders more, but who are voting Clinton anyway. There has been an incredible amount of, “I really agree with Sanders’s policy proposals, and I really hope that Clinton does them.” I’d say that about 20%-30% of the Clinton supporters that I spoke to have expressed some version of that idea to me without prompting.
It got me to thinking about voters and momentum and the psychology behind wanting to vote for the eventual winner and/or the person you think will do better in the general election. If you were an undecided in Pennsylvania or Connecticut who liked Sanders but who saw Clinton win dominantly in New York, how would you vote? Indeed, voters who decided in the last week in Pennsylvania — comprising a whopping 24% of those who voted — went for Clinton 55-44. This is a huge reversal from earlier states, with no particular explanation for the trend.
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There is a similar sense of inevitability on the Republican side. Trump has become the inevitable Republican nominee, and we are seeing the psychological effect of that in the primary results. A month ago, 70% of women had an unfavorable view of Trump. Of course, 58% of men held the same view, by far the worst of any remaining candidate, but the problem with women was bigger.
Trump failed to win women in Michigan on March 8th, tying Ted Cruz 29% to 29%, with Kasich a close third at 25%. He squeaked out small victories with women on March 15th in Florida beating Rubio 40%-33%, and in Indiana, beating Cruz 35%-31%. Also on March 15th, North Carolinan women rejected Trump and voted for Cruz 39%-36%.
But then something happened. Trump scored an enormous victory with women in Pennsylvania (54%), Connecticut (55%), and Maryland (50%). To be sure, Trump scored major victories with men as well, extending his lead over his opponents in both demographics, but the change in the women’s vote defies explanation.
For the first time, Trump has surpassed 50% in national polls.
Have his policies changed? Have his opponents made high-profile stumbles? The answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no.” His poll numbers are up but his favorability numbers haven’t changed. All that has changed is that Trump went from likely nominee to certain nominee, and people are catching the wave. Most voters might still dislike Trump, but a combination of 1) wanting to say you voted for the winner and 2) electability is a potent cocktail.
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Momentum and inevitability is an interesting quirk that is unique to the primary process, thanks to the amount of time over which it plays out. But if you find yourself wondering why races that once appeared close have become less so, this may have a lot to do with it.