Presidential Campaign

When voters go “undercover”

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In an outcome that many predicted, Republican front-runner Donald Trump lost the Utah caucuses on Tuesday, March 22. Trump’s loss to Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) was unsurprising.

What is surprising is a new poll suggesting that, for the first time in many decades, a Democratic candidate could carry Utah in the general election if Trump becomes the Republican nominee.

{mosads}And there is more bad news for Trump this week: the ever-growing negative coverage of his campaign. The Washington Post editorial board suggested that electing Trump would be a “radical risk.” A recent New York Times op-ed, quoting political science professor Julia Azari, described Trump’s election as a “nightmare scenario.” And foreign policy experts from across the political spectrum lambasted his response to the tragic attacks in Belgium.

This type of coverage is damaging to Trump for two reasons. The first, more obvious concern is that any undecided Republican primary voters might turn away from Trump in favor of his Republican opponents. But the second reason this coverage may damage Trump’s political future has to do with how it will affect his supporters in the long-term. Consistently negative coverage of a candidate can lead his supporters to feel embarrassed of their choice and head “undercover.” Trump is very much in danger of facing this fate.

Going undercover politically can take on a number of forms. It might mean hiding behind the label “undecided” when asked which candidate one prefers. It might also mean hiding behind the label “independent” when asked for one’s partisanship. Indeed, a plurality of Americans now opt for this seemingly neutral affiliation when pollsters ask them for their political identification.

If Trump secures the nomination, he will become the face of the Republican Party. The more negative coverage Trump receives, the more likely it is that ordinary rank and file Republicans will avoid politics altogether. Rather than be open about their political beliefs, people can hide behind the label “independent.”

We have spent several years studying this exact scenario: when the negative stigma of one’s partisanship sends them into political reclusion. We find over and over again that, when the going gets tough for political parties, many partisans hide under the cloak of the “politically independent” label. Why? Because it is easier to claim that you are undecided or independent rather than explain to a stranger sitting next to you on airplane why you support the candidate whom the press has referred to as a “small man.”

Already, we are seeing evidence that the Republican label is becoming stigmatized: The New York Times reports, based on their own polling, that 60 percent of Republicans say they are “mostly embarrassed by their party’s presidential campaign.”

And what about the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton? There is some evidence to suggest that she too may suffer the same fate. Clinton’s favorability ratings are lukewarm. Her integrity has been called into question and she faces harsh criticism from not only the right, but also the left. Coupled with the fact that a non-trivial proportion of Democrats have spent much of the primary season as vocal supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), claiming “independence” may be easier for Democrats who simply cannot get excited about the Clinton candidacy.

In fact, as CNN notes, recent polls show that both Clinton and Trump “are viewed negatively at historic levels,” giving both of their supporters little to brag about.

By falsely posing as independents or undecideds, undercover partisans can do real damage to the party they secretly support. Our research shows that undercover partisans not only say they are undecided, but they are also unlikely to do the types of things that candidates need their supporters to do: campaigning, volunteering, wearing buttons and putting up yard signs.

Moreover, American disdain for parties may also cause tremendous difficulties for general election pollsters. We have found through experimental studies that when people are reminded of the negative stigma associated with their party, they become less likely to admit their preferred candidate to others — even in anonymous surveys. Should voters refuse to be forthright about their political preferences, it will become difficult to determine how they will vote. Pollsters, after all, are not mind readers.

The idea that people would sheepishly hide their political preferences might seem unthinkable in the current political climate, one that is characterized by screaming supporters, massive rallies and flashy candidate swag. Many people have appeared to pick a political side and, what’s more, they are shown on the news every night as loud and proud of their political preferences. But the cacophony of political voices we see on cable news may be deceiving.

Certainly, people with strong political views will be public about their support for the candidates they prefer. People who attend Trump rallies will likely continue to do so regardless of what The Washington Post editorial board thinks of the Trump candidacy. People who strongly support Clinton will likely continue to do so despite whatever may or may not exist on her email server.

The people who are most likely to go undercover are those who are already less likely to be a vocal part of the debate. And, as these people retreat from both polls and public displays of partisan politics, we may be left with a divisive election that hinges on people too ashamed to admit that they’ve long ago chosen a side. 

Klar is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arizona. Krupnikov is an assistant professor of political science at Stony Brook University. They are the authors of “Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Tags 2016 presidential campaign Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton Independent Ted Cruz undecided voter

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