What an ‘unshackled’ Donald Trump might look like is becoming clear. He is going full conspiracy truther. He says that the media, the polls, the debate commission, the justice system, and the GOP are all uniting with the Democrats to defeat him and even alleges that Republican speaker Paul Ryan has made a ‘sinister deal’ with his enemies
Since Trump never backs down, never admits that he is wrong, and never apologizes, this behavior is likely to get accentuated in the days to come whatever happens. If his poll numbers improve, he will think that it is because his message is resonating and will increase its intensity. If his poll numbers get worse, he will think that it is because he is not being aggressive enough and increase its intensity. So we should brace ourselves for a ratcheting up of the rhetoric and prepare for what is going to be a hellish four weeks.
The nastiness has, I believe, made ordinary people much more wary about discussing politics than is normally the case. I was at a dinner party recently where two couples said that they were going to vote for Donald Trump. These people are all very well-to-do professionals who live in huge houses and drive luxury cars like Porsches and Mercedes Benzes. Because the others at the table were strongly opposed to Trump, there was a danger in the discussion becoming heated but because all the people were friends and have known each other for ages, a few of the others quickly shifted the discussion away to other topics. While I enjoy political discussions and was curious to ask them their reasons for supporting Trump, I did not want to re-open a topic that might clearly prove to be contentious and fruitless since such discussions rarely change minds.
The advice to avoid discussing politics in social settings is long standing but may be being heeded more in this particularly nasty election. The nastiness may also explain something that I have noticed this time and that is the paucity of yard signs. The number of yard signs for a particular candidate is a notoriously poor indicator of who will win but that does not prevent people from seizing upon it if it happens to indicate that their favored candidate is doing well. I recall how Peggy Noonan, a one-time Republican operative and now a particularly dopey columnist for the Wall Street Journal, confidently predicted a win for Mitt Romney in 2012 because of the size of his rallies and the number of Romney yard signs that she saw in her wanderings.
Yard signs in one’s neighborhood and the views of the people one is in contact with reflect a very narrow slice of the population, one that is likely to share many of your same values, and so should not be trusted. My neighborhood is strongly Democratic so I am not surprised to see their signs outnumber Republican ones. But apart from a few Hillary Clinton signs clustered at one end of the street, there are few signs this year, even on the lawns of those who have had them in the past. While there have been rumors of signs being stolen, those are perennial complaints. The reduced number of signs for any candidate may be significant of the zeitgeist. I suspect that this year, the election is so nasty that people are not putting out any signs just so they can have good relations with their neighbors.
As his poll numbers have plummeted and Republican politicians abandon him in droves, Trump is increasingly boasting about the size of his rallies as an indicator that he is truly winning and that this is evidence that the polls are rigged against him. But the size of rallies is another poor measure of support. We should not forget that the rallies for Bernie Sanders were much larger and more enthusiastic than those for Clinton and that Romney too was drawing huge crowds in the last days of the 2012 election.
The size of rallies does not imply that there is a ‘sleeper’ vote that may emerge on election day and surprise us all, since telling pollsters whom you are voting for does not carry with it any cost. Also the size of the ‘social desirability bias‘, where people tell pollsters what they think makes them look good rather than what they really feel, is usually small, of the order of one or two percent. Other common election year tropes, such as the existence of a ‘silent majority’, the emergence of an ‘October surprise’, etc. are used to instill fear and anxiety in supporters of the front runner and hope in the followers of the loser and thus ensure better ratings for the news media. But the reality is that dramatic election-swaying events are extremely rare. Historically, the person who was in the lead at this stage of the election has gone on to win the election. And Clinton has been consistently in the lead according to most poll averaging sites, with only a few suggesting that Trump led by a small amount for just a few days after the Republican convention.
Of course, some could argue that this election, and Donald Trump too, is sui generis and that all the lessons of the past do not apply. By its very nature, one cannot argue against such a view and all the evidence of people like Sam Wang that this is one of the most stable elections that he has seen will not carry any weight with them.