The utterly dominant storyline across the media this morning is that Donald Trump is now inevitable as Ted Cruz weakens and grows desperate. These storylines are important because they become self-reinforcing in media coverage, influencing voters and donors. Only actual news, such as voting results, can change their direction, so tomorrow’s Indiana primary is doubly important because it will either disrupt the story line or pretty well engrave it in stone.
If Trump loses in an upset, he’ll point out that he still has room to attract a clear majority of delegates, which is true. But a loss would revive delegate-counting, rule-parsing speculation about a brokered convention, and politicos will re-read Friday’s column by the WSJ’s Kimberley A. Strassel arguing that the nomination is not a done deal even if Trump shows up with 1,237 pledged delegates. If Trump wins, as expected, Cruz will point out that Trump has still not crossed the finish line, which is true. But the current narrative of inevitability will become almost impossible to divert.
I’m assuming the narrative is right, and we know who the nominees will be. On that basis, polling results released Friday by Gallup become highly illuminating. The bottom line is that they’re encouraging news for Hillary Clinton.
Gallup asked 7,500 Americans to rate each of the four remaining candidates on 12 traits. What’s surprising is the extreme differences in how the candidates are viewed. Trump achieved the highest rating of any candidate on any trait – 84% think he’s “competitive” – and also the lowest rating of any candidate on any trait – only 19% think he “cares about individuals.” Bernie Sanders wallops the field on the caring measure; Clinton and Cruz do only slightly better than Trump. And only Sanders strikes many Americans as even slightly “inspiring” or “visionary;” his modest ratings around 50% beat the others by 20 to 25 points.
Those numbers are interesting but possibly not very important. As we noted a couple of weeks ago, research by Princeton neuroscientist Alexander Todorov shows that voter judgments of competence – formed in less than a second by looking at a candidate’s face – predict voting behavior with remarkable accuracy. Gallup didn’t ask about competence specifically, but a cluster of four traits forms a good proxy for it. Here’s how Clinton and Trump compare:
Trait Clinton Trump
Prepared 51% 27%
Consistent 28% 26%
Analytical 43% 29%
Focused 55% 44%
Clinton is rightly criticized as a dreary, inauthentic campaigner. But if Todorov’s research is right, those failings may not be much of a disadvantage. The research would also suggest that quite a few Republicans at least think Trump is more competent than Cruz or Kasich. Until the convention, that’s what counts.
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