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Putting Hillary Clinton’s Basket Of Deplorables In Context

There are no breaks in the big news this election cycle. This week, our elections podcast tries to add some context and clarity to two big and complicated stories that broke over the weekend. First we discuss Hillary Clinton’s description of “half” of Donald Trump supporters as being in a “basket of deplorables.” Then, we talk about the coverage of Clinton’s health. Clinton felt ill at an event on Sunday morning and had to leave it early; later in the day, her campaign released a statement saying she’d been diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday. The incident played into long-running (and unfounded) conspiracy theories about her health, as well as the debate about how much candidates should reveal when it comes to their health. Also this week, we chat with Sasha Issenberg, a contributor to Bloomberg Politics, about a new project to provide real-time results data on Election Day.

Note: We have three live shows coming up this fall, two in New York and one in Chicago. Tickets are going fast. Get them here.

We’re experimenting with adding a transcript of a portion of the podcast here each week. Here’s some of our conversation about Clinton’s comment: “To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables, right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.” The transcript begins at the 7:15-minute mark and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jody Avirgan: Harry, Clinton said half of Trump supporters fit into this basket of deplorables. What did you think when you saw that as a stat?

Harry Enten: Look, what we know is that Trump supporters are more likely — even than other Republicans who supported other candidates during the primary — to have less warm feelings towards African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, those who are transgender, gays and lesbians, feminists. So, we know that this is the case. This is not some shocking thing. I think where you might get into trouble is where you assign the 50 percent to it. Is it 20 percent? Is it 10 percent? Is it 30 percent? I think if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s a significant portion of it.

Jody: Just to jump in here with some of the actual polling around this issue that shows the level of racism in Trump supporters, The Economist and YouGov did a poll of primary voters on racial resentment, measuring things like support for the idea that blacks are undeserving or want special assistance from government, and they found that 59 percent of Trump supporters in the Republican primary scored in the top quartile of racial resentment. A lot of people are sharing this Reuters poll to back up Clinton’s statements — Reuters asked voters to rate blacks and whites on character traits, and about 40 percent of Trump supporters placed whites higher on the “hardworking” scale than blacks.

Harry: And what percentage of Clinton supporters?

Jody: Well, that was the other part. Twenty-five percent of Clinton supporters said the same. So, since we are going to take her analysis and evaluate it on face value, she is really citing the fact that there’s real racism in this country and we’ve seen it kind of enabled by the Trump campaign, right, Nate?

Nate Silver: Trump right now is getting about 40 percent of or likely voters, so half of that is 20 percent of the country. … Can I believe that 20 percent of the electorate consists of white people — not that there can’t be other types of racism — but consists of white people that are more racist than not? Sure. That’s an imprecise estimate, but sure, it’s not ridiculous. Beyond that, I think you get into false precision, though. A couple of years ago, my colleague Allison McCann and I looked at the general social survey which asks about racial attitudes in a lot of different ways, and of the white population, you can get anywhere from five percent to 50 percent, depending on how you ask the question about anti-black racism. And there’s a question about how they split between Clinton supporters and Trump supporters, but if someone submitted that in an article at FiveThirtyEight, we’d say “needs citation.” And even if there was truth, we would probably end up writing the article to say there’s no one precise number. But it’s not ridiculous to say that 20 percent of the country is racist and that most of those people are voting for Trump.

Harry: Right. Depending on who you include in this basket, you’ll get different numbers. So, if you ask Americans, as Gallup did, the willingness to vote for a president of various backgrounds, you would see that 90 percent of Republicans said that they’d be willing to vote for a black president, yet only 45 percent of Republicans said that they’d be willing to vote for a Muslim president. So, this is like one of those things where it really kind of depends on your definition. The more groups of people you put into that basket of saying who you wouldn’t be willing to vote for, the more likely it is that you could get up to that 20 percent of the country or that half of Trump supporters. I don’t think it’s a ridiculous number when you look at all of these things, but to put a precise measurement on it is where you get into trouble.

Jody: And, Clare, this kind of made me think of the piece that you wrote about the state of the GOP or the end of the GOP, and how the GOP is grappling with this, because that was in many ways Clinton’s point. We see within the GOP and we see within this candidate that they are giving voice, and having to deal with as a party, a large element of racists in their midst.

Clare Malone: As the country gets more diverse ethnically, younger, and more educated — more people are going to college these days — the Republican Party has gotten whiter, a lot older, and a lot less educated than everyone else. What I say when I read things and I can’t quite wrap my head around it, sometimes I say it’s just my 1987 brain, where I can intellectualize it, but there’s something about me that just culturally doesn’t get it — and I think what the GOP is dealing with here is a lot of people who have 1940s brain, or there’s just this thing where they can’t quite move along and catch the drift of cultural things, and that surfaces in sexism and racism. … And the demographics, unfortunately, lend the GOP to have those people make up a bigger proportion of the party than the Democrats. But there are sexist and racist Democrats, too.

Jody: Let’s transition a little bit to evaluating Clinton’s statements as rhetoric and as campaign posture. So, Nate — was this a good choice of words on her part?

Nate: First of all, let me just say, I kind of resent the whole, “Well, we’re savvy journalists and we know maybe technically the statement is right, but how will it play with the public?” To me, that’s quite disdainful to the audience, and I’ll tell you my personal experience this year covering the campaign. I was one of those people who said, “Oh, sure, racism exists in America, but people are too quick to chalk up problems to racism,” right, and I think that’s one of the things that contributed to me being slow to recognize the Trump phenomenon and the breadth that it had within the Republican party. And of course, a lot of people are a little racist, some people are a lot racist — it’s a slippery kind of distinction at some point. I don’t know why it’s so un-PC to point out that, hey, you saw when Trump had the biggest rises in the Republican party primaries in the polls. It was when he was baiting people about Mexicans and Muslims and after terrorist incidents and whatever else. Is it smart politically? I guess I’d say the Clinton people seem to think it’s at least OK. You can’t call this a gaffe. They’ve been using this line before, and instead of totally backing down from it, they sort of doubled down and said, well, maybe I shouldn’t have said half, but the basic sentiment is right.

Harry: Fact is, most voters think that Donald Trump can be described as a racist or as a bigot. YouGov polled last week — 54 percent said that yes, they would use the word “racist” to describe Donald Trump. 52 percent said, yes, “bigoted” is a word that they would use to describe Donald Trump. This is not happening in a vacuum, folks. And if you look at the ad Donald Trump put out trying to capitalize on this, he’s talking to his base, he’s not talking to other voters. Fact is, at this point, if you’ve said you’re going to vote for Donald Trump, the polls indicate 90 percent of those voters at least are not going to be voters for Hillary Clinton. The question as to whether or not that this a gaffe or something that would hurt Hillary Clinton really comes down to whether or not you believe that those voters who are persuadable one way or another were actually affected by this in a negative way for Hillary Clinton, and I haven’t seen a single piece of evidence to suggest that is so.

Jody: I just want to add one thing that what Harry was saying made me think of: If she’s going to make this argument — and I think we want our leaders to call out racism when they see it — I wish she had not done it in this pseudo-polling kind of language of “half,” which sounds not very scientific. It sounds sort of rhetorical. She should have cited the polls that Harry just cited. Stand up there and say, “Look at this polling. This is scary. This is happening in our country.” And be precise, and be directed, and talk about it. But instead it comes off as dismissive about large swaths of voters as opposed to [addressing] a phenomenon in this country that we really need to reckon with in the way that we’re discussing.

Clare: Yeah, she was making a real statement, and I would encourage people to read Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie — he’s written and talked about that. I think what’s bothering everyone, even if what she said was true, is that people are interpreting it as her saying it in a condescending way, and if you’re a Republican and you’re sort of like, “OK, I was supporting Cruz or Kasich, but maybe I’m going to vote for Trump,” I think the pushback you’re getting from a lot of people is: No one really wants to admit that they’re in a political coalition with racists even if they know it. This conversation made me think of a quote from a very thoughtful, conservative guy I talked to for our piece, “The End of the Republican Party,” and how he was sort of a Tea Party activist. He was talking with me about the atmosphere that he saw starting to stir up in 2010 and 2014, and he said to me, this isn’t the most artful way to say it, but it’s like — where do you go when the only people who seem to agree with you on taxes hate black people? And he basically said, I think I made the wrong choice. I didn’t call people out enough on being racist, but I agree with them on half this stuff. And so, I think for a lot of Republicans, it is an uncomfortable reckoning of saying, yeah, some of these people hold abhorrent views, but it’s kind of a rough thing to hear from the outside, even if it is true.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in Apple Podcasts, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.