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Was Trump’s Endorsement Of Roy Moore A Mistake?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, all! Especially Julia, who’s chatting with us today because Clare and Perry are apparently too good for us. Our topic for today: President Trump’s endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. (And the Republican National Committee decision to support him again.) My question is … what gives? Is this a political mistake?

First, (🔥) takes?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I think it’s a stupid move. Trump is clearly trying to score a “win,” but it’s far from certain that Moore will get him one. All that’s happened in that case is that he’s endorsed an accused child molester.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s not … not a mistake. It likely won’t substantially change anything, but it’s hard to see what good it could do for the president or Moore.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Trump coming out to endorse Moore is extremely … unsurprising. And, yeah, I don’t think it will change very much.

julia_azari: I don’t mean to underestimate the moral outrage at stake. It’s just not clear to me that moral outrage outweighs many other factors in contemporary politics.

harry: I guess my question is: What is it that made Trump go from mostly endorsing Moore — essentially by attacking his opponent, Democrat Doug Jones — to fully endorsing him. Why do that?

natesilver: Have you ever known Donald Trump to take a half-measure? Everything plays out into the most extreme possible version of itself.

micah: He may have half-colluded?

harry: LOL.

natesilver: The collusion was spectacular, I’ll tell you that much.

harry: He ordered the code red!

micah: You’re goddamn right I did!

julia_azari: So the “I hate political correctness” narrative seems to have worked out well for Trump in general. I wonder if he thinks this can be filed under that somehow — i.e., liberals are going after someone for accusations that either didn’t happen, or were a long time ago, or weren’t as bad as they sound (to gather up a range of talking points made in Moore’s defense).

micah: Yeah, I buy that.

Supporting Moore fits snuggly into Trump’s larger message and image.

natesilver: It might also be more personal than that:

And Trump might see himself as being unfairly attacked by the liberal media, just as Moore has been.

micah: No self-tweet-quoting allowed here.

julia_azari: Dammit. I saw Nate’s move there as an entree into quoting my own favorite takes of mine.

micah: LOL.

harry: I was reading this great book … “The Signal and the Noise.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

natesilver: Now available for just $9.99 on Amazon dot com.

micah: OK, so Nate and I had an argument about this the other day, but how about this theory: Trump moved to a full-throated Moore endorsement because he has internal polling that shows Moore’s lead increasing and so wants to hop on the bandwagon.

Any takers?

natesilver: Oh god.

julia_azari: It’s nice and simple, so that’s a point in favor.

natesilver: That line of thinking is like always wrong. If people start talking about Moore’s internal polls, I’m going to bet heavily on Jones, and vice versa. Also, the public polling tells a fairly confusing story.

The Emerson College poll showed the race moving slightly toward Jones, although Emerson has been on the Moore-leaning side of the consensus recently. And the Gravis Marketing poll showed essentially no movement and Jones still ahead.

julia_azari: When coming up with explanations like these, I tend to think the one with the fewest assumptions that we can’t really prove is the best one.

harry: Trump is likely looking at public polling. So it’s simple, and I like it.

natesilver: The simplest answer is that Trump supports Moore because birds of a feather flock together. And then the RNC backtracked so as to stay on the same page as Trump. Also, the GOP brand was already going to take the PR hit once Trump endorsed Moore, so why not drop a few bucks on him?

harry: If they’re so similar, then why in the heck did Trump not endorse him in the primary? Honest question.

natesilver: Endorsing Luther Strange was one of the most out-of-character things Trump has done.

And he might have felt a little burned by the experience when Strange lost.

julia_azari: The Strange endorsement was … please stop me before I make the joke.

harry: Haha.

julia_azari: I’m not sure how to say this politely, but I think Strange sucked up to Trump effectively and that explains the endorsement.

natesilver: Or maybe Mitch McConnell convinced Trump that Strange was a key vote on health care and taxes (which is not a totally crazy notion).

But, anyway, I think the media has a pretty big bias toward seeing all actions as deeply strategic. When sometimes, it’s just Trump mashing buttons and everyone else playing cleanup.

micah: So, do you think Trump or Republicans will pay a political price for supporting Moore?

julia_azari: It’s hard to see the case for a big short-term impact. There’s already a significant gender gap in the national vote. And there’s so much news, including many sexual misconduct revelations on the other side of the political spectrum, that it is easy for things to be drowned out.

micah: Yeah … that seems right to me.

Anyone want to make the case that this endorsement hurts Trump and/or Republicans?

julia_azari: I will say that presidents getting involved in congressional elections rarely goes well or adds anything

micah: Say more!

julia_azari:

  1. 1. It’s kind of a norm violation, although that norm is eroding. (See my piece about FDR from last week.) Congress is a distinct and co-equal branch.
  2. This race is messy for Republicans (see my piece about their lack of good options for dealing with Moore), and as Nate has pointed out, Moore has lost a lot of support in a very solidly red state. Why highlight the party connection as Trump has?
  3. Relatedly, it illustrates just how nationalized party politics are. That offers some advantages for presidents, who get to set the agenda for their parties. But if members of Congress are always running with the party’s national brand on their backs, it washes away some of their independence — their distinct, district-based political support because of relationships they have there.

I don’t think Trump endorsing Moore is a huge turning point for that phenomenon, but it doesn’t do anything to enhance the independence of Congress.

natesilver: It’s also one of a large number of factors that could have a drip, drip, drip effect on the Republican Party brand. And there’s some precedent for this sort of thing mattering, e.g. with Mark Foley. With that said, it’s going to be pretty hard to pick out the effect of Moore from everything else.

And seeming Democratic hypocrisy on Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers might dull the effect some.

micah: OK, so … speaking of Conyers. He announced on Tuesday that he’s resigning (well, sorta). Does that put the Trump endorsement in a different political light? Or does it help Democrats have a sharper, more coherent message on this issue?

julia_azari: I don’t know. That Nancy Pelosi clip (in which she called Conyers an icon when asked about the allegations against him) might be forever.

harry: Well, there’s still the Franken situation and the initial response to Conyers, but … what a contrast. On back-to-back days, you get the president endorsing Moore and Conyers being essentially forced to resign.

natesilver: Yeah, part of my critique of how Democrats handled the issue is that it felt like the discussion had reached an inflection point when the Franken accusations hit, and Democrats had an opportunity to claim the moral high ground, which they declined to take.

You can attempt to regain the moral high ground, I guess, but it isn’t as easy as keeping it in the first place.

We’ll see if there’s renewed pressure on Franken to step down, though.

micah: And the moral high ground matters, obviously, but does it matter politically?

julia_azari: ^ strong candidate for the 2017-est sentence ever.

But of course, Democrats — including prominent feminists — didn’t take a hardline with Bill Clinton back in the 1990s. As long as these misconduct cases are treated as individual problems, I think the broader political agendas will prevail.

micah: Wait, so imagine a world where Democrats have forced out both Franken and Conyers. Is the party better off in that world?

I’m trying to get at whether the moral high ground is important politically? Whether message coherence matters, basically.

harry: I don’t think they’re worse off.

natesilver: I think Democrats made a political mistake, yes.

micah: Nate, you’re not explaining how the mistake hurts them.

natesilver: Because they look like fucking hypocrites, that’s how.

harry: ANGRY NATE SMASH.

natesilver: And looking like hypocrites makes it easy for a Republican to default to partisanship in rationalizing a vote for Moore.

Or Trump for that matter.

micah: Couldn’t I argue that the default to partisanship is so strong that it would happen anyway? So why play by a different set of rules?

julia_azari: I can see both sides of this — to the degree that Democrats lose out politically because of an “enthusiasm gap” or a decline in support from people to whom consistency is important, I could see a case for this mattering on the margins.

Because a lot is happening on the margins now. (Because the country is closely divided.)

But mostly I assume that partisanship matters and the state of the economy matters and the duration of incumbency matters. Racial attitudes matter.

Everything else has a high burden of proof with me.

natesilver: For one thing, Micah, the Democrats are supposed to be the “woke” party on treatment of women (and good for them). So they look more hypocritical if one of their members abuses or harasses women, in somewhat the same way that an anti-gay-marriage Republican would look more hypocritical than a liberal (ostensibly straight) Democrat if they had a gay affair.

micah: You can tell Nate is mad when he uses my name in his response.

julia_azari: So I’m also certainly angry at the situation. It would be nice to think at least one party had consistency on this issue. And as a woman in a male-dominated field, yup.

harry: I tend to think about politics in this way: When you can do something that is morally correct and isn’t going to hurt you politically, why not do it? What’s the argument for keeping Conyers and Franken around?

julia_azari: But Democrats have consistently been inconsistent, and this has included women.

I’m getting into territory that’s not quite my expertise, but I’ve thought a lot about this lately. I think the answer to Harry’s excellent question is that the assumptions about these kinds of accusations run deeper than the more immediate political ideologies. It’s possible that Democratic women find it difficult to believe that people they like and respect and who champion their issues are engaged in truly wrong behavior.

micah: Yeah.

So it’s hypocrisy, but unintentional, sorta.

OK …

Back to Alabama. Let’s take Trump’s endorsement from the other side: Does it help Moore?

julia_azari: I find it hard to imagine that it will bring back Republican voters who decided to back Jones instead. Might it encourage people who had decided not to vote? That’s more plausible but not an obvious conclusion by a long shot.

harry: Remember when Strange got endorsed in the primary by Trump? That didn’t help Strange. Granted, it was one of the weaker endorsements I’ve seen.

natesilver: I guess the answer is … sure? Trump’s still reasonably popular in Alabama. But I kind of think a Trump anti-endorsement (coming out against Moore) would have mattered more than coming out for Moore, if that makes sense.

In other words, I think voters assumed that Trump implicitly backed Moore already. The only way it could hurt him, though, is if Alabamaians feel like it’s national politicians interfering in their election, which they don’t like.

But that explanation feels too cute by half for me.

micah: Yeah … that’s an easier line for a Republican to sell than it is for a Democrat, IMO.

julia_azari: So when I wrote that piece about the party not being able to get rid of Moore, I was surprised at how much discussion it provoked about national vs. state party organizations and interests. But that convo was mostly among party politics scholars on Twitter, not rank-and-file voters in Alabama. A national politician doing something unexpected might be seen as interference, but a Republican president endorsing a Republican Senate candidate is not that wild on its face

micah: We gotta wrap … so, before I ask for final thoughts, one more question: If Jones wins, does it hurt Trump? Or does it tell us anything about Trump’s standing with GOP voters? (Trump would have backed the losing candidate in the Alabama primary and general elections.)

harry: I have a very hard time believing that a generic Republican would lose in Alabama, even in this national environment that so favors Democrats. That said, if Jones were to win, it wouldn’t have been possible without the national environment being where it is — it’s a combination of Moore’s crummy candidacy and Trump’s low national standing.

julia_azari: I basically agree with Harry and would add that Trump’s political influence is maybe a bit inconsistent.

natesilver: I’m not quite sure what the narrative is going to be if Jones wins. Part of what I was trying to argue on Monday is that it’s really, really hard for a Democrat to win in Alabama — even against a candidate like Roy Moore! — so Jones coming close is a pretty impressive outcome. But I don’t know that I expect the mainstream media to interpret the race that way.

I do think Trump has mildly raised the stakes, though — a Jones win will be seen as reflecting the limits of his powers of persuasion, when it might not have been before.

julia_azari: Trump is unpopular generally, remains fairly popular with GOP voters, has prominent defectors like Sen. Jeff Flake — that is not normal — and has few real political alliances, which limits his influence.

micah: So a Trump endorsement is worth less than your average presidential endorsement?

julia_azari: The thing that strikes me about Alabama is it’s not a close state at least in presidential elections — it went from solid Democratic to solid Republican. This race being close could signal that Moore is a crappy candidate, but he is a crappy candidate who won the primary and maintained local party support. This could be evidence of the general crumbling of governing majorities in the country, if that makes any sense.

On balance I’d say yes, Trump’s endorsement has below-average value. He doesn’t have deep political roots. If he endorses you, it’s not clear exactly who comes along.

micah: Any other final thoughts?

natesilver: It’s a really weird dynamic — (i) lower turnout gives Democrats more of a chance (if the whole electorate turns out, we know Alabama is a really red state), but (ii) it’s good for Moore if the harassment/molestation allegations stay out of the news. Trump’s endorsement could help with GOP turnout, but it also sort of puts the race back in the news, which is risky to Moore. Still, I say it’s helpful on balance.

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

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

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties, and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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