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Will Voters Give Trump Credit For North Korea?

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

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): For the first time in awhile, we have the full politics chat gang!!! So … 🎊 for that.

Next, today’s question: Will voters give President Trump credit for the U.S.-North Korea summit?

If so, how much? And in what form?

Let’s start with how voters might react to the summit, and then we can get into what the implications of that reaction might be.

Opening bids?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): They might react well if it goes well; they might react poorly if it goes poorly.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): FIN

micah: LOL.

clare.malone: Flippancy aside …

We still don’t know what we’re actually seeing out of this, right? I can’t tell how people are going to filter what they’ve seen so far through their partisan lenses. For instance: Trump called Kim, who is an oppressive autocrat, a “very talented” guy.

How do people in America in 2018 see that? Right now, I think you’re seeing people put that through the Twitter partisan wringer, but what will voters/Americans think of it?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Yeah, voters tend not to be super informed about the nuances of foreign policy. So I would guess, with Democrats attacking the summit and Republicans praising it, the initial polling will bear that out and show a partisan divide around, say, “Was the summit effective?” Polls pre-summit showed that a high percentage of Americans (70 percent or more, so lots of Democrats) supported the idea of Trump talking to Kim Jong Un. But whether voters think the summit was useful will be shaped by what partisan actors are saying now.

micah: Pre-summit, people seemed to be pro-talking but skeptical anything would come of it:

natesilver: The short-term reaction might make for an interesting case study in what type of media coverage is most influential to voters. On the one hand, the imagery on cable news is probably pretty good for Trump. On the other hand, the “expert” commentary is generally pretty skeptical and sneering (perhaps unfairly). The “straight” reporting on the deal, e.g. in the New York Times or Washington Post, is somewhere in between.

clare.malone: Well, Trump did make a major statement about stopping war games with South Korea, which reporting is saying the South Koreans were surprised by. I wonder how things like that will play out. I.e., will any political figures react to that? Any Republican ones?

micah: Congressional Republicans have toed the Trump line so far, right?

clare.malone: Yes, I think that’s right. People like that he got the talks up and running.

natesilver: I’m not sure about that — the commentary from, for example, Marco Rubio, who’s maybe the ultimate weathervane, is closer to lukewarm praise:

clare.malone: Your boy, Nate!

I love how you always slip him into these chats …

I guess what I’m thinking is, as this develops, will there be any concessions that the U.S. gives that will turn off congressional people? Is there a chance something happens where talks breakdown and the U.S. looks used? That would greatly affect public perception.

natesilver: May I remind you that he won the Minnesota caucuses?

clare.malone: COLD comfort, eh?

natesilver: HE. ALSO. WON. PUERTO. RICO.

perry: I think part of what Clare is getting at is that we don’t really know what happens next. The meeting happened. But, ultimately, the goal for the U.S. is to have North Korea shut down its nuclear program. They are not doing that now. What’s not clear is if they are 0, 5, 20 or 40 percent closer to doing that because of this summit.

natesilver: Is the goal for North Korea to shut down its nuclear program or for it to not use its nuclear weapons?

micah: The former, Nate.

At least, that’s the administration’s stated goal.

natesilver: Maybe you’re right that the former is the administration’s stated goal, but the latter probably should be the goal.

clare.malone: Soooo wait …

Nate, no one in the international community trusts North Korea, and it’s an opaque society — the “hermit” state — so why do you think the U.S. should settle for, “OK, you guys, you can keep ’em, but please don’t play with ’em”?

Don’t you think concessions would come elsewhere?

natesilver: Because — and I guess we’re getting into analyzing the merits of the approach instead of just the politics of it — the alternative to diplomacy is probably continued brinkmanship or even (much worse) a hot war.

And because a lot of the expert commentary I have read (I’m certainly not a NK expert myself) suggests that getting NK to give up its nuclear weapons is a pretty unlikely outcome.

clare.malone: Right, but there are other concessions that could be made to North Korea within the diplomatic construct.

natesilver: Tyler Cowen’s thoughts are pretty similar to mine, FWIW.

I also think that there may be benefits from drawing NK into the international community and making it less hermit-like.

clare.malone: I agree.

We should probably confine ourselves to our actual expertise, though.

micah: Yeah, back to politics …

clare.malone: Micah, is this where we do our “NOTHING MATTERS” bit?

micah: Actually, save that for a sec …

natesilver: I don’t know a lot about North Korea, but I know enough about media coverage to be a little skeptical of how the media is framing the story. It’s very much focused on narrower (is the language in the Trump/Kim statement good?) rather than broader questions (is this overall approach working, relative to other alternatives?) when the broader questions are a lot more important.

clare.malone: Well, but that’s in part because we don’t have enough information yet to know if the broader approach is working. I think that’s a little bit of an unfair critique at this point.

natesilver: Clare, are you more or less worried about nuclear war than you were six months ago? Than you were 24 months ago? I’m a lot less worried than I was six months ago and a fair bit more worried than I was 24 months ago.

micah: So you’re giving Trump credit for not doing the “fire and fury” stuff anymore?

That’s a low bar.

natesilver: I think the combination of carrots and sticks may unintentionally have turned out to be a pretty good approach.

clare.malone: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire.”

That’s my nuclear holocaust answer, Nate

natesilver: Is that a John Bolton quote, Clare? Or Michael Bolton, perhaps?

clare.malone: It’s a joint statement from them, Nate.

micah: How’s this for a starting point: Voters will view Trump’s North Korea policy through their normal partisan lens … unless (i) it very clearly goes south and a substantial portion of elected Republicans begin to criticize it, or (ii) it very clearly goes well and even the commenters in the media are praising it?

But the 90 percent confidence interval of likely outcomes probably fails to break partisan biases.

And you can see those biases in the pre-summit polling:

clare.malone: Micah, I think we’re more likely to see a (i) option happen: I think the media response/analysis to this will continue to be skeptical.

perry: I agree with Micah on the partisan lens. But I would say that it’s important for Republican voters to see Trump doing something well or at least not doing something that everyone agrees is bad (how he behaved with regard to Canada). This summit likely makes it easier if you are a Republican member of Congress running in a swing/blue state to say, “The economy is great under Trump, and he is doing big-time diplomacy, too.”

micah: I totally agree, Perry.

To your earlier point about how informed voters are, though, I will say that that Morning Consult poll found that 43 percent of voters had heard “a lot” about the summit and 38 percent had heard “some.” So whatever you think of the media coverage, it’s probably having an effect on views.

perry: The media matters always, but in this case, the media coverage is fairly mixed. It’s not like the G7 coverage, which was very critical.

clare.malone: My other thought is: What happens if Trump puts out another rogue tweet à la G7 or earlier North Korea rhetoric?

That, in addition to media, obviously shapes the public’s view. Or if he puts out really positive tweets, I guess.

natesilver: The summit definitely creates a political downside to Trump if it looks like things are unraveling.

perry: But I would assume things unraveling would mean North Korea is threatening us with nuclear war.

I would think even liberals would blame Kim for that more than Trump, right?

natesilver: Or just conducting new nuclear tests.

And I think Trump would get plenty of blame under that scenario and probably deserve it.

micah: Yeah, Trump seems to be making concrete concessions beyond just agreeing to the meeting, so if there are new tests or North Korea clearly doesn’t denuclearize in any way, the blowback on Trump would be severe, I imagine.

clare.malone: That’s why I brought up the war games thing earlier. That’s him taking a big risk there, I think.

micah: Yeah.

natesilver: I think Trump would be fine if nothing happens (i.e., if NK is not actively denuclearizing but also not actively nuclearizing).

clare.malone: He could just look foolish if things don’t pan out and that’s hanging out there on tape.

natesilver: Definitely, Clare, although that maybe also increases Trump’s commitment to keeping the peace with Kim!

There may not be a lot of substance to the deal, but there are potentially pretty significant reputational stakes to both parties from breaking it.

And by both parties, I mean Trump and Kim in particular. The fact that Trump broke the Iran deal isn’t that relevant because it wasn’t Trump’s deal.

micah: OK, so the baseline for talking about how foreign policy might affect elections is — to really oversimplify — it won’t matter much outside of full-blown war. Is that true here?

clare.malone: mmmm

micah: Because I sorta have a theory about Trump and voters similar to the one Perry outlined above about congressional Republicans …

clare.malone: Hit us.

micah: More normalcy is good for Trump. The economy is humming. There are no major wars. Etc. If you somehow magically swapped Trump for Rubio (😉), I think you’d have to say Rubio was a favorite to win re-election. And certainly you wouldn’t call Rubio much of a drag on down-ballot Republicans in 2018 outside the normal “president’s party penalty” stuff.

So, the more Trump can behave like a normal president, the better for him and the GOP.

Of course, he can’t do that — he’s Trump.

But a big “presidential” accomplishment basically accomplishes the same thing.

It makes it harder for Democrats to argue that Trump is beyond the pale. And it makes it easier for, say, a college-educated white woman in suburban Atlanta to vote Republican.

clare.malone: That’s fair.

But there’s the bigger risk calculated in with Trump that he might tweet something salty at Kim and the whole thing tumbles over.

As you said.

perry: Totally agree with Micah. If I were the Republicans, I would be worried that Democrats will turn out in droves in November. And I need GOP turnout to get close to that. I need the people who voted for Trump in 2016 to feel like he is a good president and want to work hard to defend him from what is coming if Democrats take control of the House or Senate. If somehow Kim gives up his nuclear program, that will make Trump look like he is a strong president in terms of results (economy, foreign policy) even if he does bad stuff like his tweets, lies and racist comments.

clare.malone: Maybe North Korea is the new “GORSUCH!” point for the reticent GOP faithful to get them to hold their noses and go Trump.

micah: Yeah.

To put it another way: If this summit is viewed as a success, maybe that’s the equivalent of Trump not tweeting for three months or something.

natesilver: I talked about this on the podcast, but you can sorta-kinda construct a narrative now wherein there’s “method to Trump’s madness” — i.e., he bluffs and blusters a lot but mostly avoids actually crossing the line into situations that are actually dangerous for him or for the U.S.

North Korea will be extremely important in whether that narrative survives scrutiny.

perry: This would be way bigger than Gorsuch. Anyone can appoint a Supreme Court justice. North Korea really is a hard problem. If Trump solves it, that would be a really big accomplishment, something that other presidents have not done. Let’s emphasize: Trump has not solved it. I don’t think the summit itself is enough. Actual results on North Korea could matter, though.

micah: But I’m talking about a situation short of “solving it” — just like a “that was OK” situation.

perry: Yeah, I don’t think the agreement reached this week means a ton. If there are no North Korean nuke tests between now and Election Day 2018 but also no big deal between Trump and Kim, then North Korea is not a real Election Day factor. It recedes from the news. I don’t think this summit itself changes the midterm dynamics that much.

The media will move on from this issue back to Mueller/Pruitt/Trump scandals/tweets, etc. People just don’t think about foreign policy that much in general.

clare.malone: I agree about the midterms. It could affect 2020 more, or at least play a part.

natesilver: I don’t know … I think it’s an accomplishment that could “normalize” Trump a lot in the eyes of skeptical swing voters — if it does turn out to be an actual accomplishment when he’s in the midst of his re-election campaign two years from now.

micah: I’ll add a “as Micah said” to that in editing, Nate.

natesilver: And I think North Korea is scary enough that if things start to unravel, it will also register with voters.

So I think this is reasonably high-stakes.

perry: Do we disagree over whether “held one-day of talks” is an accomplishment? I don’t think it really is or will be viewed that way for a sustained period of time. Trump actually does have one long-term accomplishment: the strong economy, which in theory he could argue has been boosted by his tax cuts. But they don’t seem to have moved his numbers much.

natesilver: I don’t think the summit itself is much of an accomplishment. It’s that Trump found an overall approach toward North Korea that **might** be working.

North Korea-South Korea relations have also improved, which is notable.

clare.malone: The summit is an accomplishment. But maybe not the photo op part.

micah: Weirdly, it’s both an accomplishment and perhaps also a big mistake.

clare.malone: Yeah. We don’t have enough info yet. It looks nice now but could blow up.

micah: Those photos of Trump and Kim and the American and North Korean flags together aren’t going anywhere.

perry: Now that stuff, I think, doesn’t matter.

natesilver: But if it blows up, would it have blown up anyway? Will it blow up because of the summit?

clare.malone: This conversation feels like parody.

natesilver: There’s definitely a *very good* chance that it won’t work, but what are the alternatives? In what ways, if any, could the summit make things worse?

perry: The flag stuff would have annoyed conservatives if Obama did it. But I don’t think it will annoy conservatives because it’s Trump, and I don’t think other Americans are that concerned about flags at events.

clare.malone: We’re talking about perceptions of photos.

micah: IDK, I guess maybe it won’t have political/electoral implications, but Trump buddying up to a brutal dictator at least should be noted?

Like, it’s not a great look, is it?

clare.malone: I think that’s the thing that could bring the conservative politicians out.

micah: In theory it should. But it won’t.

clare.malone: To tie it back to what I said up top: That’s how things could fall apart politically.

natesilver: It’s certainly pretty weird that Trump seems to cozy up to authoritarian leaders and develop rivalries with democratically elected ones.

micah: OK, final/closing thoughts?

perry: Trump is heavily invested in this North Korea process, Fox News is saying that he should win a Nobel Peace Prize for it, and whatever conservative opposition could have emerged will be muted. Maybe we get an angry tweet from John McCain/Jeff Flake, a furrowed brow from Rubio/Bob Corker, a critical quote from Susan Collins … but I think no real blowback.

I was skeptical this summit would happen. I then assumed Trump would do something at the summit that everyone could agree was stupid. The summit happened, and he didn’t commit any major gaffes. So he cleared my low bar. I happen to think this will end up being a big overhyped media event, because I don’t see how or why NK will end its nuclear program. But lots of things have surprised me the past two years. So I might be wrong.

natesilver: To state something slightly obvious, North Korea is the single issue on which both the upside and downside risks to Trump’s approach toward his presidency are most acute.

micah: Can you explain that in a way that will also make a good kicker?

natesilver: The upside is that Trump can both credibly threaten North Korea in a way that previously presidents couldn’t because he’s unpredictable (see Ollie on the game theory for this) and is also willing to engage in “unconventional” diplomatic approaches that were once considered untoward but which might ultimately be effective. The downside is that … he miscalibrates all of this and things spin out of control and, well, we all die. Have a nice day!

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.