Clinton and Trump 2016: A battle to win over ambivalent voters

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This presidential campaign has two historically unpopular candidates. Both nominees are viewed unfavorably by more than 50 percent of the electorate.

Given their relative unpopularity, it seems reasonable to wonder if many voters possess mixed feelings about their party’s nominee this year. In other words, many voters may be experiencing ambivalence as the campaign enters its final months.

An uneasy feeling

Ambivalence exists when an individual holds conflicting beliefs and feelings toward an object — such as a political candidate. For example, a Democrat might have positive feelings toward Hillary Clinton’s economic policies, but might be wary of her email scandal or tendency to be more hawkish on foreign affairs than President Obama. Likewise, a Republican might approve of Donald Trump’s positions on tax cuts while simultaneously experiencing concern about his tendency to engage in incendiary rhetoric.

In terms of voting, ambivalent voters tend to take longer to make up their mind, and often vote with less enthusiasm. They may also, in some cases, be more willing to vote against the party they usually support. This means campaigns will have to spend more effort convincing an ambivalent voter to cast a ballot for his or her party.

However, research shows that more often than not, voters who have a history of supporting one party over the other do not defect from their party, even when experiencing ambivalence. Ambivalence toward the nominee of one’s preferred party often declines over the course of the campaign. That is, individuals become more favorably disposed to their own party’s candidate.

Underlying these findings is a long line of research indicating one of the major roles of a campaign is to bring home “mismatched partisans.” For example, the GOP wants to help a Republican who is attracted to Clinton find a reason to prefer Trump. This generally seems to work as it is often the case that a voter who has mixed or even negative feelings about his or her party’s candidate will have mostly positive feelings about the candidate by the end of the campaign.

But can the Trump and Clinton campaigns overcome the level of ambivalence voters feel this year about both candidates?

The role of campaigns

Conventional wisdom suggests that positive messaging by the party, the candidate and his or her surrogates causes positive feelings about the candidate to become more relevant to a supporter of a party, and negative feelings less so.

Following months of advertisements and positive statements from President Obama, Bernie Sanders and others, we can expect that many who were initially skeptical of Clinton will warm to her candidacy. As a result, we will likely see her overall favorability numbers increase between now and Election Day among Democrats.

Sanders nominates Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Clinton is currently viewed favorably by about 80 percent of Democrats. It appears as though this process started during the Democratic National Convention when Bernie Sanders appealed to his supporters to back Clinton, although she has not won over all of them.

Will this process go as smoothly for Donald Trump and the Republicans?

Trump has a habit of both starting and escalating disagreements with members of his own party. For example, he has had multiple flair ups with recent presidential nominee John McCain and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

As of this writing, six Republican Senators have declared they will not be voting for Trump. Public intellectuals such as Charles Krauthammer and George Will have also disavowed Trump. Recently, the Dallas Morning News endorsed Clinton, the first time the paper has endorsed a Democrat since 1940. Indeed, the editorial stated that “Trump is no Republican.”

While Democrats will hear members of their party consistently praise and defend Clinton, Republicans will often encounter messages ranging from tepid support to open hostility toward Trump. It seems reasonable to imagine that this will make it more likely that some Republicans in the electorate will continue to harbor lingering doubts about Trump. About 70 percent of Republicans currently have a favorable view of Trump, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Recent elections have tended to be far more competitive than we observed in the middle of the 20th century. It is believed that partisan polarization is a likely cause. In a typical election, even a candidate who is not loved by his or her party will rally much of the faithful.

Indeed, we have not seen a true landslide victory since Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. The 2016 election provides an interesting test of how powerful the forces of polarization and partisanship are in reducing ambivalence and shaping election outcomes.

Judd Thornton, Professor of Political Science, Georgia State University

The Conversation