Friday, October 7, 2016

Temperament, Temperament

Heading into his second debate with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump has a central task: convincing people that he has the temperament to be president.  According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, only 33 percent of likely voters think that Trump has the temperament to serve effectively as president, and 34 percent of voters think he is prepared to be president (Clinton scores in the high 50s on both qualities).  Giant rallies won't change that popular perception, nor will attacking the New York Times or the Clintons' marriage.  Going beyond crude dominance politics, tempering his language, and showing more policy fluency might, however.  Many voters want a change, but they will keep their distance from Trump unless they can be assured that he's not too risky a bet.

Trump will need to appeal particularly to women and college-degree holders. Some polls suggest that Trump is racking up healthy margins in exurban and rural communities, he often needs to improve his standing in inner-ring suburbs.  For instance, a CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-September showed Clinton with a 2-point lead among registered voters in Pennsylvania (other recent polls show her with a larger lead); while Trump did well in the central and western regions of the state, he trailed Clinton in the Philadelphia suburbs by over 20 points.  According to Varad Mehta, Mitt Romney only lost the Philly suburbs by 10 points in 2012.  Without improving his performance in the suburbs, Trump will see a much narrower path to the presidency.  Addressing concerns about temperament would help Trump pull GOP-leaning suburbanites into his coalition.

He can do that by tempering his displays of anger with a policy fluency so that Trump can explain in detail how exactly his policies would improve the lives of voters.  Part of that deescalation would involve toning down or eliminating insults, especially against private citizens.  In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump needs to run as a presidential candidate--not a reality TV star--if he wants to close the deal with voters.

That will also entail more polished and disciplined debate performances.  In light of those concerns, Trump might have a few strategic goals in the upcoming debate:
  • Be willing to rephrase questions so that his answers to them can advance his broader strategic imperatives.
  • Not try to counterpunch on all of Clinton's attacks.
  • Avoid insults (especially against private individuals).
  • Focus more on advancing a positive agenda rather than litigating past controversies.
  • Emphasize message of inclusivity.
  • Bring up policy specifics.
  • Raise questions about Clinton's record and policy vision.
  • Favor optimism and restraint over anger.
  • Show empathy and courtesy in interacting with townhall questioners (even if they ask harsh questions).
  • Avoid looking rattled or defensive.

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