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The ‘Vibes’ Factor
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The ‘Vibes’ Factor

What voters know, and what they assume.

Donald Trump visits with Kid Rock at an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Las Vegas on December 16, 2023. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Dispatch readers are freaks.

Not in the pejorative sense—although, reading through the daily comments, I do wonder about some of you.

I mean “freaks” with respect to your knowledge of news and politics. Regular consumption of The Morning Dispatch alone places you among the top 5 percent of Americans in your awareness of current events, I would guess.

You know what a “motion to vacate” is. You know how many votes are required to defeat a filibuster. You can name a Supreme Court justice. Maybe two!

Many, many Americans cannot, and we’d be remiss not to take that into account when we think about the coming election. To what extent will voters make their choices based on careful consideration of the issues, and to what extent will they vote based on, for lack of a better term, “vibes”?

No election is decided entirely along one of those lines but certain races are more “vibey” than others. The 2008 campaign, for instance, was heavy on the issues. Barack Obama benefited from good “vibes” inasmuch as his historic candidacy and hopey-changey shtick represented a feel-good break with the misery of George W. Bush’s second term. But the Iraq war and the financial crisis probably guaranteed Democratic victory no matter who the party’s nominee was.

2012 was a vibes-heavy campaign. There was some bickering over the future of Obamacare and a notoriously short-sighted remark about Russia by the incumbent at a debate, but ultimately it was incumbency and “vibes” that sank Mitt Romney. He was a stereotypical business-class Republican and lacked the charisma needed to offset that liability with blue-collar voters. His infamous remarks about the “47 percent” toward the end of the campaign cemented the bad vibes surrounding him.

2024 is shaping up to be an issue-heavy campaign. In fairness to our underinformed countrymen, they may not know how many Supreme Court justices there are but they know that inflation is high, that border enforcement is a disaster, and that multiple wars raging abroad risk sucking the United States into a major conflict.

They also know that the challenger in this election tried to stage a coup the last time he was president and will almost certainly try some similarly illiberal and nutty power grab if he returns to office. That’s a pretty important issue too.

But as I say, no campaign is ever all one or all the other. “Vibes” will matter in 2024 because they always matter. Given how close the election is shaping up to be, they might even be decisive.

Any election involving Donald Trump is destined to have a strong “vibes” component.

He’s a “vibes” politician. His popularity derives from alpha-male “strength” and the full-spectrum contempt he radiates for the liberal establishment despised by his supporters. On the actual issues, you’re lucky to get more than a bumper sticker from him by way of a policy position.

And on issues he doesn’t care about, you won’t even get that. His current position on the most momentous problem facing his socially conservative base is that he … doesn’t really have a position.

Vibes are important because they help voters fill in the gaps of their knowledge about a candidate’s positions, which can be considerable. Especially with Trump: Because he speaks so vaguely about policy…

… and because he’s so willing to prioritize electoral advantage over ideological commitments…

… and because he’s, ahem, mercurial, it’s hard to know where he stands on a particular policy day-to-day if you’re not following politics very closely. That means there are destined to be some seriously large lacunae in the average American’s expectations of what he’ll do in a second term.

And those lacunae get filled in with “vibes.” Take the latest polling on Ukraine.

On Friday, Gallup released a new survey of U.S. opinion with a curious finding. The share of Americans who say we’re not doing enough to help Ukraine has jumped from 25 percent in October to 36 percent today.

Democrats are driving that shift, but independents are along for the ride, with 34 percent now saying we’re not doing enough compared to 25 percent who said so last fall. All told, a combined 61 percent of indies believe we should either do more or that we’re already providing the “right amount” of help, which I assume means maintaining the level of aid we’ve provided over the last two years. Just 39 percent think we’re doing “too much.”

None of which is surprising. For months, American media has reported on how the Ukrainians have struggled to stave off Russia’s advance while the next round of U.S. military aid languishes in the Republican House. We are, in fact, not doing enough to prevent a Russian victory; that reality was destined to penetrate the public consciousness eventually.

Here’s the curious part, though:

A majority of independents believe Trump and congressional Republicans would do a better job on Ukraine than Joe Biden—even though a majority of independents also think we’ve either been doing the right amount to help Ukraine under Biden’s leadership or should do even more.

Huh? Do voters not realize which party is standing in the way of additional support for Kyiv?

It’s not a secret. After visiting Mar-a-Lago last month, Hungarian President Viktor Orbán predicted Ukraine won’t get another penny if Trump is reelected president. Volodymyr Zelensky has invited Trump to visit Ukraine numerous times, hoping that a public show of solidarity will break the Republican logjam in Congress. Recently, Zelensky’s taken to lobbying Speaker Mike Johnson personally and wondering aloud “how Donald Trump can be on the side of Putin.

The MAGA wing of the House Republican conference, under Trump’s influence, is solely responsible for the paralysis on Ukraine aid. They admire Putin’s post-liberal authoritarian form of governance, they want to see it prevail over the Western coalition that’s been backing Ukraine, so they’re using their legislative leverage to midwife that outcome. If offered a clean bill to fund the war, Joe Biden’s party likely wouldn’t provide a single vote of opposition. All of the resistance is coming from the GOP. Don’t independents understand that?

Well … no, the underinformed voters among them probably don’t. And because they don’t, they’re filling in that blank with “vibes.”

Some of those vibes are specific to Trump himself. Here’s an arresting result from another recent Gallup poll:

Trump’s rating on “strong and decisive” leadership is notable. Not only is it his highest mark among the qualities listed, it’s where he enjoys his biggest advantage over his opponent. And, for the most part, it’s based on little more than “vibes.”

What makes him strong and Biden weak, supposedly? “Biden retreated from Afghanistan,” you might say. Well, Trump tried to do that too—in a far less responsible manner than Biden did. In fact, Trump was the one who negotiated the deadline for withdrawal in 2021 that forced Biden to decide whether to go or stay and fight a new Taliban offensive.

“Trump was tough on Iran.” That’s true—he took out Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani and scrapped the Iran nuclear deal. But Biden has been far tougher on Russia in supporting Ukraine than I suspect Trump would have been had he been elected to a second term.

Israel? Biden’s admirable solidarity in the battle against Hamas is turning less admirable by the day, but Trump hasn’t sounded especially strong or decisive on the subject lately either. China? Biden’s the one who promised that the U.S. will help defend Taiwan if it’s attacked. The Chinese themselves seem to believe that Trump is more likely to abandon that alliance than Biden is, a sensible assumption given the right’s isolationist drift.

We don’t need to limit ourselves to foreign policy. Ask a Ron DeSantis voter if they think Trump was a “strong and decisive leader” in 2020 when he followed his science bureaucracy’s advice on COVID-19 restrictions. Or ask a gun-rights advocate about the time Trump decided he was for gun control before turning around the next day and saying, “Never mind.” Or ask a pro-lifer if his current stance on abortion reeks of strength and decisiveness, assuming anyone can figure out what that stance is.

A guy who’s transactional by nature and, with a few exceptions, disengaged from policy does not have the makings of a “strong and decisive leader.” And yet we all understand why Trump polls so well on that point: He’s combative, not afraid to offend, and willing to cross all sorts of moral lines that would make a more conscientious person blanch. Organizing a coup plot in plain sight and seeing it through until a mob lays waste to the Capitol does demonstrate a certain, er, “decisiveness” and strength of will.

Trump’s public persona is built on exerting dominance over his enemies. No wonder, then, that under-informed independents who don’t know the two candidates’ positions but hope to see the U.S. rally behind Ukraine might prefer Trump to Biden on the issue. As a matter of pure “vibes,” who seems more likely to stare down the Bond villain in Moscow—sleepy Grandpa Joe or a macho blowhard who attends UFC events, is constantly talking about being “strong” and “tough,” and at times seems legitimately crazy enough to nuke someone out of pique?

The bad guys will think twice about messing with a madman. Let’s elect him!

I think a different kind of “vibes” also explains why those independent voters prefer congressional Republicans to Biden on the issue, even though the House GOP has been obstructing Ukraine aid.

No one would mistake Speaker Mike Johnson for a “strong and decisive leader.” It’s not his fault that his conference is ungovernable, but it is ungovernable and frequently embarrassing, and that tends to undercut perceptions of strength. Johnson doesn’t look the part either: Slight, polished, and bespectacled, he looks and sounds like an accountant. In his mien, he’s the anti-Trump.

But to an underinformed voter who interprets politics through ideological templates that may be years or decades out of date, believing that Republicans in Congress will be tougher on Russia than Democrats must feel like the safest of assumptions. For 50 years, the GOP was reliably the more hawkish of the two parties, most famously under Ronald Reagan but again after 9/11 under George W. Bush. To this day there remains a sizable hawkish bloc in the House Republican conference, if not quite sizable enough to get Ukraine aid passed.

Voters who don’t follow politics closely might have missed much of the ideological transformation that’s taken place—and is still taking place—since 2016. It’s hard enough for an avid political junkie to keep track of the realignment that’s happening across racial and educational lines; imagine trying to do so as someone who watches 30 minutes of news a week, if that. Realignment on questions of foreign policy must be especially confusing, as Americans traditionally don’t pay attention to that subject the way they do domestic policy. That leaves lots of lacunae to be filled in on the subject.

And so, go figure, some voters might be filling them in based on “vibes.” They remember Reagan and Bush, they know Trump is “tough,” and so when they’re asked whether his party in Congress would handle Russia better than our lily-livered liberal president, naturally they assume that the answer is “yes.”

How many votes will that mistaken impression be worth to Donald Trump in November?

Democrats’ chances of winning this election may depend on their ability to get “vibes” to work for them and not for their opponents.

Take Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose campaign really is nothing but vibes. He may share conspiratorial hobby horses about vaccines and insurrections with the right but I think his surname, his hostility to Biden, and his broad antiestablishmentarianism make him more appealing to disaffected leftists than to fringe rightists who’ll find their party’s nominee more or less acceptable. (Kennedy currently still hurts Biden more in polling than he does Trump.) I constantly need to remind myself that RFK isn’t anti-Israel because, based on the kook “vibes” around his campaign, it seems like he should be anti-Israel.

Underinformed progressive voters who really do oppose Israel might be under the same false impression and end up voting accordingly. The Biden campaign needs to fill in their lacunae about Kennedy urgently.

With respect to Trump and abortion, however, Democrats might try something closer to the opposite.

On that issue, Trump is the one who’s desperate to fill in the blanks for voters before they jump to any conclusions about his position. He may be the president who appointed the justices who ended Roe, he wants them to know, but from now on it’s “hands off”: Not only will he not sign any federal restrictions on abortion into law, he won’t even endorse strict abortion bans at the state level. Plus, he loves IVF! He’s done with these issues! Please make a note of all this and consider it carefully when you go to vote in November.

To which Democrats calmly reply: He’s lying. Ignore him. When deciding whom to trust about abortion, let the vibes rather than his words be your guide.

Would a man like Donald Trump, always so eager to be loved by his base, really stand up to them on federal restrictions once he’s back in the White House? Would he resist the pro-life activists who hope to staff his administration and are angling to ban abortifacients like mifepristone from interstate commerce? Will he care a whit about strict state bans like the one in Arizona the day after he’s safely reelected in November?

Republicans have been a committed pro-life party for 50 years. A voter who’s underinformed or who doesn’t know which side is telling the truth about Trump’s abortion intentions might do the same thing independents are doing with respect to Ukraine and fill the gap in their knowledge with the traditional GOP ideological template. Republican “vibes” are staunchly pro-life, so that’s what they’ll presume Trump will be in a second term. 

Which is potentially a major electoral problem for him.

But we’ll see. What makes the abortion debate this year so fascinating is the fact that Trump has always come off as someone who plainly doesn’t care much about the issue or the women it affects. That’s bad for the pro-life movement but good, perhaps, for his electoral chances, as it’s much easier to believe him when he says he’s done with the issue than it would be if a traditional conservative had said so. Notwithstanding his role in getting Roe overturned, the “vibes” around him on abortion have always been those of a moderate—and so swing voters might be willing to take him at his word. If Democrats can’t overcome that somehow before November, they’re in even more trouble than we think.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.