Ohioans level of comfort with the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign varied by age, race, gender, economics and topics. But a recent poll for the Your Vote Ohio shows just about everyone had a problem when the talk targeted certain groups rather than issues.
Clarence Mingo is Franklin County auditor and strong-enough Republican to have been an alternate and delegate to the last two GOP conventions.
He’s also black, a vet and has a disability -- Parkinson’s Disease – a trifecta of factors for which Donald Trump courted controversy during his presidential campaign.
Mingo, originally from Canton, has not yet come around to Trump. “The rhetoric was unacceptable even for American politics.”
Mingo isn’t alone. A poll by the University of Akron shows a majority of Ohio voters were dissatisfied with the 2016 presidential campaign rhetoric when it zeroed in on women, Muslims, immigrants and racial minorities.
And yet, for many of those same voters, that discomfort didn’t matter. Donald Trump – the man who equated Mexican immigrants with rapists and murderers, called for a ban on Muslims coming to the U.S. and made a series of controversial comments about women -- won Ohio by more than 8 points.
Context is everything
To understand that, a communications researcher says you have to think about context – not of candidates but of the voters.
David Clementson is a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University. Back in 2012, he used hypothetical candidates giving hypothetical stump speeches to measure the impact of what’s called “language intensity” – meaning “the extent to which word choice varies from neutrality.”
An example of high intensity: “My opponent’s vision for the future is destructive and reckless.”
An example of low intensity: “My opponent and I have different visions for the future of this country.”
Clementson then measured the impact of those word choices on whether voters viewed a candidate as presidential, credible and trustworthy. And he found – in one way – those judgments had little to do with the candidate and everything to do with the lives of his or her audience.
“If people are sustaining good, stable economic times, then low-intensity language resonates more effectively to them," he said. "And they perceive a presidential candidate who’s using low-intensity language as speaking to their situation and being more trustworthy and more presidential.”
Not so with people in economic trouble – a characteristic that defines the Buckeye state. Since 2000, Ohio experienced the second-largest decline in median household income in the country, dropping from 19th in the nation to 35th. Only two counties showed improvement in that period.
Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points.
“People who feel like they are going through tough times, they don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from, they don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills. High-intensity language resonates with them because they feel like the presidential candidate is speaking to their situation, reflecting their emotions and is thus more trustworthy and presidential.”
The message that overcame the discomfort
Trump never did tone down his high-intensity language. And that was fine with voters like Debbie and Doug Caughey, a retired couple from Canton who attended a Trump rally this fall.
“We have to get it better for our kids. My kids don’t stand a chance, they’ll never retire from anywhere. There’s not job for them to retire from. They’re all gone.”
Both of their adult children are working now, but the Caugheys say that’s different from working decades for a single shop and being assured a future and a pension.
So when Donald Trump pledged things like, “I will defend your jobs and I will bring back vehicle production to the United States of America, that includes Ohio,” the Caugheys were satisfied.
Some supporters like Santino Ganni of Stark County acknowledge Trump’s rhetoric sometimes went too far.
“I think he runs into issues with his ego and he tends to talk about himself too much,” Ganni said. But he also dismisses what he sees as political correctness.
“I think we’re in an age of politics where politicians get away with just telling people what they want to hear, and they take advantage of the American people’s trust.”
Most of all, though, Ganni said it was Trump’s business history that drove him to vote for president for the first time in his 30-year life.
And that gets to a second part of Clementson’s 2012 study. His mythical election pitted a two-term governor against a businessman who owned a national chain of bookstores. The conclusion: Candidate resumes count.
And “you could then extend that to seeing that with Trump, people were looking at his resume to see how relevant it was to the particular issues that he was taking up.”
That came down to the economy.
Which rhetoric was most disturbing, most satisfying?
The poll done for Your Vote Ohio – a collaboration of newspapers, public radio and TV stations in Ohio throughout the election year -- shows Ohio voters as a whole were more satisfied when the campaign conversation got closer to economics and other issues -- even when those issues were personified by people.
For example – regardless of age, income, education, race and sex -- Ohioans said they were more satisfied than not with the discussion of wealth, blue-collar families, terrorists and gun owners. When it came to talk of women and Muslims – more Ohioans – across the board -- were dissatisfied than satisfied.
The poll did show younger, nonwhite, more highly educated and female Ohio voters were more likely to be dissatisfied with this campaign’s rhetoric than voters who were men, older and white.
Clarence Mingo – the as-yet unconvinced Republican – says Trump’s strength as a candidate was understanding and expressing the concerns of an economically uncertain electorate.
“Even if a candidate is able to do that effectively, if they intend to be the president of the United States, they must do so cautiously and their every word has to be articulated in such a way that it resonates with the public but it’s also responsible in terms of its consequence.”
So he’ll be watching to see if Trump tones down his high-intensity rhetoric as his audience -- and his resume -- grows.