Even before the massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh over the weekend, President Trump was wringing his hands that external news events were distracting voters from the midterm elections. A week ago, he tweeted his frustration that it was “very unfortunate, what is going on” with the attempted bombing of Democrats and CNN through the mail — not because of the bombs themselves but because “the momentum greatly slows” for Republicans when the “news [is] not talking politics.”
At a rally in Missouri on Thursday evening — one of about a dozen as Trump closes out the midterm cycle — he again complained about the loss of momentum for his party.
“Tremendous numbers of Republicans are going out to vote,” he said. “Now, we did have two maniacs stop a momentum that was incredible, because for seven days nobody talked about the elections. It stopped a tremendous momentum.”
Apparently realizing that focusing on the political effects of a mass killing wasn’t a great look, he moderated his comments.
“More importantly, we have to take care of our people, and we don’t care about momentum when it comes to a disgrace like just happened to our country,” he said. “But it did nevertheless stop a certain momentum, and now the momentum is picking up.”
It’s worth noting that the claim itself — that the mail bombs and the shooting curtailed voting — is incorrect. Democratic data firm TargetSmart has been tracking votes returned by day in early-voting states. In several major states, there was no apparent blip in turnout during the period between the first discovered bomb (Oct. 23) and the shooting. There was, in several states, a slowdown the day after the shooting, but that was a Sunday.
Daniel Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida, has broken down returned ballots by day in that state. His graphs show that the same period as above (we’ve indicated it with a gray box) was the period during which Republican-returned ballots for the first time surged past the equivalent count in 2014.
The momentum, it seems, continued unabated.
On Google, where America turns for more information about what’s on its mind, the shooting and the mail bombs each saw spikes in attention. Interest in the midterm elections, not huge, has been trending upward a bit as Election Day approaches, but it doesn’t seem to have suffered as attention turned to the attacks.
Notice that we’ve also added a line showing search interest in “caravan,” a reference to the migrant marchers headed north from southern Mexico. When Trump complains about no one talking about the election, it’s clear that to a large extent he means that people aren’t focused on the election issues he’d like them to focus on. One of those, obviously, is this caravan; he’s said in the past that it is one of the primary things that the midterms are (or should be) about.
While search interest in the election didn’t really drop, interest in the caravan did. At first, it was overtaken by the attempted mail bombings — “this ‘Bomb’ stuff,” as Trump put it — and then, briefly, by the shooting. But in recent days Trump has again focused on the caravan, and interest in it has moved back up.
The more obvious way in which this manifests is in cable news coverage. On CNN and MSNBC, discussion of the election — and the caravan — waned during the period when discussion of the bombs and the shooting was increasing. Even on Fox News, caravan coverage was briefly overtaken by discussion about the shooting. (That wasn’t really the case on Fox Business.)
This was the actual content of Trump’s original complaint: “news not talking politics.” The idea that attempted bombings or an anti-Semitic mass shooting aren’t “politics” is more than debatable, especially since one of the last social media posts by the alleged shooter included a direct reference to the caravan as a rationale for the attack. Trump wants the news to focus on immigration and issues helpful to his party politically. He doesn’t want it talking about fervent Trump supporters who allegedly sent bombs through the mail to people Trump had targeted with his rhetoric.
It’s easy to lose sight of the most important part of Trump’s comments. Even he recognized that talking about political momentum as a downside to mass killing and attempted mass killing was questionable. But that didn’t stop him from doing so, both before and after claiming that “we don’t care about momentum when it comes to a disgrace like just happened to our country.”
Clearly he does. A transcript of his speech shows that his comments about momentum and the “two maniacs” were the only reference to the bombing attempts or the shooting. He did, however, excoriate the “far left."
“They’ve gone crazy, folks,” he said. “They’ve gone totally loco.”