This year’s presidential race may be one for the history books. But it’s not the contest Kansas voters wanted.
When Republicans caucused in March they overwhelmingly preferred Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over eventual nominee Donald Trump.
Kansas Democrats gave Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders one of his biggest primary victories – a 68 percent to 32 percent drubbing of Hillary Clinton.
Hannah Figgs-Hoard was among a group of Sanders supporters at a Topeka caucus site that literally overwhelmed Clinton’s smaller contingent.
“It was a little wild. There was like chanting going on,” Figgs-Hoard recalls. “They had to move the Hillary supporters into another part of the building because there was still people coming in for Bernie.”
Wistfully, she says, “It was an incredible experience. I loved it. But, you know.”
When Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to win the nomination of a major party, Figgs-Hoard, like many Kansas voters, had a decision to make. Would she support Clinton, one of the minor party candidates or not vote like some of die-hard Sanders supporters she knows.
With the help of some women she describes as “mentors” Figgs-Hoard decided to back Clinton. And though she says she’s aware of Clinton’s flaws, she’s now excited about her choice.
“I know a lot of people are like ‘well, she’s the lesser of two evils’ kind of a mindset. And I don’t feel that way,” Figgs-Hoard says. “I think she’s going to be an amazing president.”
Republican Nicholas Reinecker, from Inman, relied on a different kind of guidance when confronted with a similar choice. He prayed about it.
Stopping by the Republican booth at the Kansas State Fair, he said he had supported Cruz for the nomination but is now backing Trump.
“I tell people I’m a Christian, a husband, a father and then a registered Republican. So, I’m supporting Donald Trump and Mike Pence.” Reinecker says.
Asked what he liked about Trump, Reinecker struggled to respond with something specific.
“Well, I’d have to meet him to really get an understanding of something beyond the media flair and the entertainment factor. But I’m going with him,” Reinecker says.
Political scientists have a name for that – they call it “motivated reasoning.” It’s how voters rationalize their support of one candidate over another or transition to someone who wasn’t their first choice.
Beth Vonahme teaches political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she also does research into the psychology of voters. She says voters motivated to stick with their party typically don’t deliberate over such decisions.
“It’s something that often happens very automatic,” Vonahme says. “You know, I’m a Republican. He’s the nominee so ‘how can I sort of make my peace with this situation?’ And the easiest way to do that is to reprioritize the issues that are important to me.”
For evangelical voters like Reinecker, Vonahme says, reprioritizing could mean overlooking Trump’s previous support for abortion rights based on his more recent promise to appoint a conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.
She says the power of partisanship is also why Democrats dismiss concerns about Clinton’s emails and why many Republicans are willing to pass off Trump’s confession of aggressive sexual behavior as locker room talk.
“Individuals will dismiss scandalous information if it’s inconsistent with their preferences,” she says. “And I think you see that on both sides this time around.”
That propensity was on full display recently when Kansas 3rd District Republican Chair Vicki Sciolaro, once a Cruz supporter, found herself on CNN digging into the Bible to find a defense of Trump.
“Here’s the thing, he’s not running to be the pope,” Sciolaro said. Look at the culture of our country. Everybody knew he had strip clubs. But still the millions of people chose him to be the nominee. I mean this is the kind of person that needs to lead our country. God can use anybody. He used the harlot.”
It takes a lot, but scandal and political missteps can eventually sap a voter’s motivation for sticking with a candidate. On the national level, polls suggest Trump is losing support, particularly among women.
Here in Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback is also losing support. He’s not on the ballot, but in a sense his policies are. And the combination of a weaker than usual presidential candidate at the top of the ticket and Brownback’s rock bottom approval ratings could spell trouble for Kansas Republicans in down-ballot races, particularly legislative incumbents tied to the governor’s policies on schools, taxes and highways.
That’s what Sherry Moser, of Hutchinson, was hearing from some Republicans when she volunteered at the Democratic Party booth on the last day of the state fair.
“Maybe they’re not with us at the federal level, but they’re with us at the state level,” Moser says. “Brownback has a very low rating with most people.”
Jim McLean is executive editor of KHI News Service, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow Jim on Twitter @jmckhi.