Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had polar opposite reactions to this weekend’s nonfatal bombings in New York and New Jersey. The Democratic nominee is urging everyone to remain calm and trust the procedures the U.S. government has in place to protect them. The Republican nominee has other ideas. “This,” he predicted Monday, “is only going to get worse.”
It’s easy to guess which of those two responses is going to get more attention from the press and the public. Knowing what we know about Trump, it stands to reason that Monday’s remarks won’t be the last time he makes news while talking about an apparent terrorist attack. And knowing what we know about Clinton, it’s also a safe bet that she’ll continue to strike a less-headline-ready, keep-calm-and-carry-on posture.
So, which candidate will benefit from that dynamic? My colleague Will Saletan will have a closer reading of the polls later. But in this campaign, it’s often been better to be the candidate who voters aren’t thinking about. Political scientists at the University of Virginia, for example, recently took a long look at a daily Gallup tracking poll that asks Americans whether they had heard or seen anything about Clinton and Trump in “the last day or two.” When they compared those results to national polling averages, they found a small inverse correlation between the candidate who more Americans had heard of recently and that same candidate’s standing in the polls. Or, as Larry Sabato and his UVA colleagues put it: “Generally, when the campaign has been more about Trump, he has suffered, and when it’s been more about Clinton, she has suffered.”
Again, the evidence is limited here, and in our two-party system, a story about one candidate is almost always also about the other, at least implicitly. But in a presidential election between the two most disliked candidates in modern history, the hypothesis that most press is bad press makes some sense.
That is not to say that the post-bombing news cycles will necessarily be good news for Clinton. While Trump had been inching ever-closer to her in national polls recently—during a time when her “basket of deplorables” comments and her health were front-page news—the NY/NJ attacks happened as the media’s attention was already shifting to Trump’s rebranded birtherism, as well as comments he made over the weekend about what would happen if Clinton’s Secret Service detail disarmed. It’s possible she would have benefited more if those news cycles had run their course. Still, given that they didn’t, Clinton’s decision to stand off to the side for now while Trump stands in the center yelling himself hoarse looks to be not only a responsible choice, but a smart one.