What to Make of Trump's Candidacy?

What to Make of Trump's Candidacy?
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If you’re trying to figure out what exactly to make of Donald Trump’s candidacy, you’re not alone. I think all pundits are scratching their heads a bit trying to game out the trajectory of his bid for the Republican nomination. After a series of seemingly campaign-ending gaffes, Trump has only seen his poll numbers rise, to the point where he’s now leading in the national polls by double digits.

To be honest, I’m not certain what to make of his candidacy myself. My sense is that he’s still unlikely to be the Republican nominee, but I don’t write him off entirely. I certainly don’t have a firm sense of when he will fade (if he does). After all, he’s already survived a number of statements that would have felled many campaigns.

For now, I think it is probably best to avoid firm conclusions about what will become of the Trump boomlet. I do, however, think there are four things that analysts should avoid until we get closer to the actual voting:

1) Don’t Write Him Off

I, along with many election analysts, am a big fan of the political science text “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform.” Without getting into the weeds, the book posits that party insiders ultimately decide who the nominees are, and that the voters largely serve to vet these decisions.

But I also don’t think we should treat the book as a holy text (nor would the authors). For one thing, we don’t have a ton of primary races to go off of, since primaries weren’t designed to select nominees directly until the 1970s. The model didn’t perform all that well in 2008, when it probably would not have picked John McCain or Barack Obama as the nominees. We also have to take into account the spread of the Internet and the rise of super PACs, which could allow fringe candidates to survive for an extended period of time. In addition, the current field is a badly fractured one filled with talented candidates, so an “outsider” candidate can win an awful lot of races with 20 percent of the vote.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the Republican electorate is simply in a foul mood, vis-à-vis its leadership. Part of this owes to the fact that these leaders grossly overpromised what they could accomplish, even with Obama as president, in order to win the House and the Senate. Another part of this owes to the fact that when Republicans did hold all three branches of government, they probably moved the domestic policy needle leftward, leaving rank-and-file members to doubt their leaders’ commitments to conservatism. And yet another part of this owes to the fact that “experts” have had a pretty rough run in general since the late 1990s, failing to avert catastrophe after catastrophe while seeing their personal fortunes continue to rise.

Regardless, the constant rejoinder to the suggestion that Republicans will nominate someone extreme has typically been that the party that nominated two Bushes, Bob Dole, McCain and Mitt Romney isn’t likely to do something rash. I think that is, generally speaking, a fair assessment.

At the same time, though, we should realize that sometimes things really do change. Right now, an awfully large segment of the Republican electorate thinks that its leadership is ineffective at best and unconcerned with conservative policymaking at worst, that the country is heading toward a disaster, and that Washington is more concerned with enriching itself than with working for the benefit of the country. This is fertile soil for a candidacy like Trump’s to take off. While I don’t think Trump will be the nominee, neither is it impossible for him to be.

2) Don’t Treat Him as the Frontrunner

While it is wrong to dismiss any analyst who takes Trump seriously, it is likewise wrong – indeed it is probably more wrong – to look at polling today and conclude that Trump is the favorite for the nomination. Being the frontrunner is about more than just the polls – factors cited in “The Party Decides,” like fundraising and party support, do matter – and we have plenty of examples of late summer/fall boomlets in primaries that ultimately fall apart. In fact, they’ve been the rule of late:

In August of 2003, the leader in the Democratic primary was Joe Lieberman, with 18 percent. He was followed by Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean, at 15 percent each, and finally John Kerry at 12 percent. By late fall, Dean led in the polls. But his polling lead collapsed in the homestretch; he failed to win any races outside of his home state and the non-binding D.C. primary. Gephardt and Lieberman likewise went nowhere; Sen. John Edwards, who was at 5 percent over the summer, emerged as the leading alternative to Kerry.

In the summer of 2007, Sen. Hillary Clinton had opened up a double-digit lead over her competition, which grew to almost 25 points in September. On the Republican side, McCain was approaching single digits in the polls, while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had opened up a nine-point lead over former Sen. Fred Thompson. Romney had a healthy lead in Iowa, while eventual leader Mike Huckabee was mired at 3.5 percent.

Finally, in the summer of 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was beginning a Trump-like ascent in the polls, rising from a mere 5 percent in June to a peak of 32 percent in mid-September. Many analysts considered him the likely nominee. Oops. At the same time Rep. Michele Bachmann was receiving a little more than 25 percent in Iowa polling.

Of course, Romney became the eventual nominee, but not before enduring boomlets from Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich (twice), and Rick Santorum. As late as December 2011, Gingrich even held a 13-point lead over Romney.

The point is, this is historically a “shopping period” for primary voters. They try out different flavors, explore their strengths and weaknesses, and . . . abandon them at the drop of a hat. While I don’t think the “invisible primary” of endorsements and fundraising is the be-all, end-all, I do think it’s a better indicator of which candidates have longevity.

Now, Trump supporters’ counter that he has endured multiple attacks and gaffes, and his numbers have only continued to improve. Many pundits thought his campaign was over (again) in the wake of his debate performance and his comment about Megyn Kelly’s, um, motivations for questioning.

We’ll have to wait to get some good before-and-after polling to determine what effect, if any, this latest dustup has on his standing, but personally I doubt if Trump’s numbers will collapse overnight. The tendency with other “summer candidacies” is to see a peak, followed by a lengthy, gradual decline. Given that his supporters have tended to support him exactly because he says what is on his mind, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that he’s displays such resilience in the face of his outrageous statements. Over the long run, however, Trump has some glaring weaknesses other than his mouth. It is hard to believe that the Republican Party will support a candidate who donated money to Hillary Clinton and supported single-payer health care; I suspect as these facts penetrate the consciousness of Republican primary voters, their minds will change.

Regardless, Trump may lead in the polls, but it is a mistake, for now, to treat him as a true frontrunner. Right now he’s benefiting from an angry base, a massive amount of free media, and from a fractured field. If this is where things still stand in December or January, we will have to reassess, but for now, he just isn’t the favorite (I don’t think anyone is right now).

3) Don’t Draw Conclusions About His Impact on the General Election

I think it’s a mistake to fret about (or celebrate) the harm Trump’s doing to the Republican brand. That might come, but for now, the evidence is pretty thin. The general election polls have, generally speaking, tightened. Recent general election polling in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa and Virginia have all shown close races. If anything, the presence of Trump has brought millions of viewers to the Republican debates, giving a ton of free media to all the candidates, while making those candidates look moderate in temperament by comparison.

Will this last forever? Again, it isn’t clear. But for now, the storyline is that Donald Trump is saying outrageous things, and the GOP candidates are generally appalled by them. For now, the other Republicans aren’t shifting their stances to pick off his voters, if for no other reason than Trump’s support isn’t grounded in any strong demographic or ideological base. If Trump starts winning primaries, and looks to be the nominee, it will be a different story. But for the time being, the actual evidence that he is hurting Republicans simply isn’t there.

4) Don’t Forget: You Need a Majority of Delegates to Be the Nominee

As I’ve written previously, one of the interesting things about a 17-person field is that we could end up with multiple candidates winning the early contests, going forward into Super Tuesday, and entering the home stretch of primaries with the delegates split among them.

Which brings us to what I think is the most interesting thing about Trump. Let’s say Republicans approach the convention with no candidate near a majority of delegates, and with Trump holding, say, 20 percent of the counts. If you prefer, give him a plurality.

At that point, the Republican nomination will be matter of negotiation. Whatever else you want to say about Trump, he’s an effective negotiator. That, I suspect, is why he hasn’t ruled out a third party bid. Why would he? It’s his trump card, so to speak, in those sorts of discussions. This is where Trump is probably at his most interesting: If the field stays crowded, and if the delegates are badly fractured for the convention.

So what do you do with Trump? The main thing is simply to remember where we are in the process. For most voters, it is still very early in the season. Many haven’t been tuned in, aren’t really making up their minds, and are free to make comments about candidates they support without giving other alternatives a close look. From now until December or so, I’d counsel simply kicking back, and enjoying the show.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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