By Chris McCarthy on September 10, 2015
Much ink has been spilled lately over Donald Trump’s meteoric rise in the Republican primaries. While it seems like business as usual for the GOP to see candidates who might be described as “fringe candidates” take the lead for some period of time, Trump stands out from all the Herman Cain’s of the world due to his steadfast refusal to have a commensurate fall. And it is certainly not for lack of trying. It seems that practically every other day he comes out with some ill-advised comment that would be the certain political death of any ordinary candidate. So, let’s take a look at what’s going on with “The Donald.”
I’ll start with the fact of the matter: Donald Trump is genuinely and unironically leading the polls for the Republican primary, and his lead seems to be doing nothing but growing. Currently, he leads the polls in Iowa, which many people are making much of right now (however, Iowa has historically chosen minority candidates as well, such as Ron Paul in 2012).
What is far more surprising is the fact that he leads nationally. A mid-August poll by CNN found that 24% of registered Republicans list this guy as their first choice, up from 18% in July and 12% in June. An additional 14% put Trump as their second choice. By contrast, Jeb Bush, CNN’s second place candidate, only walks away with 13% of the pie. A Quinnipiac poll from August 27th tells much the same story. 28% of Republicans listed Trump as their first choice, followed by Carson with only 12% of the vote. On July 30th, Quinnipiac showed Trump leading with the comparatively modest 20%.
While none of these numbers are an overwhelming show of support, given that there are close to 20 candidates for the Republican primaries, he’s doing pretty well. This is even more surprising when one remembers that it was back in July that Trump made his controversial comments denigrating POWs in general and John McCain in particular. By traditional political strategy, that should have dented his political reputation, and yet even the Clinton News Network is forced to admit that his numbers are only climbing.
It is also worth noting that Quinnipiac found that, if a national race between Trump and Clinton were to happen tomorrow, Trump would take fully 41% of the vote, compared to Clinton’s 45%. And while Trump continues on the upswing, Clinton’s numbers keep going down. In summary, this candidate is not just competitive among his fellow Republicans, but is even holding his own on the national stage.
It should be kept in mind that these are real and quality numbers. Both studies were conducted over the phone (both landline and cell phone) and accounted for major demographic factors. They both came up with a margin of error around 3%. This means that in both polls Trump’s lead is large enough to put him well clear of the competition. This isn’t some statistical anomaly or results based on improper polling: based on these poll results, real people think that Donald Trump is the best option among the Republican candidates.
However, that’s not the whole story.
Despite the story these numbers tell, it is unlikely that Trump will be chosen as the Republican nominee for President.
About a month ago statistical wunderkind Nate Silver gave Trump a 2% chance of taking the party nomination. Nate Silver has been a skeptic of Trump since the man first appeared in the Republican candidate race. A big part of that skepticism comes from what Silver perceives as the interplay between media airtime and support for a candidate. And there is something to this; he can show a rather stunning correlation between the amount of airtime a candidate in the current Republican primary receives, and how much support they get. Thus, since Trump has managed to get so much airtime, that is translating into support as he comes more and more to the fore in the minds of an electorate that is not really paying any attention to the election yet.
There is something problematic about this analysis: It assumes that any coverage is good coverage. As long as a candidate is getting media coverage for anything, they will get more support. This would be fine if we assume that people really aren’t paying attention, and the only thing they hear is the name “Trump” without the following “is doing something unacceptable from a moral and social standpoint”, but this doesn’t seem to be borne out. As Silver himself pointed out in July, people are obsessed with Trump. His name was 62% of Google’s search traffic in that month. People are interested in him, they are paying attention to him in more than a cursory way, and rather than being dissuaded by what they see, they want to put him in charge.
So what happens if Nate Silver’s assessment of the media-support feedback loop is wrong? For a start, it means that Trump will almost certainly survive Silver’s hypothetical first phase of the campaign. The media will probably not shift their attention to a different candidate, because demand for The Donald is sufficiently high. Even if they do shift some focus to someone else, it won’t dethrone Trump, because numbers indicate that his support is not just an artifact of his name having high exposure.
So, what will likely cause The Donald’s fall? The party doesn’t want him to win. Neither the party’s constituents nor the Republican National Committee (RNC) wants him to win.
Despite the fact that Trump has the most support, and despite the fact that that support is increasing, there is a solid core within the Republican party that does not want him to be the nominee. That same Quinnipiac poll that showed him leading with 28%? It also showed that 30% of Republicans viewed him unfavorably; that makes him the most unfavorably viewed candidate on the Republican roster. Likewise, the CNN poll found that 58% of Republicans felt they stood a better chance in a general election with a candidate who wasn’t Donald Trump.
This core of people opposed to Trump will make it difficult for him come the actual primaries. Right now, Trump benefits from a hugely divided field. As candidates fall off, their supporters will coalesce around other, probably non-Trump candidates. Once the field has been cut down to size, Trump’s one third of the voters will probably not be enough to carry him through actual primaries. He can even win some votes (e.g. Iowa) without really affecting the outcome.
This core of anti-Trump supporters will be themselves supported by the party apparatus. Trump is not a team player; he targets fellow Republicans, refuses to fall in line, and would generally be a troublesome candidate for the RNC to deal with. And, as Silver is quick to point out, the RNC makes the rules when it comes to how the candidate is ultimately selected, and as it happens, they are strikingly disinclined to select Trump.