Donald Trump’s authoritative lead in early polling in the 2016 Republican race for the presidential nomination has left Americans excited, confused and afraid.
Trump hasn’t been out of first place in national polling since he filed as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission in mid-July. Most polls have him leading in the double digits.
He is not only ahead on paper. He draws the biggest crowds, too. A rally for the candidate in Mobile, Alabama, on Friday night had to be moved to a larger stadium to accommodate a horde of thousands – although the estimated crowd of 20,000 fell short of the 40,000 the Trump campaign said had RSVP’d.
“We could make a call for an expedited election,” Trump told the rally. “I would like to have the election tomorrow – I don’t want to wait.”
Nobody’s fired. Everybody’s fired up.
But can Donald Trump really win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination?
Knowledgable people think he might. They include some journalists , some former Republican consultants and operatives , talk show host Bill Maher and a contestant from season three of NBC’s The Apprentice , who now is co-chairperson of Trump’s Iowa operation.
A trio of political data experts empaneled by FiveThirtyEight for a podcast earlier this month estimated Trump’s chances of snagging the nomination at 2%, 0% and minus-10%, respectively.
“If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong,” Larry Sabato, head of the center for politics at the University of Virginia, wrote last week .
How meaningful is Trump’s impressive lead in the polls, really? Not very meaningful, think most people in the know. Here’s why.
Even political analysts who are highly convinced that Trump cannot win hesitate to state outright: “Trump cannot win”. After all, high political office is cluttered with people who weren’t supposed to be able to win.
But the smart money is stacked against Trump – stacked as tall as one of his awesome towers. The argument goes like this.
Polls this far out don’t mean much
Early polling is not very predictive. Especially polling more than 300 days out. (We have 444 days to go .) There are charts that illustrate this. But there are also instructive examples – as well as exceptions.
Except when you overlay it with, for example, the arc of the early frontrunner in the 2008 Republican nominating race, Rudy Giuliani:
Next to Giuliani’s lead, Trump’s lead looks like … a joke. Trump is having trouble cracking 25%, while for months at a stretch in 2007, Giuliani swanned around in the 30s. And yet Giuliani ended up winning not a single primary or caucus. He ultimately focused all his efforts in Florida, where he came in third.
What happened to Giuliani? He is said to have made tactical errors such as bad hires and ad buys. But the real explanation, many analysts think, is that Giuliani’s lead was a phantom lead. He was just ahead in the polls in a race most people were mostly ignoring.
“Giuliani was better known than the others, except for McCain,” David Karol, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and co-author of the book The Party Decides, told the Guardian. “The other candidates [Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul] were not that well known. Over the course of the campaign, voters got to know the others.”
When voters started to pay attention, as Iowa neared, they discovered that Giuliani was a thrice-married, formerly pro-choice, kind of rude person from New York. “Rudy didn’t even care enough about conservatives to lie to us,” one Republican consultant reflected afterwards.
Donald Trump also happens to be a thrice-married, formerly pro-choice, kind of rude person from New York.
There are differences between Giuliani and Trump. The former New York City mayor couldn’t self-finance the way Trump might. And Giuliani, despite claiming the mantle America’s Mayor, never had Trump’s star power.
Giuliani, however, had strengths that Trump did not. He had an admired record as a public servant. He also boasted at least some party support, winning the endorsements of Pat Robertson and Rick Perry.
The truth is, the Giuliani case is but one of many in which a front-runner in national polls in a presidential nominating race has spectacularly imploded. Both Perry and Newt Gingrich opened up early, double-digit leads on the field in 2011, and Herman Cain enjoyed a brief, smaller lead over eventual nominee Mitt Romney.
It’s not just a Republican phenomenon. The 2004 Democratic race saw two substantial – but ultimately failed – frontrunners in 2003 in Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean, who held a double-digit lead in Iowa as late as December , only to come in third in the caucuses a month later.
Q: Pointing out that past frontrunners-in-the-polls went on to lose does not prove anything about what will happen this time, does it?
A: No. Examples of leaders in early polling who didn’t win are meant to demonstrate the questionable value of early polling.
Q: But isn’t early polling sometimes right?
A: Yes, but mostly where establishment candidates are involved. Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W Bush in 2000 are good examples. They were pure establishment picks, members of political dynasties whose parties swung in line early on. The opposite of Trump, in short.
Hillary Clinton was a potential establishment pick in 2008, and the leader in early polling – but a second candidate, with little prior name recognition and a higher favorability rating, beat her to the nomination.
Trump’s numbers aren’t that good
Trump is only at 25% – not high enough to score wins in most primary elections and caucuses – and there are persuasive reasons to believe he cannot climb much higher.
In the first 13 Republican primary and caucus elections in 2012, the winner garnered an average of 41.8% of the vote. Trump is polling nationally at around 25%. Where do the extra 17 points come from?
“Twenty-four, 25% of the vote is not enough to win,” Karol said. “It might be enough to win in Iowa, it might be enough to win in New Hampshire. But it’s not enough to win in the later states where the bulk of the delegates are at stake.”
Q: Can Trump make a double-digit leap in the polls by converting undecideds?
A: Do you know anyone who is undecided about Donald Trump? Neither do most Americans. That’s because Trump is one of the most famous people in the country and is currently benefitting from grossly disproportionate media coverage . Everybody’s heard of Trump. Problematically for him, familiarity has not bred affection.
Trump has the worst favorability rating within his own party of any Republican candidate except for Obama-hugger Chris Christie, according to new polling of key swing states by Quinnipiac University.
In the contest for undecided voters, Trump appears weaker than any of his rivals, because everybody already knows who he is, and an unusual number of Republicans already don’t like him.
Countervailing scenario: Trump wins Iowa or New Hampshire and catches fire. Maybe Trump’s 25% isn’t enough to win the big states, the thinking goes – but it might be enough to win one of those first two states, which might be enough to make him a contender. In 2012, Rick Santorum won Iowa with 25% support. In 1996, Pat Buchanan won New Hampshire with 27%. (Neither candidate went on to win the nomination.)
Presidential races do “shape up” after voting begins, as candidates drop out and voters shift allegiances or form them for the first time. This should be a dramatic process this cycle, as an early field of 17 Republican candidates likely winnows to two or three or four contenders.
But the same apparent sandbags that weigh on Trump’s poll numbers now will remain attached in early 2016. He is not Jimmy Carter, a relatively obscure figure who used a second-place finish in Iowa (28%) in 1976 to launch to victory. Trump looks more like Pat Buchanan – a well-known, polarizing figure whose passionate backing in one wing of the GOP (the anti-immigrant wing, incidentally) failed to attract mainstream voters, much less establishment support.
Endorsements actually matter
Trump does not have the support he needs from the Republican party to win the Republican nomination.
Karol’s 2008 book, The Party Decides, which he co-authored with political scientists Marty Cohen, Hans Noel and John Zaller, analyzes presidential nomination races from 1980 to 2004 and concludes that “early endorsements in the invisible primary are the most important cause of candidate success in the state primaries and caucuses”.
More important than total fundraising, more important than what the prediction markets say – and more important than polls.
Endorsements matter not only because they point to who insiders think will win, but also because the people who make endorsements – other elected officials – can influence the outcome of the race by strengthening a candidate’s local ground game, promoting the candidate to fellow party leaders and pitching the candidate to voters.
Trump is performing miserably in the “invisible primary” race for endorsements. An interactive endorsement tracker built by FiveThiryEight has former Florida governor Jeb Bush in the lead and Trump not even on the list. A tally by the New York Times also has Bush first, with Trump in 12th.
“[Trump] is a loose cannon. They don’t know what he’s going to do,” said Karol, of Republican party leaders. “He doesn’t have a long history in the party. He doesn’t have a history with them. And there is a lot of reason to believe that he would be a weak candidate in the general.
“For them, every alarm is triggered with him. He is an intruder, and the fact that he’s polling pretty well right now, and it’s lasted a little while – I think there is definitely some anxiety.”
Q: Hasn’t Trump said he will run as an independent? Maybe he does not need Republican party support.
A: Trump could run as an independent , and play a major role in the race. That’s a separate question from whether he can win the Republican nomination.
Countervailing scenario: Instead of the party deciding, the people decide. You saw that crowd in Alabama. Might Donald Trump be the spearhead of a big new populist movement?
The answer is, probably not, judging by how many people have an unfavorable view of Trump. As bad as his figures are among Republicans, they are much worse with the population as a whole. The recent Quinnipiac poll found Trump with minus-14 favorability rating in Florida, a minus-22 rating in Ohio and a minus-21 rating in Pennsylvania.
Karol warned against writing Trump off.
“It’s hazardous to predict Trump’s trajectory,” Karol said. “He is unique. We’ve had candidates who could be compared to him in certain respects.
“There are other candidate who have been populist outsiders. There are other candidates who have been independently wealthy and able to self-finance. There are other candidates who have been very good at working the media. There’s been the businessman who enters into politics.
“There hasn’t been anybody, though, when you put it all together, who is quite like Trump.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015