The conventional wisdom will probably prove correct: Donald Trump will likely crash and burn.
Soon, Republican voters will start scrutinizing the candidates more closely. They’ll become more risk-averse, and gravitate toward whomever they think has the best chance of keeping “Hitlery Killton” (as one conservative referred to her on Twitter) out of the White House. The “establishment” will coalesce around an alternative. The GOP field will narrow, and someone – Jeb Bush, perhaps, or Marco Rubio – will consolidate the anti-Trump vote.
A hundred smart pieces have made this argument. But I’ve seen none even grapple with what might be a serious X-factor: Trump’s popular celebrity.
That’s probably because pundits and political scientists don’t have much to say about it. We’ve never had a major TV star – host of a highly-rated primetime network show for 12 years – leading a party’s nomination process. The closest we’ve come may be Arnold Schwarzenegger (who’s replacing Trump on “Celebrity Apprentice”) running in a statewide race. Early on, most political journalists said that he didn’t stand a chance.
On average, around the same number of people tuned into the first season of “The Apprentice,” week after week, as voted in the 2012 Republican primaries. Around a million more tuned into the finale. The show’s popularity has declined over the years, but since 2004, Trump’s drawn about the same number of viewers as Mitt Romney drew primary voters last cycle.
So here’s where the conventional wisdom may be wrong, and Trump just might have an outside shot. It’s probably not a leap to think there’s a fair amount of overlap between those who love watching The Donald fire people on TV and his primary supporters. So what if inviting someone into your living room every week for a dozen years results in a kind of bond with that person that supersedes politics? What if it creates a kind of imagined intimacy that people don’t typically feel, even for politicians they support?
This might explain why Trump has defied expectations – why criticizing John McCain’s war record and picking fights with Fox News haven’t brought him down like everyone thought they would. It could also explain his support among groups that shouldn’t like him at all. In various polls, he’s led among Evangelicals, despite being a thrice-divorced casino magnate who couldn’t cite a single Bible passage until he finally decided to just make one up. Despite having some truly wacky positions, he’s also led various polls among self-identified moderates.
So what if February rolls around, and they don’t care that his positions are incoherent? What if they don’t care if pollsters say he’ll get whooped in the general election?
Key to the conventional wisdom is the notion that party actors – broadly defined to include grassroots activists and outside advocacy groups and donors and the ideological media – hold an “invisible primary” long before most rank-and-file voters start paying attention. Then, when people eventually start tuning in, they tend to be heavily influenced by those actors. But what if Trump’s fans just know that he’ll make America great, not only because it’s on his hat but also because they feel that they really know him personally after all these years? What if they don’t care what anyone says, and he holds onto that 25 or 30 percent?
This presents an irony. We now have a candidate who’s had a healthy lead in the polls for an extended period of time, and all the smart people say he’s losing badly. The claim requires that the field gets winnowed down to a few candidates. But the widely held belief that the front-runner is going to collapse is an incentive for others to stay in long enough to see how the race might shake out.
To be sure, the winnowing process has begun, with Scott Walker and Rick Perry discovering that nobody likes them. But if donors give them the opportunity, one can imagine Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal and even Rand Paul hanging around with the hope that they can pick up the angry anti-establishment vote. Or Chris Christie and John Kasich hoping to surpass Jeb Bush as the “establishment candidate.”
After mid-March, states can hold winner-take-all primaries, and around a quarter of GOP delegates are expected to be won in those races. If the field remains somewhat crowded, a candidate could theoretically go all the way with 30 percent of the vote.
And while it’s widely assumed that an establishment candidate will rise to vanquish Trump, who would that be? Scott Walker’s gone, and Jeb Bush looks like he’d rather be somewhere else. In both the latest Fox and Quinnipiac polls, Bush trails both Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, candidates that are almost as goofy as Trump himself. (Marco Rubio also trails both Fiorina and Carson in Quinnipiac’s survey, but ties Fiorina in the Fox poll.)
Now, this is probably a good time to point out that as late as December of 2007, John McCain was polling at just ten percent in a far less crowded field. And at this point in the 2012 cycle, Mitt Romney was at 16 percent, trailing Perry by 10 points. I don’t believe that Trump will be the nominee. But this is how it could happen.
And how many of those savvy observers have ever watched “Celebrity Apprentice” anyway?