I’m starting to feel less confident that Trump is the favorite to win the Republican Party’s nomination for president, though I would still say he has as good a chance as any of the other candidates. Predictions are hard, especially about the future, and as I read more about polling this far out from the first primary contests and the primary process itself I become more convinced that the unprecedented nature of the GOP race deserves more of a wait-and-see approach.
Brian Beutler at the New Republic explains what I was thinking in my earlier post when I declared Trump the front runner. The Trump-is-the-favorite argument goes like this: Trump is polling around 27% right now, which is more than double the support of his nearest competitor; the nearest competitor, Ben Carson, is also a non-establishment candidate, is polling around 12%, and it’s far from clear at the moment where his support goes should he drop out (Carson is not a blowhard, but he believes the Affordable Care Act is like slavery and going to prison can make you gay); the four closest “establishment” candidates – Bush, Rubio, Walker and Kasich – poll at 28% combined, tied with Trump; Cruz and Huckabee, regarded as non-establishment types, come in at 12% combined and their support is likely to go to Trump if they drop out before or during the early primaries; so, if the non-establishment, non-Trump support is Trump’s to lose then there’s 24% support he can add to his current 27%, giving him a 51% majority without even having to worry about converting any other GOP primary voters. And besides, who knows where the votes of people supporting sure losers like Fiorina (5.8%), Christie (3.0%) Paul (3.0%), Santorum (1.3%), Perry (1.3%), Jindal (0.3%) and Pataki (0.3%) go – that’s another 15% of the electorate!
In this scenario, Trump will be unstoppable if the establishment and its voters never manage to rally around a single candidate, because after March 14th most Republican contests are winner-take-all and Trump can clean up with just 30 or 40% of the vote.
Jonathan Chait presents the more common argument that Trump is doomed because of course the GOP establishment will rally around a single candidate, force the others out, and aim all of its wrath at Trump. For a while I thought this was wishful thinking, but I’m coming around. The establishment-will-get-its-act-together-and-crush-Trump argument goes like this: while 51% of the primary vote potentially belongs to Trump, the other 48% currently going to the establishment front runners and the sad sack also-rans (it gives me so much joy that my home state governor, Chris Christie, is one of these) is completely off limits to Trump; some also-rans will drop out before the first contest in Iowa and make establishment candidates look stronger; the early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada will winnow the field further; by the time March 2016 rolls around Trump will be facing two or three establishment candidates with consolidated support; actually having to vote will make once Trump-curious voters think twice about nominating a man who almost certainly cannot win the presidency, so Trump’s potential majority support will drop to a ceiling of 40% or worse; and finally, if Trump is still a force on the eve of the winner-take-all contests, establishment power brokers will step in, tell the runners-up to get lost and make way for the best-performing candidate for the good of the party, and start aiming their entire war chest at Trump on behalf of a single candidate (probably Bush, Rubio, or Walker).
The last issue slowing my Trump roll is the unreliability of polling this far out from the actual voting. At the link Nate Silver provides several compelling reasons why we shouldn’t rely too much on polling at this stage in the process. For example, early polling front runners Joe Lieberman (2004 election), Rudy Giuliani (2008 election), and Rick Perry (2012 election) never even got close to the nomination, and front runner Hillary Clinton (2008 election) was in a close fight but ended up losing to Obama.
So I’m less certain than I was before about Trump’s front runner status, and now I’m also less certain that Trump has even a puncher’s chance at the presidency should he make it to the general election. In an earlier post I wrote that he had a 30 to 40% chance at being elected president should he make it to the general election as a Republican (if he runs independently, he has no chance and almost certainly kills any chance the Republican nominee has). I now think that’s much too high, and I’ll try to flesh that out if Trump still looks formidable as the nominating contests get closer.