The last few weeks have featured some interesting pieces by prominent reporters and analysts about why they severely underestimated Donald Trump’s chances at the Republican nomination. For my money, the most worthwhile so far is this one by “data journalist” Nate Silver at his website FiveThirtyEight. He and his team put Trump’s chances at 2% last August and raised them to 7% by December. The unprecedented nature of a Trump-type seriously vying for the nomination led the FiveThirtyEight crew to over-rely on the thesis behind The Party Decides, which proposes that a political party’s establishment steers the electorate to its preferred choice in presidential nominating contests. As it turns out, while the 2016 contests haven’t been great for The Party Decides-style analysis, they certainly haven’t refuted the theory altogether. After all, Hillary Clinton is a classic “party decides” candidate, and Trump’s victory is perhaps indicative of what happens when the party DOESN’T decide.
The Republican Party establishment was dead set against Trump from the beginning, but they never managed to rally around a single candidate. Actually, that’s not entirely true; Jeb Bush had huge amounts of money and significant establishment support dating back to early 2015. For a variety of reasons, Bush’s candidacy went nowhere fast. The establishment backed a spectacularly and fatally flawed horse and never recovered. That they thought Bush – brother of one of the two worst presidents since World War II, non-hater of immigrants, and Common Core supporter – could ever establish rapport with the Republican base in this weird political moment we’re now living through goes to show just how unprepared they were to deal with the forces that have brought us Trump. If we grant that Bush was basically a non-starter “party decides” choice, then the theory lives on to see another day.
In his fascinating retrospective on FiveThirtyEight’s thinking, Silver proposes models that could have taken Trump’s chances more seriously. However, under these new models, back in the fall of 2015 Trump still would have only been considered to have had between a 10 and 15% chance at the nomination. It wasn’t until the voting actually began and Trump did very well in February that FiveThirtyEight’s models finally gave him front-runner status.
To put it simply, this just means that an unlikely nominee is unlikely. Over the long run, candidates with a 10% chance of winning the nomination can be expected to win the nomination 10% of the time. In fact, we’ve seen unlikely and ultimately poor general election candidates win nominations before, such as George McGovern and Barry Goldwater. As the data coalesced around Trump’s strong position, the unlikely became likely, and after Indiana, inevitable.
Since a lot of elite political commentators are making hay right now out of getting Trump wrong, why not explain why I got him right? How did I come to call Trump the front-runner last August when most analysts were still laughing at his candidacy? First, I should acknowledge that I waffled a bit on that just a few days later in the post “Can the Republican Establishment Trump Trump?” I was hedging against what seemed to be a rash prediction, influenced by my boy Nate Silver and others such as Jonathan Chait. But even in that post, I laid out the case for Trump being the favorite. Just as important, I explained what had to happen in order for the Republican Party to deny Trump the nomination. They never managed to do any of it.
There were two main reasons, both related to polling, why I thought Trump was in the best position to win the nomination. First, Trump was the plurality leader in nearly every poll taken since he had entered the race. Silver cautioned against reading too much into polls taken months before voting was set to begin, and usually caution is warranted. This time, however, there were indicators suggesting something strange was happening. I noticed that Trump’s leads were consistent except for one brief period of time when Ben Carson inched ahead, but not really at Trump’s expense. The Carson bubble soon burst, and Trump went right back into the lead, never to relinquish it.
Another polling factor I thought important was how “non-establishment” candidates performed in aggregate against “establishment” candidates. Nationally, and often in individual states, the Trump-Carson-Ted Cruz trio combined for more than 50% and sometimes more than 60% support, while the establishment candidates were stuck between 20 and 30% taken altogether.
When Carson collapsed, which was only a matter of time, where was his support going? I never for a second believed it would go to Bush or Marco Rubio. Cruz, who had hoped to be the credible outsider in this campaign, started losing votes to Trump when he blatantly cozied up to Republican elites, trying to earn their support in order to deny Trump a majority of the delegates. Point is, I always thought that at least 50% of the vote would go to non-establishment types, and once Cruz turned his campaign into that of an insider Trump cleaned up the outsider vote. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Trump started winning majorities around the time Cruz and his campaign started bragging about gaming the delegate system. The geographic region helped, sure, but then Trump went on to a crushing win in Indiana, where Cruz was supposed to be strong.
Why think that non-establishment types would combine for at least 50% of the vote, and that Trump would be able to consolidate that vote when his rivals dropped out or forfeited their outsider status? First, and as just mentioned, were the numbers; the polls themselves always gave the non-establishment category commanding support, usually well over 50%. Second, and more esoteric, is what I wrote back in August:
The genuinely fascinating thing about Trump’s candidacy is how he is exposing fault lines between the GOP’s elites and its base. The elites have two economic priorities: keep taxes low and limit government regulation. The base has two economic priorities: keep their jobs and their “earned” benefits, Social Security and Medicare (the “keep the government’s hands off my Medicare” phenomenon).
The GOP elite has always been hostile to welfare programs (yes, Social Security and Medicare are socialist welfare programs) because they require certain tax levels and regulations to keep afloat. So how has the GOP managed for decades, like with Bush in 2004, to elect people who promise to dismantle the programs the base relies upon? One thesis, though it has its flaws, is proposed in the famous book What’s the Matter with Kansas? The basic argument is that GOP elites impose upon the electorate candidates who share elite priorities of low taxes and slashed welfare programs, but are capable of redirecting the base with cultural issues, such as immigrants, abortion, gays, and guns (and yes, race), that the candidates and elites have little appetite for actually pursuing.
The Tea Party backlash against the GOP establishment is an expression of this tension in the party. The base started waking up to the fact that the establishment had no real dog in the culture war fights. The base began electing people who really did want to ban abortions, who really did want to carve out exceptions to equal protection laws to allow people with certain religious beliefs to discriminate against gays, who really did want to severely restrict immigration and forcibly remove those residing in the country illegally.
The problem here is that the GOP base has always preferred Democratic economic policies (link to opinions about Social Security, but could easily link to opinions about taxes, Medicare, etc.). So I find it extremely hard to believe that the GOP base is rallying around Trump simply because he talks more like a Democrat about economic issues…
So what’s going on here? Why would a bloc of voters who have always voted for GOP economic policies all of a sudden be open to Democratic economic policies espoused by someone who sounds like a racist demagogue?
The Republican establishment took it for granted that its base of angry white people would hold their noses and vote for John McCains and Mitt Romneys forever and ever. They assumed the base would be fine in perpetuity with do-nothing Congresses that never deliver on the campaign promises of repealing Obamacare, building walls and deporting millions of immigrants, and putting women, minorities, Muslims and LGBT citizens back in their places. The elite made the mistake of conflating base support for these reactionary positions with support for the elites’ two true goals: low taxes and no regulations. This was the Republican establishment’s key mistake, and you could see back in the summer of 2015 how Trump was deftly exploiting the rift between the elites and the base over economic issues. Nevermind that Trump’s tax policies and many of his economic policies belie his populist rhetoric. The Republican base has always been a bunch of rubes.
What Trump did brilliantly in his campaign was decouple the traditional conservative cultural grievances from elite economic policy. Once a candidate, and especially a gifted demagogue like Trump, figured out that the base just wants its cultural meat and who cares about the tax vegetables, it was over. It might sound simplistic, but that was my assumption this whole time. Polling during this election cycle and recent voting behavior suggested that at least 50% of the Republican base is most concerned with full-throated airings of grievances and couldn’t care less about making sure the rich don’t pay higher taxes. Much of the base, after all, are members of Romney’s infamous 47% who don’t pay income taxes and will never take advantage of tax schemes that favor the rich like the carried interest loophole.
I won’t pretend that this explains the whole election, though I contend it explains much of it. Trump demonstrated almost immediately that he understood this cleavage between the base and the elites and that he could leverage it better than any of his 2012 harbingers or 2016 rivals. That’s why he’s the 10 to 1 long shot that actually came in first.