The smart money still regards Donald Trump as a flash-in-the-pan presidential candidate with little chance of actually winning the 2016 Republican nomination. But some experts are reassessing the conventional wisdom.
Though it is difficult to find a political analyst ready to predict the real estate tycoon will be accepting the nomination in Cleveland in July 2016, some argue he has a plausible path to victory. Unlike previous GOP flashes-in-the-pan, his lead seems solid, his coffers are overflowing and his ability to weather controversy is uncanny.
“He is a phenomenon we have never faced before, so we don’t know,” said Edward Grefe, an expert on grassroots politics who teaches at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “He is not a traditional politician.”
A Rasmussen poll out Friday finds that 57 percent of likely GOP voters think Trump is likely to be the nominee
Republican voters certainly think it could happen. A Rasmussen poll out Friday finds that 57 percent of likely GOP voters think Trump is likely to be the nominee, up from 27 percent who felt that way two months ago when he announced.
Sean Trende, an election analyst at Real Clear Politics, wrote this month that the party establishment usually gets the candidate it desires. But he said a large chunk of Republican voters distrust the party’s leadership.
“This is fertile soil for a candidacy like Trump’s to take off,” he wrote. “While I don’t think Trump will be the nominee, neither is it impossible for him to be.”
Trump’s Polling Proves Durable
Most experts say Trump may be peaking too early. They point to a string of candidates who out-polled eventual 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
But Trump is showing signs of having a more durable and solid lead than previous shooting stars who had their 15 minutes of celebrity and then fell back to insignificance.
Trump was second to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush when he kicked off his campaign on June 16. He took his first lead in a USA Today/Suffolk University poll in mid-July and now has led in 15 consecutive national surveys tracked by RealClearPolitics. The website’s current weighted polling average gives him an 11.3 point lead over Bush.
Within the past few weeks, Trump has begun to poll at the top of surveys of voters in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Within the past few weeks, he has begun to poll at the top of surveys of voters in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
- Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the 2012 race to great fanfare and enjoyed a lead from about mid-August to mid-September in 2011.
- Businessman Herman Cain later enjoyed a run at the top that lasted about a month, until early November that year. But Romney never was far behind, usually within low single digits and even beating him in some surveys during that period.
- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich then led most polls from early November to mid-December, and again for three weeks in January 2012, culminating with a victory in the South Carolina primary.
- Finally, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania led in a handful of national surveys in February, after his surprise showing in the Iowa caucus.
Perhaps Trump will still suffer a similar fate. But there are reasons to think he could maintain his current standing.
Perry wilted under scrutiny and suffered a disastrous debate performance in November 2011 in which he could not remember two of the three federal agencies he would eliminate. Trump, though, has stronger Teflon. He already has survived a number of statements that experts predicted would spell his demise — saying Mexico is sending murderers and rapists to the United States, impugning Arizona’s U.S. Sen. John McCain’s war record and refusing to pledge support for the eventual Republican nominee if it is not him.
Trump’s polling lead already has lasted longer than the brief flirtations by Cain or Santorum. And Trump’s personal fortune ensures that he can respond to negative advertising, something that helped sink Gingrich after South Carolina.
Large Field Helps Trump
James Miller, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and an expert on game theory, said he has changed his initial impression that Trump was a fool. He said Trump’s embrace of immigration positions that are popular with the Republican base have put him into a position to grab the substantial anti-establishment vote within the party.
Miller said Trump can go where other candidates are afraid to, for fear of offending donors who favor more lenient immigration. Trump does not have to worry about campaign funds, he said.
“This is really clever,” he said. “This guy is playing a deep game of chess.”
Trump’s chances may hinge on whether the crowded primary field remains large past the first voting in February in Iowa.
Miller said Trump’s chances hinge on whether the crowded primary field remains large past the first voting in February in Iowa. If so, Trump’s core of support may carry him through divided support for the other candidate. If there are fewer candidates, and GOP leaders settle on one alternative, like a Jeb Bush, Trump will face a tougher challenge.
Miller added that Trump has been shrewd in hinting at an independent candidacy if he loses the nomination. That might overturn concerns about his general election electability, since the party would have a much better shot with Trump as its nominee than it would in a three-way general election race.
“That (concern) goes away,” he said. “That defeats the purpose of supporting the candidate who is the most electable.”
Super PAC Wildcard
Nearly every political expert rates the GOP field as one of the strongest and deepest in history. Counterintuitively, that could play into Trump’s hands. If the field were not as deep, it would be easier for one of the non-Trump candidates to emerge as the clear alternative.
With many plausible candidates, that so far has not happened.
“Yes, a strong field means it is more difficult to force exits and shakeups. That may freeze in Trump’s lead, at least until the voting begins,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said in an email to LifeZette. “It’s possible we’ll see another 50-state slog, like the Democrats had in 2008. The winnowing will occur more gradually, but it will happen inevitably.”
Sabato still considers a Trump victory unlikely. His well-regarded Sabato’s Crystal Ball website puts Trump in his own category of candidate rankings — “The Un-Nominatable Frontrunner.”
A wildcard, Sabato said, is the rise of Super PACs that can accept donations in any amount and are closely aligned with candidates, albeit technically separate. Super PACs could play a more prominent role in this year’s nominating contest and could allow more candidates to stay in the race beyond Iowa and New Hampshire than in past campaigns.
“If the primary vote is split twelve to sixteen ways, then Trump will be able to win more contests assuming his quarter of the GOP vote is firm,” wrote Larry Sabato.
“If the Trump phenomenon proves enduring and triumphant, one reason will certainly be Super PACs. They will enable most candidates to survive for far longer than under the old system,” Sabato wrote. “If the primary vote is split twelve to sixteen ways, then Trump will be able to win more contests assuming his quarter of the GOP vote is firm. But should most of the current contenders drop out, their supporters will mainly pick non-Trump candidates, reducing Trump’s chances to prevail.”
Candice Nelson, academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University, said Trump’s money has gotten people to pay attention to him. But she cautioned that winning a national campaign requires a lot of nitty-gritty organizing to get on ballots and shepherd voters through arcane caucus procedures in many states.
“I haven’t seen a lot of evidence he’s doing the things he needs to do to actually get votes,” she said.
Trump currently leads polling in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He conceivably could win all three without achieving majority support. If he did, he would head into voting on March 1 in a dozen states with an enormous head of steam. After March 15, the contests become winner-take-all.
Even if most candidates are out by then, it would seem a long shot at that point for any of the survivors to reel him in.