One of the most interesting and talked about questions in the early part of the 2016 presidential race has been: what will happen with Donald Trump? Much of the Republican establishment clearly does not want him to be the nominee, yet he is currently the front runner, according to the polls. Of course, history teaches us that frontrunners come and go, so many of Trump’s Republican opponents take solace from that and hope that he will go away.
It could still happen, but there are some reasons to doubt that he is going to go away so easily as they hope. Trump is not just the frontrunner. He has been the frontrunner for a long time, now, and has survived many things that people predicted at the time will bring him down. He is the frontrunner, moreover, at a very critical time. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My impression is that politics tends to freeze up during the holidays. People are not paying attention to politics during the period beginning tomorrow and ending after New Years. If that is correct, there is not much any Republicans can do to overtake Trump between now and then. The problem then is that after New Years there is only one month until the Iowa caucuses, which is not a lot of time. And on top of all this the Republican establishment seems to have no actual plan of attack against Trump. This Washington Post article is headlined: “Plan A for GOP Donors: Wait for Trump to Fall (There is no Plan B).”Donald Trump finally took some punches, Carly Fiorina grabbed control, Jeb Bush woke up and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie elbowed their way into the fray on a crowded stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, September 16, 2015. Everyone else just tried to crash the party.
This seems like a weak position for Trump’s adversaries to occupy. Still, he might well just fade away. This is the point that Nate Silver makes at FiveThirtyEight. Trump is indeed in the lead according to the polls, Silver points out, but he only gets about 25-30%. If that is in fact Trump’s ceiling then he would have trouble getting the nomination, because as other candidates drop out their support will go to some alternative to Trump. Plus, Silver notes that most people are still not paying close attention to politics. When they do, Trump might fade.
This all makes sense, but it is far from certain. Two thoughts come to mind. One has to do with the polls. I read a Republican strategist a few weeks ago who said that he did not think the polls showing Trump support were particularly important, because there were people who would shout agreement with Trump at their televisions but would not actually show up to vote. So on this view the polls overstate Trump’s support. That is very plausible. But the opposite is plausible, too. What if the polls understate Trump’s support? Trump has said a lot of things that make it possible for the media to portray him as beyond the pale. This could mean that voters don’t want to tell a pollster that they are Trump supporters. If the actual voting revealed that Trump is actually stronger than he has appeared it would be hard to calculate the political consequences.
The second point has to do with paying attention. Silver is right that most people don’t pay much attention until later in the race. On the other hand, Trump is so good at generating publicity that it is possible that more people have given thought to him than would be the case in an ordinary campaign.
All of this points to a very uncertain conclusion. All we can say is that the situation as it stands–an outsider like Trump appearing to contend seriously for the nomination of the Republican Party, really against the wishes of the most powerful people in the Party–is very unusual and therefore very interesting to watch but very hard to predict.