After a long and tortuous ‘invisible primary’ campaign where every rule of the primary playbook seems to have been thrown out of the window, the Republican presidential campaign appears to have finally boiled down to a contest between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And in a bizarre twist, the Republican establishment seems to be lining up behind Donald Trump, covertly and at times overtly, in an apparently desperate bid to prevent Cruz from winning.
All of these have confounded experts. In a recent, characteristically well-written post, Nate Silver has come up with a detailed critique of the book ‘The Party Decides’ and has offered multiple explanations of why the Republican Party apparatus seems to be acting against their role as laid out in the central theory of the book (which is to guide the electorate towards choosing an electable candidate who is also consistent with the party’s partisan beliefs) and is on the suicidal mission of handing over the ticket to Donald Trump. Some of his theories are that the party is in disarray, the party base does not really trust the establishment any more, the party establishment is either underestimating or overestimating the prospects of Trump or they just think Cruz is a much, more nasty option.
Silver’s grouse in that in a normal primary election, the electorate makes a choice between ideology and electability i.e. in a Republican Primary election, they should be choosing the most electable, conservative candidate. However, in Trump’s case, he is neither conservative nor electable. Here is the relevant passage from Silver’s article:
“Instead, parties have usually nominated candidates who, as the book puts it, are:
- “Credible and at least reasonably electable”;
- “Representatives of their partisan traditions.”
……………..It has been extremely rare, however, for a candidate to be nominated while scoring poorly along both dimensions. McGovern is probably the best example, insofar as he was too radical even for many Democrats in 1972 and a disaster of a general election nominee.
Donald Trump might be another of those cases. It’s not clear what policy positions Trump really holds, but to the extent he has articulated them, they’re all over the map and not that well aligned with those traditionally held by Republican officeholders. However, unlike previous “mavericks” such as Bill Clinton or McCain, Trump is not very popular with general election voters. On the contrary, he’s extremely unpopular with independents and would begin the general election race with worse favorability ratings than any candidate to receive a major-party nomination before.”
My only problem with this assessment is that there is nothing to say that Trump is not an electable candidate, apart from his really low favourability numbers among the general election electorate. However, if there has been one lesson from this election cycle, it is that favourability numbers can be extremely volatile and not really indicative of the candidate’s prospects. Trump’s low favourability among Republican primary voters was the reason why most analysts had dismissed his candidacy as a joke when he announced it. But during the course of the campaign, his favourability numbers among Republicans have improved tremendously, even though Trump, through his celebrity, was well known to the voters even at the start of his campaign. Further, it is not like Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has superb favourability numbers either.
One may argue that Trump shall turn off a large number of minority voters. But the percentage support of Republicans among the minorities is already at a historic low, and a candidate like Cruz has also not done anything to endear himself to such demographics. Further, if Trump wins in the primary, it shall be because a large number of white, less-educated voters who usually preferred to remain at home on election days, have come out to vote for him, in spite of a not very strong campaign infrastructure. Thus, this block of new voters may partially compensate for Trump’s dismal showing among racial minorities and more educated white voters. And with Obama not on the ticket any more, the Democrats will not find it easy to replicate the turnout and support level of 2008 and 2012.
For most of the campaign, the media has treated it as a kind of truism that Trump is not a very electable candidate. But when you ask the actual Republican voters on who is the most electable candidate, Trump has led consistently in such polls; in fact, the percentage of voters who have stated that Trump is the most electable candidate in such surveys is always more than the percentage of voters actually willing to vote for him.
Let us for a moment think of the election from the perspective of the average Republican voter. She has now seen Donald Trump lead the polls for the last seven months. She has seen Trump at the center of the Republican debate stage from the time the debates have started. She has seen Trump hog headlines and dominate media coverage like no other candidate in this election cycle. She has also seen no visible push back of Trump from the Republican establishment apart from a few feeble denunciations of his more outrageous statements. She also knows already that Trump has a reputation for being a savvy businessman with a successful track record.
The media, the Republican establishment and most of the rival campaigns, have in fact handed over the centre stage to Donald Trump who has been claiming over the last few months about his superhuman deal making capacity, his extra-ordinary business success and his ability to clobber Hillary Clinton in the general election and make America great again. It is thus not impossible for such voters to make the impression that Trump is, in fact, the strongest candidate in the field.
There are also many other ways in which Trump’s support resembles that of an establishment favourite than an insurgent demagogue. For example, he has broad support among all factions of the party and is thus acceptable to the entire party. However, at the same time, like Mitt Romney in 2012 or Jon McCain in 2008, his strongest level of support is among moderates or not very conservative voters. Like these two candidates, his weakest support block is perhaps the evangelical Christians, which is part of the reason he is in a far better position in New Hampshire than in Iowa.
Like McCain and Romney, Trump is also an ideologically flexible candidate who had shown traits of heresy in the past, but has generally remained true to the beliefs of the Republican electorate during the campaign. And as we noted before, only establishment backed candidates have shown this tendency of posting better electability numbers than support numbers.
Thus, while Trump is stylistically very different from the last two nominees, he has, in many ways, shown the attributes of an establishment frontrunner. As a result, it is not very difficult for the average Republican voter to consider him as the most electable candidate and even a candidate representing the establishment wing. Considering this, Trump’s support level among Republican voters may not be a denunciation of ‘The Party Decides’ philosophy, but rather in keeping with it. Which kind of makes Silver’s detailed explanation moot and beside the point.
Of course, as Silver stated, none of these shall matter much if Trump goes on to lose the primary. And these are only theories that seek to explain an event, post-facto. However, my limited point is that instead of concluding on the basis of limited evidence that Trump shall be an absolutely horrible general election candidate, one may try to listen to what the Republican voters are saying, which is quite contrary to what the conventional wisdom is.