We want to be clear, we neither support nor are we predicting that Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination and then be elected president in 2016 – but this possibility can no longer be easily dismissed. If American political history teaches anything, it is that opinion polls can be turned upside down in the weeks leading up to the first actual caucusing in Iowa and voting in New Hampshire.
But if political insiders of both parties spent most of 2015 predicting a Trump collapse, it is now becoming increasingly clear that Donald Trump, more than any other candidate except perhaps his nearest rival for the GOP nomination, the equally unacceptable to political insiders, Senator Ted Cruz, has tapped into the feelings, fears, and frustrations of a broad swath of potential Republican primary voters. Democrats who view Trump as likely to be a weaker general election candidate than the more experienced, moderate and temperate politician he would have defeated, may want to ask themselves if they too have been underestimating the talents of this political novice.
The older we get the more frequently we see similarities between the current presidential cycle and past elections we have lived through. Right now, 2016 is feeling a lot like 1980, with a Democrat in the White House and large numbers of Americans perceiving weakness in the US economy and foreign policy. Having served two terms as Governor of California and run a significant bid for the GOP nomination in 1976, Ronald Reagan was far less of a political outsider than is Donald Trump today, but the star of Knute Rockne All American and Bedtime for Bonzo was viewed by Democrats as unlikely to be a strong general election threat. Of course Ronald Reagan won the 1980 and 1984 general elections by landslide proportions.
What the polls are really telling us:
Pollsters caution that polls are very volatile, even those taken within weeks of the first ballots being cast in the early states, but this is only true for people (especially the political press) who put all their attention on the least stable and insightful part of the public opinion poll: the horse race question. The question that asks voters which candidate they currently support does indeed shift quite a lot, but questions that ask voters about their concerns, priorities and values are much more stable. For many months voters have been expressing their economic concerns, with wages continuing to be stagnant, and since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, terrorism has become the leading fear. But the emotions driving the Republican primaries have been anger at Washington and the political stalemate, and broken promises that Republicans have made to their disillusioned base (slashing spending and taxes, ending abortion and Obamacare, etc.). It would be unsurprising if the candidates that have been most able to define themselves as outsiders have the most success when the votes start being counted.
Trump’s strategy of finding ever more outrageous ways to get the Washington press corps to cry fowl not only keeps him at the center of each week’s news cycle, it also establishes him as the biggest outsider. The politically incorrect racism, sexism, and bullying tactics are hardly the ravings of a lunatic that they have seemed to be to many. Instead this is an effective political communications strategy that again and again has proven successful in delivering the message in nearly every newscast that Trump is outside the political mainstream, and willing to express ideas not typically expressed in polite society. It is the “politics of disgust.”
Mexican rapists, Megan Kelly’s “wherever”, Jeb Bush’s energy, Carly Fiorina’s face, Dr. Ben Carson’s “pathological disease”, Muslim immigrants, Ted Cruz’s citizenship, or Monica Lewinsky — what will we be talking about next week? The answer is likely to be something Donald Trump tweets in the next three days.
The rudeness, bullying, and bravado also serve to build Trump’s persona as the toughest, most self-assured, masculine, alpha-male in the contest. Among Republican leaning voters, this is a very advantaged position to be in. On an anthropological/psychological level, Team Trump (and part of the persona is to have us believing that he is his own strategist and communications guru) has positioned him as the most macho, testosterone driven candidate in the race. He is America’s Silvio Berlusconi, Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin rolled into one.
The biggest problem for Republican insiders is that they view the leading threat to defeat Trump, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), as little different from Trump and no less challenging to the Republican establishment. Cruz and Trump are using similar issue positions to the same rogue base of the Republican Party. Their combined strength underscores how badly rank-and-file Republican voters have grown antagonistic to the party’s establishment. Indeed, business-oriented Republican insiders view Cruz as a greater threat to their interests due to his past willingness to criticize Republican Party leaders, shut down the federal government, and threaten a US debt default.
We do not know what the coming month will bring but we suspect those who believe the establishment will find a candidate other than Cruz to stop Donald Trump, may already be too late. And those who believe the Democratic nominee will glide to victory, if Trump is the Republican nominee, will have to work much harder than they expect to defeat a candidate who has been underestimated by the party whose plans he has disrupted.
Look for our analysis of the current general election dynamics in a future post.