Larry Sabato, a prominent political scientist, recently co-published a piece
on Donald Trump's electoral prospects. which helped summarize the basis for widespread skepticism about the Republican's chances.
...If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong. History has shown that presidential nominations tend to follow a certain set of "rules."
This was no throwaway line. The rules are supposed to matter and they tend to be reliable for a reason.
For several weeks, a wide variety of political observers have noted Trump's rise to Republican dominance with a combination of laughter, despair, and bemusement, but few actually see the New York developer as a competitive candidate for national office.
Sure, the GOP's base can have its summer fling -- the latest in a series of fleeting infatuations -- but as these same observers have said many times, the very idea of a former reality-show host actually becoming a serious contender for a major party's presidential nomination is ridiculous.
FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and Harry Enten recently made
projections on who's likely to prevail in the race for the GOP nomination. Silver gave Trump a 2% chance. His FiveThirtyEight colleague saw that as far too generous -- Eaten put Trump's chances at -10%.
I can appreciate why some may see such predictions as absurd. If Trump has big leads in every poll, and his "ideas," for lack of a better word, are suddenly driving the Republican conversation, how can anyone be so dismissive of Trump's chances?
The answer has to do with those "rules." Political science, based largely on careful scrutiny of previous elections, tells us quite a bit about what's probable. And in this case, everything we know about the process tells us that competitive, top-tier candidates need considerable support from the party establishment, coupled with a top-notch field operation, all built around a competent, hard-working candidate, who has some modicum of relevant experience, and who enjoys broad, sustainable appeal.
In other words, political science suggests the Trump Show will soon end. We're witnessing a fun amusement-park ride -- keep your hands and feet inside the Trump Chopper at all times -- but it will stop long before Americans actually start casting votes and/or participating in caucuses.
But what if the rules are wrong? Or more to the point, what if the rules are being rewritten?
What if, as political scientist Norm Ornstein asked
in The Atlantic
, "this time really is different"?
...I am more skeptical of the usual historical skepticism than I have been in a long time. A part of my skepticism flows from my decades inside the belly of the congressional beast. I have seen the Republican Party go from being a center-right party, with a solid minority of true centrists, to a right-right party, with a dwindling share of center-rightists, to a right-radical party, with no centrists in the House and a handful in the Senate. There is a party center that two decades ago would have been considered the bedrock right, and a new right that is off the old charts. [...] As the congressional party has transformed, so has the activist component of the party outside Washington.
I'll confess that as Trump Mania has unfolded, it never really occurred to me that Trump might seriously compete for the Republican nomination. Indeed, I've watched, popcorn in hand, with a degree of detachment -- it's like watching footage from old Super Bowls in which I know who wins. Trump's rise has mattered because of what it says about contemporary Republican politics and the passions of the GOP base, not because it has any real predictive value.
At least, that's what I've long assumed. But what if Ornstein is on to something and conditions have created room for a race that breaks the rules?
Perhaps Republican politics have been radicalized to a degree unseen in modern American history, which undermine the old rules' reliability? Maybe the combination of social media and freewheeling campaign-finance laws have changed the nature of the game? Perhaps the transformative nature of the Obama era has had an unhealthy impact on how conservative voters approach their political expectations and electoral responsibilities?
What if Trump is one of those shooting-star candidates who doesn't simply flame out?
A month ago, I would have said Trump had zero chance at the nomination. Today, I'd say his odds are ... probably better than zero. The New York Times
striking report yesterday.
A review of public polling, extensive interviews with a host of his supporters in two states and a new private survey that tracks voting records all point to the conclusion that Mr. Trump has built a broad, demographically and ideologically diverse coalition, constructed around personality, not substance, that bridges demographic and political divides. [...] In poll after poll of Republicans, Mr. Trump leads among women, despite having used terms like "fat pigs" and "disgusting animals" to denigrate some of them. He leads among evangelical Christians, despite saying he had never had a reason to ask God for forgiveness. He leads among moderates and college-educated voters, despite a populist and anti-immigrant message thought to resonate most with conservatives and less-affluent voters. He leads among the most frequent, likely voters, even though his appeal is greatest among those with little history of voting.
All of this tells us where things stand right now, of course. That doesn't tell us where things will stand once voters start registering their preferences.
There's no point in ducking the underlying question. Am I saying Trump should be seen as a candidate with a good chance of being the GOP nominee? No. His chances are certainly better than most of the other 16 Republican candidates, most of whom are wasting their time with vanity exercises, but in my heart of hearts, I still think the summer fling will end and one of the Republicans who's supposed to seriously compete for their party nomination -- Bush, Walker, Cruz, Rubio -- will end up leading the ticket.
The "rules," in other words, still count. I think. Probably.
But if members of Congress start endorsing Trump, and his lead is still significant once TV ads start blanketing Iowa and New Hampshire airwaves in the fall, all bets are off.