Polman: Fear not, Trump will still crash and burn (column)
December 7, 2015
Month after month, execrable bullhorn artist Donald Trump remains perched atop the polls, and there's growing concern that the guy might actually win the nomination. Various super PACs allied with the party establishment keep threatening to bomb him with ad campaigns, and Republican regulars are freaking out at the prospect of an autumn 2016 debacle that features landslide losses in every voter category except celebrity-besotted angry white people.
But fear not, Republicans: There still seems to be a firm ceiling on Donald Trump's detestable appeal. I've long felt that he'll fade when the game truly gets serious — when voters start paying close attention and seek to get the maximum value for their ballot. I'm happy (and relieved) to report that two smart, sane political observers are saying much the same.
The number-crunching Nate Silver reports what's so often overlooked: Trump's first-place status is far weaker than it seems because most likely Republican voters have barely tuned in yet. Trump is on top, for now, mostly because people know who he is, and the media magnifies whatever emanates from his big mouth.
"Right now," Silver points out, "he has 25 to 30 percent of the vote in polls among the roughly 25 percent of Americans who identify as Republican. That's something like 6 to 8 percent of the electorate overall, or about the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were faked."
He reminds us that most of the current surveys "cover Republican-leaning adults or registered voters, rather than likely voters." He also notes it's still too early to query likely voters because "if past nomination races are any guide, the vast majority of eventual Republican voters haven't made up their minds yet."
He looked at the exit polls for the last four competitive Iowa caucuses — the Democrats in 2004 and 2008, and the Republicans in 2008 and 2012 — and found that 65 percent of the voters made up their minds during the final month. And in the last four competitive New Hampshire primaries, 71 percent of the voters made up their minds during the final month.
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Which brings us to David Greenberg, an historian based at Rutgers, who points out that early polls — conducted one year away from the general election — have traditionally given us only "fleeting impulses of an electorate that remains overwhelmingly disengaged." And when pollsters query people who are disengaged, the respondents tend to gravitate to the candidates they've heard of. As he notes, "Many people who are actually undecided … will cough up a name when a poll-taker calls and prompts them."
Right now, he writes, "only about 10 to 20 percent of voters are tracking the campaign closely. Normal people tend to tune out the arcane, minute developments that the Twitterati are quick to label game-changers. Believe it or not, they have better things to do."
So, here are past samplings of the disengaged elecorate: One year away from the 1976 election, the Democratic frontrunners was Ted Kennedy. One year from the 1988 election, the Democratic frontrunner was Jesse Jackson. One year from the 1992 election, Democratic voters wanted Mario Cuomo. One year from the 2004 election, the Democratic fave was Howard Dean; before Dean, it was name-recognition favorite Joe Lieberman. One year from the 2008 election, the Republican frontrunner was Rudy Giuliani. The early autumn Republican favorite, one year from the 2012 election, was pre-oops Rick Perry.
Could Trump be the exception? Conceivably. But all told, Silver rates Trump's nomination prospects at "considerably less than 20 percent."
Of course, it would greatly aid humanity if the Republicans could begin to coalesce around a relatively sane Trump alternative. (Jeb Bush? John Kasich? Even Chris Christie?)
The longer the vacuum persists, the higher the odds of Trump filling it.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (news-works.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.