Monday, July 20, 2015

The Trump Boom Will Not Bust Quietly

Nate Cohn is the Nate Silver simulacrum that the Gray Lady slotted in to replace the FiveThirtyEight blog which Silver sold to ESPN in 2013. As simulacra go Cohn is a good one. Though it is hard to match up with Nate Silver, whose predictions of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections were phenomenally accurate, I have found Cohn's writing clear and his data-based assessments compelling.

For instance, his bucket of cold water on Hillary Clinton's candidacy, "Hillary Clinton Is More Vulnerable in 2016 Than You Think," is terrific, as is the wet blanket he draped over Bernie Sanders, "Why Bernie Sanders’s Momentum Is Not Built to Last."

The other day Cohn adjusted his gun-sight to Donald Trump and his boom of the last couple of weeks, "The Trump Campaign’s Turning Point."

The turning point referred to in the headline are statements that Donald Trump made on Saturday in Ames, Iowa at the socially conservative annual Family Leadership Summit. Trump questioned the heroism of longtime GOP senator and 2008 presidential standard bearer John McCain. This is how those statements were reported by the Associated Press:
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is again criticizing a well-respected member of his own party.
Speaking at a conference of religious conservatives on Saturday, Trump was pressed on his recent description of Arizona Sen. John McCain as "a dummy." 
The moderator, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, described McCain as "a war hero." McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down during combat in Vietnam. 
Trump said McCain "is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured." 
Trump is among 10 GOP presidential candidates on the program for the Family Leader Summit in Ames, Iowa.
Half-an-hour later AP reported that Trump tried to walk his criticism back while other GOP presidential aspirants set up a withering crossfire:
During a news conference after his appearance, Trump did not apologize but tried to clarify his remarks: "If a person is captured, they're a hero as far as I'm concerned. I don't like the job John McCain is doing in the Senate because he is not taking care of our veterans." 
Trump said he avoided service in the Vietnam War through student deferments and a medical deferment, then said he didn't serve because "I was not a big fan of the Vietnam war." He added he wasn't a protester.
Other 2016 hopefuls were quick to attack Trump's comments. In a statement, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the remarks make Trump "unfit to be commander-in-chief." On Twitter, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said: "After Donald Trump spends six years in a POW camp, he can weigh in on John McCain's service." Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wrote on Twitter: "Enough with the slanderous attacks. @SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans — particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration."
Nate Cohn predicts that the Trump's swelling levels of support will now begin to deflate. He dismisses Trump's surge in the polls as nothing more than saturation media coverage combined with the overwhelming name recognition that Trump enjoys as a reality television celebrity:
Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline. 
Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments — a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.
His support will erode as the tone of coverage shifts from publicizing his anti-establishment and anti-immigration views, which have some resonance in the party, to reflecting the chorus of Republican criticism of his most outrageous comments and the more liberal elements of his record.

His surge in the presidential polls began on June 16 when he declared his candidacy. Announcements of that type always yield a wave of media coverage, just as they did for candidates like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. So far this year, media attention from announcements has helped the best-known candidates by an average of six percentage points, with the effect degrading steadily afterward.
But media-driven surges are not sustainable. Eventually, the media coverage shifts from whatever initially propelled the bounce — an announcement, a strong debate performance, a convention — toward a more serious examination of the candidate newly at the top of the polls. Some candidates can withstand this scrutiny. Most do not.
Lynn Vavreck, who contributes to The Upshot, and her fellow political scientist John Sides described the cycle of boom-bust candidacies as “discovery, scrutiny and decline” in their book “The Gamble.” Mr. Trump, who already enjoys high name recognition, may not present a typical case of “discovery,” but it’s highly unlikely he’ll avoid decline after encountering scrutiny.
Even a cursory look at Mr. Trump’s political record revealed a candidate with serious liabilities once journalists and campaigns started taking him seriously. He has donated more to Democrats than Republicans over the last decade. He has even donated to Hillary Clinton, who he has said he likes, and the Clinton Foundation. He has supported universal health care and seems to continue to do so. He has supported a $5 trillion dollar tax increase and has said he is “very pro choice,” although he has since changed his position on abortion. He is self-evidently unelectable in a general election, combining terrible poll numbers with an unpresidential persona. 
Conservative candidates and their supporters view him as a rival. They have every incentive to publicize those of his views that the G.O.P. considers heretical. More moderate and establishment-friendly Republicans oppose his statements and views on immigration. They fear that his tone will alienate Hispanic voters, who are considered essential to the party’s general election chances now and in the future. Mr. Trump’s supporters will start taking cues from the uniform opinion of their fellow partisans.
In his article Cohn quotes a piece, "Two Good Reasons Not To Take The Donald Trump ‘Surge’ Seriously," by FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten that compactly summarizes the limitations of Trump's campaign:
But the polling points to another, less sexy story: First, Republican voters don’t rate Trump as all that conservative, and second, he’s actually polling about equally well among all sections of the GOP. In Trump speak, this means he is loved universally; in reality, the broad, shallow nature of Trump’s support suggests it’s due mostly to near-universal name recognition, thanks in part to being in the news more often than the news anchors.
Trump is not conservative enough for the GOP.

While I think Cohn's analysis is on the mark there are a couple points that need to be mentioned, both of which fall under the header of "This Time There's Something Different Going On."

Point one, let's not forget Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2003 gubernatorial recall election victory. The liberal Schwarzenegger was able to get elected as a Republican in the deep blue state of California. He rose above a splintered field of contenders to win decisively. The analogy is not perfect but it is close enough since the national electorate is obviously more progressive than the Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. Nonetheless, Trump will have to survive the GOP primary minefield, which I don't think he can do.

Which brings us to point two: Trump is not going to go quietly. The Donald will continue to toss bombs right up to the convention, where he will demand a prominent slot. I don't think he has any intention of running a third-party campaign once he fails to win the Republican nomination, but he will cause a lot of damage to the GOP -- with the party's ability to attract Latinos and independents.

Just as Bernie Sanders has little chance of winning the Democratic Party nomination and whose substantial number of supporters will be difficult to integrate back into the nominee's camp, Trump represents a similar problem for Republicans. The 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be a dead heat like 2000's Bush v. Gore.

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