Off to the Races

Talking About Trump May Pay Off on Television, But…

Soon pundits need to get serious and explain that the GOP is locked in a three-way race.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks onstage for a rally at the Reno Ballroom and Museum in Reno, Nevada on Sunday.
AP Photo/Lance Iversen
Jan. 11, 2016, 8 p.m.

It’s get­ting in­creas­ingly an­noy­ing to watch people who os­tens­ibly know a lot about polit­ics go­ing on tele­vi­sion and say­ing things that I am reas­on­ably sure they don’t really be­lieve. Lately, it has been ana­lysts talk­ing up Don­ald Trump’s chances of win­ning the GOP nom­in­a­tion. What view­ers are hear­ing from pros on tele­vi­sion is very dif­fer­ent from what is be­ing said off cam­era.

For those host­ing tele­vi­sion shows, my guess is that it is the simple equa­tion that Trump’s ap­pear­ances and his pro­nounce­ments, even if only on the phone, equal high­er rat­ings, hap­pi­er “Suits” (the net­work bosses), and more luc­rat­ive deals next time the “tal­ent” ne­go­ti­ate con­tracts. For journ­al­ists who are in­vited to go on tele­vi­sion to be in­ter­viewed or par­ti­cip­ate in pan­els, talk­ing about Trump equals more in­vit­a­tions to ap­pear on shows.

Yes, it’s true that Trump has been un­der­es­tim­ated since his ini­tial rise back in June. He rose high­er and faster than nearly any­one be­lieved, and he has las­ted longer than even starry-eyed sup­port­ers thought pos­sible. Trump has con­sol­id­ated the pop­u­lists and less ideo­lo­gic­ally driv­en voters on the right side of the 50-yard line—a group that tends to be more angry and ali­en­ated than the elect­or­ate as a whole. But the simple arith­met­ic is that if Trump is gen­er­ally pulling between 30 and 35 per­cent in the polls in Iowa, New Hamp­shire, and na­tion­ally, that also means that between 65 and 70 per­cent are not for him—and pre­sum­ably few of those in that 65 or 70 per­cent are not fa­mil­i­ar with him. Cur­rent Trump sup­port­ers do not re­semble cur­rent non-Trump sup­port­ers either demo­graph­ic­ally or tem­pera­ment­ally.

It is also true that Ted Cruz has con­sol­id­ated the tra­di­tion­al, con­ser­vat­ive ideo­logues, the liber­tari­ans as well as faith-based so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. Let’s face it: Mike Hucka­bee, Rand Paul, and Rick San­tor­um, just to men­tion three, are vir­tu­ally out of the race. Once they drop out, it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore Cruz mops up the re­mainder of their sup­port­ers.

It’s also true that the more con­ven­tion­al, es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented Re­pub­lic­an vote re­mains badly splintered between Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Marco Ru­bio, par­tic­u­larly in New Hamp­shire. But there is little doubt that sup­port for these more tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans will con­sol­id­ate as the weeks go by, first be­hind two of them un­til one emerges to go head-to-head with Cruz on the right and Trump and his pop­u­lists. That’s what takes this race a com­pet­it­ive, three-way con­test, a bit dif­fer­ent from the “Trump is the polls” nar­rat­ive that is dom­in­ant today.

Then, of course, there is the ar­gu­ment that Trump’s voters tend to not be tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an primary voters and caucus at­tendees. Some aren’t re­gistered to vote at all. Some are in­de­pend­ent or non­af­fili­ated voters in states with closed primar­ies where only party mem­bers are al­lowed to vote and voters are al­lowed change parties on Elec­tion Day. But how many will ac­tu­ally do that? Oc­ca­sion­ally the ax­iom that people who haven’t voted in primar­ies in the past will fi­nally do so in an up­com­ing elec­tion will be true, but usu­ally it isn’t. The elect­or­ate doesn’t usu­ally ex­pand. There have been no signs of un­usu­al ex­pan­sion in GOP voter rolls in Iowa, for ex­ample, mean­ing that in­de­pend­ents want­ing to sup­port Trump will have to change their re­gis­tra­tion as they try to enter the caucus room.

Fi­nally, there is the ar­gu­ment that has been made re­peatedly in this column—that once these angry pop­u­lists have fin­ished vent­ing their spleens, once they feel their voices have been heard, they will switch to a more plaus­ible vehicle for their dis­con­tent, to a can­did­ate that they could, in fact, en­vi­sion in the White House Situ­ation Room with a fin­ger on the pro­ver­bi­al nuc­le­ar but­ton, someone whose tem­pera­ment and judg­ment might be on firmer ground.

It is worth re­mem­ber­ing that 94 per­cent of the 2,472 Re­pub­lic­an con­ven­tion del­eg­ates are not from the Feb­ru­ary states of Iowa, New Hamp­shire, South Car­o­lina, and Nevada; these del­eg­ates are picked on or after March 1, and the win­ner-take-all states don’t come on­line un­til Flor­ida and Ohio on March 15. Fifty-eight per­cent of del­eg­ates are picked in March, 16 per­cent in April, and 8 per­cent in May, with the fi­nal 12 per­cent in early June. It’s a long slog to the nom­in­a­tion.

In short, take a deep breath and be­ware of talk­ing heads be­hav­ing as if their hair is on fire. This pro­cess only starts be­gin­ning in three weeks with Iowa and doesn’t start in earn­est un­til March 1.

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