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.