It was suggested that I offer my thoughts on the recent popularity of Donald Trump among Republicans. Since I do take requests, here are my thoughts.
I’d like to take you back to 2004. The field of candidates for Democratic primaries was very weak. Now, imagine that early in that race somebody famous, somewhat crazy and very liberal (think Michael Moore) had suddenly declared his intent to run. Perhaps he started talking up some extremely liberal ideas, such as mandating that all vehicles driven on US roads get at least 45 miles to the gallon and that the income tax for those making more than $150,000 be increased to 65%. The media would have swarmed him and his popularity in polls of likely Democratic voters would have shot up near those of the front runners. The poll numbers would have increased mainly because early in the election cycle, most people being polled would have had trouble naming who was in the race, much less what their positions were. On the other hand, they would have known about Moore, they would have known that he was on their (liberal) side, and they would have known that telling a pollster of their intent to vote for him wouldn’t have had any major consequences.
Would he have had any chance at receiving the nomination? Of course not. Contrary to popular belief, the American electorate is not crazy. Donald Trump is today’s rough equivalent of the Moore hypothetical.
Some recent polls have placed Mr. Trump’s popularity close to that of the Republicans who tend to be considered the front runners for the 2012 nomination (Romney, Huckabee and Pawlenty). In fact, one poll placed him significantly ahead of the field, although that one could just be an outlier. Most people probably know two things about Mr. Trump: that he is a businessman/celebrity and that he insists that the evidence that President Obama was born in the United States is flimsy. Trump’s recent surge in popularity is almost certainly due to the latter (since there are many businessmen in the field who have not experienced similar surges).
However, the significance of Mr. Trump’s rise is overblown, and it should not be a cause of concern for liberals.
According to one recent poll, if the Republican primaries were held tomorrow, about 19% of Republican voters would vote for Mr. Trump.
First of all, nineteen percent of people who identify as Republican is a fairly small portion of the population.
Second, the reason for Trump’s support is pretty simple. If a person hears Mr. Trump’s argument about President Obama’s birthplace and hears no credible person contradict that argument, the argument sounds fairly convincing. Of course, the counterargument crushes Mr. Trump’s argument, but not everyone hears the counterargument (which can be found here).
So, the real question is how many people limit their news consumption to far-right blogs, radio programs and certain Fox News programs (to be fair to Fox News, Bill O’Reilly has said on his show that the “birther” argument is junk and that people should not believe it). I don’t have numbers on this, but I expect that at least 19% of Republicans get their news exclusively from far-right sources (just as at least 19% of Democrats probably get their news exclusively from far-left sources). So, the people who support Trump are mainly those who have heard his argument about Obama’s birthplace, are predisposed to believe that argument is legitimate and have not heard the counterargument. It is not surprising that the portion of the population that fits those requirements is at least 19% of Republicans.
So why shouldn’t liberals be concerned? Mr. Trump does not have much room to expand. He cannot win the nomination with the support of 19% of his party. True, that 19% places Mr. Trump right with the front runners (he is roughly tied with Huckabee for first in most polls). However, as the field narrows, the people currently supporting candidates who end up not running or drop out early due to lack of support will have to choose a different candidate. Romney, Huckabee and Pawlenty are likely to pick up these “not my first choice, but good enough” votes because they are pretty mainstream candidates. Mr. Trump’s support is limited to a particular segment of voters, no matter how much the field narrows. Moreover, “electability” will become an increasingly important factor as we get closer to the primaries. Republicans want to win. They will not nominate Palin because they know she can’t beat Obama. They will not nominate Trump for the same reason.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that this issue demonstrates one of the strengths of the (frequently criticized) American electoral system. Many other countries have systems that do not encourage the fields to narrow. That would give Trump a much better chance. For example, in 2012, there is a real danger in France that Nicolas Sarkozy will not receive enough votes in the initial election to make the run-off. Instead, an overtly racist candidate might make the run-off with around 25% of the vote. That candidate would struggle to win the general election, but even so, Mr. Sarkozy has been forced to respond to this threat by appeasing the racists in France, in an effort to hold on to their votes.
Far worse is the situation in Peru, a place with a young, but reasonably strong democracy. Here is how The Economist described the current runoff there:
It is hard to think of two politicians less attractive or qualified to run a country of 29m. But the outcome of a presidential election on April 10th means that Peruvians will have to choose in a run-off on June 5th between Ollanta Humala, a former army officer with no government experience backed by the far left, and Keiko Fujimori, whose father is a conservative ex-president serving a 25-year sentence for human-rights abuses and corruption.
Considering the alternative, I will opt for the American system, which (at least for Presidential elections) makes it difficult for radicals like Mr. Trump to significantly impact elections.