the trump factor

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.

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10 Responses to the trump factor

  1. Village Bear says:

  2. Brandon says:

    Good news for Trump is that the latest poll now shows a majority of likely GOP primary voters are birthers.

    I’m curious though, where are these “far-left sources” that Democrats get their news from? One could probably name a few websites, but they would be obscure to nearly all Democrats. And they certainly can’t compete with the right-leaning corporate media and far-right Fox.

  3. I really wonder what the ‘true motivation’ is for Trump to push the “birther issue” so much. I think most people would doubt his desire for candidacy for President, but holding all things possible, one needs to include that. Moreover, I’m curious as to what the publicity of the “birther” issue is overshadowing. Meaning, we have Trump spouting off every other day and monopolizing the news coverage. I don’t know, but my guess is that in doing this, it’s maybe running some political cover for other things that Republicans are doing. (Yes, it’s kind of a far out there idea, but…)

    When we think of what’s happening in Michigan (read: Benton Harbor), is it so off the wall to imagine that Trump is running interference now, so that he can be rewarded (with contracts) later?

    With Love and Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

    PS: Canada’s current state of elections does not really support my query, but I wonder what the the US would look like under a parliamentary system. I always thought it more fair that there were more groups of people represented, (but right now, I’d like to see the NDP and Liberals unite to oust the Harper conservatives, which would, essentially, turn Canada into the Liberal/Conservative dichotomy that the US currently has). Ah well.

  4. Suszek says:

    I can’t say that I follow any far-left or far-right media sources, so I hesitate to start classifying any particular sources. I would place some (though not all) contributors to The Huffington Post’s blog section in the far-left category. A good example might be Bill Maher. Also, although I’m not too familiar with this one, TheDemocrat seems to be a pretty well-known blog that I would place on the far-left.

    I don’t think that it is fair to place all of Fox News on the far-right. Some shows, such as Glen Beck’s (who is leaving) would qualify. However, some of their shows are as close to the center as many shows on MSNBC. These are certainly subjective classifications, but I would place Bill O’Reilly’s show about as far to the right of the spectrum as I would place Rachel Maddow’s show to the left. I would place Sean Hannity’s show about as far to the right as I would place Keith Olbermann’s old show to the left.

    So, on the whole, I would place MSNBC closer to the center than Fox News, but not by a huge margin. I admit that I do not watch either channel very often, so I would defer to someone who watched both channels consistently; however, my assumption is that such a person would be difficult to find.

  5. Brandon says:

    I would just caution that you avoid the false equivalency trap that can occur in an incessant attempt to play the middle.

  6. Suszek says:

    Fair point. Although, I would say that after two posts, it might be a bit premature to label this blog an incessant attempt to play the middle.

  7. Jake says:

    @ Andy – In regard to your summation of Fox News vs. MSNBC. Keep in mind that you are blurring the lines for Fox. Fox has multiple outlets, and as such they have much different programming. Fox News is typically daily updates, reporting on AP events and articles and various current events. Fox News Talk is the programming that most people want to pay attention to in order to claim a bias in the network. Fox News Talk are opinion shows talking about and interviewing people about current events. Yes, there are quite a few conservative leaning hosts on these programs. Lastely, you have Fox Business which really doesn’t lean one way or the other and discusses economic and financial news.

    I don’t watch Fox News Talk. Just like I don’t watch Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, or any of the other ratings whores on all of the networks.

    @ the Topic

    Trump is worth the popularity of his name. Nothing more, nothing less. Trump is a celebrity. The more he is in the news, the more people focus on him and things with his name on them, the more his worth goes up.

    Thats it.

    Trump’s name is plastered on buildings, resorts, and TV shows because he is a celebrity. Its a marketing ploy.

    He is making a big deal out of Obama’s place of birth for one reason, a boost in popularity. How many people tuned into his show the Celebrity Apprentice or didn’t change the channel just to see what he would say after all of the recent news?

    He is Howard Stern with real estate as the beneficiary of his celebrity.

  8. Keri says:

    Thanks for posting this!

    I’m not concerned by Trump so much as I’m bedfuddled by him and his supporters.

    Did you by chance read the Time article about him? Apparently, he has previously advocated for a single-payer national health care plan and much higher tax rate for very rich Americans. Obvously, he’s changed his mind on those two issues. Quite a major change in direction, I’d say.

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2065113,00.html

  9. Suszek says:

    I did not read the Time article, but I did hear that stuff. I am just hoping that he gets into the primary debates, which start soon. That would liven them up a bit.

  10. Keri says:

    That would defintely make the debates more entertaining.

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