Sure Donald Trump is still up in the polls, but he probably won’t stay there forever.
Trying to make sense of the rise of Donald Trump this presidential nominations cycle has become something of a parlor game among professionals inside the political media. There are a lot of subtle variations about parsing Trump’s solid appeal among a certain chunk of the Republican electorate, personally I like Francis Wilkinson’s idea of a “Coalition of the Descending”, but the overall analysis breakdowns into two major camps.
The first group sees Trump’s appeal as evidence that something has really changed inside the Republican Party or perhaps our political system as a whole. Dave Weigel expressed a great example of this line of thought recently when he wrote that, “The Trump drama, and the movement that has discovered and elevated him as its candidate, is obviously the political news story of 2015.”
But there’s another analysis out there about where Trump’s high polling numbers come from. As Nate Silver argued recently Trump has high poll numbers because the media obsessively covers him. Or to cite another example, cable news alone has given three times more coverage to Trump than the rest of the Republican field combined!
That massive coverage of Trumps antics would result in high polling numbers seems pretty counter intuitive to most people that closely follow politics. After all why would voters pick a candidate in polls who keeps saying patently offensive or ignorant things? But the answer is pretty simple, most people don’t follow politics like that. As political scientist John Sides pointed out a few months ago, Trump’s overall polling tracks his overall media coverage, because most voters just respond to media coverage and don’t really differentiate between positive or negative coverage. Instead poll respondents pick Trump because he’s the only candidate they’ve heard about.
So Trump’s strategy does makes some sense: by saying offensive things and making outrageously false statements he guarantees he’ll get coverage, and this coverage makes his poll numbers go up, in turn causing more coverage about his polls.
Call it the Justin Bieber school of politics: it doesn’t matter what the press is saying about you, as long as they are talking about you.
But while this strategy can get media attention and high polling numbers before anyone goes to the polls, it doesn’t vote once people start winning and losing primaries and candidates are winnowed out.
The result is as Jonathan Bernstein put it, a sort of Red Queen race for The Donald where he has to be more and more offensive just to stay relevant:
The challenge for Trump is that he’s in a Red Queen race: As time goes on, he has to do more and more to get the same amount of attention…
….After the voting starts, the press will start to treat those candidates considered to have a chance as more or less equals. Even if Trump does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’ll be only one among a small number of serious candidates. He may still get the most attention, but it won’t be 33 to 1.
To keep the attention on him, his antics have to be wilder and wilder. Each time he goes over the top he risks losing some supporters, and solidifies the opposition of Republicans who were initially inclined to oppose him.
It’s a perfect strategy to produce early polling leads. When it comes to winning nominations, however, it’s a loser.
I know, I know. People like me have told you that Trump will fade before and it hasn’t happened. But the dynamics of a race where candidates are winning and losing states is very different than battles over quips and sound bites. Pretty soon we’ll be at the point where more and more candidates have to drop out, and if Trump is still around he’ll have to go head to head with two or three main challenges, not a vast field largely being ignored by the media. Don’t forget, it wasn’t that long ago that Herman Cain or New Gingrich seemed unstoppable as well.
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Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP