Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Why Trump’s Vice Presidential Choice Is Worth More Than Warm Spit

It is easy to mock, as much of social media did, Ted Cruz’s decision last week to announce that Carly Fiorina will be his vice presidential running mate. For critics (myself included), it appeared to be nothing more than a last-moment Hail Mary pass designed to blunt Donald Trump’s momentum coming out of The Donald’s impressive victories during the “Acela” primaries. But despite the whiff of desperation associated with the announcement, there is also an underlying logic at work in Cruz’ decision, at least in theory. For starters, he captured the news cycle for a good 72 hours, helping steal some of the media coverage from The Donald’s post-primaries foreign policy speech. It also might boost Cruz’ standing among some core groups, including social conservatives and women, in the crucial state of Indiana which holds its primary next Tuesday. Cruz is probably hoping that Fiorina’s selection, in the aftermath of Trump’s inflammatory suggestion that Hillary Clinton owes much of her support to her gender, may galvanize enough women to come out for him to take the state.  Indiana probably represents’ Cruz last, best hope of blocking Trump’s road to the nomination. If you will recall from the debates, Fiorina was an early critic of Trump’s, one who seemed unfazed by his attacks. And, looking ahead to the California primary, one might argue that Fiorina helps Cruz in a state that she calls her home, although frankly she’s never showed that she has much support there.

Of course, it is also possible that Fiorina will boost Cruz’ general election chances, in the unlikely event that he wins the Republican nomination. Indeed, one of Fiorina’s standard talking points in her stump speech was that, as a woman, she was ideally suited to take on Clinton.  But do vice presidential selections really matter in the general election?  Conventional wisdom says they do.   As political scientist Carl Tubessing noted back in the 1970’s, vice presidential selections are historically understood as serving some combination of the following purposes: ideological balancing, regional balancing, healing the wounds of a bitter nomination fight or as a means of securing delegates to secure the nomination at the convention. Testing these intuitions, however, has proved rather difficult for political scientists. At the risk of overgeneralizing, most political science research of which I am aware suggests that when controlling for the usual factors that influence the general election vote, the choice of a vice presidential candidate seems not to matter very much.

But perhaps this is asking too much for a vice presidential choice? It may be that even if the pick doesn’t influence the overall popular vote, the vice presidential pick can help the president win the vice president’s home state. That was the logic, presumably, that drove John Kennedy to pick Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in 1960, and which has prompted current observers to argue that Ohio Governor John Kasich might be Trump’s ideal candidate. Here, however, the research is more mixed.  Devine and Kopko suggest the choice has an electoral impact “only … when s/he comes from a relatively less-populous state and has served that state for many years as an elected official. Think Joe Biden.” Of course, smaller states will have less of an impact on the Electoral College. Using slightly different methodology, however, Heersink and Peterson look at presidential elections in the period 1884-2012 and find that the vice presidential choice boosts the presidential ticket, on average, by 2.7% in the vice president’s home state, and by 2.2% in crucial swing states. While not a huge effect, it is large enough, they argue, to justify choosing a vice presidential candidate from an important and preferably large swing state.

In my view, however, the vice presidential pick ought not to be judged solely or even primarily in terms of its electoral impact. Instead, its importance lies in how well it helps presidents govern. No less an expert than Donald Trump understands this. When asked by the New York Times if he was bothered by the seeming reluctance of noteworthy Republicans to run as his vice president, Trump replied: “I don’t care. Whether people support or endorse me or not, it makes zero influence on the voters. Historically, people don’t vote based on who is vice president. I want someone who can help me govern.”

Trump’s approach is, in my view, exactly right. The evidence suggests George W. Bush didn’t select Richard Cheney because Cheney would bring Wyoming into the fold – he did so because he needed Cheney’s defense and foreign policy expertise. As Robert Draper recounts in his insightful book Dead Certain , Bush told Cheney, who was leading Bush’s V.P search, that “I don’t know what’s going to come onto my desk, but I’m going to need someone who’s seen things before, who can give me advice to make good decisions.” (Bush also liked that Cheney did not have ambitions to run for higher office.) While I disagree with my colleagues who suggest Cheney served as Bush’s “co-president”, by all accounts he was one of Bush’s most influential advisers, particularly early in Bush’s presidency. Similarly, President Obama selected Joe Biden as his running mate not to win over Delaware, but to provide advice and influence in Congress, particularly the Senate, where Biden had served several terms. Indeed, at least since Jimmy Carter moved Walter Mondale into the West Wing and scheduled regular weekly meetings with him,  vice presidents have played increasingly important advisory roles. It’s hard to argue that the vice presidency today is, as John Nance Garner allegedly once proclaimed, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Trump clearly understands why the vice presidential choice today is worth considerably more, and it has less to do with electoral considerations than it does with helping him govern. Of course, the ideal choice would provide Trump both electoral benefits, presumably by boosting Trump’s chances in a large, swing state, and would also provide him with governing expertise, most importantly in working with Congress. At first glance Kasich seems to fit both criteria, but he has been out of Congress for a number of years. Former House Speaker John Boehner knows the current House as well as anyone, but he left office with dismal approval ratings even in his home state of Ohio, although this may reflect voters’ attitudes toward Congress more generally. Florida Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio potentially attract voters in that crucial swing state, but Scott lacks Washington experience and it’s hard to see “Little” Marco signing up on Trump’s team.

Of course, there’s a risk for Trump in choosing an establishment candidate as vice president, given his desire to portray himself as an outsider. In interviews, however, he has suggested that he would lean toward choosing someone with political experience. Given his recent comments regarding Clinton and gender, however, he might be tempted to choose a woman, such as New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte. But this risks losing a Republican Senate seat.  Iowa Senator Joni Ernst also comes to mind but she has similar liabilities.

Speculating about what Trump will do in any endeavor is always a risky business. But it appears that in looking for someone who can help him govern, Trump has the right criteria in mind when deciding who to choose as his running mate. In the end, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump throws conventional wisdom out the window, and decides instead to go with a winner. And who wins more than this guy?  Come on, Donald – Let’s really make American great again!

Does New York Love Donald Trump’s Values?

Only four days before next Tuesday’s crucial New York primary, the Trump Traveling Circus came to Plattsburgh in upstate New York on Friday, and your intrepid blogger was at the rally. Here’s what I saw.

I had originally intended to attend Trump’s Albany rally last Monday, but begin to hear rumors that Trump was planning an additional rally in upstate New York, closer to where I live, so I postponed the Albany trip. Sure enough, Trump announced that he would be coming to Plattsburgh, a city of about 20,000 located just across Lake Champlain and slightly north from Burlington, Vermont. Trump’s strategy in heading upstate was clear: because New York allocates 81 of its 95 delegates based on the results in its 27 congressional districts (3 delegates per district) and only 14 on a statewide basis, Trump has been crisscrossing the state trying to sew up those congressional delegates. Plattsburgh was the latest stop in the Trump road show. Note that candidates who fail to clear the 20% threshold in a district don’t get any of its delegates so, given current polling, Trump appears to have a good shot at winning almost all the state’s delegates. Based on current delegate projections, doing very well in his home state is crucial to Trump’s effort to lock up the nomination before the convention. Plattsburgh had the additional advantage of having an airport, which allowed Trump to fly out directly after the rally to his next campaign event in Connecticut.

Initially Trump planned to come to on Saturday, but the Crete Civic Center was booked with a home show, so he switched the rally to Friday. That left media organizations scrambling to get credentials, but all the major Vermont and upstate New York outlets were there as far as I could tell, including WCAX’s own Kyle Midura, who has been covering Trump’s candidacy this year. Midura noted that he had been there since 11 a.m., and when we finally left the rally premises at 4:30, the WCAX satellite truck was still there.  Although there was some national media there too, there were not nearly the number of national reporters there that I have seen in earlier Trump rallies.  But the Trump rally led all the local newscasts in New York and Vermont. (That’s Channel 5’s Stewart Ledbetter on the bottom, Channel 3’s Kyle on top.) The media were located in the center of the arena floor, on a platform. There was a clean camera feed provided by the campaign, so when the talking heads did their stand ups on their own cameras, they could still access events on the main stage using the clean feed.

There were also a healthy number of college students – no surprise here since Plattsburgh is home to SUNY-Plattsburgh, one of the state’s numerous state universities. Since the rally started at 3 p.m., making it hard for working people to attend, the rally was dominated by students, who lent a raucous air to the proceeding, even for a Trump rally. Outside there was the usual row of vendors hawking Trump-related items, including this R-rated t-shirt. (The other side was even more vulgar!)

We arrived very early and easily cleared security – in contrast to the Trump rallies I attended in New Hampshire and South Carolina, there were no lines at the security checkpoints here. This gave me ample time to interview people. I talked with a student from SUNY who was covering the event for her communications class. She noted that she recognized many of the students here, and said Trump had strong student support particularly among SUNY’s fraternities. (I saw dozens of students – mostly men – wearing red baseball caps with the slogan “Make America Great Again” along with the occasional “Make Donald Drump Again”.) The women students, she said, seemed more ambivalent about his candidacy. And, in fact, I found almost no women students who would go on record saying they supported The Donald. Several claimed they were only here because their friends were attending.

Interestingly, however, several older women, including a couple of academics working at the university, made it quite clear that they were voting for Trump. They dismissed his incendiary comments, including his disparaging comments about some women, as designed to gain media attention. When asked why they supported him, they said because he is talking about issues that neither party is addressing. Both noted that Trump has increased political discussion and participation among their friends. Again, however, none of the women would allow me to take their picture or identify them. “My colleagues would harass me!” one declares. Clearly, for some, there’s still a stigma attached to being identified openly as a Trump supporter.

Finally, a speaker walked on stage to say Trump’s plane had landed, and to thank us for helping Trump “Make America great again.” The crowd cheered, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and the first “USA, USA!” chants broke out. There was a palpable level of anticipation among the crowd, which had now filled slightly more than half the arena floor. (I am later told a head count at the door shows attendance just slightly south of 3,000 people. Reportedly the arena seats 4,000.)  And then the Donald walked on stage, to a roar from the crowd. After praising the crowd and this “great part of the world” he immediately launched into this general theme, – “We are going to make America great again” – and proceeded to riff on the issues I’ve heard him address in earlier Trump rallies – the need for smart trade, securing the borders, Lying Ted “he’s so far down in the polls”, John Kasich “he supported NAFTA”, China’s currency manipulation “if growth drops below 7% in China it’s a catastrophe”, repealing Obamacare “it’s been a disaster”, his love of Hispanics, the U.S. debt and how he is not beholden to any special interests “I flew my own plane here”. He recounted how when he began his campaign last June, “no one was talking about immigration.” He reminded the audience that he had outlasted all but two of the 16 Republicans opposing him, and he’s “millions of votes” ahead of the remaining two.

By now, Trump and his followers are so familiar with his material that they both anticipate the punch lines. And so, after describing how he is going to build a “great wall”, one that might have his name on it, and which will have a big door to allow legal immigrants to come back into the country, Trump asks, “And who is going to pay for it?” “Mexico” the crowd roars, delighted with itself. Periodically chants of “Build that wall, build that wall” broke out. (Note the slogan on the back of the young man’s t-shirt.)


However, some details of the Trump stump speech were clearly tailored for this specific audience. He spent considerable time citing economic statistics documenting an economic slowdown and a loss of jobs in upstate New York, including Plattsburgh. Perhaps most notable, however, was his riff on “New York values” which was a direct attack on Cruz’ effort early in the campaign to use that phrase as a way to portray Trump as a closet liberal who was out of touch with mainstream Republican values. In New York, Trump has taken great delight in throwing that phrase back at Cruz, and at this rally he went into some detail describing just what he means by New York values, referencing a variety of groups that embody those values, including police, and firefighters who went into the World Trade Center on 9-11, and transit workers, and restaurant and factory workers. New York values, Trump declared, refer to “honesty and straight talking even though sometimes that gets me into trouble.” This direct appeal to the “better angels of our nature” was conspicuously absent from Trump’s earlier rallies, and it seemed to play very well with this crowd, which grew noticeably more quiet as he recited the litany of New York values, including love of community and acts of kindness.  It also represents an effort, I suspect, to make Trump more palatable to a general election audience.

The other new theme, at least for me, was Trump’s vehement indictment of the “rigged” nominating process. Trump has always sprinkled his stump speech with attacks against the party establishment, but here he went out of his way to critique the process itself, citing in particular the recent Colorado convention that awarded all the state’s Republican delegates to Cruz. Again, as I noted while I was live tweeting the event, this is an effort for Trump to lay the groundwork to rally public opinion to his side in case there’s a contested convention.  By suggesting that the Republican Party establishment is gaming the system to prevent him from winning the nomination, Trump bolsters his standing as the outside candidate representing Republican Party voters, if not the elites, and makes it harder for the Party to deny him the nomination even if he falls a bit short in the delegate race.

Throughout the rally I waited for the obligatory protest moment, even as Trump assured us that his rallies are the safest ones, but only one occurred inside the civic center, and it was so small and relatively muted that Trump didn’t even bother to issue his trademark response asking the cameras to focus on his huge crowds. Instead he dismissed the protestors as “weak” and moved on with his speech. (When we left the rally there was about a dozen protestors, with signs, who had been relegated to the street outside the immediate convention premises.) Still while this was clearly a pro-Trump rally, it seemed to me to lack the intensity of passion I’ve seen in earlier Trump rallies, perhaps because this one was dominated by students, many of whom seemed most interested in being part of the circus more than they were in supporting Trump as a candidate.  But the rally did not lack for its moments.  As he typically does, Trump called out audience members, as when he pointed out this “strong, good looking student” who had been hoisted on to someone’s shoulders and began flexing his biceps. It was that kind of a rally – one as much as a giant frat party as it was political event.

Trump wrapped up his speech with his characteristic recitation of major themes: knocking out ISIS, helping our veterans, winning on the border, winning on trade, winning with health care, getting rid of Common Core (which got one of the biggest cheers of the event), and saving the 2nd amendment (more big cheers.) “We’re going to win so much when I’m president that you are going to come to me and say, ‘we’re sick of winning’ but, no, we are going to keep on winning!” After telling the audience how much he loved them, he waded into the crowd, surrounded by an anxious security detail, and began signing anything that moved.


As we watched the crowd swarm in around Trump, my wife struck up a conversation with another woman who said she came with her 16-year old son. “He’s never interested in doing anything,” she told us, but he asked her to bring him to a Trump rally. Like many people we talked to, she acknowledged that Trump is not her ideal candidate, but that he is saying things on issues like immigration and Common Core that need to be said, and she noted – as many in the audience did – that he has boosted interest in politics among her peers. Of course, heightened interest doesn’t necessarily translate into direct support for Trump. But in contrast to some pundits who believe Trump “is not saying anything new or different,” it’s pretty clear from attending these rallies that his supporters think otherwise. Clearly his policy views are resonating with a significant number of potential Republican voters in a way that more mainstream Republicans’ issue stances are not. As I’ve noted elsewhere, he seems to have adopted an effective mix of economic populism on the domestic side and American Security First as his foreign policy that has, so far, proved to be an unorthodox and winning combination among Republicans. It may be that this is because he pushes his views on these topics with a maddening lack of specificity, which allows supporters to infer what they want from Trump’s speeches.  Whatever the explanation, it seems to be working.

How well this plays in a general election, of course, remains to be seen. But I know this – I dismissed Trump as cartoon character with no chance of winning once before.  I won’t make that mistake again.

On, Wisconsin: BernieMentum, The Donald’s Gaffes and What Tonight Really Means

If the current polls hold up and Ted Cruz pulls out a victory over Donald Trump in Wisconsin, the media spin will immediately focus on The Donald’s “terrible two weeks” as the proximate cause of his defeat. As the New York Times puts it:  “A Cruz victory will suggest that a backlash against Mr. Trump has set in after a series of nasty episodes, including his insults of Heidi Cruz and the arrest of Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, on a charge of manhandling a female reporter.”  This narrative fits nicely with the media’s tendency to portray political campaigns as a horse race in which the tactical decisions by candidates collectively exert a huge influence on the election outcome. Under such a dynamic, a candidate’s fortunes can ebb and flow quickly as the result of even a single misstep, as when a campaign manager allegedly pushes around a female reporter, or a candidate insults another candidate’s wife.

But as the Times own analyst Nate Cohn reminds,  there is an alternative explanation for why Trump may not do well in Wisconsin tonight – one more consistent with how political scientists view the nominating process.  Simply put, Wisconsin is not a good state for Trump, demographically speaking. That is, even without Trump’s “gaffes”, it didn’t look like he would do particularly well in a state whose voters tend to be, on average, a bit more educated, with higher incomes, and more religious than the typical Trump voter, to cite only a couple of demographic classes.  As research by Middlebury College student Tina Berger shows (see below), although Trump’s support ranges across demographic classes, for the most part exit polls suggest he does a bit better among downscale white voters. Here are his averages based on income according to exit polls – although he does well across income groups, he does slightly better among lower income voters.  The last column is the percentage of times Trump won that demographic group in a particular nominating contest.

trump and income

And here is the same type of analysis based on education, again using exit poll data Berger has analyzed.  Once more, although he does well among all eduction levels, his strength increases among the less well-educated.

trump and education

Moreover, for what it is worth,  polls in Wisconsin are not consistent with the narrative that he is being hurt by his recent remarks about abortion or the incident involving his campaign manager. But that will not stop the media from claiming otherwise should he lose the state. Polls close there in less than two hours, but we may be in for a long night based on current polling which gives Cruz a slight lead over Trump.

 

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, all the talk is about Bernie Sanders’ “momentum” coming off of his string of five victories in the six most recent Democratic contests. But as a concept by which to explain a candidate’s success and failures, momentum is a much touted but poorly defined term. It is possible to believe a candidate can gain momentum as a result of a series of victories if those wins drive opponents from the field, and the winning candidate then picks up some of the departed candidates’ votes. But that is not what has happened with Bernie and Clinton – no Democrat has dropped out as a result of Bernie’s victories.  However, if by momentum one means additional votes picked up in subsequent contests solely due to the victories themselves, then I’m skeptical that the concept has any meaning. This is particularly true in Sanders’ case, since all his recent victories came in caucus states and, along with his defeat in the Arizona, netted him roughly thirty additional delegates. This is not nearly the pace he needs to achieve if he hopes to close delegate gap with Clinton before the Democratic convention. And it doesn’t look like Wisconsin is going to do much to change those dynamics. Assuming currently polling holds up, he may net a half dozen or so additional delegates tonight.  That’s not my definition of momentum!

And that is the problem Sanders faces looking ahead – the Democratic method of allocating delegates proportionally makes it very hard for him to cut into Clinton’s lead in any significant fashion even if he ekes out victories in delegate-rich primary states which, so far, he has been largely unable to do. If Clinton performs well in the New York primary, where she had a strong lead in the polls, she could in one night erase any of the delegate gains Sanders has accumulated by winning 6 of the 7 most recent contests.  So much for his momentum.

This, of course, is precisely what the punditocracy does not want to hear, since it undercuts the horse race narrative that drives so much of their coverage. And so no matter what the outcome tonight, I expect to hear a lot about “momentum” and Trump’s gaffes and how we have witnessed a potential “gamechanger” in Wisconsin. And, with roughly two weeks before the New York primaries, the media pundits will have plenty of time to speculate, based on the usual “well-placed sources”, about strife in the campaign of (fill in the name of the candidate who lost) and how they are considering retooling their campaign strategy and bringing in new advisers and changing tactics and kissing babies and changing hairstyles, etc.

And the winners? Why, they will have momentum!

I’ll be intermittently live blogging the results tonight at this site, then on Australian television bright and early tomorrow morning to break it all down, just in case you live Down Under!

In the meantime, On, Wisconsin!

 

Does The Party Decide? Explaining the Trump Phenomenon

Longtime readers know that I have periodically expressed skepticism regarding “The Party Decides” thesis. That is the argument, made most thoroughly by the book of that title,  that party leaders act in effect as gatekeepers who control who wins their party’s nomination. They do so through a variety of signaling mechanisms, such as endorsements, or by steering financial contributions, that collectively help winnow the candidate field and, ideally, focuses voter support behind a single candidate – preferably one who shares the party’s dominant ideological perspective and can still win the general election. Moreover, much of that winnowing takes place prior to any actual voting for party delegates, as party leaders work behind the scenes to eliminate unwanted candidates as soon as possible.

My skepticism rests on three essential points. First, the authors use what I consider to be a rather generous definition of “party”, or intense policy demanders. This allows them to claim that, for the most part, party leaders have retained control of the nominating process despite ostensibly significant changes in how delegates are selected, as in the movement from a convention-centered nominating process to the current post-McGovern-Fraser emphasis on caucus and primaries. (By the way, the book does a wonderful job providing an historical overview of the evolution of the presidential nominating process, which is an important reason why I continue to assign it in my elections class.) A second concern – and perhaps an unfair one – is the difficulty the authors have in showing how this coordinating process actually takes place. As far as I can tell, there’s no smoking memo where party leaders confirm which candidates they will support. So one must infer the existence of a party-driven winnowing process.

Of course, as I tell my students, when it comes to explaining political behavior, you don’t beat something with nothing. If the party isn’t deciding, then who is? My sense is that at least since the McGovern-Fraser reforms, it is more typically the voters who decide – at least those voters who participate in the series of caucuses and primaries that constitute the modern nominating process.  Admittedly, they are not generally representative of the broader public but neither are they the equivalent, at least from my perspective, of the traditional “party bosses” who used to control blocs of delegates. However, voters aren’t free to choose just any candidate.  Instead, they choose from a candidate menu that is heavily influenced by the media’s perception of which candidates are truly viable. The media does not do well with candidate complexity, and so it moves early to simplify the narrative by classifying candidates based on expected strength.  For example, think of the segmentation of the Republican debate participants by the various cable networks into a “grown up” and “kiddie table”. Under this alternative scenario, party elites don’t decide so much as they anticipate who the likely nominee will be based on their read of the political landscape and potential candidates. When the indicators all point in the direction of a particular candidate, party leaders endorse early, in order to position themselves for any benefits that may accrue from being among the first to jump on the winning candidate’s bandwagon. But when the crystal ball is a bit foggier, they wait to endorse, heeding the famous adage to “don’t back no losers.” It is precisely that uncertainty, I believe, that has caused many Republican leaders to hold back on endorsing anyone during the current election cycle. It is not, as some political scientists claim, that they have simply decided not to endorse – it is that they don’t know who to endorse.

Of course, one can’t possibly do full justice in a blog post to the Party Decides thesis, which rests on a slew of data and careful analysis – you really should read the book and decide for yourself. For what it is worth, most of my students who have experience working on campaigns seem not to buy the argument.  However, I haven’t presented any evidence indicating that my alternative take is more plausible (although my students and I are working on it!)

“But what about Donald Trump?” you may ask.  With his commanding victory yesterday in Nevada, Trump has now won three of the four Republican nominating contests to date.  Moreover, despite not having the support of the Republican Party (at least not by the usual indicators) he seems to be gaining strength and appears poised to do quite well on Super Tuesday.  Doesn’t he disprove the Party Decide thesis?

Perhaps.  But I’m in no position to make that case! I often tell my students that in contrast to the general election, political scientists have a more difficult time predicting the outcome of the nominating process – there are too many candidates and decision points, and the party label doesn’t serve as a useful decision cue. But this year I made it quite clear that I was certain about one thing: Donald Trump would not win the Republican nomination. Indeed, on the day he made his announcement that he was running, I wrote what I believed to be a very clever and amusing tongue-firmly-in-cheek post explaining why I was breaking my long tradition of not voting in presidential elections in order to cast my ballot for The Donald.  Alas, it was too clever by half and, at this point, the laugh is on me. Make no mistake about it: Donald Trump is clearly the front-runner for the Republican nomination. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Note that I disagree with my colleagues who claim the Republican Party has implicitly allowed him to take the lead. I just think they don’t have any tools to stop him. He clearly doesn’t need their endorsements to win – I think one member of Congress has endorsed him so far although if my theory is correct I expect more members to get on the Trump bandwagon. Nor does he need party funding. Indeed, he has proved a master at getting free publicity and he has spent comparatively little on advertising. Leading party members and fellow candidates – most notably Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and poor Jeb! Bush – have openly criticized him. But it seems to have no effect – instead, Trump uses that opposition as a selling point to his followers, as I’ve seen firsthand at his rallies.

And it is those rallies that, to me, hold the key to understanding Trump’s success. I’ve described them elsewhere,  but a couple of points are worth highlighting. First, it is commonplace to describe Trump’s followers as “angry.” But his rallies are anything but an expression of anger – in fact, audience members seem to take particular delight in hearing Trump explain how he will make America Great Again. These are festive events, replete with vendors hawking Trump memorabilia, musicians playing, and crowd members chatting excitedly despite lengthy lines and often inclement weather.  Audiences even participate at key moments, as when Trump asks “Who is going to pay for the wall?” and they scream out in unison “Mexico!” The second point is that Trump does not talk down to his audience – instead, he takes their views seriously, and by expressing those views in plain, often politically-incorrect (and admittedly superficial) talking points, he appears to validate them. Yes, part of his support is driven by economic discontent – for many middle and lower-income Americans, wages have been stagnant for some time, manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and the future holds little promise of improvement. But he is winning across all income groups, although his support is  stronger among lower- and middle-income voters.

In addition to his policy stances, then, part of his appeal is that he appears to be on his audience’s side – he doesn’t try to excuse or explain their beliefs as an illustration of intolerance or bigotry. Instead, he says they are right to hold those beliefs, and if elected president he is going to act on them. At the same time he doesn’t pretend to be one of them. Instead, he flaunts his wealth, his education, his beautiful wife and his “New York values” lifestyle. In so doing, he comes across as authentic. But he also says, “See – I’ve made it. Don’t you want to make it too?” They understand that Trump doesn’t have to be doing this – he tells them as much in his standard stump speech – but that he really does want to make America, and by extension, his audience, great again. And they really believe he will – or at least they are willing to take that chance. After all, what do they have to lose?

Yes, we need to be careful in overstating the extent of Trump’s support – but it appears to be growing, despite high unfavorable ratings. And it is not immediately clear who the alternative candidate will be. Despite repeated media attempts to prop him up, Marco Rubio hasn’t come close to challenging Trump since his overhyped third-place finish in Iowa. Ted Cruz has a solid core of conservative followers, but he’s shown little ability to expand beyond that base. Maybe John Kasich will take off, but so far his brand of sunny optimism and social conservatism hasn’t caught on, despite a strong resume. And Ben Carson’s support continues to dwindle.

So what will it be?  Will The Party decide to back The Donald, or to block him? At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter.

The Donald, Debates and Those Smug Political Scientists

It has become increasingly clear to me that beyond the uptick he has caused in their respective audiences, political pundits are enjoying Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the polls not least because they believe it exposes political scientists’ inability to explain the 2015-16 presidential electoral dynamics. As @JGreenDC recently tweeted, “[t]he most pleasurable part of this campaign cycle is that traditional insiders don’t have any idea what’s going on and they’re losing cachet.” By “traditional insiders” the pundits mean – as this Josh Barro tweet suggests – my arrogant political scientist colleagues! Barro tweets: “My favorite part is watching smug political scientists be dumbfounded.”  (Me?  Smug?  I’m sure Barro was referring to others in the profession. After all, only one pundit has blocked my twitter feed…..so far.)

However, as I discovered in an interview last week on Ari Melber’s Let’s Talk radio show, a post I wrote for US News in mid-August headlined “Do the Rules Apply to Donald?” may have inadvertently contributed to the perception that political scientists are baffled by Trump’s staying power. In asking me to explain Trump’s position atop the polls, Melber pointed out that in the article I noted that the duration of Trump’s front-runner status already far exceeded that experienced by the four Republicans – Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Herman Cain – who spent a significant period leading the polls in the 2012 Republican race. On average, their period of discovery, scrutiny and, eventually, a polling decline lasted about two months. Trump, in contrast, has been leading polls going on four months, with no clear sign of a polling decline as yet.

As I conceded to Melber, when The Donald announced his candidacy last July, I did not anticipate that he would remain atop the polls for this long. (Nor, I suspect, did many of my colleagues). But this doesn’t mean we are clueless when it comes to understanding why he has remained the front-runner for so long. As I wrote in July soon after Trump began his meteoric rise in the polls, his candidacy was being fueled by a media that found his controversial, over-the-top rhetoric impossible to ignore.  I concluded that post by writing, “The sooner the media begins evaluating The Donald on the details of his policies and his governing expertise, rather than on his deliberately provocative comments designed to mobilize a disaffected public, the sooner The Donald’s political bubble is likely to burst. Alas, I have little confidence that most journalists, in this era of dwindling audiences and shrinking profit margins, will be able to resist taking the easy road by dismissing The Donald as a serious candidate. To date, it is a media strategy that has The Donald laughing all the way to the top of polls.”

In retrospect, where I miscalculated was in not fully believing my own prediction; clearly I underestimated the media’s willingness to resist The Donald’s ability to dictate his press coverage. It turns out that pundits have found it impossible not to report on Trump’s rhetorical excesses, even as they chide themselves for doing so. As John Sides demonstrates, The Donald’s standing in the polls closely tracks the amount of media coverage he has received; as coverage goes up, so does his standing in the polls.

Note that it hardly matters whether the coverage is negative or not – as Sides indicates, it is not as if the media has refrained from criticizing The Donald for his often intemperate remarks. But that simply provides him with more free publicity, which seems to boost his polling support.

So what, if anything, will cause Trump to drop out of the top polling spot? The simple answer is that it will require someone more newsworthy to begin to eat into his media coverage.  For what it is worth, for the first time in months someone other than Trump – in this case Ben Carson – landed atop a recent national poll, although it may be too early to read much into this. This one poll notwithstanding, Trump remains in the lead based on aggregate polling.

And it would not be surprising if Trump gets a temporary polling boost based on tonight’s Republican debate due to the renewed media focus on his candidacy. Of course, that depends in part on whether the media finds someone other than Trump’s performance even more newsworthy. In this respect, tonight offers one of the few remaining opportunities for underfunded candidates, such as John Kasich or Marco Rubio, who are currently trying to break out as the alternative to Trump, to take advantage of the free media and have their Carly Fiorina debate moment. Fiorina, you will recall, saw her polling numbers blip upward after each of the first two Republican debates in which she participated although she has found it difficult to maintain that momentum. For those like Jeb Bush who have the resources to play a long game based on winning delegates, on the other hand, tonight’s debate may be less crucial, at least in the short run. Still, he undoubtedly wants to perform well if for no other reason than to stem the spate of stories citing his recent staff cutbacks, and his consultation with “Mommy and Daddy” Bush, as evidence that his candidacy is in trouble.

I suspect the immediate media focus tonight, given recent polls, will be on Ben Carson. It will be interesting to see how much the CNBC moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla focus their critical questions on the Good Doctor, given some of his recent statements equating abortion with slavery and linking gun control to the Holocaust. You will recall that Jake Tapper spent much of his time moderating the first CNN Republican debate by trying to goad the candidates into personally attacking one another, while the Fox crew focused much more on substantive policy differences. Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of Tapper’s strategy.

As always, I’ll be live blogging the main debate, beginning shortly before it gets started at 8 p.m. EDT on CNBC. (Alas, it is not showing on any over-the-air broadcast channels.) Ten candidates will participate in the grownup event, while the remaining four – Lindsey Graham, Bobbie Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum, hold their own “kiddie” discussion at 6 p.m. I hope you can join in by posting comments at this site – it is always more fun with some audience participation. Just post in the comment box, or hit the twitter follow button at the top of the page.

See you at 7:45!