You can’t turn on or click on the news right now without right-wing and media leaders fretting over Donald Trump’s political tidal wave. The latest is a National Review symposium warning of what a Trump triumph would mean for conservativism. It follows on word that a top prominent political consultant failed to mobilize influential Republicans to support an anti-Trump ad blitz, conservative columnists’ pieces bewailing his rise, and Bloomberg political analyst Mark Halperin’s prediction that Trump could well settle the Republican race if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire.
Not so fast.
Yes, that fretting and prediction might well prove prescient. Polls point in that direction. And Nate Silver, whose own predictions nailed the outcomes of both the 2008 and 2012 elections for the New York Times, has recently scaled back his longstanding skepticism about Trump’s prospects – not because of what Trump has done, but rather because of what the Republican establishment (leading elected and Party officials, fundraisers, consultants, etc.) has not done to try to stop him.
Still, there are two big reasons why Humpty Trumpty could be in for a big fall. I’ll discuss the first in this essay.
The first reason says a lot about America’s impatient political culture as well as Trump’s prospects: When it comes to politics, we Americans are prisoners of the present. For a country that has by far the world’s longest electoral season (if two-plus years can even be considered a “season”), we live (and often panic) in the political moment to ridiculous degrees. We tend to be trapped by our ratings-reliant and click-seeking media, its 24-hour news cycle, its obsessing about who’s up and who’s down right now.
Reaching far beyond the political realm, we also have a short attention span compared to many older nations or more tradition-bound cultures. “What’s new?” and “Who’s hot?” (sometimes but not always physically) could practically be our society’s slogans. That could be especially salient for Trump’s celebrity-driven candidacy. Live by the sword today; perhaps die by the sword tomorrow.
Why does all this stuff about our political and societal impatience matter? We catch a case of collective amnesia very four years. We forget that polls don’t necessarily mean much when it comes to the pre-Iowa stages of presidential races. As Silver has pointed out, in the past two election cycles (admittedly, a tiny sample size) nearly half of Iowa and New Hampshire Republican voters hadn’t make up their minds until the final week before they voted. Furthermore, there are questions about how well Trump is organizing his supporters to turn out for the Iowa caucuses.
But, speaking of impatience: Wait! There’s more! A yet bigger factor could yet block Trumpageddon. If we can get away from living purely in the political moment for a minute, the Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early results can create a whole new national ballgame in terms of media, momentum, and expectations.
Trump is even more vulnerable to this phenomenon than other candidates. Yes, there is more to his candidacy than his celebrity, not least his appealing to people’s fears and baser instincts. But he thrives on simply being Trump – the outsized ego at the head of the pack, the outrageous statements, the most newsworthy and quote-worthy candidate, the guy who mocks others for their low poll numbers.
Above all, Trump is about being a winner.
But the winner hasn’t won anything yet. This reality TV star faces the messy political reality of actual caucuses and primaries.
Trump could even lose by winning, since early primary politics is so much about expectations. If he simply loses the media’s expectations game by doing more poorly than anticipated, the air could start hissing out of his media balloon and pumping up other candidates. (Plus, let’s not ignore the fact that lots of new outlets and analysts like new story lines more than pursuing the same old themes and memes.)
The process could begin with Cruz topping Trump in Iowa. Or with even slightly surprising results in New Hampshire (Christie Snags Second! Or Third!) or other states with early votes (Rubio Rebounds in South Carolina!). Recall that Bill Clinton became the “Comeback Kid” in 1992 simply by finishing second in New Hampshire.
To pursue this point in a bit more detail: What if yesterday’s Boston Globe endorsement of Ohio Governor John Kasich tips the scales just a bit so that he tops what the Globe calls the other main “reality-based” candidates (Bush, Christie, Rubio) in New Hampshire? The new media narrative could write itself for his previously marginal candidacy: the courage to tell tough truths to voters; strong experience in both Congress and a major swing state; much more of a real Republican and conservative than Trump; can beat Hillary. You can construct similar scenarios for Bush, Christie, and Rubio.
To be clear, I’m certainly not guaranteeing Trump’s electoral demise. Too many known unknowns – thank you, Donald Rumsfeld – could affect who gets nominated. A terrorist attack or a scandal, for instance.
Furthermore, it all could come down to how the electoral pie is cut. That is, the nomination could hinge on which faltering “reality-based” candidates stay in the race for how long, possibly preventing establishment-oriented Republican leaders and voters from coalescing behind a single choice against Trump. But that factor could cut both ways: A three-way race with Trump and Cruz could offer Kasich (or Rubio, or whoever) to build an effective national campaign even without majority support.
So sure, let’s grant the substantial chance that Trumpaggedon will prove triumphant. Certainly, he has thus far exposed the experts who “knew” that he’d be a shooting star of a candidate. He could continue to beat or at least meet expectations.
But let’s also face the fact that we need not be prisoners of the present, that we know very little right now, and that Humpty Trumpty could well take a big tumble if media attention starts to shift.
In contrast to our own impatient approach to politics, check out this recent Daily Show take on the British Parliament’s take on Trump. It offers some humorous insights, courtesy of our “Mother Country,” which is sometimes more politically mature than we are.
Oh, right – at the outset of this essay I said there were two big reasons Trump could falter. I’ve discussed one of those reasons here. The other involves Trump’s greatest obstacle – a topic that’s gotten surprisingly little media play. I’ll get to that tomorrow.