A striking number of people are still assuming one or more of the following things:
(1) Donald Trump either doesn’t want to be president or doesn’t believe he can win. Thus his campaign isn’t what it superficially appears to be (an attempt to win the GOP nomination and then the presidency) but rather something else: a publicity stunt, an ego trip, a branding exercise, or what have you.
(2) Trump is much less likely to win the nomination than Rubio or Cruz.
(3) Even if (1) and (2) turn out to be wrong, Trump would have next to no chance in November.
I think points (1) and (3) are both clearly wrong and are also — not wholly by any means, but to some significant extent — products of denialism, in the sense of the rejection of disturbing conclusions because they’re disturbing. Point (2) is much more plausible, but the extent to which the available evidence supports it is, in my view, exaggerated.
As for (1), this theory certainly had some initial plausibility, given, among other things, that Trump’s announcement of his presidential run looked by conventional measures more like an outrageous publicity stunt than a typical campaign kickoff:
“They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing their problems,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.”
He promised that as President Trump, one of his first actions would be to build a “great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall”.
Of course this was just the beginning of a long series of statements that, again according to conventional wisdom, would have killed the campaign of an ordinary candidate. But what became clear over the summer, and is even clearer today, is that such gestures, far from derailing Trump’s campaign, are making it stronger.
In any case, the theory that Trump’s campaign is a publicity stunt in the manner of Herman Cain’s or Ben Carson’s antics always suffered from the flaw that Donald Trump was already vastly better known among the American public than any of the people he was and is running against. (What do you suppose the ratio was in June between people who could tell you three things about Trump and three things about Marco Rubio? My guess would be about 100 to 1.). Furthermore, the truism that there’s no such thing as bad publicity is not actually true. If Trump’s campaign is actually a publicity stunt, the sort of publicity it has gotten him has, to this point, cost him some very valuable things.
As to the argument that Trump doesn’t actually want to be president because it would be a lot of work, that strikes me as denialism in its purest form. Trump has spent the last six months criss-crossing the country, giving dozens of speeches, countless interviews, etc. Trump lacks many qualities, including most notably any sense of shame — this is a man who has more than once used a national media platform to announce that he would like to have sex with his daughter — but the claim that he lacks the energy and ambition to put in the work to become and then be president is just bizarre.
The claim that Trump is much less likely to win the nomination that Rubio or Cruz is based on both standard political science models of prediction, and a couple of common sense observations about his behavior to this point.
In regard to the former, Trump is, to put it mildly, completely unacceptable to the party elites, and, generally speaking, the relevant models predict that “the party decides.” But, as Scott has acknowledged, there are good reasons to be uncertain whether the standard models will necessarily hold in this case, especially since such models are based, necessarily, on interpreting the meaning of a very small number of precedents, in a rapidly shifting social and media environment. In short, the Trump phenomenon seems to have several characteristics that make predictions based on past performance shakier than they were otherwise be.
Political science also tells us that national polls prior to any primaries tend to be highly unreliable, and therefore Trump’s current huge lead in such polls doesn’t necessarily mean much. This is certainly a valid point, but again, Trump is an unusual candidate. He is both far better known and produces a far more intense response, both for and against, than the typical fall front runner for a party nomination. Thus there are good reasons to suspect that his lead in the polls, which has lasted for many months now and is growing, is more significant than it would otherwise be.
The relevant common sense observations are that Trump to this point is spending very little of his own money, and that he hasn’t done the sort of on the ground organizing that Barack Obama used to such good effect in 2008. These points also have force, but they also have some obvious rejoinders. First, why would Trump spend his own money before he needed to? Candidates spend money early in a campaign to buy media coverage above all. Obviously, any such spending on Trump’s part would have almost no marginal value, since he has carefully constructed his campaign to bring him more free publicity than the rest of the GOP field combined. (Hence the endless stream of outrageous statements etc.).
Second, the kind of ground game Obama put together in 2008 made sense in the context of his candidacy — one in which as late as the fall of 2007 he was a relatively little-known underdog. Again, the contrast with Trump could hardly be more stark. Perhaps Trump doesn’t have, or yet have, the kind of campaign infrastructure necessary to win primaries as opposed to polls, but as of now this is more of an assertion of faith than anything else.
As for the argument that Trump has little or no chance to win the general if he gets the nomination, this wouldn’t seem to need much of a rejoinder, given the fundamentals of contemporary American presidential elections. While I agree Trump would, as of now, be a distinct underdog to Hillary Clinton, any GOP candidate is going to start with a floor of perhaps 45% of the popular vote, and somewhere north of 100 electoral votes.
In sum, I would argue that much of the confidence that Trump can’t win the nomination is based on wishful thinking/denialism, while the good arguments to that effect, based as they are on traditional models of American presidential elections, are not as compelling as they would otherwise appear to be, given the highly unconventional nature of both the Trump campaign and what might be called the Trump moment.