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Taking Trump Seriously

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Sam Wang:

For comparison I include Hillary Clinton, this year’s overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination. This emphasizes the fact that based on polling data, Donald Trump is in as strong a position to get his party’s nomination as Hillary Clinton in 2016, George W. Bush in 2000, or Al Gore in 2000. The one case in which a lead of this size was reversed was the 2008 Democratic nomination, which very was closely fought.

Obviously, polls are not the entire story of the campaign. Unlike past nominees, Trump does not have the national party behind him. In that respect, he is emblematic of the overall weirdness of this year’s GOP primaries.

Other factors are said to influence the nomination process: candidate experience, campaign finance, and party endorsements. These are described in the New York Times feature Who’s Winning the Presidential Campaign? (Here is one entertaining recent discussion over at FiveThirtyEight.) In my view, these factors are likely to matter under normal conditions – until a political party undergoes a major upheaval. That happens about every 40-50 years (see this excellent XKCD explainer graphic). Trump-as-nominee could fairly be seen as such an upheaval. This is one reason to pay attention not just to data pundits, but also to grizzled old historians.

My guess is that Trump’s complete lack of elite support, combined with opposition from a viable candidate with strong base support in Cruz and a potentially viablish candidate with elite support in Rubio, means that he’s still not the most likely Republican nominee. But I can see the case that the fact that Trump has been able to maintain such strong numbers for so long is an indication that we’re in a context where general tendencies just don’t apply. You can make a decent case that Trump should be considered the frontrunner, and a pretty solid case that he should be considered a stronger candidate than Rubio.

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