Fear not, Trump will still crash and burn in the ’16 primaries

     FiveThirtyEight blog creator, statistician, and unabashed numbers geek Nate Silver is shown in 2012, shortly after he correctly predicted the presidential winner in all 50 states that year. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

    FiveThirtyEight blog creator, statistician, and unabashed numbers geek Nate Silver is shown in 2012, shortly after he correctly predicted the presidential winner in all 50 states that year. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

    Month after month, the GOP’s execrable bullhorn artist remains perched atop the polls, and there’s growing concern that the guy might actually win the nomination. Various super PACs allied with the party establishment keep threatening to bomb him with ad campaigns (we’re still waiting), and Republican regulars are freaking out at the prospect of an autumn ’16 debacle that features landslide losses in every voter category except celebrity-besotted angry white people.

    But fear not, Republicans. There still seems to be a firm ceiling on Donald Trump’s detestable appeal. I’ve long felt that he’ll fade when the game truly gets serious — when voters start paying close attention and seek to get the maximum value for their ballot — and this week I’m happy (and relieved) to report that two smart, sane political observers are saying much the same. If we turn out to be wrong, feel free to hold it against us. But I’ll bet we’re right.

    Nate Silver — the poll numbers-cruncher who called the ’12 race for President Obama in mid-October, at a time when the Romney people were hilariously convinced that they had the race in the bag — has posted a new piece that plainly states what’s so often overlooked: Trump’s first-place status is far weaker than it seems, because, as we political junkies tend to forget, most likely Republican voters have barely tuned in yet. Trump is on top, for now, mostly because people know who he is (a reality TV star), and the media magnifies whatever emanates from his big mouth.

    “Right now,” Silver points out, “he has 25 to 30 percent of the vote in polls among the roughly 25 percent of Americans who identify as Republican. That’s something like 6 to 8 percent of the electorate overall, or about the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were faked.”

    And that 25 to 30 percent support is deceptively high; just because those people say that Trump is awesome, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll march into the voting booth. Silver reminds us that most of the current surveys “cover Republican-leaning adults or registered voters, rather than likely voters …. It’s not clear how much overlap there is between the people included in these surveys, and the relatively small share of Republicans who will turn up to vote in primaries and caucuses.” It’s still too early to query likely voters, because “if past nomination races are any guide, the vast majority of eventual Republican voters haven’t made up their minds yet.”

    Silver looked at the exit polls for the last four competitive Iowa caucuses — the Democrats in 2004 and 2008; the Republicans in 2008 and 2012 — and found that 65 percent of the voters made up their minds during the final month. (We’re still more than two months away from the Feb. 1 GOP caucus.) And in the last four competitive New Hampshire primaries, 71 percent of the voters made up their minds during the final month. (We’re still more than two months away from the Feb. 9 GOP primary.)

    Which brings us to David Greenberg, an historian based at Rutgers. In a new magazine piece, he points out that early polls, conducted one year away from the general election, have traditionally given us only “fleeting impulses of an electorate that remains overwhelmingly disengaged.” And when pollsters query people who are disengaged, the respondents tend to gravitate to the candidates they’ve heard of. As Greenberg notes (and he heard this from pollsters), “Many people who are actually undecided … will cough up a name when a poll-taker calls and prompts them.”

    Right now, Greenberg writes, “only about 10 to 20 percent of voters are tracking the campaign closely. Normal people tend to tune out the arcane, minute developments that the Twitterati are quick to label game-changers. Believe it or not, they have better things to do.”

    So, here are past samplings of the disengaged elecorate: One year away from the 1976 election, the Democratic frontrunners was Ted Kennedy (buried in single digits: Jimmy Carter). One year from the 1988 election, the Democratic frontrunner was Jesse Jackson. One year from the 1992 election, Democratic voters wanted Mario Cuomo (sitting at six percent: Bill Clinton). One year from the 2004 election, the Democratic fave was Howard Dean; before Dean, it was name-recognition favorite Joe Lieberman. One year from the 2008 election, the Republican frontrunner was Rudy Giuliani. The early autumn Republican favorite, one year from the 2012 election, was pre-oops Rick Perry.

    Could Trump be the exception? Conceivably. But Silver believes that Trump’s current support constitutes his ceiling; the racist rants that thrill Trump’s fans tend to “alienate” the rest of the Republican electorate. And Trump’s favorability rating, among Republicans in general, remains somewhere between “middling” and “miserable.” All told, Silver rates Trump’s nomination prospects at “considerably less than 20 percent.”

    Of course, it would greatly aid humanity if the Republicans could begin to coaelsce around a relatively sane Trump alternative. (Jeb? Kasich? Even Christie?) The longer the vacuum persists, the higher the odds of Trump filling it.

    And one other thing: On the Morning Joe show this week, conservative commentator Bill “Stop Me Before I’m Wrong Again” Kristol offered this prediction: “Trump is not going to be the nominee.”

    That, from the same guy who predicted that Bush’s Iraq invasion would compel the Sunnis and Shiites to make peace; who predicted that Obama wouldn’t win “a single” ’08 primary; that Giuliani would run again in 2012; that Scott Walker would be a major player in 2016 …. What better evidence can we get that Trump is destined for a big beautiful nomination?

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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