Politics & Policy

Donald Trump: The Establishment Candidate

Trump at a campaign stop in Bloomington, Il. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Donald Trump may well be burning down the Republican establishment, but the irony is that he’s doing it with many of the same voters who propelled Mitt Romney and John McCain to relatively easy primary victories in the last two elections. We think of what’s happening in the Republican party as the work of angry ideologues, but beyond the anger part, this isn’t quite right.

Trump’s coalition isn’t easily pigeonholed ideologically. It relies on more casual, less-educated voters attracted to Trump’s personality rather than to any specific brand of Republicanism. Trump supporters don’t seem to mind his past support for single-payer health care, just as Romney supporters didn’t end up minding how he laid the foundation for Obamacare with his Massachusetts health-care law. This incoherence is a feature, not a bug, of establishment candidacies.

We often understand primary elections on a one-dimensional ideological scale. But in reality, there’s (at least) a second dimension: the voter’s level of political engagement. “Low-information” voters often masquerade as moderate or somewhat-conservative voters in polls, and as a result, we assume they have a substantive preference for more moderate, or electable candidates. But in reality, it’s a preference for the strongest horse, one that doesn’t demand that they first embrace a specific set of ideological precepts.

The untold story of this primary is how Donald Trump has incapacitated the Republican party’s establishment wing by shearing off the kinds of rank-and-file, non-ideological voters they have always relied upon to muscle through conservative primary challenges. Trump’s apostasies don’t matter just as the (relatively tamer) apostasies of Romney and McCain didn’t matter. As a result, the “establishment” has been an army with officers but no enlisted men, unable to command more than 20 percent for support for its preferred candidate at any time in the process.

The Lanes Theory

Through the early primaries, pundits and operatives clung fervently to the theory of “lanes.” At a basic level, there is a conservative lane in the primary, now occupied firmly by Ted Cruz, and a moderate/establishment lane, technically now occupied by John Kasich. Each of the lanes attracts the support of its own mutually exclusive bloc of voters. The “establishment” lane is assumed to be the more powerful of the two, in that relative moderates have won the nomination against more conservative challengers in the last few election cycles. The notion that the moderate/establishment lane could have defeated Trump by pooling the votes of Kasich, Rubio, Bush, and Christie in New Hampshire is Peak Lanes Theory. A more comprehensive view of lanes theory, positing the existence of tea-party and social-conservative wings of the party, appears in the FiveThirtyEight visual from before Trump, below. Lanes theory framed the strategic assumptions of virtually every candidate in the race, except for one. It’s why non-Trump candidates went after their fellow lane dwellers, leaving the front-runner undisturbed for months.

But lanes theory completely fails to account for Donald Trump. Which lane does Trump occupy? The answer seems to be his own —  one of voters who are more likely not to have voted in primaries before and who watch shows such as The Celebrity Apprentice. And yes, Ted Cruz does seem to be running in a broadened conservative lane, and Kasich in a rump moderate lane, but either coalition alone is unlikely to be enough to win the nomination outright. What is going on?

Lanes Theory Is Right, but Incomplete

The notion that voters will naturally line up with their ideological brethren has a kernel of truth to it. John Kasich is not typically doing well in conservative, rural areas, any more than Ted Cruz is in places such as Vermont or downtown Chicago. But Trump has drawn a relatively consistent share of the vote nationally that varies based on demographic  — not ideological — variables like education levels and the presence of African Americans in a county.

Lanes theory framed the strategic assumptions of virtually every candidate in the race, except for one.

In exit polls, Trump performs well across groups — including moderates, and he also wins somewhat conservatives, where Mitt Romney also did quite well in 2012. Cruz’s strength with very conservatives is usually enough to outdraw Trump with these voters, but here too Trump’s numbers are respectable. There is no ideological core to Trump’s appeal, which makes it hard to peg him as a classic insurgent rising to overthrow the moderate/RINO/elite establishment. While this fact seems intelligible to most people by now, it’s also something that was never supposed to happen, which is why nobody spent any time really preparing for it. According to lanes theory, if the nominee wasn’t a Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, it would be someone like a Ted Cruz who united conservatives.

Lanes theory functions well when it deals with voters who are paying relatively close attention to the election and who have distinct ideological preferences. Ted Cruz and John Kasich supporters are principled voters, driven by a distinct vision of what the Republican party should be. It’s hard to say the same of Trump voters, which is why ideological attacks (“Trump isn’t a conservative!”) have fallen short.

This conventional wisdom breaks down with voters whose attachment to the Republican party is more cultural and visceral, who would have much less reason to object to Donald Trump because of his inexperience in government or his past liberal positions. For these voters — often those with lower education levels — ideology and issue positions are much more malleable, and personality can play a bigger role in their choice.


Not Moderate, Not Conservative, but Big

Since 1964, the Republican party has always nominated the candidate with a prohibitive advantage in name identification over the rest of the field. In every case, name identification was established by virtue of being an incumbent president, vice president, family member of a president, or past candidate. Nominating a sitting senator or governor without a previous national political pedigree is something Republicans haven’t done since Barry Goldwater. Democrats operate differently. Nominees Barack Obama, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Mike Dukakis, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, and John F. Kennedy would have all violated this rule.

With his lack of political pedigree, Trump is supposed to tear the rule asunder, but does he?

Republicans this year had candidates from presidential families (Bush) and others who were well known from previous runs (Perry, Santorum, Huckabee). This led many to give them the benefit of the doubt.

That Trump has received a whopping $2 billion in free media coverage is the story of this election.

But the rule is not necessarily about past experience or pedigree, but about familiarity. Trump entered the Republican race with more name identification nationally than Hillary Clinton. It seems reductive to chalk up his success to this alone, sure, but Trump’s fame  — and his concomitant ability to command saturation media coverage  —  has come in quite handy. This has been especially true in a field with few political brand names, with no one who was nearly as famous as Trump. Being a reality-TV star and cultural wall covering was sufficient once the voters came to see Trump in a political context, a process that played out over a couple of months in July and August of last year.

I’ve argued that the media’s enablement of Trump has led to his rise, given the strong statistical evidence that media coverage is both strongly correlated with and a leading indicator of poll numbers. The finding that Trump has received a whopping $2 billion in free media coverage is the story of this election.

You might well argue that the Trump media deluge has been unfair to other candidates (I believe it has been), but it’s also quite clear it has influenced the kinds of casual voters who typically weigh in decisively for establishment front-runners in the end. To be the nominee, you need national legitimacy. Voters will view those they don’t knew very much about through a skeptical lens, even if they like what they’re saying. Marco Rubio and Ben Carson had the best favorability ratings in the field, as does Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, but this year, they’ve lacked the legitimacy afforded by a national brand. It’s almost as if there’s something holding voters back: “If they’re so good, why am I not hearing more about them?”

Trumpmania stopped you from hearing more about them.

To me, this fact is the key to understanding why the lanes theory — that supported the inevitability of establishment front-runners and drove complacency among the donor and operative classes — broke down so badly this year.

In a traditional context, political fame is achieved through demonstrated success in national office or in a previous campaign. The media then tend to cover these candidates more, granting them further legitimacy. This was the Romney or McCain model.

We now know that when this fame is established outside the traditional channels, and also proves too big a draw for the media to resist, the model utterly breaks down. (Perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger was the canary in the coal mine for this.)

It also means that our idea of what an establishment candidate is, and how such candidates gathered support in previous elections (our mental frame of reference when planning for this election) is completely wrong.

#related#In the minds of the political class, Romney and McCain voters opted mindfully for sober, responsible, center-right candidates who could win the general election. This is the story that Republican establishment donors, operatives, and consultants tell themselves.

But in reality, many voters prefer big personalities and obvious choices. A big personality was why George W. Bush was the last truly successful national Republican leader, and of course, why Ronald Reagan was before him.

We graft on ideological explanations to elections (“the voters are angry!”) when most presidential general elections can be predicted by a relatively simple heuristic: Warm beats cold.

Trump is now testing the proposition that you can turn the personality/celebrity/fame dial to 100 and the policy/ideological dial to zero and still win. We shall see if it works. Policy matters a good deal less than we think in elections, but what if it matters hardly at all? If that’s the case, the powerlessness of appeals based on ideology, even within the Republican party, is something that should reset the worldview of a great many people who do this for a living.


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