It is astonishing what imprudent language a public man may sometimes use in free countries, and especially in democratic States, without being compromised; whereas in absolute monarchies a few words dropped by accident are enough to unmask him forever, and ruin him without hope of redemption ... In democracies men are never stationary; a thousand chances waft them to and fro, and their life is always the sport of unforeseen or (so to speak) extemporaneous circumstances. Thus they are often obliged to do things which they have imperfectly learned, to say things they imperfectly understand, and to devote themselves to work for which they are unprepared by long apprenticeship ... The habit of inattention must be considered as the greatest bane of the democratic character.
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America*--
They say truth is stranger than fiction. Some things are stranger still...
Readers are asking about Donald Trump´s presidential prospects. There is a wide consensus that, as one reader demurely phrased it, Trump has "about as much chance as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."
We disagree. Something crucial is, in Tocqueville´s words, imperfectly understood. Here are four reasons why we take Trump seriously:
1. Roll the clock back over two decades -- to 1992. Democrat Bill Clinton defeated Republican George Bush Senior in Bush´s presidential re-election bid. In case you forgot, there was a third man in the race: Independent Ross Perot.
The final results: Clinton 43%, Bush 38%, Perot 19%. We would join the crowd and forget Perot were it not for one remarkable fact. Perot showed there is sufficient dissatisfaction in the American electorate for a third party candidate to win the White House.
The proof is in the pudding. Look at the Gallup poll graphic at the top of this post. In June 1992, Perot (39%) was solidly ahead of Bush (31%) and Clinton (25%).
A month later, Perot shocked the nation and quit the race, only to re-enter it in October. His reasons for withdrawal bordered on bonkers. For an excellent recap of the Perot 1992 campaign, click here.
If Perot had not left the race in July, would he have won? Nobody knows. What can be said with certainty is that his temporary withdrawal sunk his presidential campaign ship.
Now, imagine a Perot who (i) has the bone fide credentials of a Republican Party candidate and (ii) does not quit. Is that Donald Trump?
So far, a large part of Trump´s political persona is Perot. Trump doesn´t spend a single second worrying that connection will be discovered; he figures the American public cannot remember something that happened last month, much less 23 years ago.
We, however, remember Perot. It´s all there:
(i) The good. A billionaire candidate is not dependent on lobbyists or special interests to finance his campaign. He is the man nobody owns. He flaunts his anti-establishment views; he is proud to be a non-politician. In frankness and freshness, he is the opposite of the typical ho-hum presidential campaigner (example: Jeb Bush to date is Hello Kitty with a mouth). He has verbal gifts, good media presence; he deftly wins America´s non-debate debates.
(ii) The bad. He thinks he knows it all and does not take advice. His skin is thin; so is his knowledge of issues. His campaign staff is riddled with anxiety, dissension, newcomers. Professional amateurism rears its ugly head.
Good people may come and go; bad ones, on the other hand, accumulate. In the end, a candidate is no better than his staff.
(iii) The ugly. His mental stability under fire is questionable. Impudent and imprudent, tossed to and fro by unconscious forces, any moment he can blow the entire campaign. Paranoid tendencies appear; he hires and fires not according to ability but loyalty. What he desperately needs, he desperately lacks: a Doctor No to tell him where it´s at.
He is colorful and generates controversy, therefore he helps sell newspapers and TV shows; he is the darling of the media. What he does not know: the man who lives by the press dies by the press.
2. The latest poll results (CNN/ORC - August 13-16) show Trump with a commanding lead -- 24% -- over his Republican rivals: Bush (13%), Carson (9%), Rubio (8%), Walker (8%), etc. I regard the CNN poll´s methodology as deeply flawed;** however, Trump´s lead is corroborated by other polls and is large enough to reasonably conclude that if the Republican primary election were held today, Trump would win.
The secret to The Donald´s success is that there are presently 17 candidates in the Republican Primary. That means the 75% who are not supporting Trump are hopelessly splintered. Shades of California 2003, when 135 candidates sliced and diced the vote for governor, allowing the highly-recognizable Arnold Schwarzenneger to win in a walk in.
Undoubtedly, some candidates will drop out. Nevertheless, assuming that (i) at least 7 stay in and (ii) Trump can hang onto his 20%-plus base, he is well-positioned to win the Republican nomination.
A serious cautionary note: we have a year to go. As Tocqueville observed, there are gobs of unforeseen or extemporaneous circumstances out there.
3. Winning the Republican primary is a far cry from winning the general election for president.
Not only are Republican primary voters not demographically representative of the general voter population -- they are higher in income, education, age and conservative viewpoint -- they are relatively few in number. In 2012, the turnout in the Republican primaries was 19 million. Compare that figure to the 126 million voters in the Obama-Romney general election.
What it comes down to: if things stay on track, Trump will receive in the Republican primaries 4-5 million votes. He will need over 60 million to win the November general election.
Ergo, look for two vastly different Trump campaigns. We will see how he handles the sharp contradictions between the Republican primaries and the general election.
In the course of decades on the campaign trail, we faced the same type of dilemma repeatedly. We resolved it this way: tell the truth.
Case study: I had as a client a state senator who was running for governor. The opposition pointed out the differences between what my client was saying in his gubernatorial campaign and legislation he had voted for in the state senate.
My client´s senate district was far more conservative than the state as a whole, e.g., his district opposed the right to abortion whereas the state as a whole favored it. What to do?
In a televised debate we counter-punched: so glad you brought up this very important point. We pointed out that in a democracy, an elected official is supposed to represent his constituency. Therefore, if a politician changes constituencies, the views the politician represents should also change -- otherwise, he isn´t doing his job. Indeed, in such circumstances not to change views is not to be democratic, i.e., to represent the new constituency.
The opposition never brought up the contradictions again. My client won the governorship.
4. If he is the Republican nominee, Trump will likely face Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The latest CNN poll results (August 18) put Clinton at 55%, Sanders at 19%. However, there is a big however: Vice President Biden could jump into the race. I suspect he is looking closely at Hillary´s numbers; if they are soft -- and they are -- Biden may throw his hat in the ring.
(i) The polling firm Public Policy Polling ran hypothetical match-ups of Hillary against 8 Republican candidates. In all of them she either loses or the race is close.
Hillary´s basic problem is her 40%+ base vote will be difficult to enlarge. Here´s why:
Everybody knows who Hillary is. They either (i) like her or (ii) do not like her. George Bush Senior faced the same dynamic in his losing race against Clinton and Perot. There are techniques for overcoming that handicap; I do not see Hillary employing any of them.
I must note that the August CNN poll shows Hillary defeating all Republican rivals; however, it also shows Trump pulling to within six points of her.
I believe Hillary is set to crash. She is a priest without faith, a doctor without intuition. Her idea of a political commitment is a cocktail party. To date, she is running the same paint-by-the-numbers campaign that cost her the Democratic nomination in 2008. Such candidates are on rails; they can move only straight ahead or backward, never side-to-side. A switch pulled unexpectedly, a well-placed obstacle on the tracks, and they are irredeemably derailed.
I am being deliberately vague about how to defeat Hillary for the same reason I am vague about how to defeat Trump:
I repeat our long-standing policy. This blog does not give advice; it offers opinion. The line between them is not always clear. Please keep in mind three considerations:
"An opinion may consist of advice which is (i) deliberately offered too late to be actionable; (ii) knowingly impossible to implement due to circumstances prevailing at the moment; and/or (iii) offered with the foreknowledge that the simple fact of its publication will render its practical value null and void."
For this post, condition (iii) applies. Clear and present hints about how to beat Trump and Hillary are in front of you. If you do not see them, you have no business being in electoral politics. On the other hand, if you are working for Trump or Hillary and can see them, so can the other side, hence their value is voided.
Unless, wafted to and fro, someone is inattentive.
Coming soon: Hillary Clinton: What "Is" Is.
*Volume 2, Part III, Chapter 15.
**The CNN poll report states it was conducted among "283 registered voters who describe themselves as Republicans and 183 who describe themselves as Independents who lean Republican -- for a total of 466 Republicans." Sorry, CNN, your methodology is unacceptable. You did not sample the right population. I speak from over 20 years experience conducting political polls.
First, you are obviously asking people on the phone if they are registered to vote. In reality, they may or may not be registered. Second, they "describe themselves" as Republicans; again, they may or may not be in fact Republicans. Third, in many states Independents cannot vote in party primary elections; hence, your 183 self-declared Independents are not fully eligible to vote in the upcoming Republican Primary. For a list of closed primary states, i.e., those in which only registered Republicans can vote, click here; New York and Florida are among them. Fourth, there exist open primary states, e.g., Texas and Ohio, in which Democrats can vote in the Republican primary (and vice-versa); your sample excludes Democrats. Fifth and finally, adding up the poll´s vote for the 17 Republican candidates, the total comes to 63%. Your category of undecideds is way too high, even at this early stage. What went wrong: your sample included many nonvoters. It stands to reason they are "undecided"; they could care less. Nonvoters + ineligible Independents - eligible Democrats = contaminated sample.
How to sample the right population for the upcoming GOP primary:
CNN, you need to interview only people who voted in prior Republican primary elections. Their names are on the 2012 rosters that voters signed at their precinct before voting. The rosters are accessible public information and are retained by the Secretary of State and/or state archives.
Primary voters are a special group indeed: older, with longer residency than the general population, etc. That is why polls using telephone books are generally less accurate for predicting primary elections than general elections. Among other things, you will need to weight your results to include younger voters who were not of age in 2012.
Side bar: because the voter roster technique screens out nonvoters, the "undecided" category shrinks dramatically.
To meticulously draw a sample from voter rosters involves a lot more work than randomly dialing telephone numbers, which means less profit for pollsters. To my knowledge my polling firm was the only one in the world to use the voter roster technique.
The consistently better results made the extra time, effort and aggravation worthwhile. (i) All our results were well within a plus-or-minus 2.7% margin. (ii) "Too close to call" races were quantitatively defined as within 3,000 votes. (iii) We never made a bad call.