In August, I noted that Republicans were “starting to get seriously nervous about their Trump problem, without fully understanding the nature of the problem, or its severity.” Donald Trump, at that point, was the frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination, and had been for much of the summer. Many on the right were clearly inclined to disavow him—historically, Trump has not been a Republican, much less a conservative—and to dismiss his popularity as a mirage, a sort of sinister summer fling on the part of a cynical electorate with an appetite for political theater.
Now here we are in November, barely two months away from the Iowa caucuses, which will be held on February 1. Trump remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination; his lead has actually grown since I wrote that ominous post in August. At this point, Americans on both sides of the aisle are starting to get nervous about Trump’s apparently durable popularity. “‘We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job,’’ as one Republican strategist told the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa earlier this month. And as he continued, Americans can’t take much comfort in the fact that a major party’s suboptimal presidential nominee will inevitably mitigated by the candidate chosen by the other: “What if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”
At the same time it remains the case that many Americans are failing to fully grapple with the Trump problem. Those who would like to see Trump’s popularity as a mirage have been forced to retool their arguments. The “summer fling” theory is no longer tenable. A new hypothesis has emerged in its place: the polls are wrong.
Exhibit A comes from the New Yorker’s November 16 issue, which contains one of those amazingly long essays for which the magazine is rightly famous—a historically well-sourced and analytically compelling piece of reporting from Jill LePore on the role of polls in American politics, which concludes that contemporaneous polling is unreliable, and vaguely pernicious:
The modern public-opinion poll has been around since the Great Depression, when the response rate—the number of people who take a survey as a percentage of those who were asked—was more than ninety. The participation rate—the number of people who take a survey as a percentage of the population—is far lower. Election pollsters sample only a minuscule portion of the electorate, not uncommonly something on the order of a couple of thousand people out of the more than two hundred million Americans who are eligible to vote. The promise of this work is that the sample is exquisitely representative. But the lower the response rate the harder and more expensive it becomes to realize that promise…Meanwhile, polls are wielding greater influence over American elections than ever.
Exhibit B comes from Nate Silver, the founder and editor of FiveThirtyEight, who published an open letter yesterday—“Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls”—in which he argues, based on his expertise as a statistician, that today’s polls are snapshots of an electorate that has yet to begin voting, and which may be swayed by intervening events:
…As is always a problem in analysis of presidential campaigns, we don’t have all that many data points, so unprecedented events can occur with some regularity. For my money, that adds up to Trump’s chances being higher than 0 but (considerably) less than 20 percent. Your mileage may vary. But you probably shouldn’t rely solely on the polls to make your case; it’s still too soon for that.
I would encourage you to read both of the aforementioned pieces, which are well-informed and well-argued. At the same time, I continue to think that the Trump problem is real, and I can’t second Silver’s call for calm, for three reasons.
First: Regardless of how reliable any of these individual polls are, these are the only polls available, and for months now, they’ve shown Trump as the frontrunner. Silver is correct to say that their predictive value may be affected by unanticipated events, but since those events are unanticipated we have no reason to revise our expectations in anticipation of them.
Second: People are second-guessing the polls because they can’t get their heads around the idea that Trump could be the Republican nominee. I’m sympathetic to that intuition, because I agree that the prospect is gruesome; Trump is an abhorrent individual who is in no way equipped to lead a canned-food drive, much less the free world. But the grim reality is that many Republicans don’t see it that way. In August, I passed along Greg Gutfeld’s warning for Republicans who felt that Trump had crossed some imaginary line with his comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly: “Again, once you’re okay with the McCain joke, there are no limits up or down.” Trump’s supporters applauded him for sneering at a prisoner of war; on what basis would we expect such people to recoil at his plan to put American mosques under government surveillance?
And if you look at the RealClearPolitics polling averages—setting aside Trump—the results for the other candidates “make sense,” more or less. Ben Carson surged this autumn, on the basis of his appealing personal story and temperament, only to see his support coming down after his surge in the polls elicited a corresponding surge in media scrutiny, which exposed a troubling, Sarah Palin-esque tendency to vacuity. The other candidates with notable trendlines are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both of whom are a cut above most of the candidates running and are campaigning accordingly.
And third: As I wrote in August, Trump’s defeat would only mean the end of America’s proximate problem. The underlying problem is that one of our two major parties is so receptive to someone so hateful, toxic, divisive and belligerent; Trump is only a symptom of that problem.
The good news, though, is that the proximate problem does have a proximate solution. I’ll save that for tomorrow, in anticipation of the holiday weekend.