Underestimating Donald Trump—Again

Virtually every pundit, pollster and journalist—including the Observer—failed in assessing the Trump Train in the primary. Are we making the same mistake all over again in the general?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a rally at Macomb Community College on March 4, 2016 in Warren, Michigan.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a rally at Macomb Community College on March 4, 2016 in Warren, Michigan.

A trio of political data experts empaneled by FiveThirtyEight for a podcast earlier this month estimated Trump’s chances of snagging the nomination at 2%, 0% and minus-10%, respectively. “If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong,” Larry Sabato, head of the center for politics at the University of Virginia, wrote last week. … [T]he smart money is stacked against Trump—stacked as tall as one of his awesome towers.—Tom McCarthy, The Guardian, August 22, 2015

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Fifty years from now, political scientists will still be analyzing the improbable victory of businessman, raconteur, and reality talk show host Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican Presidential Primary. The two central questions: How did so many pundits, pollsters, politicians, and opposing candidates consistently underestimate this sometimes rude and often raucous casino billionaire? And how come so many, having been confident about the impossibility of Mr. Trump winning the nomination, are now equally confident that he cannot win the general election?

Mr. Trump heads into a General Election still viewed as a joke, a freak show, and a heavy underdog—a 2st-century Goldwater lamb to be devoured by a Clinton lion. Yet many still wonder—with emotions that range from the suicidal to populist rapture—can Trump’s lightning in a champagne bottle really strike twice?

To answer that question, let’s first review the Eight Fatal Miscalculations of the Trump Deniers in the Primary Election.

#1: Trump’s Celebrity Won’t Translate Into Votes

“[People] have seen Donald Trump on TV. That doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for him.”—Pollster Andy Smith, Politico, June 24, 2015

Trump’s power is not name ID. He didn’t make his name in this cycle or the last. He’s been around 35 years. He’s made an impression.—Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2015

Many pollsters initially dismissed Mr. Trump’s high name identification as a currency that could not be converted into political support. Paradoxically, many of the same pollsters had Jeb Bush as the presumptive frontrunner precisely because of his well-established brand.

President Reagan won in 1980 not by the popular vote in November but rather from the years Reagan spent making a Noonan-style “impression” on loyal fans of his family-friendly movies and comforting commercial pitches followed by eight years as a highly successful governor of the nation’s largest state and a presidential campaign just four years earlier, one that nearly toppled a sitting president of his own party. Mr. Trump’s high-flying business ventures and low-brow reality TV adventures are hardly the warm and fuzzy impression of the avuncular Reagan. But in these tweeting times, Trump easily converted his popular appeal into political cache precisely because of his well-defined “tough guy” persona.

Meanwhile, Jeb and the well-known Bush brand suffered from the fatal tarnish among GOP primary voters of both Bush 41 (“no new taxes”) and 43, who plunged the nation into expensive, failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without making America more secure in the process. That the wonkish Jeb was horrible on the stump only sealed his fate.

#2: Trump Is a Joke Not Worth Attacking

An official with Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, said that when they started collecting video libraries on prospective [opponents] in March 2015, Trump “didn’t even come up in the vetting because everyone thought it was a joke.”—Sam Stein, Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

As if performing in a Molière farce, Trump’s opponents initially saw him as a fringe player, left this “joke” alone, and mercilessly attacked each other. Once Trump emerged as the frontrunner, he counter-attacked so ferociously no candidate dared touch him for fear of receiving the same kind of knockout insults Trump summarily dealt to “get an IQ test” Rick Perry, “low energy” Jeb, and the “idiot stiff” Lindsey Graham.

When it was too late, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Establishment Republican pinch hitter Mitt Romney made a coordinated run at Trump that wound up backfiring—particularly for “Little Marco,” who fell in spectacular Icarus fashion.

#3: Trump’s Mouth Will Eventually Shoot Him In the Head

His proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. might just be the craziest yet.—Nick Gass, Politico, December 7, 2015

One of the biggest reasons the mainstream media kept discounting Mr. Trump during the primary is because of a steady stream of seemingly “crazy” remarks that would spew like hot, molten lava from his unscripted lips. From “bombing the shit” out of terrorists to stopping “rapist” immigrants, never in history has a presidential candidate been able get away with the kind of incendiary rhetoric that Mr. Trump regularly engaged in during the primary.

As it would turn out, much of Mr. Trump’s verbal abuse hit the bullseye for a downtrodden Middle America hungry for change and fed up with political correctness. Exhibit A is Trump’s widely panned call to ban all Muslims from the U.S. “Crazy” as that sounded to America’s elites, polls would later show this was a position held by a supermajority of voters in key primary contests across America – over 70% in many Southern states.

#4: Trump’s Negatives Are Too High For Him to Win

Business mogul Donald Trump is a political enigma — not a politician, but not an unknown figure either, unlike other nonpoliticians seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Now that he has formally announced he’s running … here’s a look at the polling numbers that make Trump the Republican Party’s most disliked candidate. The numbers suggest Trump has slim chances of actually winning the Republican nomination. … [I]f a majority of your own party’s likely primary voters say they don’t like you and will never vote for you, it’s a bad sign. Trump may be in the debates, but don’t expect him to win.—Natalie Jackson, Senior Data Scientist, Huffington Post, June 17, 2015

How did so many pollsters and veteran political observers miss this? A candidate with unfavorable rating above 50% loves a crowd.

It was the gift that kept on giving as occasional victories or strong showings in isolated states by other candidates kept the anti-Trump vote comfortably divided. With Mr. Cruz’s victory in Iowa, Mr. Kasich’s second place-finish in New Hampshire, and Mr. Rubio’s surges in Nevada and South Carolina, all stuck around long enough so that no non-Trump candidate could coalesce the considerable anti-Trump sentiment.

When Super Tuesday rolled around and Mr. Cruz won Alaska, Oklahoma, and Texas, Mr. Rubio took Minnesota, and Mr. Kasich had strong showings in Vermont and Massachusetts, none of them was going anywhere, thereby keeping Mr. Trump’s plurality advantage in tact long enough for him to begin to emerge as the presumptive nominee.

Once Mr. Kasich took the delegates from a “winner take all” Ohio, the conventional wisdom was this would deprive Mr. Trump of the delegates needed to lock up the nomination before the convention. The smart money knew Mr. Kasich’s victory would keep him in the race and thereby continue to divvy up the electoral pie in a way that favored Mr. Trump – a perverse case of Trump winning by losing.

#5: Trump Is a One-Man (Freak) Show

Trump’s campaign employs a core team of about a dozen people; his campaign lists 94 people…Hillary Clinton has 765. Trump has no pollsters, media coaches, or speechwriters. He focus-groups nothing. He buys few ads, and when he does, he likes to write them himself. He also writes his own tweets…and it was his idea to adopt Ronald Reagan’s slogan “Make America Great Again!”—Gabriel Sherman, New York, April 3, 2016

Trump was heavily discounted by veteran campaign watchers for his failure to develop a strong grassroots campaign like Ted Cruz, an elaborate campaign bureaucracy like Hillary Clinton, and a coterie of marquee policy wonks to burnish his resume and give his campaign gravitas.

The lesson here: Never underestimate the political reach of a billionaire with a self-funded campaign, every key media contact on speed dial, his own personal helicopter, and a command post capable of reaching any point in America within hours – and tucking the candidate into bed at Trump Tower by midnight.

The story of how Trump’s 20-person “SEAL team,” “traveling show,” or bunch of amateurs – call this guerrilla force whatever you like – is one yet to be told, but this lean flying machine beat the hell out of every other candidate forced to sleep on the road, spend half their day on buses, hours on the phone begging for money, and hours more trolling for the cornucopia of media opportunities that regularly fell into Trump’s lap.

#6: Trump Can’t Win the Evangelical Vote—Jesus Freaks Don’t Care About Jobs

Recent surveys have found that Trump is a “huge loser” among Protestant pastors, and that evangelical leaders are solidly split on presidential picks. Reuters and others have found that church attendance distinctly decreases evangelical support for Trump, who has the least-religious supporters among the GOP candidates.—Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, Christianity Today, February 29, 2016

On the surface, a thrice-married, jet-setting billionaire with a penchant for expletives and a casual familiarity with the Scripture would seem a bad match for religiously-minded voters. Nevertheless, in Michigan, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and other contests, Trump handily won the majority of both Catholics and evangelicals. Something is clearly happening, but what?—Raymond Arroyo, Newsmax, March 25, 2016

This was the kind of giant miscalculation that had everyone from the Pope to Ted Cruz muttering to themselves. One religion professor, Stephen Prothero, tried to dismiss the phenomenon by vamping that “American evangelicals are not just that evangelical anymore.”

What the slicers and dicers of the pollster world failed to grasp, however, is that evangelicals care as much or more about jobs—Mr. Trump’s ace card—as they do about the right to life and school prayer. Perhaps most stunning from a New Testament perspective was a poll finding that “76 percent of Catholic Republicans support building a wall across the border, 61 percent support the Trump immigration plan—despite Pope Francis and the bishops insistence to welcome the immigrant.”

Mr. Trump’s victory in Evangelical-rich South Carolina, in particular, dashed any and all hopes that Ted Cruz was ever going to ride a Jesus wave to the White House.

#7: Conservative Thought Leaders Aligned Against Trump Will Keep Ordinary Republicans from Embracing Him

Trump beguiles us, defies the politically correct media, and bullies anyone who points out that the emperor has no clothes. None of that makes him a conservative who cherishes liberty.—David McIntosh, Club for Growth

Trump is an unbalanced force. He is the politicized American id. Should his election results match his polls, he would be, unquestionably, the worst thing to happen to the American common culture in my lifetime.—John Podhoretz, Editor, Commentary
Isn’t Trumpism a two-bit Caesarism of a kind that American conservatives have always disdained? Isn’t the task of conservatives today to stand athwart Trumpism, yelling Stop?—William Kristol, Editor, The Weekly Standard

Hell hath not fury like the High Priests of Conservatism scorned. Early on, it was a very long list heaping all manner of contempt on Mr. Trump.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a town hall meeting on March 14, 2016 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa , Florida.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a town hall meeting on March 14, 2016 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa , Florida.

This was a list that included most prominently the apoplectic editors of the Iron Triangle of the American Right—Commentary, National Review, and The Weekly Standard. There were also radio pundits like Glenn Beck, Dana Loesch, Mark Levin and Michael Medved and TV personalities like Charles Krauthammer, Frank Lutz, and Cal Thomas. Along with groups like the Club for Growth, they unanimously—and with increasing desperation—panned Mr. Trump as a blustery, bullying, faux conservative who should never win the hearts and minds of the conservative movement much less the Republican Party.

In the end, this Right Wing angst on steroids turned out to be more a case of some very smart people being in total denial than a credible prediction that Trump would fall to a true conservative like Ted Cruz. The deeper Trump went into the primary schedule, the more polls showed self-identified conservatives liked Mr. Trump a whole lot better than peanut brittle ideologues like Ted Cruz or conservative-lite candidates like Marco Rubio.

In the end, like evangelicals, self-identified conservatives in key states voted more their cultural revulsion against “push 1 for English,” their entirely legitimate pocketbook concerns and against a “nanny state” Big Government that looks down upon them than social issue dogma around topics like abortion and same-sex marriage.

The only remaining question now is: Where do these Trump Deniers go? Do they sit out the election in principle – or maybe even cast a protest vote for Hillary? Or will they hold their nose and vote for The Donald? Like Trump himself, that’s very much a work in progress.

#8: Trump Lost [Fill in the State] So He’s Done

The second-place [Iowa] finish should serve as a serious reality check for his campaign.—M.J. Lee, CNN Politics Reporter, February 7, 2016

Wisconsin Republicans sent the nation a clear message Tuesday night in the drubbing they dealt the bilious billionaire. … It has become clear that Trump is ultimately doomed.—Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, April 8, 2016

Seriously, how does Dana Milbank still have a job? Every time Mr. Trump lost a key contest, gleeful pundits scribbled his obituary. Any damn fool with an Internet connection and a cup of Starbucks could have seen, however, that the Republican Primary schedule was almost perfectly tailored for a Trump romp and rebound after any isolated loss. The schedule also offered just enough hope to just enough candidates for Trump to continue to splinter the anti-Trump vote.

The only real surprise for anyone who understood the electoral maps was Mr. Trump’s thrashing of Mr. Cruz in Indiana – which even Mr. Trump didn’t foresee and which suddenly handed the nomination to Trump on a Hoosier Daddy platter.

While Mr. Trump’s Indiana coup may well have driven by momentum, it also was catalyzed by a fatal strategic blunder by the “too clever by half” Ted Cruz and John Kasich. When they conspired in the press to manipulate the remaining primaries to engineer a brokered convention, that only further antagonized a large slice of a Republican base already thoroughly disgusted with machine politics and the folly of a perennial loser like Mitt Romney or a Washington careerist like Paul Ryan stealing the nomination from the will of the people.

These, then, were the Fatal Eight miscalculations of a political establishment that failed to see the mean, hungry, and angry pro-Trump scrawls on the wall. Even the Observer, which has come under Star Wars-like fire for presumably being in the tank for Trump on the basis of our publisher being married to Donald Trump’s daughter, missed the signs and coming seismic shift. Just consider this sage prognostication in said Observer from Lisa Schiffren in March of 2015 as the race began to unfold:

Because of such miscalculations, Donald J. Trump, the most improbable Republican nominee for president in the history of the republic, will now face off with Hillary Clinton in an election that, as with the Primary, few give him any chance to win.

In the Part Two of this series, we will take a close look at the latest conventional wisdoms driving the “Trump Will Fall” predictions. Will the mogul finally hit his Never Trump ceiling and meet his match in the Clinton dynasty? Or will the political establishment once again get it all so very wrong. Stay tuned.

Peter Navarro received his PhD in economics from Harvard University and is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. He is the director of the documentary film Death By China and author of Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books). www.crouchingtiger.net

Underestimating Donald Trump—Again