The latest spate of deliberately outrage-provoking statements by Donald Trump has led to yet another round of hand-wringing over the fact that Trump continues to draw a little over a quarter of all Republican voters, both nationally and in the key early-voting states. We are continually implored to ask ourselves what this says about the Republican Party, and why more of his opponents don't, on a daily basis, drop everything else they are doing to denounce each and every Trump statement individually instead of pushing their own message. Lost in all the hoopla over "Trump speaks for all Republicans because a quarter of them support him in opinion polls" is the fact that the openly Socialist candidate, Bernie Sanders, consistently draws a larger share of the vote in Democratic polls than Trump does in Republican polls.
The Socialist Democrat and The Hillary Donor "Republican"
Let's take a look at where the two of them stand in the RealClear Politics poll averages right now:
As you can see, Sanders polls above Trump both nationally and in Iowa, and way above Trump in New Hampshire, which as of now looks like the state where Trump is likeliest to do well. There are simply more Bernie Sanders fans among the Democrats - at least those responding to opinion polls - than Trump fans among the Republicans.
This is not a momentary phenomenon. While national polling is overrated, it's the metric everyone keeps using to tout Trump's popularity, so let's look at the RCP national averages. Sanders hit 20% in the national average on August 12, and has never dipped below it; he hit 25% on August 20, and has varied from 22.3% to 33.5% ever since. This runs roughly parallel to Trump, who hit 20% for the first time on August 1, and has never dropped below it, and hit 25% for the first time on August 30, varying from 22.8% to 30.5% ever since. Yet very little in the way of daily commentary focuses on hanging the things that Sanders believes around the necks of the Democratic Party, in whose House and Senate caucuses Sanders has sat for a quarter century. This despite the fact that, while the great majority of Trump's public statements consist of Trump popping off without thinking, Trump bragging about himself and his success, and Trump getting in personal feuds with people, almost everything Sanders says is a calculated political position reflecting longstanding views. (About the only two public issues on which Trump has a truly consistent public record are his hostility to free trade and his love for eminent domain).
Yes, Sanders Is That Nutty
One excuse given for why there are so many more efforts to hang Trump around Republican necks than Sanders is based on a whitewashing of Sanders' views, including the media shying away from using the word "socialist." But he is, in fact, a nutty extremist that Democrats should fear being associated with. To pick a few examples:
-Sanders once wrote a bizarre, rambling essay on the appeal of rape fantasies that began as follows:
A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees. A woman tied up. A woman abused.
A woman enjoys intercourse with her man—as she fantasizes about being raped by 3 men simultaneously.
-Sanders honeymooned in the USSR and, as Mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, conducted his own foreign policy supporting the Communist opponents of the United States; besides the Soviet Union, he paid official visits to the repressive Communist regimes of Nicaragua and Cuba, referring to Sandanista dictator Daniel Ortega as "heroic".
-Sanders' policy proposals would increase federal spending over the next decade by $18 trillion, according to a Wall Street Journal cost analysis, including a single-payer healthcare plan of the type that failed to pass even in Sanders' home state of Vermont just last year due to its exorbitant price tag, which would have required a 160% increase in state taxes. The best Sanders' defenders can say about this is to claim that the colossal increases in government spending would be offset by eliminating things the private sector is already doing. Well, yeah.
-Sanders has a history of pandering to anti-science GMO conspiracy theories, and proposing legislation imposing labeling requirements that have no basis in science.
-Sanders wants the government to dictate price controls on prescription drugs, a policy that would throttle investment in life-saving medicines.
-He's proposing to make all public colleges free, which would de facto nationalize the state university system, to say nothing of the expense.
-He's now begging off giving a speech laying out his foreign policy vision on the grounds that, after 24 years in Congress, it would take too long to think things through and write the speech.
Would Democrats disassociate themselves from Sanders if pressed? Probably not, when you consider President Obama's long association with Al Sharpton, the single most disreputable figure in American politics. But it would be clarifying if they were forced more often to answer for Sanders' craziness.
But Can Trump Win?
The other excuse given for the disparate treatment of Trump and Sanders, explicitly or implicitly, is that Sanders is more obviously a protest candidate with no real chance of winning the nomination, whereas Trump is often the frontrunner in the GOP polls. But that simply reflects that the Democratic field is thin (it has dropped from six candidates to three) and started off with a famous and lavishly funded frontrunner, whereas the GOP field is sprawling (14 candidates, down from 17, or 18 if you counted former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson) and without a dominant figure, allowing a protest candidate like Trump to hold a temporary lead. The focus on Trump continues to ignore the number of such frontrunners we've seen in the past - a Pew study, for example, found that Herman Cain got the most media attention in 2011 of any Republican candidate. Or try on this national poll of Democrats from December 17, 2003:
Not only was Howard Dean in first place with a double-digit poll lead, followed by a guy who had never held elected office and a guy who would be run out of the Democratic Party three years later, but eventual presidential nominee John Kerry was at 4% and runner up and VP nominee John Edwards was at 2%, both of them polling behind Al Sharpton. The poll averages were not quite that ridiculous in late 2003, but you get my point, and there are many other examples to choose from. This is why Nate Silver explains at some length today the historical data showing that voters are still not paying very close attention yet and many won't decide who to vote for - or whether to vote at alll - until much closer to the actual voting in February. And Trump's existing poll numbers do not really amount to that many people, and maybe fewer actual voters:
Right now, 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.) ...Trump will need to gain additional support to win the nomination. That might not be easy, since some Trump actions that appeal to a faction of the Republican electorate may alienate the rest of it. Trump’s favorability ratings are middling among Republicans (and awful among the broader electorate).
Trump will also have to get that 25 or 30 percent to go to the polls. For now, most surveys cover Republican-leaning adults or registered voters, rather than likely voters. Combine that with the poor response rates to polls and the fact that an increasing number of polls use nontraditional sampling methods, and 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.
Recall the terrible state of polling in recent elections, including the massive miss earlier this month in the Kentucky Governor's race, and you see why even Silver is warning "don't believe the polls." And as the field shrinks, Trump will face the same thing Sanders has been facing for months - a consolidating opposition capable of highlighting the reasons why he's a poor choice. I noted back in early September that Trump had yet to face a real negative ad campaign; he's weathered some of that since then, and while he has thus far proven a bit more resilient than I might have expected, he has also apparently stopped winning over new supporters, as he has never recovered his highs from mid-September in national, Iowa or New Hampshire polls.
In fact, the process of winnowing other candidates and consolidating support behind the credible opponents to Trump may be underway. New Hampshire is probably the best possible state for Trump, the worst for Ben Carson and a poor one for [mc_name name='Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)' chamber='senate' mcid='C001098' ] and [mc_name name='Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)' chamber='senate' mcid='R000595' ], given the nature of its lily-white, relatively less religious and less ideological electorate. There are some social conservatives in New Hampshire (Mike Huckabee won 11% of the vote in the 2008 primary) and a minority Tea Party faction (Ovide Lamontagne actually lost by just a point to [mc_name name='Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH)' chamber='senate' mcid='A000368' ] in the 2010 Senate primary, 38.2 to 37.0), but the NH GOP these days is mostly dominated by moderate/establishment Republicans (Scott Brown won the Senate 2014 primary by 27 points; in the 2012 presidential primary, Mitt Romney got 39% and Jon Huntsman got 17%) and, especially in the open presidential primary, there's also a big faction of heterodox anti-Establishment independents, the kind of voters who gave Pat Buchanan a strong second with 37.5% in 1992 and a win with 27% in 1996. But despite the unfavorable turf for Rubio and Cruz, most recent polls show everyone but Trump and Carson behind them in New Hampshire - here's what those polls look like if you black out the people trailing both Rubio and Cruz:
Most of those candidates cannot possibly afford to finish behind both Rubio and Cruz in New Hampshire and have a remotely credible theory for going forward. And many of the same people are behind both of them in Iowa, where the most recent poll corroborates some of the anecdotal reporting on the ground that Carson's support is starting to shift to Cruz:
Finishing behind either Cruz or Rubio in Iowa would be pretty close to fatal for Carson as well. What all of this means is, the two guys who are logically positioned to be the top two real contenders for the nomination are starting to make a move ahead of the rest, and that will make it much harder for Trump to go anywhere unless he can grow beyond a quarter of the electorate. Buchanan got 20.8% of the national GOP vote in 1996, and all it won him was 4 states. Recall this chart - since the start of modern primaries in 1976, nobody has won the Republican nomination with less than [mc_name name='Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)' chamber='senate' mcid='M000303' ] with 47.3% of the vote in 2008, or the Democratic nomination with less than Walter Mondale's 38.3% in 1984:
In the long run, it seems unlikely not only that Trump could win the nomination, but that he would exceed Jesse Jackson's 29.4% of the vote and 9 states won in 1988. If you view him as representing an underserved minority faction of the party, like Buchanan or Jackson, suddenly there's a lot less cause for shouting.
Enduring As A Factional Candidate
Is Trump really just another Buchanan? I'm still not convinced he would even stay in the race all the way to the end just to keep racking up 20-25% of the vote, although that depends if the field remains divided - it's possible that we could be headed towards a July convention in which no candidate has a majority, and in that case, a master negotiator holding even 10% of the delegates could make a lot of trouble:
But that raises the real question of who Trump's supporters really are. Part of his appeal is the fact that he casts himself as the guy who embodies "winning," and that tends by nature to fade if you start losing to other people, plus it may no longer be so much fun to stay in the race just to exert some influence on the platform or the ticket if you've spent your whole career being the top dog and the center of attention (unlike Buchanan, a career staffer/speechwriter/pundit, for whom representing a fifth of the party was a promotion).
And realistically, the ironic dilemma is that the core of Trump's support is really not Republicans at all - it's alienated voters of the type who customarily support third-party candidates. And that in many ways makes them not unlike some of the marginal voters flocking to Sanders.
Running A Third Party Campaign Inside The GOP Primaries
I have argued for some years now (backed to some extent by Sean Trende's data on "missing white voters" in 2012 - more on that another day) that the ideological sweet spot for a third party movement is not the Mike Bloomberg type but the Buchanan type: anti-immigration, anti-free-trade, relatively social conservative, nationalist, isolationist. But the real appeal of outside-the-system candidates like Trump has traditionally been less ideological than stylistic, and tends to break across a pro- and anti-elite axis.
The pro-elite third party insurgent of the Bloomberg type - think of the "No Labels" movement, or Tom Friedman columns, or almost anything you hear from billionaires and CEOs when they talk politics - tends to regard the problem of our politics as too much partisanship and ideology - that the two sides take their ideas too seriously and don't get together enough to solve problems. Some of this conceals the fact that the pro-elitists tend to have their own ideology, which is internationalist, pro-free-trade, for strong law enforcement, big government nanny-statism, and a social liberalism that is pro-abortion and anti-gun. But there's also a real preference for pragmatic compromise over partisan competition. The pro-elite faction gets a lot of press because they're overrepresented in DC and New York and journalism generally, but they are actually much the smaller of the two and the more inclined to settle for one of the two parties and vote anyway when put to the choice.
The anti-elitists, of which Sanders is the heir to Ralph Nader on the Left, are much more ideologically divided between the very Right and the Very Left, although they too tend to have in common economic and social nationalism, protectionism, and suspicion of big business, immigration and foreign entanglements. Anti-elitists on the Right and Left believe the problem is not that the two parties in Washington believe too much in their own ideas but that they believe them too little, that there's not too much partisanship but rather a rigged game in which partisan and ideological battles are for show, none of it really matters, and the well-connected always win anyway. Fans of both Trump and Sanders believe versions of this.
As a potential third-party candidate, Trump might have been dangerous because he's the first since Ross Perot to really synthesize the anti-elite critique with some pro-elite credentials: he's a New York billionaire who has long shared the pro-elitists' ideology on the size of government and social issues, but also a populist view on crime, immigration and - the most constant thing in his political statements back to the 80s - against foreign trade with Asia. He's the guy who uses his copious donations to both parties as an excuse to say "the system is rigged, of course you can buy politicians, I know because I have." Much moreso than Sanders, who is selling an extreme version of the Democratic product, Trump is selling a lot of things (trade fights with China, mass deportations) that neither party's leadership wants to offer.
That's why, on the whole, the GOP is better off for sucking him into the process - he's too far in now to bolt for a third party run (he'd have to comply with state filing deadlines and contest state "sore loser" laws) and not likely to drop out while he's drawing frontrunner status and big TV ratings. But at the end of the day, it's the nominee who appeals to the party's voters, and not a failed contender who appeals to people the party has often failed to speak for or to, who will be the face of the party - and this is especially so if it comes down to Rubio vs Cruz and Trump eventually gets bored with third place finishes and packs it in.
The Duty to Denounce
So what about Republicans having some sort of obligation to denounce Trump? Well, certainly I agree that Trump and his "ideas" are poison for the party (and this is true even if you think he performed a service by wounding Jeb and compelling a debate on immigration), and that helping accelerate the day when his endgame arrives is a thing some of the straggling campaigns should consider as they assess how long to stay in the race. I have a lot of respect for candidates like Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal who went hard after Trump's nativism and his clown show, and have at times been frustrated by Cruz's professions of disinterest in attacking Trump (although even Cruz openly criticized the idea, attributed to Trump*, of registries for all the nation's Muslims).
* - Trump has actually proposed no such thing, and I was inclined to think he was ambushed the first time he was asked this (the suggestion was by a reporter, not by Trump, and the main thing Trump has discussed is a database of refugees, which is not far from what ICE does anyway), but after a few cracks at the question, he was still unable to give a simple "no" to Clinton spox George Stephanopoulos on Sunday:
STEPHANOPOULOS: You did stir up a controversy with those comments over the database. Let’s try to clear that up.
Are you unequivocally now ruling out a database on all Muslims?
TRUMP: No, not at all. I want a database for the refugees that -- if they come into the country. We have no idea who these people are. When the Syrian refugees are going to start pouring into this country, we don’t know if they’re ISIS, we don’t know if it’s a Trojan horse.
And I definitely want a database and other checks and balances. We want to go with watchlists. We want to go with databases.
But ultimately, the way to stop Trump from being seen as the spokesman for the Republican Party is to defeat Trump head-to-head and keep him from gaining the party's nomination for public office. That will inevitably involve whoever ends up as his main contenders for the nomination in criticizing him, in whatever terms are best calculated to diminish his support with the primary voters. It may also involve running a lot of ads against him, as some critics are massing to do now. Trying to respond to each and every one of Trump's wild utterances only sucks you into his trap and takes them more seriously than they merit.
And then, as the general election arrives, the nominee can spend more time explaining his (or her) views without them being stepped on by Trump, and maybe even in a way that keeps some of Trump's saner supporters engaged with the GOP. This may not be the way the media wants things to proceed, but it's how successful political parties operate.
And when all is said and done, Bernie Sanders will still be in the Senate, speaking for an even larger chunk of the Democrats' base, and the Democrats will still have to deal with him.