I don't believe Donald Trump is really running for President. Even before The Donald decided to slam John McCain as "not a war hero" because he "got captured" (as if Trump, who did not serve, would ever have been trusted with a plane), it hasn't looked like a real campaign. I'm not convinced that Trump will ever consent to a real FEC disclosure filing, and I don't believe he will ever expose his ego to the risk of public defeat at the ballot box. Trump will only stay in if he finds some built-in excuse for losing, like running as a third-party spoiler. Actually being the Republican nominee would mean facing a fear that Trump has built his life around not facing: losing a contest in public. But the fact that Trump has briefly led (!) in the Republican polls tells us something about the rest of the Republican primary field.
1. WTF, Jeb? Trump's early (and probably brief) success as a novelty candidate can largely be chalked up to name recognition. It's July 2015, and most voters have no idea who's running. The campaign is meant to tell them who those other guys are. So a lot of Trump's poll numbers are about the fact that he's on TV and people recognize his name.
But what is Jeb Bush's excuse? I think people are pretty clear who the Bushes are. Jeb(!) could only have better name recognition if he changed his last name to Lincoln, or maybe Bartlett. Based on name recognition, Bush should start out with a big early lead. But that is not happening. People who basically only know who Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have been splitting their votes between them. That cannot be good for Jeb Bush.
2. There is no front runner. Trump has been the "front-runner" in some polls, but he hasn't even hit 20% of any poll. No one has. Nobody ever gets more than 15% or 18%. So in reality, no one is the front runner, and no one has been.
Now, somewhere between 15 and 17 Republican candidates means that the vote gets split up a lot of ways. 16 candidates means an average support level of 6.25% apiece, leaving out "Undecided" and "Don't Know." But votes don't usually split evenly. You could have a candidate with 25% or 30%, another two or three polling between 10% and 15%, and a peloton of backup riders polling in the low single digits. You could have a front-runner with 30%, a main rival with 25%, and a bunch of others polling around 2% or 3% apiece. Instead, the vote-share distribution is looking pretty flat.
Undecided is your Republican front runner right now. Undecided in the lead, Don't Know in second, and Maybe That Guy, You Know the One, in the third.
3. The Size of the Field Helps Keep the Field Large
At this point, the fact that the GOP field is so large, and the differences in polling relatively flat, actually keeps the field large. If it were a field of 6 with two predominant front-runners, candidates #5 and #6 would have to ask themselves what they thought they were doing. More importantly, donors would start asking candidates #5 and #6 what they thought they were doing, and stop paying for them to do it.
But none of that happens when you're candidate #11 of 16 and nobody has even 20% of the vote. You can always tell yourself that all you need is one or two strong showings, or one or two strong debate performances, to launch yourself into the top tier. After all, there isn't a settled top tier yet. The top of the field is totally undefined, so you can tell yourself you have a puncher's chance of fighting your way in.
Nobody so far is ever more than ten or fifteen points behind the leader. That's enough to keep you from winning, but not enough to keep you from trying. And, while no one has more than 15% or 18% of the voters, there's an incentive to stay in as long as you can. If you outlast enough other candidates, you have a chance of picking up their supporters, and picking up most of the votes from two of the others, or maybe even from one of the others, could put you neck and neck with Jeb Bush. But if you drop out early, your votes will go to other people. No one else running for President expects Trump to be around by South Carolina, and Trump's voters have to go to somebody. Why leave the dance before you've had a chance to pick up the early departers' dates?
And remember, some of the candidates, likely including Trump, don't genuinely expect to win and aren't trying to. They're staying in the race to raise their profiles for other reasons. If they were the distantly trailing 6th candidate of 6, that would quickly stop being worth their time. But if there's still a massive field without any clear front runner, the sheer number of other candidates provide cover for the opportunists who are just hanging around so they can be in the debates.
So while what benefits the Republican Party most would be a primary that quickly boils down to a few serious candidates with major support, the actual Republican primary candidates are being incentivized to stay in as long as possible, keeping the field large and chaotic. That's not good for the Republican Party at all. But that's how it will be until one or two clear leaders emerge from the pack.
cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog