It’s tempting to get mad at the national media for either A. Giving Donald Trump too much attention, or B. Discounting his chances at winning. If I were to pick one, for me it would be A. I suspected he had no chance, and for reasons I will show you I think the data bears that out.
The national media, as tough as it might be to offer, deserves a little slack. While the chattering class might be faulted for how it covers Trump, it can’t legitimately ignore someone who is leading a 17-person field aiming for the most powerful position in the world.
My sense from the beginning was that Trump’s popularity has a peak that settles somewhere south, way south, of 50 percent of the Republican Party. That by itself isn’t a problem. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for example, might only have 5 percent support. Trump wins, right?
Not necessarily. The bigger issue for Trump, assuming he really does want to do anything besides boost his brand, is that those who feel negative about him represent more than 50 percent of the Republican Party. Kasich might only have something around 5 percent support, but that’s among 17 candidates. If you put Kasich, or Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker, or Jeb Bush one-on-one against Trump, the Donald gets crushed every time.
The way to illustrate this is by mapping out a ranked-choice election process. Ranked-choice is where a voter gets to pick a candidate in order of priority. After one round, the candidate with the least number of votes is removed. If that’s your candidate, your vote goes to the candidate who was your second choice. You keep removing the candidate with the lowest number of votes until you get someone who has more than 50 percent.
I mapped out that kind of process using an adjusted version of a Rasmussen Poll. I took the undecided voters and assigned them to the candidates proportionately. With George Pataki getting zero percent, no one picks anything up when he gets eliminated. When former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was removed, I divided his 1 percent among the seven other candidates who had been governor. When Santorum exited I split his 1 percent between Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, a Christian split. Lindsay Graham’s votes went to senators, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal to governors, Mike Huckabee to governors and Carson, Rand Paul to a split of three candidates, etc. I was guessing the whole way, so there is no way this example is based in too much fact.
But don’t interpret that to mean that I’m underestimating Trump. I felt fine in only adding votes for Trump when two other never-been-elected candidates, Carly Fiorina and Carson, were removed and in the last round. I figured Trump might get votes from people who don’t want to vote for another Bush. In the end I think I was far too generous to think that Trump could get 40 percent of the Republican Party vote.
Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight makes this same point, probably and not surprisingly, better than I do.
“I’ve seen a lot written about how Trump’s candidacy heralds a new type of populism. If it does, this type of populism isn’t actually very popular. Trump’s overall favorability ratings are miserable, about 30 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable, and they haven’t improved (whatever gains he’s made among Republicans have been offset by his declines among independents and Democrats). To some extent, the 30 percent may like Trump precisely because they know the 60 percent don’t like him. More power to the 30 percent: I have plenty of my own issues with the political establishment. But running a campaign that caters to (for lack of a better term) contrarians is exactly how you ensure that you’ll never reach a majority.“
It’s those high numbers of people who don’t like Trump that make me think he would lose in a one-on-one against almost all 16 of the other candidates.
Silver is making a similar case on the Democratic side, that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders might have seen his peak. But it’s for different reasons. Sanders saw a surge in his poll numbers as people got to know him. Now that everybody knows who he is, you can expect the momentum for him slow to what Silver calls a “slog.”
Unlike Trump, though, Sanders doesn’t have high unfavorability numbers within the party. This means a lot of Democrats won’t vote for him, but they still like him. If he was the only choice they wouldn’t have to hold their noses when they voted. Trump can’t say the same thing.
Silver contends Sanders could win a couple of states. It’s more likely those would be caucus states, where the candidate decision is made by the most passionate within each party. In 2008 Barack Obama did enjoy a small margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in the national popular vote, but where he really sealed up his delegates was in caucus states.
Sanders could win in Washington. Based on the crowds, even with the interruption, he has lots of support here. In 2008 Obama received 68 percent of the caucus vote to Clinton’s 31 percent. Ten days later he won the primary by three percentage points.