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Eye On Candidates
August 31, 2015

Can Trump Win the Republican Nomination?

The question of whether businessman Donald Trump might actually win the Republican nomination seems to be getting asked more often. The biggest reason for the increased attention to Trump’s campaign is obviously his polling numbers, and just this weekend The Des Moines Register released a new poll showing him maintaining a lead in the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state:

Iowa Poll: Trump blazes to lead; Carson quietly rises

A new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll finds that Trump, the flamboyant real estate entrepreneur, has 23 percent support here….

In the last Iowa Poll, in May, Trump had the highest unfavorable rating of all the Republicans, back when he was tied for ninth place with 4 percent. Trump has almost completely reversed his rating. Then, 27 percent had positive feelings about him and 63 percent negative. Now, it's 61 percent positive, 35 percent negative….

Poll respondents might not know many specifics about Trump's positions, but they don't really care. The majority of likely Republican caucusgoers say they're willing to put trust in their top candidate to figure out the issues once in office (57 percent).

Among Trump supporters, the feeling is even more widespread (65 percent).

The Iowa Poll also showed retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson in second with 18 percent of those polled saying they supported his campaign, while all other candidates were in single digits, led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 8 percent, and the Floridians with 6 percent each, former Gov. Jeb Bush and current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Trump’s continued dominance of the polls has led to some serious reconsideration among political analysts and pundits over what was once seen as a long-shot, vanity candidacy. One of the earliest to significantly upgrade Trump’s chances was political observer Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post in a blog post at the end of July. In his estimation at the time, Trump had the fourth-best chance of all the announced candidates to win the GOP nomination:

  1. Donald Trump: Yes, as of right now, Donald J. Trump is the fourth likeliest Republican to be the party's nominee.  I can't really believe it either. But Trump's poll numbers have not only risen rapidly but showed some level of durability, and every Republican strategist I talked to put him in the top four -- and many ranked him as high as two or three.  I still don't know if Trump can sustain his appeal with voters but as of today, it is what it is. (And, yes, I hate that phrase.)

Cillizza’s assessment put Trump behind Bush, Rubio and Walker.

More recently, veteran political activist and former Reagan administration official Donald Devine wrote in the The American Conservative that Trump has tapped into a voting bloc that may be able to propel him to the nomination:

As the late great political scientist Aaron Wildavsky taught us years ago there are four fundamental political types: egalitarians, individualists, social conservatives, and—the ones we forget about—what he called “fatalists.”

We tend to forget the fatalists because they tend not to vote. They view the world as foreign, chaotic, ephemeral, dangerous, on the edge of falling into bedlam. He used the analogy that their world is like a marble rolling unsteadily on a glass surface, rolling and pitching who knows where. Government has some control but is run by an untouchable, all-powerful elite acting in its own interest. Such a world can only be tamed by something enormously powerful and masterful, and only during a crisis. Then a strong central government supported by angry, patriotic nationalists and led by a popular Napoleon on his white horse can arrest the anarchy. Trump’s autobiography is titled Think Big and Kick Ass….

Pollster Frank Luntz came reeling out of one of his distinctive focus groups the other day crying “my legs are shaking” from seeing the depth of commitment of the Trump supporters he interviewed at the session. “I want to put the Republican leadership behind this mirror and let them see. They need to wake up. They don’t realize how the grassroots have abandoned them. Donald Trump is punishment to a Republican elite that wasn’t listening to their grassroots.” He even showed the audience unflattering images of and statements by Trump meant to turn them off. It did not work. At the end they were more committed than at the beginning….

If Trump wins Iowa and New Hampshire, it is difficult to see any opponent who could rally South Carolina two weeks later, or Nevada. Then on March 1 a half-dozen Southern states with many fatalists (remember Huey Long) will split the opponent’s ranks further. On March 15 Bush could be ousted by Marco Rubio in Florida, with John Kasich winning by a smaller than expected margin in Ohio. Trump could win by losing, saying they were only favorite sons. No one would be left anyway. If he wins either state, it is all over.

So what was impossible a few weeks ago now becomes a real possibility.

One of the key questions regarding Trump’s possible path to the nomination becomes the mechanics of the process, which include the order of the caucuses and primaries, rules on who can vote in them, and perhaps most crucially how delegates are awarded. Sandy Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas who writes at the Balkinization blog, explains the mechanics of how Trump could win the GOP nomination or at least go to the Republican convention with more delegates than any other candidate:

Could Donald Trump win the Republican presidential nomination?

The quick and dirty answer to the question is yes.  And the reason has to do with the formal rules adopted by the Republican Party with regard to the allocation of delegates to the 2016 Convention, to be held in Cleveland in June.  Four states are allowed to have their primaries in February--Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Nevada--and then the scramble begins.  A whole bunch of states will have their primaries before March 15.  AND THE RULES REQUIRE THAT ALL OF THESE STATES OPERATE ON THE BASIS OF PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION (as is true for the first four states).  Then things get interesting, for it is up to the states themselves to decide whether delegates will be allocated by proportional representation or winner take all.  The current calendar for the Republican primaries indicates that the following states will be holding their primaries after March 15:  Arizona, Utah, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Indiana, Nebraska, West Virginia, Oregon, California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, and DC.  Apparently dates are not yet firmed up for New York, North Dakota, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Washington, and Wyoming.  Game theory suggests that there will be advantages to coming late precisely because it looks almost certain that there will be at least five or six candidates still duking it out by the Spring….

So it becomes crucial whether states chose to run proportional representation or winner-take-all votes….  The key to winner-take-all, obviously but crucially, is that all that Trump has to do is come in first, and it doesn't matter what his actual percentage is.  If he gets 30% of the vote in California, which traditionally does winner-take-all […] he gets 100% of the 172 delegates, unless the three "party leaders" are entitled to vote independently.  New York could give 95 delegates to their "favorite son" (assuming they reject Pataki!), while Pennsylvania could also contribute another 71 delegates.

I am assuming that Trump could not possibly win a two-candidate race within the Republican Party, and perhaps he couldn't even prevail in a three-candidate showdown.  But, at least right now, it seems far more likely to be seven or eight (Jeb!, Kasich, Walker, Paul, Carson (!), Cruz, Rubio,  perhaps even Fiorina), and Trump seems to be a good bet to come in first unless one of the others unpredictably catches fire.  So under this scenario, he arrives in Cleveland with a hefty lead over the second-place candidate. 

At his announcement, Trump was largely relegated to the bottom of the candidate pool by many leading political pundits. At this point, he has managed to climb all the way into the top tier of candidates and has a realistic, if still difficult, chance to win the Republican nomination in 2016.