Why I Missed Donald Trump’s Rise

When Donald Trump first announced his candidacy, I remarked that he would pass and fall out of the race relatively quickly.  The basis of my argument was that Trump’s net favorability numbers were too low to be able to sustain a primary campaign, his place in the polls was largely due to name recognition, and that the base of his supporters was too low in the primary to be able to win multiple primaries.  I ultimately concluded that the most likely outcome for his campaign was Herman Cain.  Obviously, that was wrong.  Instead of just saying that was then, this is now, I want to look at why I was wrong and if it would provide any meaningful learning opportunities for me going forward.

Net favorability argument

This was the standard argument that was brought forward against Trump.  Looking at Trump’s favorability numbers, he looked like a general election candidate going up against the electorate as a whole compared to a primary with just members of his party.  Most contenders for the presidential nomination had favorability numbers of (+20-+30) while Trump’s numbers ranged from a low negative to a low positive (-5 – +10).  This included the early states as well as the national polls.  There had not been a major party candidate who was able to survive with these numbers in the modern primary system (1972).  Because there was a lack of historical precedent, it was easy to dismiss Trump’s ability to overcome this and be able to win any primaries, much less be the favorite for the nomination.

The argument has turned out to be wrong for a couple of reasons.  The argument assumed that the field would be winnowed relatively shortly as the voting began.  This would lower the ceiling on any candidate with this low of favorability numbers.  This did not happen as quickly as originally thought.  While Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee dropped out after Iowa, this did not make much of a difference.  Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson sticking around for longer than they should have also helped Donald Trump win with a lower percentage of the vote than previous candidates.  Although, not by much.  With Super PACs and megadonors essentially being able to financially support a candidate as far as they could go, we could have assumed that the field would not winnow as quickly as we originally thought.

The stronger argument as to why the net favorability wasn’t enough to sink Donald Trump is the one that has been taken up by Harry Enten and his colleagues at Five Thirty Eight.  The argument is that his supporters may be relatively few in number but they support him no matter what.  This plays off of the idea of the field not winnowing.  As the field continued to be large, Trump supporters while small in absolute numbers almost all would end up supporting him.  The vast majority of voters who held a favorable opinion of Trump wound up voting for him.  This is at odds with what usually happens in primaries but not totally unpredictable.    In general elections, almost all of the people who have favorable views of one candidate will end up voting for him or her.

The base of supporters

I did underestimate the level of support for Donald Trump.  I assumed based on the polling information at the time, which showed Donald Trump was mainly picking up supporters from the TEA Party.  I estimated that the TEA Party supporters are about 15-20% of the Republican primary electorate nationally.  I had difficulty believing that Trump would be able to build a successful coalition out of the TEA Party because most other factions of the Republican base had at least one candidate who they could support.  In looking at the South Carolina exit polls and the New Hampshire exit polls, we can begin to see how Trump was able to build a coalition to succeed.

Despite his comments on women in the past and Megyn Kelly’s need to bring it up for debates, Trump does not have that large of a gender gap for support.  While he does slightly better with males than females, an image of him reaching out to just males is incorrect.  Although, once you get to income, he is able to separate himself.  In New Hampshire, he was able to get 40% of the vote of those making less than $50k/year.  The next highest was Ted Cruz at 13%.  In South Carolina, it wasn’t much different as he was able to get 33% of the vote for those making less than $50k compared to Cruz at 27%.  In South Carolina, at $50k-$99k, he was at 34% of the vote compared to Cruz at 26% of the vote.  Finally, for those voters making more than $100K per year, Trump was tied for Rubio with the lead at 28% of the vote and his vote share significantly decreased to 32% of the vote in New Hampshire with those making more than $100k per year.

In both South Carolina and New Hampshire, Trump significantly overperformed with voters who were not college graduates.  As education levels increased, Trump’s support decreased.  This should not be surprising as we also see the same thing with regards to income level.  Trump’s messages about the economy, about immigration, about just about everything appeals to those with less education and who are making less.  Immigration and trade deals are more likely to affect workers who make less or who are in less specialized fields.

Unfortunately, the next set of data does not help us determine the coalition that Trump has built.  In New Hampshire, Trump’s best marks were with non-born again or non-evangelical Christians, as he was able to garner 38% of their vote.  In South Carolina, however, he did much better with evangelical Christians/born-again Christians.  He got 34% of the vote of them compared to 29% of the votes of non-born-again Christians.

For the issue that mattered most, it should come as no surprise that Trump did the best with those who thought that immigration was the issue that matters most.  Although this only represented 10-15% of the total voters voting in either primary, Trump was able to receive over 50% of their votes.  Trump’s next best category was the economy, in which, Trump received over a third of the votes.  For terrorism, he was able to get about 30% of the votes.   His weakest category for South Carolina was government spending as he only received 25% of the vote.

In case someone accused me of not writing enough on exit polls, we can look at how Republicans in these states think about immigration.  44% of South Carolina voters think that illegal immigrants should be deported.  47% of those voted for Donald Trump.  In New Hampshire, 41% of the voters think that they should be deported and 51% of those voters went for Trump.  Perhaps more importantly, 65% of New Hampshire voters think that there should be a temporary ban on Muslims entering America.  45% of these voters voted for Trump.  74% of South Carolina voters think that there should be a ban on Muslims entering America.  41% of these supporters selected Donald Trump.

Basically, Trump’s coalition among Republicans is made up of those who are not well-educated, not making that much money, and is generally skeptical about immigration specifically illegal immigration and immigration by Muslims.  How much of the primary electorate is that?  Probably about 30-40% if South Carolina and New Hampshire is representative, at all.

What we learned

I don’t think Trump is necessarily relevant for learning material going forward.  Trump’s name recognition and his bullying are almost once in a lifetime talents (if you want to call them that).  Combined with a sentiment from primary voters that the next nominee should be outside of politics is providing Trump with a perfect storm to be able to win the nomination.  Finally, the San Bernardino shootings and the call for no refugees immigrating to the United States continued to help Donald Trump.  If there is one thing Trump likes to exude and one thing he values most, it is strength.

Trump had a fair share of luck to help him get here, including a large field to run against, but most of what he has been able to accomplish has been because of a fairly brilliant campaign.  He knows when to push back and when to bully.  He’s managed to have enough self-control to not lash out every time he gets attacked so as not to appear irrational.  His one mistake was skipping the Iowa debate but even then, he showed that he was willing to stick to his guns and follow through.

It’s been foolish to bet against Trump since he declared and I keep doing it proving myself to be an insane fool.  A brokered convention seems itself so unlikely that it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Trump is not the nominee at this point.

Edit: Ted Cruz has become the only candidate who could force more than one ballot at the Republican National Convention.  Nate Silver correctly noted that Donald Trump is unlikely to be the nominee if It is after one ballot.  This post was written prior to Super Tuesday.