Nate Silver has a fascinating column in the wake of the Iowa caucuses comparing the Donald Trump campaign to that of Pat Buchanan in the 1992 presidential election. As usual, he dives into the fine details of the polling and the caucus results to build the hypothesis that, like Buchanan, Trump’s appeal may be limited to a minority of angry voters and to virtually no one else.
Trump received 24 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, placing him closer to the third-place candidate, Marco Rubio (23 percent), than to the winner, Ted Cruz (28 percent). Trump underperformed his polls, which had him winning Iowa with 29 percent of the vote, while Cruz and Rubio outperformed theirs.
It’s not uncommon for the polls to be off in Iowa and other early-voting states, but the manner in which Trump underachieved is revealing. It turns out that few late-deciding voters went for him. According to entrance polls in Iowa, Trump won 39 percent of the vote among Iowans who decided on their candidate more than a month ago. But he took just 13 percent of voters who had decided in the last few days, with Rubio instead winning the plurality of those voters…
There may have been a more basic reason for Trump’s loss: The dude just ain’t all that popular. Even among Republicans.
The final Des Moines Register poll before Monday’s vote showed Trump with a favorability rating of only 50 percent favorable against an unfavorable rating of 47 percent among Republican voters. (By contrast, Cruz had a favorable rating of 65 percent, and Rubio was at 70 percent.) It’s almost unprecedented for a candidate to win a caucus or a primary when he has break-even favorables within his own party.
Still, Trump had seemed poised to do it, in part because of the intensity of his support. He’s highly differentiated from the rest of the field — a strategic advantage in such a crowded race — and the voters who like Trump like him an awful lot. The disproportionate media coverage of Trump played a large role too, though. Most Republican voters like several candidates. How does a Republican voter who likes (for example) Trump, Cruz and Chris Christie choose among them? The answer seems to have a lot to do with which candidate is getting the most news coverage.In Iowa, however, the media environment wasn’t as lopsided in Trump’s favor. Voters were blanketed with ads from all the candidates. And they sought out information on their own before settling on their vote. There was a late spike in Google searches for Cruz and Rubio in the state Monday, bringing them almost even with Trump, even as Trump continued to dominate in search traffic nationally…
I wrote in August about “Donald Trump’s Six Stages Of Doom” and noted that this might be a problem for Trump. Several past factional candidates, including Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson and Ron Paul,1 received somewhere around 25 percent of the vote in Iowa. Under some circumstances, 25 percent can be good enough to win an early state. But it leaves you well short of the majority you need to win a nomination.
What might Pat Buchanan plus obsessive, round-the-clock media coverage look like? Well, possibly a lot like Donald Trump. Iowa voters made Trump appear to be much more of a factional candidate along the lines of Buchanan, who received 23 percent of Iowa’s vote in 1996, than the juggernaut he’s been billed as. We’ll know a lot more after New Hampshire weighs in next week.
This was the position I have taken all along, that Trump couldn’t win the nomination because there were just too many Republican voters who would not support him. And as the field narrows, the undecided voters and those who supported other candidates who dropped out were far more likely to support an alternative to Trump than Trump himself. The polls seem to be bearing that out. There’s also the fact that Trump has relied almost entirely on media presence, with very little ground game to get out the vote. He thinks he can run just by being a star rather than by painstakingly building the campaign apparatus that gets your people to the polls.